Zen/Chan Buddhism – How to practice Zen Meditation

Chan/Zen Meditation Principles as taught by a real Buddhist Master

The purpose of this type of meditation is to enable you to realize enlightenment directly by seeing directly through to your own True Mind. 

How do you do it?  By investigating the space between thoughts – this is the time when no thoughts are in the mind – yet there is still awareness present.  So you intentionally bring up the word, “Who?” – meaning, “Who is investigating this?”  Who are you really?  Thoughts come and go, yet that which is aware of those thoughts coming and going does not come nor go.  That which comes and goes is born and dies – yet the observer does not get born or die with it.  So you are not really those impermanent things.

So you investigate just before the word “Who?” comes up – this is called a Hua Tou (Word Head), i.e., the space before a word/thought arises.  Once you’ve said “Who?” then there is a space after the thought, before the next thought comes up – this is called a Hua Wei (Word Tail).

This is not an easy meditation for beginners – so if you want to practice this, it’s best to do it under a skilled Chan teacher.  Still, it’s good to know the principles behind it – which is why I share it with you.

Here, Master Hsu Yun goes through the principles behind Chan Buddhism’s investigative type of Meditation:

The Historical Background of Chan/Zen Buddhism

As for the Dharma of our sect, when the Buddha ascended to his seat for the last time, he held up and showed to the assembly a golden flower of sandalwood, offered to him by the king of the eighteen Brahmalokas (Mahabrahma Devaraja). All men and gods (devas) who were present did not understand the Buddha’s meaning.

Only Mahakasyapa acknowledged it with a broad smile.  Thereupon the World-Honored One declared to him: ‘I have the treasure of the correct Dharma eye, Nirvana’s wonderful mind and the formless reality which I now transmit to you.’ This was the transmission outside of teaching, which did not make use of scriptures and was the unsurpassed Dharma door of direct realization.

Those who came afterwards got confused about it and wrongly called it Chan (Dhyana in Sanskrit and Zen in Japanese). We should know that over twenty kinds of Chan are enumerated in the Mahaprajna-paramita Sutra, but none of them is the final one.

The Chan of our sect does not set up progressive stages and is, therefore, the unsurpassed one. Its aim is the direct realization leading to the perception of the self-nature and attainment of Buddhahood. Therefore, it has nothing to do with the sitting or not sitting in meditation during a Chan week. However, on account of living beings’ dull roots and due to their numerous false thoughts, ancient masters devised expediencies to guide them. Since the time of Mahakasyapa up to now, there have been sixty to seventy generations. In the Tang and Song Dynasties (619-1278), the Chan sect spread to every part of the country and how it prospered at the time! At present, it has reached the bottom of its decadence and only those monasteries like Jin-shan, Gao-min and Bao-guan, can still manage to present some appearance. This is why men of outstanding ability are now so rarely found and even the holding of Chan weeks has only a name but lacks its spirit.

When the Seventh Ancestor Xing-si of Qing-yuan Mountain asked the Sixth Patriarch: ‘What should one do in order not to fall into the progressive stages?’, the Patriarch asked: ‘What did you practice of late?’ Xing-si replied: ‘I did not even practice the Noble Truths.

The Patriarch asked: ‘Then falling into what progressive stages?’, Xing-si replied: ‘Even the Noble Truths are not practiced, where are the progressive stages?’ The Sixth Patriarch had a high opinion of Xing-si.

The Principles Behind Chan – How to do Chan Meditation

Because of our inferior roots, the great Masters were obliged to use expediencies and to instruct their followers to hold and examine into a sentence called hua-tou. As Buddhists of the Pure Land School who used to repeat the Buddha’s name in their practice were numerous, the great Masters instructed them to hold and examine into the hua-tou: ‘Who is the repeater of the Buddha’s name?’

Nowadays, this expedient is adopted in Chan training all over the country. However, many are not clear about it and merely repeat without interruption the sentence: ‘Who is the repeater of the Buddha’s name?’ Thus they are repeaters of the hua-tou, and are not investigators of the hua-tou’s meaning.

To investigate is to inquire into. For this reason, the four Chinese characters zhao gu hua-tou are prominently exhibited in all Chan Halls.

  • ‘Zhao’ is to turn inward the light, and
  • gu is to care for.

These (two characters together) mean ‘to turn inward the light on the self-nature’. This is to turn inward our minds which are prone to wander outside, and this is called investigation of the hua-tou.

‘Who is the repeater of the Buddha’s name?’ is a sentence.

  • Before this sentence is uttered, it is called hua-tou (lit. sentence’s head).
  • As soon as it is uttered it becomes the sentence’s tail (hua-wei).

In our inquiry into the hua-tou, this word ‘who’ should be examined:

What is it before it arises? For instance, I am repeating the Buddha’s name?’

I reply: ‘It is I.’ The questioner asks again:

  • ‘If you are the repeater of the Buddha’s name, why don’t you repeat it when you sleep?
  • If you repeat it with your mind, why don’t you repeat it after your death?’

This question will cause a doubt to arise in your minds and it is here that we should inquire into this doubt. We should endeavor to know where this ‘Who’ comes from and what it looks like. Our minute examination should be turned inward and this is also called ‘the turning inward of the hearing to hear the self-nature’.

Physical Aspects of Practice

When offering incense and circumambulating in the hall, one’s neck should touch the back of the wide collar of the robe, one’s feet should follow closely the preceding walker, one’s mind should be set at rest, and one should not look to the right or to the left. With a single mind, the hua-tou should be well cared for.

When sitting in meditation, the chest should be pushed forward.  The prana (vital energy) should neither be brought upward nor pressed down, and should be left in its natural condition.  However, the six sense organs should be brought under control, and all thoughts should be brought to an end. Only the hua-tou should be gripped and the grip should never loosen. The hua-tou should not be coarse for it will float up and cannot be brought down. Neither should it be fine, for it will become blurred with the resultant fall into the void. In both cases, no result can be achieved.

Mental Points of Practice

If the hua-tou is properly looked after, the training will become easier and all former habits will be brought automatically to an end. A beginner will not find it easy to hold the hua-tou well in his mind, but he should not worry about it. He should neither hope for awakening nor seek wisdom, for the purpose of this sitting in meditation in the Chan week is already the attainment of awakening and wisdom. If he develops a mind in pursuit of these ends, he puts another head upon his own head.

Now we know that we should give rise only to a sentence called hua-tou which we should care for. If thoughts arise, let them rise, and if we disregard them they will vanish. This is why it is said:
‘One should not be afraid of rising thoughts but only of the delay in being aware of them.’ If thoughts arise, let our awareness of them nail the hua-tou to them. If the hua-tou escapes from our grip, we should immediately bring it back again.

The first sitting in meditation can be likened to a battle against rising thoughts. Gradually the hua-tou will be well gripped and it will be easy to hold it uninterruptedly during the whole time an incense stick takes to burn.

We can expect good results when it does not escape from our grip any more.  The foregoing are only empty words; now let us exert our efforts in the training.

p212-216 of Empty Cloud – The Autobiography of Xu Yun

9 thoughts on “Zen/Chan Buddhism – How to practice Zen Meditation

  1. Hi again, just wondering… did you write anything about Anattalakkhana sutta by any chance? I’m trying to understand the following statement: “Materiality is not permanent. What is not permanent is unsatisfactory, what is unsatisfactory is not-self. What is not-self should be regarded with proper wisdom according to reality thus: ‘This is not mine; I am this not; this is not my self.” I have a problem understanding the part that says: “what is unsatisfactory is not-self”. Why? Any hints? Thank you in advance!

    • Hi Adrian,

      I don’t think I have formally written a post on this Sutta yet – but I’ve been meaning to because if you go step by step through the Buddha’s reflections in this Sutta – it tells you how to reflect upon self vs not self properly.

      Materiality here means your body. It means your body is not the real you because it is transient. And what is transient is subject to the sufferings of disease/illness/injuries, decay and death – and so it is dukkha – not worthy to be regarded as you.

      A self has what is called sovereign power – absolute power over its domain – such that you can tell to whatever is within its domain – be like this not like that – and it will be so instantly, effortlessly. It’s like a King of a Sovereign country – who wields absolute power over his domain such that he can call the shots effortlessly, “Off with his head!” and his men will carry it out without question.

      So if something really is your self – it won’t get afflicted and won’t be unsatisfactory – because it can go to anything within its domain and think “Don’t be like that, be like this instead” – and it will automatically be so.

      But you don’t possess sovereign power over your body – you can’t tell your body “Don’t get sick, don’t get old, don’t die” – because it will still get sick, get old and die, irrespective of your wishes. That’s why your body is not the real you – whatever you can’t control is obviously not you, whatever you don’t possess intrinsic, natural, absolute control over – is not your real self.

    • Great! If you haven’t done so already – Zen practitioners should check out the Shurangama Sutra – it’s a key Zen text for Mahayana monks for their training. Master Hsu Yun and Master Hsuan Hua both regarded it as one of, if not THE most important Buddhist teaching.

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