Flawed Understanding of Ch’an Methods in the West


‘The gift of the Dhamma excels all gifts;

the taste of the Dhamma excels all tastes;

delight in the Dhamma excels all delights.

The eradication of Craving (i.e., attainment of Arhatship)

overcomes all ills (samsara dukkha).’

(Buddha: Dhammapada Verse 354)

The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, states (incorrectly on page 246), the following explanation of the hua tou method as found within the Chinese Ch’an School:

‘[Hua-t’ou], lit., “word-head” the point, punch line, or key line of a koan, the word or phrase in which the koan resolves itself when one struggles with it as a means of spiritual training…  In the famous koan Chao-chou, Dog, for example, mu is the [hua-t’ou].  Many longer koan have several [hua-t’ou].’

This is a nonsense statement premised upon the confusion between traditional Chinese Ch’an Buddhism and the very different modern Japanese Zen, and the ignorant conflation of the hua tou technique with the gongan method.   A ‘gongan’ (公案) within Chinese Ch’an Buddhism refers to any ‘public record’ of a dialogue that has been recorded (i.e. ‘witnessed’] between an enlightened Ch’an master and his unenlightened Ch’an disciple.  A ‘gongan’, is premised solely upon the use of the ‘language of the uncreate’, and is designed to bring the stream of deluded (and obscuring) thoughts to an abrupt stop, so that the mind is ‘stilled’, and the empty mind ground is immediately perceived.  The use of the term ‘gongan’ within Ch’an Buddhism, probably arises from within ordinary Chinese culture, where ‘gongan’ was used to refer to a ‘legal’ document that has been the consequence of a ‘witnessed’ dialogue between two or more people.  A gongan is a ‘binding’ dialogue that presents a specific outcome – in the case of Ch’an Buddhism, the master expresses an enlightened dialogue using the mind the ‘right way around’, which in-turn is an antidote to the disciple’s ‘deluded’ mind which is working in an ‘inverted’ manner, the ‘wrong way around’.  As the deluded mind cannot understand the enlightened mind, it perceives the ‘language of the uncreate’ as if it where nonsensical.  This is the deluded mind reducing the complexity of the universe to its own limited understanding.  Finally, a ‘gongan’ is not a ‘riddle’ to be ‘solved’ (which denotes an ‘egotistical’ trap), but is an expression of enlightened being, here and now.

A gongan has nothing whatsoever to do with a ‘hua tou’ (話頭).  This is often misunderstood in the West by its ‘literal’ translation of ‘word head’, but which in Chinese conception refers to the ‘beginning’ of a word (or ‘thought’) just prior to its formulation in the mind.  Therefore, the hua tou refers to the ‘empty’ moment before a word or thought is formed (or becomes ‘concretised’ in the mind), as this realisation breaks-up the constant stream of obscuring and deluded thought.  Correct hua tou practice reveals that all the six senses emerge from the empty mind ground.  The hua tou method was introduced into the Chinese Ch’an School when it became obvious that ordinary gongan were nolonger working for most people (although gongan still work for some people) due to the advance in civilisation, and the ever more complex and distracting nature of modern life.  A hua tou does not make use of the ‘language of the uncreate’, and is therefore not a ‘gongan’, and cannot be categorised as a ‘gongan’.  The hua tou uses the questioning device of ‘Who’ to turn the mind (usually, but not always, through the organ of ‘hearing’) back to the empty mind ground from which the six sensory stimuli emerge.  In theory, any of the six senses can be ‘returned’ in this manner, such as ‘Who is seeing?’, or ‘Who is feeling (pain or pleasure)?’, etc, but generally speaking, the preferred method within Chinese Ch’an is ‘Who is hearing?’  Therefore, the ‘hua tou’ arises from the Surangama Sutra, which presents 25 meditation methods that have been known to convey the practitioner to enlightenment.  The Buddha asked Manjushri to assess all 25 methods, and give his opinion upon the method best suited for Ananda to use.  Manjushri, after due consideration, chose the method used by Avalokitesvara of ‘Who is hearing?’  This is designed to disengage the organ of hearing from its object, (i.e. ‘sound’), and then directing that into the stream of consciousness.  When the conception of both sound and stream-entry are successfully transcended (and perceived as ‘empty’).  This wipes all notions of duality, and leads to the integration of form and void at source (i.e. the empty mind ground).  Do not be confused about the difference between ‘gongan’ and ‘hua tou’ practice within the Chinese Ch’an School.


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