Saturday, August 21, 2010

more ramblings on huàtóu

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In Chinese, if you wish to inquire from someone, “what is your problem,” or “what do you want.” you might say, “what is your huàtóu?” When a thought begins to take shape, this is the beginning of a sentence. However, what is the source and location of an budding thought? This is what is sometimes called the ‘great matter.’ To discover the source of any thought—this is a huàtóu. It is the beginning of a phrase, or a problem. To work on a huàtóu is the method of dwelling upon the origin and root source of the phrase. This “dwelling upon” includes the effort of study, deduction, understanding, observation, contemplation and quiet deliberation upon the huàtóu.
Ideally, a huàtóu leads the meditator back to the base of his or her consciousness and enables one to discover the real nature of this consciousness through a thorough examination of an idea. The key word here is “dwelling” (Jǔ, tí) 舉、提. One must dwell upon a Kōan, as Dàhuì had also done, with intense concentration and absorption to the exclusion of all other interests, pursuits and preoccupations. In this respect, a Kōan serves a function similar to that of a mantra, a mandala, or other devices used in what might be called “concentrative or absorptive meditation.” Here the practitioner actively focuses their entire attention on a single object, sound, or idea and reaches a new level of consciousness because of this concentration and restriction of their awareness. It is very different both in approach and technique from the type of meditation sometimes called “the negative way” of which the exercise in mindfulness of the Theravada tradition and the quiet-sitting of the Cáodòng ([Jap]: Soto) Chán are good examples. In this case, the practitioner relinquishes any active control but remains aware of everything in a state of passivity and receptivity. The practitioner relaxes concentration and expands the domain of attention.
This “dwelling upon” is not the same as “thinking about;” in fact, the dwelling upon of a Kōan is the exact opposite of our ordinary logical discursive thinking processes. For how is one seriously to think about Zhàozhōu’s “Wu,” as logically, the Kōan makes no “sense.” The entire exchange between the monk and Zhàozhōu, just as the other exchanges Dàhuì mentions, is unintelligible and cannot be thought about or understood rationally no matter how hard one tries. Actually, the very opaqueness to reason and the stubborn refusal to be “figured out’’ are intrinsic features of Kōans and constitute their effectiveness as meditative devices.
One useful way to understand Kōan introspection or huàtóu is to regard it as an opening wedge for the sudden and intuitive apprehension of the very suchness of life. Its effectiveness stems from its ability to create in the practitioner a sense of “great doubt” (dà yíqíng) 大疑情and the accompanying feelings of bewilderment, frustration, anxiety, and anger. If the practitioner takes a Kōan seriously, we can expect that they will be impelled to “solve” the Kōan with the strong sense of urgency that this painfully disquieting “great doubt” produces. In actual practice, probably very few monks could sustain their effort without constant prodding from their teachers. Consequently, Dàhuì was chastised because he did not “doubt [his huàtóu] enough.” Chán masters have often recognized the crucial role this sense of doubt plays in the workings of attaining ones true self. Approximately six hundred years after Dàhuì’s death, the Japanese Rinzai master Hakuin regarded “great doubt” as the indispensable driving force behind every opening experience. “Once the great doubt arises, out of a hundred who practice, one hundred will achieve breakthrough.”
However, how does a huàtóu generate doubt? A huàtóu can do so because it works as a sort of shock, or a surprise, which breaks the practitioner’s assumed expectancies. It is in this sense that a huàtóu can be considered an opening wedge. To begin with, in China the huàtóu was used in traditional novels and plays as the “opening statement.” The narrator in the story or play would deliver a short opening speech, sets up the proper dramatic situation and provides the occasion for the unfolding of the succeeding events. In the case of a Kōan, however, what follows is not a rational sequence of statements or events, as one would ordinarily expect, but by a totally unrelated and sometimes illogical statement, such as “mount Sumeru walks over the water.” The practitioner is thus made an alien and is separated from the familiar world of logic and becomes open to transformation.
Chán masters have realized that the true nature of things is Śūnyatā and out of compassion will help his or her students to attain the same realization. Human beings are creatures of habit; consequently, they are used to seeing the world, others and themselves in a predefined way. The student’s worldview is shaped by constructs (language, concepts, belief-structures, or what Buddhism calls “views”, trsti). He thinks this is the only right way to see the world and tenaciously clings to it. In this view, everything in the world is “real”: permanent, substantive, and, by and large, pleasant. Yet Buddhism believes otherwise. A Chán master sees the world as Śūnyatā, form arising out of interdependent origination, there is no difference between self and others, and nirvana and samsara then become empty names.
        Students do not give up their habitual views easily or willingly; because, their reality seems to be the natural one, and they are not ready to abandon their attachment to it. Engaging huàtóu practice can lead to an opening that enables the practitioner to return to their “true selves”. 
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15 Comments:

Blogger Harry said...

Hi, paul.

You wrote: "Actually, the very opaqueness to reason and the stubborn refusal to be “figured out’’ are intrinsic features of Kōans and constitute their effectiveness as meditative devices."

To follow up on our fascinating dialogue of last time, another perspective from a 'spiritual' tradition that you might like to consider is that of Master Dogen.

He denounced people who considered koan as beyond reason as 'unreliable dogs'. He presented Buddhist practice as the zenith of reason itself, and as an unsurpassable rationale. In other words, he didn't do the thing of negating reason, rather he reclaimed reason in the context of practice-realisation and avoided cutting our selves, our world, and 'heaven and earth' in two (i.e. some 'reality' that is 'beyond language/ words/ everyday acts/ direct expression').

So, yes, If we like we can do the negating trick of seeing koan as a repository of unreason, accepting reason and language as 'inferior' to some remote 'reality', or we can take up koan literature as a treasure trove of realised reason, as the rationale of practice-realisation, and the positive expression of it in the real world.

Regards,

Harry.

August 22, 2010 at 7:33 AM  
Blogger Uku said...

Thanks, Paul!

Peace,
Uku

August 22, 2010 at 2:44 PM  
Anonymous Jiun said...

If only Dogen had been able to read Chinul!

August 23, 2010 at 5:36 AM  
Blogger Harry said...

Hello Jiun,

Delusion is effectively as real as realisation. Whatever we are currently doing (be it delusion or realisation, or leaping free of both, or whatever) is our only 'true self'. The choice is stark when the possibility is realised, and the rest is just wishful thinking (for better and for worse).

So, with that in mind, what did Master Chinul say about this that was so great or, more to the point, can you say a few words about it?

Regards,
Harry.

August 23, 2010 at 8:13 AM  
Anonymous Jiun said...

Chinul, rather than creating a dichotomy between "reason" and "unreliable dogs" (beyond reason) taught that the true path lay in a synthesis, where each formed and informed the other - without having to detract from or negate one from the other.

I can hardly do justice to Chinul's teaching in an essay, let alone a blog comment - but there are a few accessible texts available (see Buswell) which do an admirable job.

August 23, 2010 at 9:00 AM  
Blogger Harry said...

Hi again Jiun,

Thanks for your interesting post.

Your interpretation of Master Dogen's intent seems wide of the mark (if that's what you mean by employing "unreasonable dogs").

A person who is not acting in accordance with reason can be said to be unreasonable otherwise, well, anything goes... and Chan/Zen has indeed fallen into the pit of extreme philosophical negation/nihilism on occasion. The distinction between what is reasonable and what is unreasonable should be clarified very directly.

Of course, there's no need for a synthesis, and the dichotomy that that implies, when we abide in things themselves ('the myriad dharmas'), which are already reason, and which preach and transmit reason, and which are only separated from reason by our own intentional unreasonable actions to the contrary. Even this unreason is not beyond reason, because it has its own reason by dint of its working and real, effective results ('delsuion', or whatever).

Nothing is beyond reason. Everything is already its own reason. It is substantially a question of just what sort of reason we want to express in our own actions.

Regards,

Harry.

August 23, 2010 at 9:25 AM  
Anonymous Jiun said...

You seem to like Dogen very much. It's nice of you to share your comments, thank you.

August 23, 2010 at 9:45 AM  
Blogger Harry said...

Hi Jiun,

And thank you.

Yes, I do indeed like Master Dogen's records (after quite a long haul of looking elsewhere and questioning and doubting), but please don't blame him for my misunderstandings!

I think he was a very reasonable teacher in a religion which (like all of 'em really) is prone to loosing the original plot a bit.

Regards,

Harry.

August 23, 2010 at 9:53 AM  
Blogger Shay said...

I am new to your site. Boy, this is impenetrable because I am unfamiliar with Korean terms (I know Japanese terms and Sanskrit/Pali terms). Two, I don't know the Korean controversies. I will have to just stick around and slowly learn. I read a few other sites to catch up, but it will take time.

The koan controversy seems funny to me. Sure, it is useful, but quickly becomes a mark of division, pride, unnecessary mystery and a domain for religious professionals. Fun technique, but like all things, it took on a life of its own at the hands of people.

I just wrote a short bit on the reincarnation controversy. The koan controversy, the karma controversy and many more should fill the list in Buddhism. My site explores the controversies in Christianity too. I am continually amazed at the dogmatism, certainty and evangelical nature in all beliefs and all people.

August 24, 2010 at 4:17 AM  
Anonymous Chana said...

This is my first visit to "Zen Mirror", and I really liked your profile statement Jiun. Here is a view i really like from the famous Abbot/monk Bankei....
As Bankei saw it, the whole approach of koan Zen was hopelessly contrived. He rejected the need for familiarity with classical Chinese as an unnecessary encumbrance, and rejected the koan itself as artificial technique. The original koans, he argued, were not "models" but actual living events. The old masters had simply responded to particular situations that confronted them, naturally accomadating themselves to the needs of the students involved. That was the business of any Zen teacher, to meet each situation on its own terms. There was no need to make people study the words of ancient Chinese monks when you could simply have them look at their own "cases", the way in which the Unborn was at work here and now in the actual circumstances of there lives. This is what Bankei called his "direct" teaching, as opposed to koan practice, which he referred disparagingly as "studying old waste paper." The koan, Bankei said, was merely a device, and teachers who relied on it, or on any other technique, were practicing "Devices Zen" Why rely on a device, he argued, when you could have the thing itself?

I have come to the point, after 24 years of Buddhist practice, that i am becoming weary of trying to translate the old Chinese and Japanese teachers and phrases and words into American understanding. They are quickly just becoming "Zen devices". And Americans don't need to know where the arrow that is stuck in them, came from. They just need to pull it out. The endless jargon of Dogen and other masters, including my little paraphrase of Bankei, are hopefully on the way out. I am practicing living with delusion created by my own mind. That is a plain English statement. Hopefully others will refrain from debating what these foreign words mean, and what foreign masters meant, and get on with living in America and communicating their practice without the mumbo jumbo.
You seem to get to the heart of the matter, i am just saying you no longer need to justify it by relating your understanding to foreign words and concepts. It somehow defeats the the actual practice.

kind regards,
Chanaentense

August 25, 2010 at 4:29 AM  
Anonymous Chana said...

Here is a view i really like from the famous Abbot/monk Bankei....
As Bankei saw it, the whole approach of koan Zen was hopelessly contrived. He rejected the need for familiarity with classical Chinese as an unnecessary encumbrance, and rejected the koan itself as artificial technique. The original koans, he argued, were not "models" but actual living events. The old masters had simply responded to particular situations that confronted them, naturally accomadating themselves to the needs of the students involved. That was the business of any Zen teacher, to meet each situation on its own terms. There was no need to make people study the words of ancient Chinese monks when you could simply have them look at their own "cases", the way in which the Unborn was at work here and now in the actual circumstances of there lives. This is what Bankei called his "direct" teaching, as opposed to koan practice, which he referred disparagingly as "studying old waste paper." The koan, Bankei said, was merely a device, and teachers who relied on it, or on any other technique, were practicing "Devices Zen" Why rely on a device, he argued, when you could have the thing itself?

I have come to the point, after 24 years of Buddhist practice, that i am becoming weary of trying to translate the old Chinese and Japanese teachers and phrases and words into American understanding. They are quickly just becoming "Zen devices". And Americans don't need to know where the arrow that is stuck in them, came from. They just need to pull it out. The endless jargon of Dogen and other masters, including my little paraphrase of Bankei, are hopefully on the way out. I am practicing living with delusion created by my own mind. That is a plain English statement. Hopefully others will refrain from debating what these foreign words mean, and what foreign masters meant, and get on with living in America and communicating their practice without the mumbo jumbo.
You seem to get to the heart of the matter, i am just saying you no longer need to justify it by relating your understanding to foreign words and concepts. It somehow defeats the the actual practice.

kind regards,
Chana

August 25, 2010 at 4:30 AM  
Blogger Harry said...

Hi Chana,


"You seem to get to the heart of the matter, i am just saying you no longer need to justify it by relating your understanding to foreign words and concepts. It somehow defeats the the actual practice."

When our words and concepts, or anything, are seen as 'foreign' then the heart of the matter is already remote.

Some truth that can be defeated by our own mere thinking and words doesn't seem so big or so hot to me. If the heart of the matter is bigger than the contents of our own little heads then it must contain and allow for all our words, thoughts and actions.

Master Bankei had his own style, but I wonder was it really his intention to make a further snare of words and thoughts to us speaking, thinking beings?

Regards,

Harry.

August 25, 2010 at 5:56 AM  
Blogger Rev. Paul Dōch’ŏng Lynch said...

Hello All,

A lot of great comments from you all.

Paul

August 25, 2010 at 12:01 PM  
Anonymous Chana said...

Hi Harry,
I do not think Bankei is crearting a further snare for us. In fact he is releasing us from thinking, and acting like we know something. That is where the pretension comes in, is speaking about Buddhism, without actually experiencing ones own mind. Buddhism has become so popular that a lot of people in America believe they know what it means, and yet they have had no experience of enlightenment. It is my opinion that this is watering down what Buddhism teaches. Huang po, Bankei, the Buddha, all left everything because they wanted to know their own minds more than anything else. That is still applicable to today.No excuses, no compromise.

August 26, 2010 at 3:54 AM  
Blogger Harry said...

"That is where the pretension comes in, is speaking about Buddhism, without actually experiencing ones own mind. Buddhism has become so popular that a lot of people in America believe they know what it means, and yet they have had no experience of enlightenment."

Hi Chana,

Thanks for your message. I think I see where you're coming from/going here. I'm not in America, so I can't really comment, but certainly a great deal of the stuff/info I see coming out of America lacks some of the rigorous insight that I feel is required in approaching Buddhist practice. Some of it looks much too hollow and fashionable and jingoistic. But maybe that's just my problem.

Of course (and this is my main point... I think!) if we are to quantify 'experiencing one's own mind', and acknowledge that it has happened, and happened in a way that can be verified both for the student's benefit and to ensure that the practice-verification is transmitted authentically ('authentic' in terms of the actual real practice-experience, not just some shaky idea of authentic 'historical' lineage) then we will need to interact, we will need to talk, there will have to be (however formal or provisional) a language of the realisation, verification, transmission.

The alternative of an unspoken 'free-for-all' does not seem any more attractive than the inherent weaknesses of what we currently have IMO.

Regards,

Harry.

August 26, 2010 at 6:36 AM  

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