The practice of Chan as a method came to its more completed form in later years of its development as a tradition. Between the two methods, namely, Huatou (話頭) and Mozhao (默照, translated as Silent Illumination), Huatou as the main method was more commonly used for “Forest Dwelling Community” practitioners in the Chan hall. Usually the Huatou would be a question such as “What is Wu?” “What is your original face before your parents gave birth to you?” “All dharmas return to one, where does one return to?” etc.
Later, in the development of Chinese Buddhism, reciting the name of the Buddha in the tradition of Pure Land became popular. There were morning and evening services in the Chan hall, chanting Amitabha Sutra, the name of Maitreya Buddha, and other ways of reciting the name of the Buddha. Therefore, there was a saying “Chan and Pure Land practicing together”. Some practitioners have also used the Huatou “Who is it that is reciting the name of the Buddha?” in the Chan hall.
However, if the practice becomes merely reciting the Huatou, even if it is recited day and night, and regardless how well it is recited, the practitioner can only reach the state of concentration. It is not yet the method of Huatou.
The Chan practice of Huatou utilizes questions that are non-logical or beyond logic to allow the question to enter the mind of the practitioner by constantly asking the Huatou. It is not about finding an answer or analyzing. It is simply using the Huatou to replace all wandering thoughts and drop all deluded thinking, so that the mind can concentrate on this one question of the Huatou. Since Huatou does not follow logic, there is no answer to find. However, one must ask it. Gradually, the mind will focus on the questioning until it becomes a mass of doubt. When the entire body and mind are in this mass of doubt, all external sense contacts and possibly arising wandering thoughts are shut off. Such doubt is about life and death, directly penetrating to the core of life, and to the mind. The power generated from such doubt can be quite strong.
In such a state, the mind and all thoughts seem unable to escape and are encapsulated in a “black hole” (or a “bucket”). As the intensity of the doubt mass reaches its limit, the practitioner may go through a process in which they experience a kind of “explosion”. It has been described as if the universe shatters into pieces and the earth sinks without a bottom… The practitioner experiences a state called “enlightenment”, seeing “Emptiness” or Buddha nature.
This method can be quite “forceful” or “violent” when it is used. Chan masters sometimes even use relentless ways of pushing the practitioner in the Chan hall, helping them to intensify the doubting mass and enter the “black bucket”. Then, the master uses suitable skills — gentle sometimes and “ruthless” at other times — to provoke the practitioner to “explode” and see the true essence of mind and experience “enlightenment”.
In early times in Chan history, such methods were employed when practitioners entered a concentrated state and were in the “mass of doubt”. The Chan master would use a Huatou or sometimes physical action, such as kicking or shouting, to help intensify the mass or prompt an “explosion”.
It is said that, although the method had been used in early times, Huatou practice as a more developed form started in later years. For instance, the contemporary master Chan Master Sheng Yen has used four steps to teach this method: “Reciting the Huatou”, “Asking the Huatou”, “Investigating the Huatou”, and “Watching the Huatou”.
When the mind is not focused, one should mainly practice the “reciting” the Huatou, helping the mind to gradually concentrate. When one can stay focused on just a single thought, they can then “pick up” the Huatou and “ask” the Huatou. This process goes from the surface to a deeper level until it turns into “investigating” the Huatou. In investigating the Huatou, there already is a sense of doubt, and slowly this doubt becomes a mass. When it becomes a great mass and the practitioner breaks through it, he or she is said to have had an “entry”, where they awaken and see the reality of Emptiness. After that, when one returns to normal daily life, he/she continues to “pick up” the Huatou from time to time — be it the original question or a different question — and simply “watches” it, not asking, nor investigating. This is the method of “watching” as a way of deepening and stabilizing the “awakened” state through stillness, helping to retain such a state. In this way, practitioners continue to cultivate themselves and also to help all sentient beings in their teaching, with various skillful means according to various situations.
(2006/12/25 written at Ipoh，Malaysia. Published in the book 《日日好日》by Dharma Drum Publications.)