Tag Archives: Hwadu meditation: Korean Zen Meditation

What is Hwadu meditation? Seon Master Wumen Huikai (1183-1260) said,

Meditation is the penetration through the barrier gate of the patriarchs. Marvelous enlightenment has to cut off the paths of all thought. If one does not penetrate the barrier of the patriarchs and does not cut off the path of thought you will be no different to a phantom who lives attached to grass or a thicket. (Wumen guan)

Hwadu is made up of the word hwa, which means speech or story, and du, which is a meaningless suffix. So hwadu is just a word for speech. But we must note that Seon masters use this word in a particular way. Hwadu is a special language of Seon masters that blocks all passages for thought and discrimination.

Such words cannot be grasped with everyday thought. Hwadu have the power to remove the thought and discrimination of conceptual thinking. Therefore hwadu have discarded the everyday norms, and are called exceptional words beyond the norm. This is because they are absolute words that cannot be attached to in accordance with the function of rational thinking.

The words that we use everyday are relative words. We use words such as exist and not exist, you and I, go and come, good and bad. But answers such as, “The cypress tree in front of the courtyard” and “A dried-up shit-stick” to questions such as, “What is the meaning of the Patriarch coming from the West?” and “What is the truth?” are exceptional, absolute words that transcend the relative words. These are true words that cut off the paths of speech and thought. One should be directly enlightened to such hwadu.

There are also times when the du of hwadu is not used simply as a suffix. At such times, hwadu means “the head of the word,” and indicates the world before the word comes out. One may also see that hwadu means the definition of words preceding daily speech. Hwadu are presented by the teacher to the pupil and the student must wrestle in a bout with life and death in taking up this hwadu.

Hwadu are also called gongan and gochik. All mean the same. Gongan also is the public (gong) of transcending public and private, and gochik is the go (past) that transcends time and space, and hwadu is a word that transcends words. In other words, gochik are the just rules of law, the Dharma/Law that was recognized by the ancient worthies. That is they are “the laws that were via words,” and the “laws of the patriarchs of the past.” Being just, the discriminating mind must not intervene in them. Therefore they are called public cases (gongan). If one zealously practice in accord with that Dharma one is sure to be able to see the nature. Gongan are thus said in the sense that they are “standard cases” that will allow one to be enlightened if one practices according to that Law that transcends both sides. In this way gongan are a basis of absolute criteria and judgments in the practice of meditation.

One may be directly enlightened through such hwadu, gongan and gochik. But if (the Master) says wake up, and one cannot wake up even when it is presented, one has no option but to take up the hwadu. As even doing this is a method of awakening, one just puts it down. One must know clearly that hwadu is not simply a method to produce a doubt.

There are many methods for meditation. In Korean Buddhism the traditional method called “Ganhwaseon” is used. Korea is the only Nation where the traditional meditation using hwadu (usually translated as “head of speech” which means “true speech”) is generally practiced. Used by many enlightened masters of the past, the practitioner endeavours to suspend logical thinking so that the Original Nature becomes clear through a direct transmission from mind to mind. As we are all Buddha by nature, it is only necessary to clear away ignorance and delusions for our true nature to come forward.

A human being is composed of a body and a mind. A body without a mind is just a dead corpse. A mind without a body is just pure spirit. Someone who, although endowed with both a body and a mind, only knows the body but not the mind is called a sentient being. In general, a sentient being is understood as any being possessing conscious life. Birds flying in the sky, animals walking on the ground, fish swimming in the water, as well as the tiniest organism, are all sentient beings.

The purpose of practicing Zen meditation is awaken to the mind. Such practice does not involve just sitting quietly and trying to calm and pacify the mind. Nor does it entail contemplating the breath. Instead it involves direct into a hwadu. An example of a hwadu would be a question such as “What is this?” or “What is this mind?”. What you are searching for can be called by many different names: mind, spirit, soul, true nature and so forth. But such designations are merely labels. You should put aside all of these names and reflect on the fact that the true master of the body is more than just the label “mind”. The master of the body is not the Buddha, for it is not yet awakened. Nor is it anything material, because it cannot be physically given or received. Nor is it simply empty space, for empty space cannot pose questions or have knowledge of good and evil.

Having negated these four possibilities, a question will arise as to what this master really is. If you continue inquiring in this way, the questioning will become more intense. Finally, when the mass of questioning enlarges to a critical point, it will suddenly burst. The entire universe will be shattered and only your original nature will appear before you. In this way you will awaken.

Hwadu is derived from the Chán schools of the middle T’ang dynasty of China and developed over a number of generations during the most diverse period of Chán’s growth. The Records of Ta-hui, Chinul’s most immediate acknowledged source, was written only a generation before Chinul lived and he may have been exposed to teachings relating to it and hwadu during his earlier years of practice through contact with Chinese practitioners. Initially, hwadu practice was quite fluid and based on exchanges between a master and a student in which one party asks the other a question and a response is given that demonstrates the realization of the original mind. These exchanges were eventually written down and preserved in collections by students and came to be called kung-an or kong-ans (or koans as they are known in English commonly), which translates to “public case records” (Buswell, 1991, p. 68). Buswell states that there is some evidence that the first uses of practices similar to koans may date to the Fifth Patriarch of Chán Buddhism, Hung-jen, but its later use and codification was popularized by Ta-hui Tsung-kao, who wrote Records of Ta-hui read by Chinul. In its earliest form, hwadu is the portion of a koan that forms the central point or core topic of it and can be considered its key. As it developed later, it can be best understood as “the point at which (or beyond which) speech exhausts itself” (Buswell, 1986, p. 219). These koans and their attached hwadu form a puzzle of sorts. At an intellectual, rational, or logical level, they make no sense. If they are treated simply as an intellectual puzzle, they appear nonsensical, almost like a bit of nonsense text quoted from Alice in Wonderland, for example. The words can be read rationally but their meaning will elude you because the nature of the exchange is transcending speech and rationalization. According to Chinul, while koans are a form of speech and, therefore, of rational thought, they go beyond the limits of rationality, showing where intellectual understanding reaches its limits. Chinul also points out that the hwadu acts as a purification device that wipes away conceptualization or thoughts, leaving the mind open to the unconditioned or original mind that is beyond all ideas, speech, or discrimination. Chinul quotes Ta-hui in Chinul’s Excerpts from the Dharma Collection, stating that in true hwadu practice “you need only lay down, all at once, the mind full of deluded thoughts and inverted thinking, the mind of logical discrimination, the mind that loves life and hates death, the mind of knowledge and views, interpretation and comprehension” (Buswell, 1991, p. 185). Chinul taught initially that this was the shortcut method of enlightenment only accessible for superior practitioners, but near the end of his life he shifted more and more emphasis on hwadu as the best or ideal vehicle for realizing enlightenment for all followers of the Dharma.

Sources: The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim
Al Jigen Billings