A Simple Introduction to Zen’s Koan & Huatou

A Simple Introduction to Zen’s Koan & Huatou January 27, 2023



A Simple Introduction to Zen’s Koan & Huatou

James Ishmael Ford

It seems we all have a question.

Why was I born? What is it all about? Who am I? What is this?

In my adolescence along with all the other things of changing body and awareness, I realized how desperately I wanted to know if there was a God.

It burned in me in ways that words simply fail to convey.


In Zen there are two ways of taking questions as invitations to discoveries a bit different than what we find in conventional answers. One is the koan. The Chinese words gong an. Koan literally means “public case,” as in a legal document. It is a word, a phrase, a whole story. It is wrestled with, with a spiritual director.

The other is closely related. Huatou is a Chinese word, roughly meaning “word head,” or “essential point.” I’ve also seen it rendered as a “critical phrase.” Wato in Japanese.

In our English usage, the Japanese word koan has become normative, as we came to that practice first with Japanese teachers. While we usually use the Chinese word huatou because it comes to English speakers first with Chinese and Korean teachers. As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Koans arise in early medieval China as a uniquely Zen discipline. The Scholar priest Victor Sogen Hori suggests they arose when Zen monks overheard Taoists playing a drinking game, where someone would spontaneously offer up a line of poetry, which the next person up needed to match. Winning and losing was determined by the onlookers. Early Zen teachers saw how this could work as a spiritual discipline when attached to those burning questions of the heart.

They soon saw that the form of the question did not have to arise with the individual. Teachers found they could use phrases derived from conversations among Zen masters and from the masters and their students. Once presented to students of the intimate, these phrases were reflected upon, and what they found would be presented to their spiritual director. Eventually collections were gathered together with commentaries. Some of these collections like the Wumenquan, the “Gateless Gate,” the Biyan Lu, the “Blue Cliff Record,” and the Congrong Lu, the “Book of Serenity,” are now considered treasures of world spiritual literature.

There are crucial points within koans, a koan might contain several, I can think of a couple with five and more points. Sometimes the whole koan might be that point. “Mu” which is the negative response to a question does a dog have Buddha nature, a response that seems to violate the normative teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, is an example.

They’re meditated on and then come together as questions and answers to be met in usually private interviews between a student and a teacher. In Japan, especially in the school of the eighteenth-century master Hakuin Ekaku, they become curricular, a long list of questions to be met. Each demanding answers. And, yes, right answers. This becomes one of the great gifts of the Zen way, a course in awakening. It offers access into insight, and then, critically, and possibly uniquely among the world’s spiritual disciplines, offers extensive direction following those initial insights into the mysteries of our hearts.

Huatou practice is a variation. Chinese koan practice followed Dahui Zonggao’s teachings. At the end of the Eleventh century Dahui felt koan practice had degenerated into mere examples of literary brilliance. Beautiful. Sometimes dazzling. But no longer a discipline on the path of awakening. He even famously tried to destroy the existing copies of his master Yuanwu Keqin’s collection the Blue Cliff Record, as a distraction from the primary point. Fortunately, he failed there.

He offered a reform to the discipline. And it’s what we generally call Huatou practice. Huatou can be seen as the original heart of formal koan practice. And through his influence on the Korean master Chinul, the practice we differentiate from koan practice, certainly from curricular koan practice remains the normative form in both China and Korea.

Huatou are very brief phrases like What is God, or Who am I, or What is this? They’re phrases capable of self-emptying, and bringing us along, toward an intimacy that words in and of themselves find elusive.

In my own pre-Zen days, “Is there a God” burned hot. As I attended to it, I realized that the question wasn’t quite right. “Is there a God,” was a first draft of my deep question. Somewhere along the line, and I can’t say when, or even how, the essential question, the question I really had, reframed itself for me. “What is God.”

The first draft was intellectual and had to do with falsification. I found the factuality of God an important question. And it led me on a path of trying to understand the shape of the world, actually the shape of the cosmos and the place of humanity within the cosmos. It was important, and I’m grateful for that.

But it wasn’t the real question. The real question was what is the mystery? How do I understand this life? Are we just meat? And what is the wonderful and terrible thing that I find everywhere around and in me? At some point I found the world God was no longer even necessary. And with that the question changed once more.

The word almost disappeared. Instead, what I had was a burning curiosity. A wondering. Today as I try to name it, I see how words fail. They’re important. They take us places. But at some point, they fall apart. At least when we’re looking for the most important thing. That question of meaning and purpose. For me while I could say God, what it became for me was the lens of a telescope or perhaps the lens of a microscope.

If I understand Dahui’s reform, it was to worry less about finding an answer to the koan, and more to find what it showed the student of the way, where it took the practitioner. On my own path it was finding in my question, at its heart, was some great doubt. And whether one is following a curriular form of the practice or simply sitting with one question with no expectation however subtle there would someday be another, is the same.

The secret of the practice is discovering the heart of doubt.

This doubt would take me on a path, where I would discover Zen’s traditions helpful in ways that settled the great hurt and allowed me a way to live into mystery that was so transformative, that, well, gave me my life. Not precisely the life described in the extravagant descriptions of enlightenment, which too often pretend another place; but as it really is, at one with the highs and lows, at one with knowing and forgetting, at one with successes and failures.

Koan and Huatou are the expressions of intimacy. Using the language of my original question, Koan and Huatou show us how to know God.

The contemporary Chan master Sheng Yen offered a simple three stage description of the Huatou as a practice. It’s a good framework.

After being assigned the question, I would add, or finding it for oneself, simply repeat the question. You can think of it as a mantra, a sacred phrase to be chanted or recited or sung or, well, the secret is repetition. Slowly while paying attention. Analytically, trying to understand it. Fast, trying to feel it. Live into it. Let it take over. Let the wandering mind, your wandering mind, focus with the Huatou. In some ways this is a gathering of the mind, a form of concentration.

As it becomes intimate, then drop the question into the question. Find the deep curiosity, the longing. Feel it. Explore that sensation. Allow the question to take that shape beneath or behind or within the Huatou. Notice how it is the same or different. Find the doubt that informs the question. Here the mind expands from concentration, and we begin to experience a larger perspective.

From there bring the questioning, the doubt sensation and that larger perspective, that openness of mind together. With this we discover the sense of doubt shifts and mutates. The poet Mary Oliver invites us, “you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” The deep curiosity of the heart plays out with and through the Huatou.

At this point in this map the doubt can shatter. And at that point we discover the purpose of our heart.

In curricular koan practice one takes this practice using a type of koan, what are sometimes called breakthrough koan, such as Mu. And after a time of looking at it from differing angles, to move on to other koans. Although in my experience with Mu, that core of the question; well, we never completely leave it.

In Huatou practice one returns to the question over and over again. It becomes a lifetime touchstone.

In curricular koan practice one often finds the deeper meaning within the meeting with the spiritual director. Or if not exactly in the meeting, in bringing one’s experiences to that meeting. Huatou practice relies less on these interviews, although they are important.

In either case the point is the intimate.

Not one. But not two, either.

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