What is a hua t’ou? Master Hsu Yun

Master Hsu Yun

Master Hsu Yun

In ancient times, the Patriarchs and Ancestors directly pointed at the mind for realisation of self-nature and attainment of Buddhahood. Like Bodhidharma who ‘quietened the mind’ and the Sixth Patriarch who only talked about ‘perception of self-nature’, all of them just advocated the outright cognizance (of it) without any more ado. They did not advocate looking into a hua t’ou, but later they discovered that men were becoming unreliable, were not of dogged determination, indulged in playing tricks and boasted of their possession of precious gems which really belonged to others. For this reason, these ancestors were compelled to set up their own sects, each with its own devices; hence, the hua t’ou technique.

There are many hua t’ous, such as: ‘All things are returnable to One, to what is (that) One returnable?’ 1 ‘Before you were born, what was your real face?’2 but the hua t’ou: ‘Who is repeating Buddha’s name?’ is widely in use (today).

What is hua t’ou? (lit. word-head). Word is the spoken word and head is that which precedes word. For instance, when one says ‘Amitabha Buddha’, this is a word. Before it is said it is a hua t’ou (or ante-word). That which is called a hua t’ou is the moment before a thought arises. As soon as a thought arises, it becomes a hua wei (lit. word-tail). The moment before a thought arises is called ‘the un-born’. That void which is neither disturbed nor dull, and neither still nor (one-sided) is called ‘the unending’. The unremitting turning of the light inwards on oneself, instant after instant, and exclusive of all other things, is called ‘looking into the hua t’ou’ or ‘taking care of the hua t’ou’.

When one looks into a hua t’ou, the most important thing is to give rise to a doubt. Doubt is the crutch of hua t’ou.3 For instance, when one is asked: ‘Who is repeating Buddha’s name?’ everybody knows that he himself repeats it, but is it repeated by the mouth or by the mind? If the mouth repeats it, why does not it do so when one sleeps? If the mind repeats it, what does the mind look like? As mind is intangible, one is not clear about it. Consequently some slight feeling of doubt arises about ‘WHO’. This doubt should not be coarse; the finer it is, the better. At all times and in all places, this doubt alone should be looked into unremittingly, like an ever-flowing stream, without giving rise to a second thought. If this doubt persists, do not try to shake it; if it ceases to exist, one should gently give rise to it again. Beginners will find the hua t’ou more effective in some still place than amidst disturbance. However, one should not give rise to a discriminating mind; one should remain indifferent to either the effectiveness or ineffectiveness (of the hua t’ou) and one should take no notice of either stillness or disturbance. Thus, one should work at the training with singleness of mind.

(In the hua t’ou): ‘Who is repeating the Buddha’s name?’ emphasis should be laid upon the word ‘Who’, the other words serving only to give a general idea of the whole sentence. For instance (in the questions): ‘Who is wearing this robe and eating rice?’, ‘Who is going to stool and is urinating?’, ‘Who is putting an end to ignorance?’, and ‘Who is able to know and feel?’, as soon as one lays emphasis upon (the word) ‘Who’, while one is walking or standing, sitting or reclining, one will be able to give rise to a doubt without difficulty and without having to use one’s faculty of thought to think and discriminate. Consequently the word ‘Who’ of the hua t’ou is a wonderful technique in Ch’an training. However, one should not repeat the word ‘Who’ or the sentence ‘Who is repeating the Buddha’s name?’ like (adherents of the Pure Land School) who repeat the Buddha’s name. Neither should one set one’s thinking and discriminating mind on searching for him who repeats the Buddha’s name. There are some people who unremittingly repeat the sentence: ‘Who is repeating the Buddha’s name?’; it would be far better merely to repeat Amitabha Buddha’s name (as do followers of the Pure Land School) for this will give greater merits. There are others who indulge in thinking of a lot of things and seek after everything here and there, and call this the rising of a doubt; they do not know that the more they think, the more their false thinking will increase, just like someone who wants to ascend but is really descending. You should know all this.

Master Hsu Yun

Master Hsu Yun

Usually beginners give rise to a doubt which is very coarse; it is apt to stop abruptly and to continue again, and seems suddenly familiar and suddenly unfamiliar. This is (certainly) not doubt and can only be their thinking (process). When the mad (wandering) mind has gradually been brought under control, one will be able to apply the brake on the thinking process, and only then can this be called ‘looking into’ (a hua t’ou). Furthermore, little by little, one will gain experience in the training and then, there will be no need to give rise to the doubt which will rise of itself automatically. In reality, at the beginning, there is no effective training at all as there is only (an effort) to put an end to false thinking. When real doubt rises of itself, this can be called true training. This is the moment when one reaches a ‘strategic gateway’ where it is easy to go out of one’s way (as follows).

Firstly, there is the moment when one will experience utter purity and boundless ease 4 and if one fails to be aware of and look into the same, one will slip into a state of dullness. If a learned teacher is present, he will immediately see clearly that the student is in such a state and will strike the meditator with the (usual) flat stick, thus clearing away the confusing dullness; a great many are thereby awakened to the truth.5

Secondly, when the state of purity and emptiness appears, if the doubt ceases to exist, this is the unrecordable state 6 in which the meditator is likened to one sitting on a withered tree in a grotto, or to soaking stones with water.7 When one reaches this state, one should arouse (the doubt) to be immediately followed by one’s awareness and contemplation (of this state). Awareness (of this state) is freedom from illusion; this is wisdom. Contemplation (of this state) wipes out confusion; this is imperturbability. This singleness of mind will be thoroughly still and shining, in its imperturbable absoluteness, spiritual clearness and thorough understanding, like the continuous smoke of a solitary fire. When one reaches this stage, one should be provided with a diamond eye 8 and should refrain from giving rise to anything else, as if one does, one will (simply) add another head upon one’s head. 9

Formerly, when a monk asked (Master) Chao Chou: ‘what should one do when there is not a thing to bring with self?’ Chao Chou replied: ‘Lay it down.’ The monk said: ‘What shall I lay down when I do not bring a thing with me?’ Chao Chon replied: ‘If you cannot lay it down, carry it away.’ 10 This is exactly the stage (above mentioned) which is like that of a drinker of water who alone knows whether it is cold or warm. This cannot be expressed in words and speeches, and one who reaches this stage will clearly know it. As to one who has not reached it, it will be useless to tell him about it. This is what the (following) lines mean:

‘When you meet a fencing master, show to him your sword.
Do not give your poem to a man who’s not a poet.’ 11


1. All things are returnable to One-mind, to what is One-mind returnable?

2. This hua t’ou is sometimes wrongly translated in the West as: Before your parents were born, what was your original face? There are two errors here. The first is probably due to the wrong interpretation of the Chinese character ‘sheng’. which means ‘born’ or ‘to give birth’. Then ‘original’ is wrong because it suggests creation or a beginning. The self-nature has no beginning, being outside time. The correct rendering is: Before your parents gave birth to you, what was your fundamental face?’

3. Doubt is as indispensable to hua t’ou as crutches are to the cripples.

4. Lit. utter purity and extreme lightness. When the meditator succeeds in putting an end to all his thoughts, he will step into ‘the stream’ or correct concentration in which his body and its weight seem to disappear completely and to give way to a bright purity which is as light as air; he will feel as if he is about to be levitated.

5. Lit. thus clearing away the fog that darkens the sky. As soon as the confusing dullness is cleared away, the self-nature, now free from hindrance, is able to function normally and will actually receive the beating, hence enlightenment.

6. Avyakrta or Avyakhyata, in Sanskrit; unrecordable, either as good or bad; neutral,
neither good nor bad, things that are innocent and cannot be classified under moral categories.

7. When the mind is disentangled from the sense-organs, sense data and consciousness, one reaches a state described as: ‘holding fast to the top of a pole’, or ‘silent immersion in stagnant water or ‘sitting on the dean white ground’. (See Han Shan’s ‘Song of the Boardbearer’.) One should take a step forward in order to get out of this state called ‘a life’, the fourth of the four laksanas (of an ego, a personality, a being and a life) mentioned in the Diamond Sutra, otherwise the result one will achieve is no better than ‘soaking stones with water’ which never penetrates stones. if from the top of a hundred-foot pole one takes a step forward, one will reach the top of a high peak from which one will release one’s last hold and leap over the phenomenal.

8. Diamond eye: indestructible eye of Wisdom.

9. A superfluous and unnecessary thing that will obstruct the training.

10. The monk became thoroughly awakened after hearing Chao Chou’s reply. His first question means: ‘What should one do when one becomes disentangled from sense-organs, sense-data and consciousnesses?’ He did not know that he was still entangled with this awareness of ego and preservation of ego. (See Han Shan’s commentary on The Diamond Cutter of Doubts). Chao Chou’s reply ‘Lay it down’ means: ‘Lay down even the thought you are still burdened with, for this very thought of not carrying a thing with you holds you in bondage.’ The monk argued: ‘As I do not carry a single thing with me, what shall I lay down?’ Chao Chou replied: ‘If you really have got rid of all your false thinking, there will only remain your self-nature which is pure and clean and which you should carry away with you, because you cannot get rid of it.’ The monk, now released from his awareness of ego or last bondage, realised that only his self-nature remained which was free from all impediments and which he could not get rid of, for Chao Chou told him to carry it away. It was this very self-nature of his, now pure and clean, which actually heard the master’s voice, hence his enlightenment.

11. These two lines come from Lin Chi (Rinzai in Japanese) whose idea was that one could talk about enlightenment with an enlightened person and that it was useless to do so when meeting a deluded man, for the truth was inexpressible and could only be realised after rigorous training. The first line ‘When you meet a fencing master, show to him your sword’ was illustrated when Han Shan met Ta Kuan and sat cross-legged face to face with him for forty days and nights without sleeping. (See Han Shan’s Autobiography). The second line ‘Do not give your poem to a man who’s not a poet’ was proved by the Sixth Patriarch, who urged his disciples not to discuss the Supreme Vehicle with those who were not of the same sect, but to bring their palms together to salute them and make them happy. (See The Altar Sifra of the Sixth Patriarch.)

An extract from ‘Master Hsu Yun’s Discourses and Dharma Words’

Master Hsu Yun is universally regarded as the most outstanding Buddhist of the Chinese order in the modern era.

(Richard Hunn)

“Dharma successor of all five Chan schools; main reformer in the Chinese Buddhist Revival(1900-50). Born Chuan Chou(Quan Zhou), Fukien(Fujian) province. Left home at 19. At 20 took precepts with master Miao Lien and received Dharma name Ku Yen. In 56th year achieved final awakening at Kao Min Ssu in Yang Chou(Yang Zhou). Thereafter began revival and teaching work. Eventually invited to take charge of the Sixth Patriach’s temple(Tsao-Chi/Chao Xi), then very rundown; restored it along with temples and monasteries; also founded many schools and hospitals. Died in his 120th year. Had also traveled in Malaysia and Thailand, and taught the King of Thailand. Autobiography: Empty Cloud (translated by Charles Luk).”

(From The Seeker’s Glossary of Buddhism)

I would like to add the following about Richard Hunn
written by Adrian Chan-Wyles (Upasaka Heng Yu).

Richard Hunn

Richard Hunn passed away on the 1st October 2006, in hospital, in Kyoto, Japan. He was suffering from cancer.

He spent much of his adult life propagating and preserving the spiritual essence of life in its many guises and myriad forms. Part of this immense task was the practice of Ch’an Buddhism—the method of which was very close to his heart.

He had met Charles Luk (Upasaka Lu Kuan Yu) in Hong Kong in the 1970s and tirelessly worked to keep the `Ch’an and Zen Teaching Series’ 1, 2, and 3 in print, together with Charles Luk’s other texts, translated from the Chinese into a good and reliable English format, texts such as the Surangama Sutra, The Nirdesa Vimalakirti Sutra, Taoist Yoga, Secrets of Chinese Meditation, Practical Buddhism and the very important autobiography of Master Xu Yun (1840-1959).

This biography, entitled Empty Cloud (the literal translation of Xu Yun), was edited by Richard in the 1980s. This was during the time he lived in Thorpe Hamlet, Norwich. The Foreword, written by Richard, emanates a peaceful compassion and reflects, I think, a deeper, underlying perfection and tranquillity that permeates across many planes of being. Also at this time, the Norwich Ch’an Association was functioning. Richard held Ch’an weeks (times of intensive meditation) and kept in contact with many people around the world through the written word. ‘Ancient China had a postal system,’ as Richard once pointed out to me, and with that example in mind, he kept a varied and extensive written communication.

There is a Ch’an tradition of instruction via letter, as many Ch’an masters lived in the remote hills and were difficult to find, and it was initially by the written word that I came to know him. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Richard and I exchanged a number of letters. I enquired about the ‘true essence’ of mind, and he gently but firmly showed me my ‘Mind’. Then, suddenly (and for almost a decade), we lost touch with one another. His life changed rapidly, and so did mine! I never stopped thinking about him, however, and eventually I managed to track him down! He had re-married, was immensely happy, and lived in Kyoto, Japan.

From about the year 2000, he would bring groups of Japanese students to visit England for about a month or so, and after the students had returned to Japan, he would visit his parents in Norwich. Then he would come and spend a week or so at my home in Sutton, South London. During these blissful times, we discussed life, laughed a lot, and meditated intensely!

These visits continued more or less up until 2004. From 2005 onwards, Richard’s health started to decline, slowly at first. He was diagnosed with cancer in August 2005.

Richard’s wife, Taeko, and his son, Charles, have asked me to convey the sad news of Richard’s passing to those who may have known him or who may have known of him. To the last, he kept his Mind bright and clear.

Adrian Chan-Wyles (Upasaka Heng Yu)

_/\_ _/\_ _/\_

Categories: Biography, Chan / Seon / Zen

Tags: , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. Great doubt: seeing that I, me, mine is illusory, who is seeing this illusion?

  2. Thank you for this very interesting article – and for quoting my obituary for Richard. In 2004 – during his last visit to the UK – we sat down in south London and after choosing a free forum, set up what was then called the ‘Chinese Ch’an Forum-UK’. Richard Hunn was concerned about the lack of the re-publishing of Charles Luk’s excellent translations of Chinese Buddhist texts into English, and thought that a forum could ‘hold the line’ by copy-typing certain key extracts for all to access in their Ch’an training. When Richard died in 2006, those of us left in-charge of his forum decided to re-name it – ‘The Richard Hunn Association For Ch’an Study – out of respect for Richard and his tireless efforts..

    Through this medium, Ch’an Buddhism as taught by Richard Hunn is alive and well amongst small, dedicated groups and individuals all over the world who have been united through the internet, including Central and Eastern Europe. Richard – like his teacher – Charles Luk, kept very much in the background and did not court attention. I like to think that this humble approach has laid very deep roots that are strong and healthy, the spiritual fruit of which is nutritious.

    With Metta


    • Nice to hear from you Adrian. I for one am very grateful to Richard and Charles for their Ch’an work.

      Best regards,


      • Thank you Richard – good to hear from you again. Whilst researching for a book I am writing about Richard Hunn, I came across his obitruary for Charles – which was eventually published in The Middle Way in 1980. I did not think that I would be writing his obitruary for the same Journal in 2006 – with Richard being only 57. He spent time at Wat Buddhapadipa in Wimbledon, and it is a place he liked to regularly visit with a group of us everytime he visited the UK. We would meditate in the hall when it was not being officially used. The underlying essence is everywhere, of course.

      • The Buddhist world is amazingly small. Diana and I used to go to the Wat Buddhapadipa both at Wimbledon and when it was at East Sheen before the move.


  3. Master Hsu Yun is one of my foundation teachers. I instantly connected with his writings, and this very passage revolutionized my practice. Thanks for sharing!


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