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’.
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?’