September 1, 2014

Part IV - The Gong An (Koan) and Hua Tou

Many people equate Zen training with gong-an (koan) study due to the fairly frequent use of this teaching technique in Zen monasteries. Koans are one of many different techniques that teachers have used over the centuries to help students break through the rigid mental framework that obscures the higher domain of Self. In China, the use of the gong-an dropped as teachers began to recognize that students were more prone to intellectualizing them than to using them as vehicles to penetrate their own mind.

Practitioners used to be taught to 'put down everything' and to 'not think about good and evil' - but they couldn't do it. They could not put down everything. If they weren't thinking about good they were thinking about evil. Under these circumstances, the patriarchs had no choice but to use poison to fight poison, so they taught the method of investigating the gong an and hua tou."
- Grandmaster Hsu Yun (Empty Cloud)

Many people equate Zen training with gong-an (koan) study due to the fairly frequent use of this teaching technique in Zen monasteries. Koans are one of many different techniques that teachers have used over the centuries to help students break through the rigid mental framework that obscures the higher domain of Self. In China, the use of the gong-an dropped as teachers began to recognize that students were more prone to intellectualizing them than to using them as vehicles to penetrate their own mind. They were backfiring -- raising the barriers rather than lowering them. The hua-tou was the next step in the evolution of this practice and, because of its great simplicity and pointed directedness, it's still often used in China today. Both hua-tou and gong-an studies are excellent methods, but they are not relevant for all people.

The gung-an

Today the gung-an is predominantly used in Japanese Soto and Rinzai sects - though not all of them - as a means of starting students with a Zen practice. They are also used conveniently as seeds for sermons. Translated, gung-an means "public case." An example from the "Book of Serenity, One Hundred Years of Zen Dialogues" is titled "The World Honored One Ascends The Seat". The Dialogue contains an Introduction, a Case (the heart of the gung-an), a Commentary, a Verse, another Commentary and some Added Sayings. In this example, the Case is:

One day the World Honored One ascended the seat. Manjusri struck the gavel and said, "Clearly observe the Dharma of the King of Dharma; the Dharma of the King of Dharma is thus."

The World Honored One then got down from the seat.

With some consideration and a little historical background, this short dialogue elicits numerous questions, ideas, and meanings that go far deeper than may be initially obvious. The beauty of these literary devices leaves little wonder about why collections of them have been so well preserved over the centuries or why they are still being studied today. Yet, due to the relentless unfolding of time, the context of the vast majority of ancient gong-an's requires a great deal of explanation, explanation that would not have been necessary in the era in which they were written. There are a great many theological concepts that were common knowledge to students a thousand years ago that have now nearly vanished; consequently, the study of ancient koans can require so much background knowledge that the purpose gets lost in the study - they become of more academic interest than religious use. There are, fortunately, a few Zen teachers who have recognized this and are creating contemporary koan collections that are more helpful for students of modern western cultures.

The hua-tou

The hua-tou is a much simpler approach with the same intent as the gong-an: to pierce the veil of ego through pointed concentration to reveal the essence of Self. Instead of dialogues and commentaries and verses, and more commentaries, and more verses, we have a simple idea to ponder: "Before you were born, what was your original face?" or "Who is reciting the mantras?" or "Who is dragging this corpse around?" or even simply "Who is eating?" In the hua-tou, there is no place for dialogue, for discussion, for commentary, for verses: there is just the unanswered question to contemplate. All hua-tou's are essentially the same; they all have the same answer, an answer that cannot be verbalized - only realized. Hsu Yun told his students: "When you begin looking into a hua-tou, grasp it tightly, never letting go. It's like a mouse trying to chew its way out of a coffin. It concentrates you on one point. It doesn't try different places and it doesn't stop until it gets through. The objective is to use one thought to eradicate innumerable other thoughts." But he cautions us that this is not a method to be used lightly or indiscriminately: "This method is a last resort, just as when a poison arrow has pierced someone -- drastic measures must be taken to cure the patient."

Some people have asked me if it's necessary to have a teacher when working with a gung-an or hua-tou. The answer is yes and no. Some ancient koans are so deeply laced with cultural accents that a student studying them needs enough background information just to get started. In such cases a teacher can be extremely helpful. But since the fundamental intent of both the gung-an and hua-tou is to develop one-pointedness of mind through contemplation, independent work with them is essential for them to serve their purpose. I have also been asked, how does one know if one has succeeded in penetrating a hua-tou or gung-an? When we approach them with integrity, devotion, and intensity, we'll know when they have rung a bell for us. It will always be apparent if they are still opaque or if they have opened themselves up to illuminate us. Once we "get it," the need for verification will seem as silly as an Olympic gold-medalist in the 100-meter freestyle event asking one of her competitors if her stroke was any good!


There are far too many terms that define the language of Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism in particular, for me to address them all, but it's worth investigating deeply the way in which Buddhist terms are used historically as well as in the present day if we're to get inside the meaning of "Zen speak." Standing on the shore overlooking a lake we may see a small stick floating above the surface, completely unaware of the huge log it's attached to just below. Often religious terminology is like this. First we see the stick, the surface meaning, and then as we delve into a spiritual discipline we find new meanings of those terms as our awareness and understanding expands.

Much Buddhist terminology has been misused, for the most part unintentionally, by people who have failed to see little more than the stick above the surface. They lack the personal experience that brings with it deeper understandings. Words only have relevance to us in the context of experience. We all know what a cat is, for example. We've seen pictures, maybe we've owned one, or pet one, or seen one at a pet store or at a friend's house. We take the word cat for granted in our vocabulary because we have direct experience of cat - experience that's common to most everyone else we talk to. But what about the person who is new to the word cat? He looks it up in the dictionary and reads "a small domesticated carnivore, Felis domestica or F. catus, bred in a number of varieties." The next day he's talking with his friend about a delicious steak dinner he had the night before. He's looking for a way to describe it and decides to be clever and use the new word he just learned: "Yo dude," he says with as sly grin. "it was a dinner fit for a cat."

How strange and alien must words like Dharma and Karma and Buddha and Avalokitesvara and bodhisattva and Nirvana and Paramita sound to newcomers? And they seem even stranger when we look up their definitions in a dictionary! But dictionaries tell only a small part of their story. Experience gives the complete context for meaning. Spiritual experiences have no social or personal meaning until we put them in a model in which we can think about them and organize them. Yet spiritual experiences themselves are not language-based, not dependent on society, context, or even a particular religion one associates with. For lack of better options, we adopt the terminology of religion to express spiritual ideas and experiences because it contains some of the richest, most complex and meaning-laden language we have.

In the next installment, I'll look at how our understanding of Zen is largely determined by the context in which we are exposed to it.