Hua T’ou Chan

Self Inquiry

I would like to share a practice which is immensely important to me and indeed, one of the main practices of Chan Buddhism (Chinese Zen) in the past centuries. Countless masters have used this “diamond sword” to cut through all delusion. This is no method for those seeking to bliss-out or for those interested in “self-improvement”. Using this method is like riding a wild dragon, a journey that doubtless includes facing all of one’s worst fears and digging into every nook and cranny of one’s consciousness, no matter how uncomfortable or frightful this might be. But once we learn to pilot this dragon, it will take you safely beyond delusion to fly in the open sky of enlightenment.

For the purpose of learning this most excellent method, I have compiled and edited a booklet (available here) of some of the best and clearest writings on the subject. Below is the preface I’ve written for this booklet. May it be of benefit!

Zhaogu Huatou


The Huatou, lit. “The Head-Word”, can be variously translated as The Word, the Single Word, the Live Word, the Cultivation Topic, the Meditation Phrase, etc. But basically speaking it is a trick, as my teacher likes to say, that the Masters played on us. It’s also a method at whose heart lies the very foundation of Doubt and Faith. This is because it arouses mundane doubt simply by its appearance of being “too good to be true”, and yet when one single-mindedly and faithfully applies it, it arouses a Great Doubt, a true existential crisis.

The Single Word at the basis of this technique is “Who?”, with that question mark being the true point of the exercise. How it is to be practiced is described so well by the various ancient and contemporary masters in this booklet that I will abstain from the opportunity to show my own incompetence in their presence.

You might ask, ‘why on earth would I want to bring about an existential crisis?’ and you’d be justified in asking. The reason is simple: freedom from suffering is found exactly at the point where our illusory sense of self ends. All our troubles are due to the endless judgments, attachments and contrivances brought about by our self-cherishing and self-referencing attitudes. And this is by no means an overstatement. It is exactly so – dare to stare deeply into your own nature and you’ll see for yourself.

And this is the point of the Huatou method. By completely, excruciatingly exhausting the intellect, this “trick” will bring all the minds juggleries to a stop, and allow us to turn the attention back on itself and see our own mind. This was most eloquently put by Chang Tze Yang:Manjushri2

“In the mind, contemplate;

Searching for Original Mind.

When both minds disappear,

True Mind appears

The True Mind illuminates the Three Worlds;

Heresy and evil demons dare not approach.”


Although the Huatou remains to this very day a distinctly Chinese Zen technique, and, to an extent, used also in Korean Zen, there are many traditions and masters who have stumbled onto a similar path, as it’s so intuitive on a certain level, that its discovery seems to me to be inevitable. So the texts presented here are indeed mostly from Chinese masters, but two exceptions are presented as well: a Japanese approach (Master Bassui) and a Tibetan approach (Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche). My hope is that these “outsider” perspectives serve to broaden our own view, and also clarify from new angles.

All mistakes in this booklet are all my own, whereas all merit comes from others. May this merit contribute to the swift enlightenment of all beings! Amituofo!

The Booklet: Hua-T’ou Chan