What is Huatou?

I’ve traveled in each Vehicle, only stopping when I ran into a tree.

My goal was to practice as many methods and view as many views as possible so that I could use them to help people since Buddhism isn’t a once-size-fits-all kinda thing. There are many different personalities, capacities and dispositions, so there are just as many views and methods to accommodate people.

I like thinking of it like this: everyone’s born with a key (Buddha-nature) that fits one particular door. Through that door, there’s total freedom and ease. The problem is that, even though we were all born with a key, we were also born forgetful, so we don’t know that we have it.

So there are four steps to practice:

  1. Remembering or trusting that we have the key
  2. Figuring out which door it belongs to
  3. Unlocking and opening the door
  4. Stepping across the threshold

The first and fourth steps are the most challenging. The first step involves a lot of suffering as a prerequisite; Buddhism isn’t for happy people who’ve got their shit together. It’s for people who are suffering, who are aware that they’re suffering, and aware that they’re not going to stop suffering unless they break through their own BS.

The first step is completed when we’ve practiced and learned enough to trust that it’s possible to be well, or we’ve had a small enlightening experience revealing that we’ve always been well. In either case, this is when practice truly begins and when we should get into more involved views and methods or deepen the ones we’re already into.

Taking pride in one’s progress, being greedy for more, and a short attention span are the main dangers in the 2nd and 3rd steps.

The fourth step is when all the hard work is about to culminate in the ability to change the direction of one’s life. It’s the point of breaking the cycles, of freedom and ease. The challenge here is that most of us are kind of happy with our misery. It’s like how we don’t like big waistlines, diabetes, and heart attacks but we really love junk food and being lazy.

It’s like we’re dreaming, we’re aware that we’re dreaming, and in the dream we’re eager to wake up and greet the new day… until the alarm goes off. Then, groggy, it’s so easy to hit the snooze button and keep dreaming that we’re Buddhas instead of waking up and actually being one.

Because as dreaming Buddhas we can have our cake and eat it too. Intuition tells us that that isn’t possible were we to really Wake Up. We’d have to change and abandon the things that are harming us no matter how much fleeting happiness they might bring.

A lot of people stop at opening the door, thinking that that’s enough. That’s when it’s good to have Dharma friends to keep pushing us forward.

Me, I had the strange need to investigate all the doors—even after I found the one my key belonged to. I guess I wanted to look at the locks so that I could see right away which door a person’s key goes to. Either that or I was just a chicken shit looking for excuses to stall my own letting go.

But here I am again, back at my door: the huatou (hua t’ou/hwadu/wato).

A huatou is a question that we’re trying to answer without the intellect. It’s like a koan, but sexier. Huatou practice depends on Great Trust, Great Doubt, and Great Determination.

Great trust is trusting that all beings are already Awake, one, empty, etc., ya know, some variety of Buddhist truth. Usually this trust is based on a personal insight or kensho, but some people might be able to cultivate it through reasoning or belief.

Great doubt is a kind of contradiction. It’s like if I said, “Take both of these statements as true: I’m alive (great trust), but I was never born (great doubt).” The huatou for that would be something like, “What is the Unborn?” or,  “Who is Unborn?”

The first part is easy to trust; it’s a given that everyone reading this is alive. The second one is a little more difficult because if I was never born, then how can I be alive? That doesn’t make sense even though we’re told that it makes complete sense and that we’re just being stupid. We’re told that when the mind is clear down to the bottom, and totally free of waves, then it’ll make sense.

We can use Buddhist philosophy to try to outwit it. “I was never born because there is no I, just the aggregates, or just emptiness,” but then we’ve just flipped the problem the other way: if we trust that we’re unborn, then how is it that we’re alive? “Life is a delusion,” someone might say. But how can there be delusion if there was no one born to be delusional?

Ya see, you can’t outwit the huatou. Whenever you put your feet somewhere, it’ll just keep pulling the ground out from under you until you let yourself land on your head and ass.

I’ve been suffering quite a lot lately, that’s why I haven’t written much. It’s time that I stopped dicking around with views and practices for other people and hunker down on the path in front of me. That’s the only thing that’s gonna save me from these cycles of suffering.

I walked out front and sat on the stairs. The night was alive with sounds as I sat drinking coffee, pondering how fucked up I am. Imagining the dismal life ahead of me, the seemingly inescapable fate that’s taken many others in my gene pool.

“I can’t keep doing this,” I thought. “I have to commit to practice. I have to let myself die so that I can go on living.” Just words, of course. What I meant was that I have to let go of my self-concepts, to close the book on my personal story before it actually kills me. After doing that and waking up, then I can open it again—or not, either way.

My mind turned to the night sounds and to emptiness. Everythingness. “If all things are fundamentally bright and still, then what makes the frogs sing?” And there it was, my huatou. One born from genuine curiosity, not found in a book or given by someone else.

Not why do the frogs sing, because they do that so that they can copulate and make more frogs. Not how, because that’d be a biology lesson. But what. What’s the source? What’s the basis? What makes it possible when, according to Buddhism, there are no frogs and no singing? It’s the mind, of course, but that’s not an answer because what makes the mind the mind? Each answer can be questioned, so it’s best for me to just stick with the frogs. Don’t follow your huatou down a rabbit hole; stick with it as it is.

If you open one door, you open all of them. If you try to open all of them, you end up opening none of them.

Great Doubt and Great Trust spur on Great Determination. Here, that’s the practice of keeping the huatou alive in all situations. Guarding it like it’s an egg or your only child. Nurturing it with attention. Because I need to know; the answer will save my life because the question will lead me away from all the things that are threatening it.


2 thoughts on “What is Huatou?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s