[Intro to Ganhwa Seon] 15. What is Hwadu?
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Chapter 4. The Ways to Investigate Hwadu in Everyday Life
1. What is Hwadu?
The Closed Gate
We often hear “hwadu (critical phrase or keyword 話頭)” from the media or in our everyday conversations when describing a very challenging issue or a conundrum which has to be resolved. The most common usage of “hwadu” includes “the hwadu of our time”, “… has risen as a hwadu of the event” or “… is my hwadu these days”. Does “hwadu” in Ganhwa Seon also carry the same meaning as the abovementioned examples? Or does it have distinctive meaning of its own when used in the context of Ganhwa Seon? How much importance could be attached to hwadu in terms of Seon practice? We all can easily recall the moment when a certain issue becomes stuck in our heads. Faced with a critical issue which has to be resolved immediately but yet is so challenging, we end up being preoccupied by it even when we eat or sleep. As such, the hwadu in Ganhwa Seon is something fundamental which has to be resolved and becomes a cluster of accumulated doubts which are always in our minds.
Metaphorically, hwadu is a daunting gate which is extremely difficult to pass. The gate is thoroughly closed and can never be opened with just ordinary thoughts or behaviors. Even a sharp tool cannot create a hole in it; a tiny beam light cannot pass through it. There is no way to bypass the gate at all. Imagine this gate is ahead of us and we cannot go back or go around it. Without passing this gate, however, we cannot but live a delusional life forever and be swayed by superficial matters as sentient beings. Even if we cannot pass the gate, genuine happiness and peace would hardly arise unless we put our utmost efforts in front of it. Only when do we succeed in passing the gate, we can get out of endless suffering of samsara, or the “cycle of rebirth”, and live a life proactively without hesitation. However, the gate of hwadu is tightly barred. So it is also called “gateless checkpoint (無門關)” or “closed checkpoint (閉關)”. Both of them refer to not only hwadu but also one type of rigorous retreat where a practitioner investigates hwadu in total isolation without leaving one’s quarters for six months or as long as six years. The “Patriarch’s checkpoint (祖師關)” is also used to point to the hwadu because you need to pass the gate to attain enlightenment and become a patriarch. As such, the gate of hwadu is thoroughly closed and we cannot open it no matter how hard we try. In front of the gate, we cannot go anywhere. It is like saving a bird in a bottle without breaking the bottle as depicted in the novel Mandala. The bird cannot be saved with any thoughts, neither positive nor negative, whatsoever. The top opening of the bottle never allows the bird to fly away like the firmly closed gate. That’s why hwadu is also called “neither denial nor acceptance checkpoint (背觸關)”, as it blocks all the ways of approval and disapproval.
There is not even a single way to approach hwadu, if we are attached to two extremes. An alternative which goes beyond extremes cannot be a solution, either. Hwadu appears to be a cluster of doubts that cannot be approached nor tackled at all. The public case of “an elderly woman burns down the hermitage (婆者燒庵)” explains this feature of hwadu with an interesting story. An elderly woman promised a young practitioner that she would build a mountain hermitage and devotedly serve him through day and night until the practitioner attained enlightenment. In addition, she asked him to save her from the realm of sentient beings after he is enlightened. The practitioner agreed and dedicated himself to meditation. Ten years passed and one day the elderly woman made her daughter go into the room of the practitioner and spend a night with him to test his spiritual capacity for enlightenment. The next day, the elderly woman asked her daughter, “So how did it go?” The daughter answered, “He just sat still and was fully concentrated on practice – he did not even look at me.” As soon as the daughter finished talking, the elderly woman said, “What? He just sat and kept practicing? That’s all? I devoted myself for nothing throughout all those ten years. I will burn this hermitage down tomorrow and go back to the village.”
Why did the elderly woman set fire to the hermitage? This is the very “falling point (落處)” of this case. “Falling point” refers to the intention of hwadu. Without knowing it, superficial thoughts cannot rightly respond to the question. Some might do whatever they can to come up with a reasonable answer, however, answers based on reason cannot lead to breakthroughs of hwadu. Reason can never cause hwadu to be shattered. “Gan (看 observe)” of Ganhwa Seon does not mean objectifying hwadu. Rather, it is about causing great doubt and being completely immersed into undertaking hwadu. There should not be paths of thoughts or traces of words.
Definitions of Hwadu
Let us take a look at the general
definition of hwadu. Simply put, hwadu (話頭)
is literally translated as critical phrase. “Hwa (話)”
means phrase and “du (頭)” is a suffix. However, in Ganhwa
Seon, the meaning of hwadu is different from the usage in everyday
conversations. As hwadu of enlightened Seon masters is out of paths of words (言路)
and paths of thoughts (思路), it cannot be
fathomed by mere words or thoughts, cutting off our common sense. We use words
in a relative manner in our daily lives. Me and you, good and evil, there is
and there isn’t. The same is true for what we think. Our thoughts, too, are
based on relative assessment of values. However, the thoughts and words as a
result of relative judgment cannot get us closer to fundamentals, because they
remain within the limitations of superficial subjectivity. With just words and
thoughts, we cannot figure out genuine features or truth of something as it is.
We are tainted by our own thoughts and prejudices which hinder us from knowing
fundamentals of ourselves. The gate of truth cannot be opened that way. The
gate of hwadu is thoroughly closed in front of superficial thoughts and words.
Words are cut off (言語道斷) and the traces of our
thoughts and emotions coming from our mind cannot be found (心行處滅).
Great doubt in hwadu derives from the point where all paths toward thoughts are
severed. Unmanageable frustration ultimately leads to determined commitment to
reaching the state where hwadu is shattered. The gateless gate opens up only
when we wholeheartedly devote ourselves to investigating hwadu. All of the elements
of our body and mind should be fully concentrated on hwadu. Then, finally,
hwadu serves as a living phrase (活句).
In Seon practice, hwadu is an absolute phrase which transcends relativity. In
other words, it cannot be reached by any kinds of thoughts and words. For
example, to a question like “What is Buddhism?”, “It’s a dried shit stick.” cannot
be an answer that makes sense. Likewise, “It’s the cypress tree in the yard.”
cannot be a reasonable response to “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming
from the west?” These questions cannot be understood based on reason and logic.
of hwadu sometimes means head, so hwadu could also mean “head of phrase”,
referring to the realm before words are formed.
* Please note that this writing is an excerpt from the book, "Introduction to Ganhwa Seon" published by the Bureau of Dharma Propagation and it is contained in the winter 2016 edition of the Lotus Lantern magazine under Buddhist Culture Section on page 14~20.