Chinul and the Hwadu Meditation

ChinulThis was originally written as a short paper for a seminary class on Chinul and Korean Sôn at the Five Mountain Seminary. I thought people might appreciate some of the content though it is a bit long for a blog post. Hwadu is part of my own practice within my overall work with kong-ans, which I tend to avoid discussing here (as with most aspects of my personal practice).

Chinul lived in the latter half of the 12th century and the beginning of the 13th of the Common Era on the Korean peninsula. While Buddhism was well established within Korea by the time of Chinul, there were strong divisions between the existing scholastic oriented schools and the later established schools of Sôn, the Korean form of Chán or Zen, that had become popular through the influence of Chinese Chán schools and masters. Chinul is considered by many to be the effective founder of Sôn, even though he is not in actuality, because of his work on healing the divisions between the two forms of Buddhism and his ecumenical approach and systemization of Sôn teachings using the texts revered by the scholastic schools to legitimize the Sôn approach. In addition to this work in systemization and reconciliation, Chinul was also an innovator, regularizing and introducing meditative practices that later became essential components to Sôn and, eventually, all of Korean Buddhism through the eventual cultural dominance of Sôn. Later, even when the Sôn of his period was eclipsed by later developments, many of his practices and teachings remained in use. A key innovation of his within Sôn was his introduction and elaboration of kong-an or hwadu practice from Chinese Chán. To this day, his methods of hwadu are still practiced within Korean temples, commentaries are written on its methods, and hwadu is considered to be the key practice of Sôn monasticism. This paper examines hwadu, its practice, and how it fits within the overall meditative teachings of Chinul.

Unlike most Sôn practitioners of his era, Chinul was a scholastic student of the sutras and Buddhist commentaries as well as a meditative practitioner. While nominally having a Sôn teacher, in practice, his studies and practice were solitary and self-directed. Partially as a result of this, he engaged in textual studies, uncommon in Sôn, as a primary component of his practice and this proved to play a key role of his personal realizations and later teachings. During the course of his textual studies and the associated contemplation of these texts, Chinul had three main enlightenment experiences, each building on the previous. Each of these experiences led to one of the primary methods of Sôn practice that Chinul taught (with the later addition of two more methods elaborating on these initial three). Chinul’s first enlightenment experience was while studying the Platform Sutra, leading to Chinul’s teachings on cultivating samadhi and prajna deriving from that text; the second experience was while studying the Exposition of the Avatamsaka Sutra, leading to faith and understanding practices; the third and final experience was while studying the Records of Ta-hui, leading to Chinul’s teaching of hwadu techniques.

The cultivation of samadhi and prajna practices are similar to the existing shamatha and vipassana practices found elsewhere in Buddhism, especially in China. They teach methods for stilling and calming the mind from its normally turbulent state and how to then use the developed concentration coming with this stillness to investigate the mind and its nature, reflecting the mind back onto itself. The eventual goal of these practices is to cultivate direct knowledge of the original enlightenment of all beings, the Buddha-nature or original mind. This cultivation occurs after the practitioner undergoes an initial enlightenment experience or flash of understanding of the original mind that then provides the basis of faith to fuel continuing practice. Chinul belonged to the dominant (and only extant) school of Chán (or Sôn in Korean) that used this method of Sudden Enlightenment followed by Gradual Cultivation. The samadhi and prajna cultivation practices are based on this model of the way to realization or awakening as set forth in the Platform Sutra. The faith and understanding practices taught by Chinul are derived from the Hua-yen school of China, whose teachings were absorbed into Chán, and its teachings based on the Avatamsaka Sutra. These practices involve the gradual cultivation of understanding using discriminative thought after the initial sudden awakening or enlightenment experience. Unlike most of the other methods used by Chinul, the faith and understanding practices make great use of conceptual thought and contemplation based on study of Buddhist texts and philosophy.

These first two methods of practice, the cultivation of samadhi and prajna and the practices of faith and understanding, both work within the conceptual or discriminative mind of the practitioner. They are based on the study of doctrines and the practice of methods that can be easily conceptualized rationally or logically. Because of this, they are subject to the limitations of the rational mind. According to Chinul, the nature of original mind or Buddha-nature is beyond all conceptualization or thought. This means that these practices two methods of practice cannot lead the practitioner all the way to realization as taught by Chinul because the practitioner will still have only a conceptual understanding of original mind, even if all defilements or obscurations are removed or great understanding of doctrine is attained. These are practices that are based solely on words, according to Chinul, and ultimate realization is beyond words. Chinul states in his Excerpts from the Dharma Collection that the two methods above will lead the practitioner to understand all of the doctrines within the Buddhist sutras and texts, which point to the nature and characteristics of the mind, but the practitioner will be “bound by intellectual understanding and never gain tranquility” (Buswell, 1991, p. 182). The third method of practice, hwadu, is meant to be the solution to this problem or limitation since it bypasses Buddhist doctrines and conceptual understandings and enters a path that leaves behind all words.

Hwadu is derived from the Chán schools of the middle T’ang dynasty of China and developed over a number of generations during the most diverse period of Chán’s growth. The Records of Ta-hui, Chinul’s most immediate acknowledged source, was written only a generation before Chinul lived and he may have been exposed to teachings relating to it and hwadu during his earlier years of practice through contact with Chinese practitioners. Initially, hwadu practice was quite fluid and based on exchanges between a master and a student in which one party asks the other a question and a response is given that demonstrates the realization of the original mind. These exchanges were eventually written down and preserved in collections by students and came to be called kung-an or kong-ans (or koans as they are known in English commonly), which translates to “public case records” (Buswell, 1991, p. 68). Buswell states that there is some evidence that the first uses of practices similar to koans may date to the Fifth Patriarch of Chán Buddhism, Hung-jen, but its later use and codification was popularized by Ta-hui Tsung-kao, who wrote Records of Ta-hui read by Chinul. In its earliest form, hwadu is the portion of a koan that forms the central point or core topic of it and can be considered its key. As it developed later, it can be best understood as “the point at which (or beyond which) speech exhausts itself” (Buswell, 1986, p. 219). These koans and their attached hwadu form a puzzle of sorts. At an intellectual, rational, or logical level, they make no sense. If they are treated simply as an intellectual puzzle, they appear nonsensical, almost like a bit of nonsense text quoted from Alice in Wonderland, for example. The words can be read rationally but their meaning will elude you because the nature of the exchange is transcending speech and rationalization. According to Chinul, while koans are a form of speech and, therefore, of rational thought, they go beyond the limits of rationality, showing where intellectual understanding reaches its limits. Chinul also points out that the hwadu acts as a purification device that wipes away conceptualization or thoughts, leaving the mind open to the unconditioned or original mind that is beyond all ideas, speech, or discrimination. Chinul quotes Ta-hui in Chinul’s Excerpts from the Dharma Collection, stating that in true hwadu practice “you need only lay down, all at once, the mind full of deluded thoughts and inverted thinking, the mind of logical discrimination, the mind that loves life and hates death, the mind of knowledge and views, interpretation and comprehension” (Buswell, 1991, p. 185). Chinul taught initially that this was the shortcut method of enlightenment only accessible for superior practitioners, but near the end of his life he shifted more and more emphasis on hwadu as the best or ideal vehicle for realizing enlightenment for all followers of the Dharma.

In his Excerpts from the Dharma Collection, Chinul quotes what is,to many, the quintessential hwadu (the first one of the famous kong-an collection, The Gateless Gate): “A monk asked Chao-chou, ‘Does a dog have the Buddha-nature or not?’ Chao-chou replied, ‘Mu! [No!]’” (Buswell, 1991, p. 185). This is a seemingly nonsensical exchange in that, as taught in Mahayana Buddhist doctrine, all living beings have Buddha-nature. So the monk is asking what is, on its surface, an obvious and absurd question, and Chao-chou is giving an answer that, by existing doctrine, makes no sense. At its most obvious, it is clearly not true that a dog has no Buddha-nature. How can a Chán master, an awakened teacher, give an answer that is seemingly wrong and contradicts the Buddhist teachings? In discussing this hwadu and instructing how to work with it, Chinul says that Mu is:

…the weapon which smashes all types of wrong knowledge and wrong conceptualization. [1] You should not understand it to mean yes or no. [2] You should not consider it in relation to doctrinal theory. [3] You should not ponder over it logically at the consciousness-based. [4] When the master raises his eyebrows or twinkles his eyes, you should not think he is giving instructions about the meaning of the hwadu. [5] You should not make stratagems for solving the hwadu through the use of speech. [6] You should not busy yourself inside the tent of concern. [7] You should not consider it at the place where you raise the hwadu to your attention. [8] You should not look for evidence in the wording. Throughout the twelve periods and the four postures, try always to keep the question raised before you and centered in your attention. Does a dog have the Buddha-nature or not? He said mu. Without neglecting your daily activities, try to work in this manner. (Buswell, 1991, pp. 185-186)

This instruction on how to work with the hwadu is at the core of Chinul’s method. Here he clearly states that a hwadu is not a clever bit of rhetoric to decrypt or a story problem to be followed to a logical conclusion. It is not a trick or a game played by a master. He says that one must keep the question constantly in mind. In actuality, Chinul taught two different methods for hwadu investigation, one superior and one inferior, depending on the ability or capacity of the practitioner. These two methods are the (1) investigation of the idea or meaning of the hwadu and (2) the investigation of the word itself. Chinul calls these “dead word” and “live word” investigation, respectively. In the example of Chao-chou’s Mu above, understanding what Chao-chou’s intent in mind was in making his statement to the monk is the method of investigating the idea or dead word. This investigation of the idea was considered to be a more approachable or beginner practice for those of lesser ability or capacity because it allowed for an intellectual understanding of the hwadu. It requires the use of intellectual thought and conceptualization to approach an understanding of the intent behind the statement of the hwadu but does not require anything beyond this level of understanding. The result of this method is a conceptual understanding of the hwadu but this will not open the way to the final realization of one’s original mind, according to Chinul. What it can do is bring about the initial realization of sudden enlightenment that forms the basis of later gradual cultivation as taught by Chinul and all descendants of the Southern School of Chán. This means that investigating the idea fulfills the initial role of developing the necessary faith for the path of sudden enlightenment / gradual cultivation as a method of practice, just as the previous two methods of samadhi and prajna or faith and understanding. It can provide the impetus for following the path of the Dharma to final realization.

The second approach to hwadu, the investigation of the word, is the more advanced practice. This method does not allow for any conceptualization or intellectual approaches to the hwadu. For Chinul, this is the true hwadu practice that leads to ultimate realization. In the example of Chao-chou’s Mu, the investigation of the word is looking directly at Chao-chou’s answer, mu. There are no concepts to be grasped, simply the word, mu, by itself. In Chinul’s teachings, because there is nothing for the conceptual mind to grasp, this method frees the mind from the activating consciousness, vijnana, which separates the world into subject and object, and that gives rise to our deluded minds and suffering. The method frees the mind by generating doubt (or wonder, puzzlement, or questioning). This creates a state of doubt and questioning in which rational thought and conceptual understanding cannot operate. As the tension and pressure of this doubt grows, it leads to the exhaustion of the discriminating mind and into a state of no-mind, as taught in the Platform Sutra. In this state of no-mind, the original mind or Buddha-nature can be apprehended since discriminating consciousness with its thoughts and conceptualization is no longer in the way. For Chinul, this was the highest practice that would act as the shortcut to enlightenment, bypassing the need for continuing gradual cultivation over time . Rather than simply studying doctrine and cultivating samadhi and prajna or faith and understanding, hwadu allowed those able to engage in it the means of bypassing the Dharma contained in words to the realization of the mind of the Buddha and all of the patriarchs of Chán, the transmission that occurs outside of words when the original mind is realized.

Chinul’s methods for studying and practicing the Dharma are still used as the basis of practice in Korea to this day. As Buswell relates from his time as a Korean monastic in the 1970s, the practice of hwadu is one of the primary methods, if not the primary method, used still. Chinul defined a set of practices, culminating in hwadu as the most advanced and direct, that have been used for more than 800 years on the Korean peninsula. While the cultivation of samadhi and prajna allow for the calming of the mind, the deepening of concentration, and the investigation into the mind, and those of faith and understanding develop both a faith in and understanding of Buddhist doctrine, neither is thought to lead to immediate realization. It is only the hwadu taught by Chinul that acts as the means of going beyond conceptualization and doctrines to a direct apprehension of the mind. Because of this, it remains in constant use as the preeminent method within Sôn.


Buswell, R. (1983). The Korean Approach to Zen: The Collected Works of Chinul. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Buswell, R. (1986). Chinese Meditative Techniques in Sôn Buddhism. In P. N. Gregory (Ed.), Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism (pp. 199-242). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Buswell, R. (1991). Tracing Back the Radiance: Chinul’s Korean Way of Zen. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Buswell, R. (1992). The Zen Monastic Experience. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Keel, H. (1984). Chinul: The Founder of the Korean Sôn Tradition. Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley.