Zen master Ta-hui (Dahui, 1089–1163), it can be said, helped to popularize the koan (Pinyin Chinese, gongan). Important to note, the term hua-t’ou which I have mentioned in previous blogs was treated, at one time, as being synonymous with the word koan (gongan). Later, it is Ta-hui who made a distinction between the two. This fact led to the formation of what is called “introspective Zen” (kanhua chan) although this term was used before Ta-hui.
The koan/hua-t’ou practice, rightly understood, involves focusing on the hua-t’ou which is what the koan story is all about. Hopefully, there occurs a breakthrough in which the hua-t’ou is revealed. The goal of the koan/hua-t’ou is not to understand the koan intellectually, which Chinese literati did, but by introspection through dhyâna, to uncover the hua-t’ou which is our true nature. According to The Blue Cliff Records the hua-t’ou means the following:
“The real substance of the Universe, the ‘First Principle,’ that which is behind or beyond the Voice [hua] or expression of ultimate Truth, this ‘Pre-Voice’ [hua-t’ou] is transmitted only from heart [mind] to heart [mind], and no matter how great or holy or advanced in Enlightenment a man may be he cannot transmit it by means of words and phrases” (brackets are mine).
In order to get to the first principle the practitioners must leave behind every manner of conceptual thinking going to the very source of all which is prior to concepts and language. Short of this, no awakening is possible. Koans, as a consequence, degenerate into intellectual games.
The koans, put another way, were intended to reveal pure Mind. For the Zen teacher who had awakened to the pure Mind, his behavior must have seemed almost crazy as he demonstrated Mind to an unawakened student or questioner. However, if we were awakened, the antics of the Zen teacher would become, at once, both hilarious and subtle.