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Listen to Yourself: Think Everything Over

Volume 2

On Investigating the Hua T'ou (word head)



    Now all of us have gathered together to investigate Ch’an. To investigate means to be single-minded. To be single-minded means that your mind does not wander off to one side, but that you concentrate on investigating your hua t’ou. As for the hua t’ou, any principle that can be pursued can be a hua t’ou. Right at the point when you are about to speak, but before you actually do so, is the location of the hua t’ou (literally, “word head”). After you’ve spoken, then it is no longer the word head, it has become the word tail. Before it is spoken, you carefully and exhaustively examine and drill into its principle and concentrate at every moment. Once you penetrate the entire principle, then you will open an enlightenment.  

   In regard to getting enlightened, there are great enlightenments and small ones, just as there are small pools, lakes, streams, rivers and the great sea. Upon opening a great enlightenment, you can completely understand everything, from how Buddhas are accomplished above to how living beings are brought into being below—you can understand it all. Above you can penetrate measureless kalpas and understand the ten thousand principles; below you can penetrate into the future realms without end, and understand all phenomena. Not only will you be able to comprehend the present, but in regard to the myriad things and principles of the universe, you will be able to read them like the palm of your own hand. At that point, you will not need to research or study, but will simply be able to understand these things naturally. You’ll have become a greatly wise person in the world.  

   Opening a great enlightenment is called “the Great Disclosure of Perfect Understanding.” It is immense, like the great sea which boundlessly, vastly encompasses all the tiny streams. Opening a small enlightenment is likened to a small pool of water; it is the attainment of some sort of pure state. By applying effort, you can obtain a sort of light ease. However, this light ease only comes about through incessant work and effort.  

   How does one apply effort? Be like the cat watching over the mousehole. Observe how a cat watches over a mousehole. He uses all his time and patience, waiting for themouse to come out of its hole. As soon as the mouse emerges, the cat springs forward and grabs the mouse, and he never lets go. People who investigate Ch’an should be watchful and alert like that. Or you should be like the mother hen trying to hatch her eggs. The hen firmly believes that her brood will hatch, so she climbs on top of the eggs and sits…and sits…waiting for the chicks to hatch. She won’t leave them even for a second, except sometimes to get a little something to eat or to relieve nature; but even then she’ll go away only for a moment and immediately return to continue brooding on her eggs. At this point she is single-minded, totally focused in the here and now, using every bit of her patience to wait. Once the chicks hatch, the hen’s job is accomplished. People who investigate Ch’an should be that way; you should look into your hua t’ou with just as much perseverance and concentration.  

   You should also be like the dragon nurturing its pearl. Every dragon has a precious pearl which it nurtures. It devotes its undivided attention to it and eventually the pearl becomes perfected. Therefore, investigators of Ch’an should not fear suffering or difficulty. Don’t fear that your back aches or that your legs hurt. As it is said,  

     Without enduring the cold that bites to the bone,
     How can the plum blossom give off such a heady fragrance?  

And further,  

     If one can endure the suffering within suffering,
     Then one will become a superior person.  

Investigating Ch’an is just laying down a foundation. After a firm foundation has been laid, a hundred-story skyscraper can be built on it. Skyscrapers start from the ground up, they don’t emerge from empty space. You people who investigate Ch’an should in every moment singularly pick up your hua t’ou and never cease your investigation and drilling into it. “Investigating a hua t’ou” does not refer to the recitation of a phrase, but rather to drilling into it, boring through it, and examining it very closely—perhaps for five minutes, or ten minutes, or perhaps for an hour. If you are concentrated to the ultimate point, even if you investigate for an hour, it will seem like just a second has passed. Why? Because when you are concentrated, time and space are forgotten. If you can truly forget time and space and reach the ultimate point, then suddenly you’ll break through and open a great enlightenment.  


   Everything in this world has within it the true and the false. Within the true, there’s some falseness and in the falseness, there’s some truth. The same goes with each individual. Each person has some merit as well as some offenses. In the past we created both good and bad karma, and all of this good and bad karma has been stored in the field of our eighth consciousness. It’s possible to either increase your merit or your offenses—there are no fixed dharmas. If you work hard, you earn more merit. If you don’t work hard, you increase your offenses.

   If you cultivate vigorously, you don’t need to go about it in any fixed way. Just now, when someone said that sometimes he sits for five minutes, sometimes for an hour, or sometimes not at all, that’s all right, but if you’re just starting out, it’s easy to get lazy. People need to spur themselves on in order to get going and keep going. If you just do what you feel like doing, and don’t discipline yourself, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of advancing one step and retreating two. So there’s a saying,  

     In the beginning, it feels forced, but after
     a while it comes naturally.  

When you first start out, you have to force yourself to do it. But after you’ve practiced for a while, you get better at it and it comes more easily and naturally for you. At that time, when you’re walking, you’re not aware of it; when you’re sitting, you are not aware that you’re sitting; when you’re standing, you don’t realize you’re standing; and when you’re reclining, you don’t know you’re reclining. This is because you’ve gained freedom to do whatever you want in every respect. You’re no longer hindered. When this happens, no matter what you do you’ll always be cultivating—whether coming or going. Then, even if you’re talking to people or hosting guests—no matter what you’re doing—you’ll still be working at your cultivation. At the point when everything comes together for you, this will happen.  

   So, in cultivation you must bear bitterness. I always say, “everything’s okay.” You can say that everything’s okay, but it’s really not easy to be that way. It’s one thing to say it; it’s another to experience it. Cultivation is not always easy; at times you have to force yourself. Things come up that you really can’t see through, and you have to gather in all your energy to put things down, to let go of things. That’s not easy at all; sometimes it’s very, very difficult. In saying, “it’s okay, it’s okay,” sometimes you may think, “Well, everything’s okay,” and it will be okay for a while in a certain respect, but then something else will come up that is not okay. And just when you get that one worked out so it’s okay, something else comes up that’s VERY MUCH not okay.

   So it’s very easy to say “everything’s okay,” but it’s very hard to be that way. When you cultivate, you have to be prepared to do so bit-by-bit. And when you do your work, you have to do that bit-by-bit as well. Everything is really “a dream, illusion, bubble, shadow…” It’s not real. You shouldn’t get caught up in it all and take it all too seriously. Because as the Vajra Sutra says,  

     All conditioned dharmas are like
     Dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows,
     Like dew and like lightning flashes.
     Contemplate them thus.  


   The aim of people who cultivate the Way is to become Buddhas.  

     Though confronted by a thousand demons, they do not waver.
     Though faced by ten thousand demons, they do not retreat.  

They go forward in this way, all for the sake of the unsurpassed Way. However, when Bodhisattvas get to the point where they could become Buddhas, they refrain from doing so; they choose to continue to accompany us living beings and forever cultivate the Way among us. They do not grasp at Proper Enlightenment. This vow-power of the Bodhisattvas transcends the selfishness of us living beings in infinite ways. Living beings are always looking out for themselves and are totally oblivious to other beings.

   Bodhisattvas have exactly the opposite attitude. No one likes to take a loss, but Bodhisattvas do. No one wants to benefit others, but Bodhisattvas do. Everyone wants to become a Buddha a little sooner, but Bodhisattvas want to yield the opportunity to become a Buddha to others. As long as living beings have not become Buddhas, Bodhisattvas do not grasp at Proper Enlightenment. The magnitude of their minds and the power of their vows should make us feel very ashamed. Every move we make is calculated to benefit ourselves. Everything we do is selfish.  

   We should pay close attention to what we have heard tonight about this magnificent resolve of Bodhisattvas—that they do not grasp at Proper Enlightenment. Kuo Chen (Dharma Master Heng Sure) said that this was a great matter. Indeed, it is. Bodhisattvas want to do what no one else wants to do. Now we are studying the Buddhadharma and learning to be Bodhisattvas, so we should take the Bodhisattvas as models in our cultivation of the Way. With this in mind, go forth and apply effort to your practice of the Way.  

   But if you don’t change your temper and cut off your afflictions, your cultivation will be of no great benefit. You can’t just try to get out of work and say, “I won’t talk, that way I won’t have to do anything. I can be a self-ending Arhat and pay no attention to others and ignore everything else.” Slow down, slow down—especially since you have just left the home-life. It is said,  

     Go too fast, and you will trip.
     Dally, and you’ll fall behind.
     Never rush and never dally
     And you’ll get there right on time.  

In cultivating,  

     In the beginning it is easy to be vigorous,
     But hard to maintain as you go along.  

You need to develop perseverance and become non-retreating.  

Question: it is said that in Ch’an it is easy to catch a demon. What about this?  

Answer: Some who cultivate are too selfish. Their view of self is too deeply rooted and they never forget themselves. They are always selfish and self-seeking. Selfishness makes it easy to catch a demon. They don’t truly practice the bodhisattva path. Real cultivation of the Bodhisattva Way is done without being anxious. One doesn’t seek for quick ways to get enlightened and become an “instant” Buddha. So those who want to go so “fast” may catch a demon.  

   Some people who cultivate like to be special. They always want to stand above the crowd and be better than everyone else. They hope to obtain spiritual penetrations or some flashy states to make them stand apart from the herd. So it’s easy for them to catch a demon. In Ch’an meditation, you just investigate Ch’an with one heart and have no other false thinking. If you can be like that, demons won’t be able to get to you. This is because you won’t be having a lot of false thinking or deviant views. People who investigate Ch’an and have no deviant knowledge and deviant views will not get possessed by demons.

   If you are public-spirited, open-minded, and unselfish—if you are not in a big hurry and trying to show everyone else up, but just turn your mind to one and work hard—then no demons can get you. It isn’t that Ch’an leads to demonic possession or that it is in itself a dangerous practice. I mean, eating isn’t dangerous, but if you eat way too much it can be. If you are greedy for flavors and over-eat, you can get sick. You abuse the purpose of eating. The same principle applies to Ch’an.

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