Patriarch Zen - Method of Practice

Explanation of method

As explained above, enlightenment, or discovery of the real mind is achieved through cleaning up all the mental blockages created by the illusory mind. The illusory mind is our consciousness. It has two sides, the knowing and the not-knowing. The knowing side is cognition, memorization and thinking. The not-knowing side is the absence of these functions.

In order to clean up both sides, first, we use the not-knowing to clean up the knowing. When all the knowing (i.e. cognition, memorization, thinking) is cleaned up, the not-knowing will suddenly rid itself by itself. This could happen at any moment. When it does, it is sudden enlightenment.

Patriarch Zen calls this method asking and looking into the hua-tou. Hua-tou (*) is a Chinese term which means "word's head", or "thought's beginning". It refers to the origin of consciousness where no thought has yet arisen. This origin is the realm which separates the illusory mind from the real mind. It is also the last bit of not-knowing of the brain after all three kinds of knowing, or awareness, are cleaned up.

To reach the hua-tou where all thoughts have not yet arisen, we need to use the not-knowing, or the unawared side of the brain. To evoke this "not-knowing" state we need to use a zen koan (an unanswerable question). This "not-knowing" state has no place and no target. We keep asking and looking into the "not-knowing", but still we cannot see or know anything. This "can't know anything" state is the most important in zen meditation. Such continuous contemplation over time will automatically take us to the hua-tou, the origin of consciousness.

Having arrived at the hou-tou, we are at the end of the road of consciousness, which is also the end of relative, subject-object thinking. Here, venturing one step further is instant departure from consciousness. From relative consciousness we venture into absolute awareness. Enlightenment or realization of Buddhahood are other names for the moment of mind transformation. Our real mind will manifest itself at this point throughout space and time. All becomes known. We will understand everything completely, correctly, and eternally.

Technique of practice

The method of practicing Patriarch Zen is as follow:

1) Choose from the list below a question which is most incomprehensible to you. They are koans, or unanswerable questions, designed to lead the mind into the not-knowing state.

Here are five sample questions:

  • Before heaven and earth were created, what was I?
  • All things return to the One, where does the One return?
  • Before my parents were not born, what was my original face?
  • From where does birth come, to where does death return?
  • It is not Mind, not Buddha, not things, what is it?

Having chosen a koan, stay with it throughout the practice, do not shift from question to question.

2) Silently ask the question in the mind. Since the question is unanswerable, the mind is forced into a state of "don't know" or "not-knowing". This "not-knowing" state in zen is called "doubt". Doubt is necessary in zen meditation. It acts as an automatic broom sweeping away the illusory knowledge (cognition, thinking, memorization) which blocks our real mind. Without doubt there is no enlightenment. Doubt is the seed, enlightenment is the fruit. So doubt, or state of not-knowing, is the essence of zen meditation.

3) Maintain this state of doubt by re-asking the question and looking at the "don't-know" state steadily and incessantly. Asking and looking must be done simultaneously to raise and keep the state of doubt. Otherwise, the asking will be mere repetition without doubt. Keep the doubt going lightly and continuously like running a long fine thread. Also, don't try to answer the question because the purpose of asking a koan is to evoke doubt.

4) The goal is to maintain the state of doubt continuously day and night. The hua-tou will be reached when doubt runs uninterrupted for 24 hours through sleep and while awake. Therefore, the meditation should be practiced during all activities. It does not require a sitting down position. However, for beginners, do not practice while driving or doing mental work. The state of not-knowing in zen differs from the lack of knowledge associated with stupidity, mental disease, lethargy or unconsciousness. Therefore, it does not hinder the practitioner from functioning normally in daily life.


* Hua-tou is the same as :

  • The origin of consciousness
  • The border between doubt and enlightenment
  • The head of a 100 feet pole (a term sometimes used in other translations)

Rev. Wei Li Thich Duy Luc