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One week of insights: a personal hwadu!
April 27th, 2013

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

One week of insights: a personal hwadu!

For the last week, I was on retreat in the Korean Seon (Zen) tradition. Many people have asked me to share the insights I got, which I will do in some time (because it takes time to 'formulate' insights which are by nature not primarily 'narratives' but 'experiences'). But I can share my new personal hwadu now.

A hwadu is a question supporting one's enquiry into the "nature of the world" (which could well be the nature of… the mind). It is used to keep meditation 'alive' rather than a rather-passive "nice peaceful moment": it cultivates the 'curiosity', the 'enquiry', while in meditation.

This was similar to a Japanese kōan when the teaching technique was introduced, however the Japanese version later evolved. The difference in traditions is the result of a debate that occurred in China right before Japanese travellers brought the technique back to Japan. The Japanese version now relies on a seemingly contradictory narrative, which first forces one to drop the "logical mind" and even the "narrative mind" to enquire into the nature of reality. The (Chinese and) Korean version directly goes to the enquiry. Of course, to directly go to the question convey the risk of letting one get later entangled in the narrative mind… but there is the benefit of not entangling it in the first place!

The point of a hwadu though is not in finding an answer, but in cultivating the search, the curiosity vis-à-vis the world, the loosening of certainties. The point of the question is to make us acknowledge and embody this fact of life that we "don't know."
The point of the question is to cultivate intimacy with such state of uncertainty, so that we can come to rest in peace within uncertainty (rather than yearn for certainties, and black-and-white world views… and opinions, and fixed definitions of "this is who I am" and "this is how things are").

Ultimately, the precise words of the question, the hwadu, are irrelevant; what matters is to "embody the question mark."
As such, any question which leads to a true "I don't know" but is real enough, practical enough, to be asked might be a valuable hwadu. This can be an eminently personal question but this doesn't mean one should be attached to it as 'my' hwadu. A question is born in circumstances and conditions, and will 'cease' in due time… Then another hwadu might be used, to keep the curiosity alive. Some questions are more likely to remain personally 'relevant' for a long time than others, but this is neither-here-nor-there as long as the question one uses to liven up the meditation is relevant while being used.

During this retreat, my period of communal work was in the kitchen, chopping vegetables with a few other retreatants. Not being overly sensitive to it, it seemed natural to me to deal with the onions (and some other plants of the allium genus) as it avoided the suffering of others by playing best with the mix of individual conditions and circumstances at hand. Plus crying is good for the eye anyway… But I was surprised by how many onions and garlic cloves I had to chop, because I just couldn't see any quantity remotely close in the resulting dishes later in the day! I would e.g. find a few tiny pieces of onion in a dish while knowing full well I peeled half a big onion per serving…
so my personal hwadu on this retreat was not "what is this (experience/experiencer)?" or "who am I (really)?", it was the rather-mundane "where do the onions go?" and, I can tell you, any 'answer' remained "I don't know" for 8 days! Thinking "in the food" is merely an assumption, and a narrative, notably when it is nowhere to be seen in the food!

How does one truly 'know' anything? Can you rest in the uncertainty, curious but not rushing to reassuring 'conclusions' and certainties?

#Buddhism   #hwadu   #koan   #buddhistcircle  
(image from
Post Scriptum: no, I didn't limit my whole experience to onion chopping… But onion chopping was simply part of the experience as worthy of enquiry as knee pain or the emptiness of the pāramitā ;-) It would be unwise to post too 'heavy', straight on the return from a retreat. So I'll dispense with the analogy of the structured, layered onion without kernel in relation to our structured, layered opinions and views without a self at their core!