In order to understand what a hwadu is, we first have to understand kongans (k’ung-an in Chinese, koan in Japanese). Kongans are case records of incidents involving past son masters. A son master is considered an embodiment of enlightenment. His or her utterances and actions are direct expressions of that enlightenment. A kongan, then, is the record of an expression of enlightenment. The one who properly understands the kongan will understand enlightenment.

However, because enlightenment lies beyond the reach of language and intellect, the hidden meaning of the kongan cannot be decoded or interpreted through conventional means. It must be enlightened to. Thus, the kongan is used as the object of a special kind of contemplation. It is meditated upon in order to cultivate a state of spiritual inquiry called “doubt.” Doubt here is not a form of skepticism. It is a state of the most profound questioning, a direct address to the basic mystery of what our true nature is.

In the actual practice of meditation, the practitioner does not mentally review the whole content of the kongan narrative. Instead, the meditator contemplates a specific phrase or question that summarizes the kongan and presents its key point. This phrase is the hwadu.

The most widely used hwadu at Yonghwa Sunwon is “What is this?” This hwadu derives from the following kongan: One day the Sixth Patriarch Hui-neng asked his followers, “What is it that has come here in this way?” One of his disciples, a scholarly monk, replied, “It is the source of all the buddhas, it is my buddha-nature.” From a doctrinal viewpoint, this could be considered the correct answer. However, Hui-neng scolded his pupil, warning him that at this rate he would never amount to more than a theoretician. Later Nan-yueh Huai-jang came to call upon the master. Hui-neng again asked, “What is it that has come here in this way?” Nan-yueh Huai-jang was so pierced by the question that “he didn’t know what to do with his body.” He could not answer the question nor could he reject it. Unable to reply, he took leave of the master and wandered in a daze, totally consumed by the question. Finally, after eight years, he experienced enlightenment. He returned to Hui-neng and gave his answer, “If I were to say it was one thing, I would be wrong.” Hui-neng happily granted Dharma transmission and Nan-yueh Huai-jang became the Seventh Patriarch.

In this kongan we can identify the basic outline of the hwadu approach to spiritual practice. Although the first pupil seems to have produced an accurate response, the master rejected it. In his estimation, the pupil had generated an answer from his intellect and knowledge rather than a genuine experience of enlightenment. In contrast, Nan-yueh Huai-jang responds to the question as a life-or-death issue. It triggers the arisal of the Great Doubt, a crisis of spiritual questioning that overtakes him completely. For eight years the doubt grows within him and finally erupts into spiritual awakening. It is from this enlightenment experience that he generates an authentic spiritual response to Hui-neng’s question and wins the master’s approval.

The hwadu “What is this?” refers back to Hui-neng’s question to his followers. It is a direct inquiry into the nature of one’s existence. At Yonghwa Sunwon son Master Songdam repeatedly asks, “What is this that responds when your name is called? That drives your body around? That gets angry when you’re insulted? What in the world is this?”

Hwadu practice is often conducted through sitting meditation. The practitioner sits in lotus or half-lotus position and engages in a form of abdominal breathing derived from yoga. This combination of posture and breathing enhances the meditator’s mental clarity, stability, and energy. In rhythm with each out-breath, the meditator asks inwardly, “What is this?” The question is to be asked with the utmost seriousness, calmness and clarity. This is not an emotional outcry or a philosophical query. In fact, the words of the question act only as a trigger for the real focus of son meditation, the doubt. son Master Songdam likens the sensation of doubt in its initial stage to the blocked state of mind that occurs when we are trying, but not quite able to remember where we left our keys.

Although seated meditation is considered the most efficient method for hwadu contemplation, practitioners are expected to hold the question in mind, “to raise the doubt,” at all times, through all the activities of daily life. To quote son Master Songdam again, “When you’re riding the bus, do only ‘What is this?’ When you’re eating your meal, do only ‘What is this?’ When you’re going to the bathroom, ‘What is this?'” Through such vigorous application, the doubt is said to grow into a physical feeling or presence in one’s body. Soon one does not need to intone “What is this?” with every breath to maintain the doubt. Later it seems to grow on its own and one can no longer stop it. Then, the doubt seems to fill the world and the universe. Finally, it fills one’s dreams. At this heightened level of spiritual doubt, only a few days remain before enlightenment. The proper stimulus–a natural event or an act or utterance of the master–causes the doubt to burst open into enlightenment.

In Korean son Buddhism, approximately 1,700 kongans have been compiled for use in hwadu meditation. Of these, “What is this?” is considered the most fundamental, the basis for the others. However, all of the kongans may be considered equivalent in that they are intended to cultivate the Great Doubt and they lead to the same enlightenment. Thus, practitioners do not need to move from one kongan to the next, “solving” them in some kind of ascending order. The kongans are said to point to the same universal truth, one’s original nature, and to awaken to one is to awaken to all of them.

If you are interested in taking up this form of practice, the first thing you must do is find an authentic teacher. The tradition strongly warns against choosing a kongan and practicing by yourself. You must receive your kongan directly from an enlightened son master. The master is the only one who can judge which kongan is most appropriate for you. Once you have received a kongan, you are expected to stay with it and not switch to another.

The importance of finding an authentic son master cannot be overemphasized. In the course of practice, a variety of mental and physical phenomena may occur, such as moments of heightened clarity or bliss, which one may mistake for enlightenment. Without a teacher, it is often difficult to judge, for example, whether a specific difficulty is a real setback, a sign of progress, a danger to one’s health, or nothing to get worried about. son Master Songdam compares the importance of the teacher with the need to find a guide when you are lost in a foreign land. You have no idea where you are or how to get to where you want to go. Only someone who has successfully completed the path and knows the terrain can help you get to your destination. For this reason, Bodhidharma, the founder of son Buddhism, is said to have advised, “If you have awakened to impermanence and want to liberate yourself from the cycle of birth and death, first find a teacher.”