In Chinese Buddhism there is a distinction between the “Hua-Wei” and the “Hua-T’ou.” Hua-Wei means “Speech’s Tail” while Hua-T’ou means “Speech’s Head.” When we are wrapped up in the words or mere sound of the Odaimoku or even worse the mere discursive meaning then we are simply trailing after it, we are caught by the Hua-Wei. However, if we are able to use the Odaimoku to disengage from our habitual views, responses, and identifications and then to abide in the placeless place out of which the Odaimoku emerges, the inneffable sourceless source which Odaimoku expresses, then we have been able to discover the Hua-T’ou.

The Hua-T’ou is the Wonderful Dharma, or Myoho Renge Kyo, which only a Buddha and a Buddha can express. It is Myoho Renge Kyo from the side of the Buddha’s enlightened wisdom. Namu Myoho Renge Kyo is our subjective joyful engagement with and faithful acceptance of that True Reality. It is the Wonderful Dharma experienced in the midst of our short sightendness and delusions. Namu Myoho Renge Kyo is the rope which the Buddha lowers into the pit of our delusions. But the point is not to just hold the rope (the Hua-Wei) but to climb up the rope or allow the rope to pull us up to the top of the pit which is freedom (the Hua-T’ou). So again, the rope is the Odaimoku. Clinging to the rope but staying in the bottom of the pit is the Hua-Wei practice of clinging to the words. Using the rope to emerge from the pit is the Hua-T’ou practice of using the words to find the true nature of reality that is the source of the words.

In order to discover the Hua-Tou of Odaimoku when you are chanting try to ask yourself “Who is reciting the Odaimoku?” Or better yet, “What is the Odaimoku that is prior to my vocalizing it?” The two questions are really the same. Don’t literally think or say these questions. Just have that sense of deep inquiry, or a questioning openness to what is prior to the words. Not prior in the sense of time, but prior to time and space and recitation itself.

This excercise is not for everybody. If it starts to drive you crazy, do not persist in it and return to simply abiding in the sound of the Odaimoku. There are times, however, when one may wish to penetrate further into the mystery of the Odaimoku and the true nature of ourselves and reality. This excercise of using the Odaimoku as the focal point of the Great Question of where does all this come from and who are we in the first place can be very powerful. In this sense, the Odaimoku becomes the bit of the drill that we can use to bore through the most important question of our lives.

Here are some further thoughts on this (some of which are redundant) written on a later occasion:

It occurred to me some years ago that a way to deepen one’s practice of the Odaimoku is to treat it similarly. In other words, don’t treat the Odaimoku as some kind of New Age positive affirmation or some kind of magic spell, or as a prayer to some external “Gohonzon-God”, but use it as a hua-t’ou, as THE key phrase of the koan (public case) that is the Ceremony in the Air of the Original Gate of the Lotus Sutra. Use it as the key phrase which will unlock the source of its expression – the living true nature of reality here and now that Nichiren calls the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha, the Wonderful Dharma, the actuality of ichinen sanzen, the unity of the three truths, and so on.

Chant Odaimoku and stick with the words asking yourself “What, here and now, are these words really pointing to, what are they actually expressing about this living moment?” I suggest that over “Who is chanting the Odaimoku” because that strikes me as too self-absorbed and that is not what we want. Nichiren Buddhism is not, after all, self-power or Other-power. It is the power of a reality that encompasses and transcends such distinctions as self-other. So chant and consider what the chant is really about. What is the true source of these words? You don’t even have to mentally think these questions, that is too distracting and divides your focus between the Odaimoku and your internal questions. Rather, just have that questioning, deeply inquiring mindset as you chant, confident that things will become clear if you just keep practicing and questioning. If you want to sit silently, keep your focus on the Odaimoku and the intent to really know what it is about. If you chant out loud, keep that inquiring mind intent on the Odaimoku revealing itself. If you are going about your daily business, keep the Odaimoku question in mind (unless you are driving or operating heavy machinery or dealing with something that really does need your attention). If you can do that then you will be faithfully practicing the Odaimoku and conducting a hua-t’ou practice.

I would also like to note that I do not think this practice is for everyone, but it might be helpful or encouraging to those drawn to this kind of contemplation.

In conclusion, I would recommend these two articles on the Hua-t’ou method for further reading:

Hua-T’ou by Hsu Yun

The Hua-Tou Method by Sheng Yen

Zen Master Hakuin’s Letter to An Old Nun of the Hokke (Nichiren) Sect

Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,