Seon Master Seosan said in his Seon-ga gwi-gam that, “Learners must investigate live phrases (hwalgu) and they must not investigate dead phrases (sagu).” This point was stressed by all Seon masters. The core of Ganhwa Seon is in the taking up of the hwadu and the investigation of the live phrases. Live phrases are living words, true words, vivid words. They are not words that have cleverness attached. On the other hand, dead phrases are empty words, dead words. These are words that have discrimination attached. One definitely cannot enter into the world of awakening through dead words. Seon Master Bojo Jinul said, “If one investigates dead phrases I will not be able to save even myself.”
Generally, those who study hwadu must investigate live phrases, they must not investigate dead phrases. If one is wakened by live phrases, one will never forget it for eternity, but if one is wakened by dead phrases I will not be able to save even my own body. (Ganhwa gyeoleui ron)
If so, what are the criteria for discriminating between dead phrases and live phrases? Live phrases mean phrases of the Buddha and patriarchs of opportune conditions that take a direct short-cut and are concise and which transcend the discriminative consciousness and all delusions. That is, live phrases are where the paths of language and thought are cut off, the places where language and thought have no corner anywhere for expectation or groping after and dissatisfaction. That is a vacant, empty place where there is no taste or smell or shape.
Doing this won’t do, doing that won’t do, if you go left it is not right, and if you go right it is not correct, and so one cannot comprehend it even through silence. This live phrase that has cut off the path of the mind cannot be attained by philosophical gropings or any thought, even the doctrines of the eighty-thousand page Buddhist canon. Live phrases are a style of linguistic existence of the original face that here and now vigorously lives and moves.
If one’s practice is filled with the shadows of words and permeated with the discriminative thoughts, that is, a dead phrase. If one follows after words, dead phrases are dead words. This is because this leaves signs and causes discrimination, and has one twisted by other’s opinions. Even though one is said to be wakened in pursuing words that live in the path of thought, because that is an enlightenment that understands through the form of thought, it can in no way be a genuine enlightenment. If one says that it is enlightenment that is a huge error. That place of life cannot be experienced in the introspection via language or thought. Therefore if one is enlightened via dead phrases, it is said one cannot save even one’s own self.
If one’s hwadu does not become a live phrase and if one is subordinated to the frames of various theories and concepts, it certainly will end up falling into a dead phrase. Although there are numberless excellent words and writings in the world, they are all dead phrases that are caught up in the function of discrimination or have fallen into theory. All the frameworks of theory and concepts are cleverness that obstructs fundamental doubt.
The point that one must be careful of is that according to the person, even though they investigate live phrases, those can become dead phrases. If one takes up the hwadu without doubt or considers it with the discriminating mind, it will be such (a dead phrase). Ultimately, hwadu without doubt or hwadu that do not engage doubt as they should can be nothing but dead phrases.