Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Avatamsaka Zen

“A student, through the inspiration of her teacher, instantly awakens to her true mind and realizes that she is ultimately no different from the Buddha. This occurs suddenly; it is the teaching of ‘sudden enlightenment.’ Hence it is said, ‘Originally, there is nothing,’ which means simply that one must not underestimate oneself, and lack confidence.
Even after attaining some realization, however, the student then relies on this awakening in order to cut off lingering mind-habits so that she can be fully transformed from an ‘ordinary person’ into a ‘sage.’ This development occurs gradually; it is the teaching of ‘gradual cultivation.’ For this reason is has been said, ‘one must polish the clear mirror from moment to moment.’ It is due to the student’s humility. This is why pride can be such a hindrance. Lacking faith in one’s own nature is the sickness of those attached to scriptural authority, whereas pride is the disease of those who practice only Zen meditation…”
“Capping Word:
The phrase, ‘must not give in and must not be proud’ can be viewed from two perspectives. From the simple perspective of the initial aspiration to awaken upon the Bodhisattva path leading to Buddhahood, it can be said that the cause already contains the myriad fruits of all the stages of the path including enlightenment itself. From the broad perspective of the Bodhisattva path, it can be said the fruits are inherent within the fundamental cause. In other words, all fifty-five stages of the path are already contained with a single act of initial faith.”

From The Mirror of Zen
By Grand Master Sosan
Adapted by Poep Sa Frank Jude Boccio
From translations by Boep Hoeng and by Mark Mueller

By Way of an Introduction

For almost as long as I have been interested in Buddhism, its thought and its practice, I’ve wrestled with some problematic aspects of the tradition, including contradictions and even, what to my mind at least, seemed like some misunderstandings of the Buddha’s teaching that had tainted the tradition. I hasten to add, ‘tainted for me.’ That some of these ideas had become doctrine within some of the sects is a given. I am just not so sure I’m willing to take them! And to add irony on to my situation in particular, I have, from the first, been drawn primarily to Zen, and at the same time, find myself at odds with a lot of its tradition!

So, what are my problems with Zen? There are quite a few, and many of them were addressed in various papers written as part of my Seminary training (such as this one) that either appear in this blog or will appear at some time in the future. For instance, the whole language of “patriarch-ism,” the issue of “transmission” and “authorization” which has been so abused, and the very fabrication of the myth of “lineage” back to the Buddha. Not to mention the “sudden/gradual” and other fraternal debates within the various schools of Zen are among those aspects of the tradition that I find distasteful. Ultimately, the core reason for all these issues and my distaste of them is the sectarianism and superior tone of much Zen polemic. Much of this Zen “grandstanding” has its basis in the politics of Chinese culture and the perceived need to establish “legitimacy” for the upstart, indigenous form of Buddhism. Of course, as all ‘things’ are empty of self-nature, Zen’s sectarian stance and superior tone is co-emergent with the sectarianism found throughout much of Chinese Buddhism which, to my mind, generally infected too much of East Asian Mahayana Buddhism.

What has appealed to me about the Korean Buddhist tradition is its history and general tenor of syncretism. Great teachers like Wonhyo and Chinul, in particular, have resisted the “one-practice” notion that arose in China, and which really took hold in Japan. While Korean Buddhism had its own petty squabbles over whether kyo (doctrine/texts) or son (meditation) was more important, again great teachers like the two noted above, as well as Grand Master Sosan, as epitomized in the excerpt from The Mirror of Zen quoted at the opening of this paper, enunciated what to my mind is a deeper understanding that is rooted in the core teaching of the Avatamsaka Sutra. A case may even be made that Korean Son Buddhism and Hwaom Buddhism are simply the same thing seen from two different angles.

Ironically, while Hwaom is usually considered as the philosophy behind Son practice, and Son is thought to be ‘anti-philosophical,’ the point I wish to make in this paper is that the teaching of the Avatamsaka itself points out the ultimate fallacy of thinking along such separatist lines. To read the Sutra is both practice and study. To sit in meditation is both practice and study. The Sutra is a description of the realization of practice. Practice is the functioning of the description. And reading itself is the functioning of the realization of practice. As the core teaching of the Sutra and Hwaom Buddhism enunciates over and over, all phenomena arise interdependently with interpenetration and no obstruction. Through reading the Sutra and sitting in meditation, this truth is made evident immediately, intimately, spontaneously and obviously.

The Avatamsaka Sutra & the Hua-Yen School

The Flower Ornament Sutra, (Avatamsaka in Sanskrit; Hua-yen in Chinese; and Hwaom-gyong in Korean) is one of the major Buddhist texts, perhaps the richest, most psychedelically grandiose of all Buddhist scriptures. Its language, filled with mesmeric repetition, incredibly sensual and overwhelmingly imagistic detail staggers the imagination and can bring the mind to a halt with its onslaught of verbiage in a way similar to how a hwadu, when really engaged, can feel like a snapping or breaking of the mind!

The legend tells us that the fullest extent of consciousness available to humankind, discovered by the Buddha and summarized in the Sutra, was beyond the understanding of even the most astute students of the Buddha. Realizing this, the Buddha spent his ministry teaching people how to prepare for this totalistic understanding of reality.

It wasn’t until centuries later that Nagarjuna is said to have recovered the lost teachings elucidated in the Avatamsaka. Because of his role in revitalizing the comprehensive teaching, Nagarjuna is regarded by many as “The Second Buddha,” and as an ancestor of all the major branches of East Asian Buddhism.

That’s the legend. In fact, we do not know with any real degree of certainty when or by whom the sutra was written. It is generally accepted by scholars that the text is a compendium of diverse writings from different hands within the Indian cultural sphere from the first and second centuries C.E. The text as a whole embraces a broad spectrum of material and cannot in any way be approached as a coherent philosophical discourse. It simply resists rigid systematization. Thomas Clary writes, “…it could variously be said with a measure of truth in each case that these teachings are set forth in a system, in a plurality of systems, and without a system.”

As is true generally of the great Mahayana scriptures, historical veracity is of little relevance in The Avatamsaka Sutra, although we do find the formulaic presentation of the teachings as having been revealed or occasioned by the meditations of the historical Buddha. The Avatamsaka Sutra, however, is mostly presented as being the discourse of trans-historical, symbolic beings representing aspects of universal and perfect enlightenment. The “character” of the Buddha shifts from an individual to a cosmic principle and the manifestations of that principle: Vairocana, or Mahavairocana, “the Great Illumination Buddha.” He does not hold the role of teacher in the Avatamsaka Sutra, but serves as an imprimatur of the teachings given by his retinue of advanced Bodhisattvas. We read about “the Buddha” as well as “the Buddhas” “representing enlightenment itself, the scope of enlightenment, or those who have realized enlightenment.”

Portions of this immense text were among the first Buddhist literature to be introduced into China beginning in the second century C.E. and The Avatamsaka Sutra went on to become one of the pillars of East Asian Buddhism. By the end of the fourth century at least a dozen separate translations from five books of the Avatamsaka had appeared. Translation work continued until there were more than thirty translations and retranslations of various books and selections from the sutra. The first comprehensive translation of the Avatamsaka was done under the direction of the Indian monk, Buddhabhadra (359 – 429) and the second, was completed under the direction of the Khotanese monk, Shikshananda (652 – 710). It is this latter version, more than ten percent larger than the earlier translation, and containing thirty-nine books, upon which Thomas Cleary based his English translation; the only full-length version in English as yet.

Eventually, a major indigenous school of Chinese Buddhism developed based upon the teachings of the sutra and named after the Chinese title: Hua-yen. This is an example of a feature unique to Chinese Buddhism. Unlike within the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition, in China we see the development of schools based upon the study of particular sutras, or even just one sutra in particular. In the Tibetan tradition, for instance, it is felt that sutras are too difficult to understand without approaching them through a comprehensive grounding in Madhyamaka and Yogacara philosophy. It is thought that the sutras are too poetic, unsystematic, vague and apparently contradictory to understand. Once mastered, Tibetan philosophy is then used as a hermeneutical tool in order to comprehend the sutras. In the great Chinese schools, the philosophy arises out of the reading of the sutras.

The Avatamsaka Sutra as such, is not a philosophical discourse. It is not so much “about” something, as it is an attempt to portray the cosmos as seen by a Buddha, or very advanced Bodhisattvas. It doesn’t promulgate a systematic ontology, but rather gives us a description of the phenomenological experience of a Buddha or advanced Bodhisattva. The cosmos as experienced by such a being is called the dharmadhatu, the “Dharma-Realm.” This is not the cosmos as perceived by un-awakened beings, but is rather the cosmos seen correctly. It is the cosmos where all phenomena are seen as empty, lacking any substantiality or self-nature (sva-bhava). This cosmos is the Buddha.
Clearly know that all dharmas
Are without any self-essence at all;
To understand the nature of dharmas in this way
Is to see Vairocana.

Hua-yen thought then, is less “philosophy” then the systematic explanation of the dharmadhatu, this very cosmos we live in, as experienced by an awakened or awakening being. A suggestion made by others, with which I agree, is that it is perhaps more useful to consider the metaphysics underlying the description of the dharmadhatu in terms of its instrumental value rather than as a system of thought for its own sake or as an object of belief or ground of contention. This is the intention that lies at the heart of this paper: to view Hua-yen thought and expression as practical exercises (as praxis) in cultivating new ways of looking at things from different perspectives, “of discovering harmony and complementarity underlying apparent disparity and contradiction. The value of this exercise is in the development of a round, holistic perspective which, while discovering unity, does not ignore diversity but overcomes mental barriers that create fragmentation and bias.”

The T’ang dynasty (618 – 907) was a period of remarkable ferment in Chinese Buddhist history. It was during this period that the four major schools of Chinese Buddhism either arose or were formulated. These are the T’ien-t’ai, Hua-yen, Ch’an, and Ching-t’u schools. The first two are usually recognized for their philosophy and the latter two for their meditational practices, but as this paper points out, this is a simplified reductionism. All schools of Buddhism, like all traditions of Yoga, rest upon the integration of theory and praxis. In addition to these four main schools, the San-lun and Fa-hsian are noteworthy since the metaphysical and psychological teachings of these schools were largely subsumed into the four major schools. Elements of each of these schools appear in Hua-yen, which makes sense considering the totalistic world-view of Hua-yen.

The Hua-yen school’s founding rests upon the work of five eminent monks: Tu Shun (557 – 640), Chih-yen (600 – 668), Fa-tsang (643 – 712), Cheng-kuan (738 – 839 or 760 – 820), and Tsung-mi (780 – 841). These masters wrote commentaries on the Hua-yen, as well as essays whose purpose was to crystallize the ideas of the scripture for transmission within the Chinese cultural sphere.

Tu-Shun’s work is concerned with the resolution of emptiness and existence and the interrelationship of all things; he introduces the concepts of noumenon (li) and phenomena (shih) and their interpenetration, which became basic terms of Hua-yen discourse. Chih-yen studied with Tu Shun and also wrote a commentary on the Hua-yen and other articles on topics found in the scripture.

It is Fa-tsang, whose writings so powerfully conveyed the Hua-yen worldview, who is often considered the school’s true founder. In fact, the school is sometimes referred to as Hsien-shou, the honorific name bestowed upon Fa-tsang by empress Wu, who appointed him a “National Teacher.” Fa-tsang was a member of the committee assisting in the translation of the Siksananda redaction of the Avatamsaka. He was a prolific writer whose contributions included commentaries and many doctrinal works dealing with approaches to the teachings and presenting detailed outlines of Hua-yen dialectics and contemplative exercises. Many of these exercises are strikingly similar to the “thought experiments” utilized by contemporary quantum physicists.

The final two Hua-yen dialecticians, Cheng-kuan and Tsung-mi were well-versed in the teachings of Ch’an, and in particular, Tsung-mi wrote a famous “Comprehensive Introduction to a Collection of Expositions of the Sources of Ch’an” (Ch’an yuan chu ch’uan chi tou hsu) which analyzes various trends in Ch’an teachings in terms similar to Tu Shun and relates the Hua-yen, T’ien-t’ai, and Ch’an teachings to each other.

Finally, while the above five masters are considered the founders of the Hua-yen school, the layman Li T’ung-hsuan made a significant contribution to the movement through his writings that were highly esteemed by Ch’an Buddhists. In fact, there are Ch’an histories containing records of people having enlightenment experiences from reading his works.

After this, it was the masters of the Ch’an school who wrote texts utilizing much that had been introduced by these six men. Shih-t’ou His-ch’ien (700 – 790) and Ma-tsu Tao-I (709 – 788), from whom all the major sects of Ch’an were descended use many themes from Hua-yen such as relativity, the essential unity and subtle distinction of form and emptiness, the totalistic view of the “nature of things” and the practice of the “oceanic reflection concentration” which is what the holistic awareness which is the basis of the Hua-yen experience is commonly called.

So, to begin to delve into the realization of the dharmadhatu, Hua-yen requires a metanoia, which is translated as “repentance,” “spiritual conversion” or “fundamental change of mind,” but which literally means a “turning around in the mind.” It is a reversal of the conventional way of perception. The Sanskrit term, pratiprasava has this same meaning. It requires us to actively turn away from our conventional perception, and look as if for the first time at the world around us.

Hua-yen begins with the core teaching evidenced in the quote above, that “everything is empty” (sarvam shunyam). A teaching often misunderstood outside Buddhism as a form of nihilism, it was equally as misunderstood within Buddhism as the “inner essence of things which could be perceived with special training.” The proper way to see emptiness is as a therapy to put an end to all attachment to views and philosophies! Emptiness does not mean nonexistence. Equally important to understand, emptiness is not some inner essence of phenomena that exists independently of phenomena. Emptiness does not exist apart from existents and is not an entity or substratum of phenomena. In fact, as emptiness is a device for breaking our attachment to all views, it is emphasized that we must remember that emptiness is empty: it really has no separate, autonomous existence independent from phenomena.

Hua-yen practice allows us to “perceive” the emptiness of phenomena through the contemplation of relativity, interdependence, and impermanence. Scriptures are not intended to present doctrines to be accepted or rejected as dogma, but are functional directives to provoke thought and reflection. One simple exercise that enables one to glimpse emptiness is by considering phenomena from different points of view. This is the relativistic approach.

For example, while walking down the street, I see (with perhaps some repugnance) a pile of horseshit, which I make sure to step around. But for the flies buzzing around it, it’s a meal and place to lay eggs. And for the organic gardener down the street, it’s rich and precious fertilizer. Through this reflection, we see that things do not have fixed, self-defined nature of their own; what they “are” completely depends upon the relationships in terms of which they are considered. Even if we were to say that the shit is the sum total of its possibilities, we still cannot point to some unique, intrinsic, self-defined nature that characterizes the thing in its very essence.

Hua-yen points out that the same is true of space and time. To me, a kitchen counter is at a height conducive to working on and preparing my meal, but to a toddler, it is an insurmountable obstacle to her reaching the cookie jar. And while a day to me seems short, to an insect with the life-span of 48 hours, a day is half it’s life. (This doesn’t even get to the relativity that Einstein himself remarked upon as to how an hour with a beautiful woman at a cafe seems so much shorter than an hour in a traffic jam!). It is the direct perception of the relativity of measurements of space and time that is a key to understanding the Avatamsaka Sutra’s wealth of “inconceivable” metaphors.

Again, we miss the point of this exercise if all we take it to be is abstract philosophy. The point of the exercise is to awaken us to the way that our conventional way of seeing and thinking of phenomena, as things being just what we conceive them to be, blinds us to the fluidity and myriad possibilities we would never otherwise see! Even worse, our conventional way of perceiving fosters prejudices and biases in our dealings with the world, leading to potentially disastrous consequences.

Since what a thing “is” is dependent on the context of its relationships, and all things are ultimately in relationship with all other things, then each and every phenomenon has an infinite array of definitions of identity. In terms of the practical, everyday world, therefore, what a thing “is” depends upon or exists in terms of an assigned definition that focuses on the possibilities considered relevant to the needs and/or interests or conditioning of a specific group or individual. This filtering narrows down from its infinite nature of possibility the “thing” as it is conceived. So, as humans, we all agree that a pen is a pen. For a dog, it may be a chew toy, but for us it’s a pen. The problems arise when we forget that its nature as “pen” is not an essence, but pure conception. No name or definition can ever encompass its reality.

Now, when we consider that the world as we conventionally experience it, is nothing more than conceptions based upon perceptions based upon sensations, we see that we have no direct evidence for anything phenomenal beyond sense! There is no going beyond sense except by inference. As Cleary summarizes his explication of emptiness: “We cannot therefore directly ‘apprehend’ the objective world; we can only reflect impressions. This ‘emptiness of ungraspability’ is among the major avenues of contemplation leading to authentic appreciation of emptiness.”

The question arises regarding the nature of that ungraspable “objective” world. Generally, Indian Mahayana Buddhism, especially in the Madhyamika of Nagarjuna, has been reluctant to try to say what reality is apart from our ideas about it. The teaching of emptiness, as stated above, is primarily a therapeutic intervention, emphasizing a way of knowing. Emptiness is not something to be observed in phenomena. If there is something which may be called the “absolute,” it is not some transcendental spirit, entity or substance that stands behind – or beneath as some kind of substratum – the world of appearance, “but is really the mode of apprehending the world about us; as T.R.V. Murti said, the absolute is intuition or insight itself (prajna).” Thus, I believe it is a huge mistake, made by many Buddhist practitioners, to speak of emptiness as akin to the Vedantic concept of Brahman.

The next teaching, usually associated with the so-called “Consciousness Only” school of Buddhism, and incorporated into Hua-yen teaching is the doctrine of the “three natures” (trisvabhava). According to this teaching, the three natures of all phenomena are: the nature that consists of being dependent on another, in other words, the interdependent phenomenal world as discussed above. It is the world as conventionally conceived, and so is called in Chinese, “that which is clung to by total conceptualization;” the nature of being discriminated, sometimes called relative nature; the dependent nature now bifurcated into subject and object; and finally, the perfected nature, also called the “true” or “absolute” nature. This is, according to Fa-tsang, nothing else but the dependent nature perceived or understood, apart from the discriminated nature. It is not that the dependent nature, which is the phenomenal world, itself changes, nor is it that through the arising of prajna is some previously hidden essence or spirit within the objects of perception revealed. The change is a metanoia – it has taken place in the perceiver; it is her new nondual perception which is of highest soteriological value and function.

The example Cleary uses in Entry Into The Inconceivable is of a chair. The object we call “chair” can be something to sit on, something to stand upon to reach a higher space, something to hang clothes on (no matter what our housemates may say) or to stack books upon; it may be pieces of wood and cloth or plastic; it may be kindling for a fire; food for termites, and even a weapon for self-defense. What it “is” depends on the definition and use to which it is put. The chair as “a thing in itself” is simply a mental construction. This is its “dependent nature.” The chair as a conditional existence, being dependent upon its materials and construction, as well as the factors that define it functionally as a chair is its relative nature. And the nonexistence of a self-existent, self-defined “chair” separate from these conditions is the real or absolute nature of a chair.

It is here that one aspect of the genius of the Hua-yen teachers shines brightly. It is axiomatic throughout the whole of Mahayana thought, that the awakening to the perception of seeing things in the mode of emptiness (prajna) leads to a higher affirmation, marked by skillful and clear-headed action (upaya) and profound compassion (karuna). However, there can be little doubt that many Chinese Buddhists (as well as contemporary Westerners) felt that there was something negative about the doctrine of emptiness. Indian yogic and spiritual culture (within which Buddhism, after all, arose) have traditionally (outside the Tantric traditions, anyway) sought detachment (moksha or liberation) from this world (prakriti). The goal was to get off the cycle of samsara and reach nirvana. Early Buddhist literature (including some Indian Mahayana) is replete with passages that portray physical functions and the body itself, as well as other natural objects, as repulsive. While it is true that from the standpoint of prajna the world is neither desirable nor loathsome, the common strategy for liberation was to devalue the common elements of experience.

While it is ultimately a matter of emphasis, considering that “emptiness” and “interdependent origination” are synonymous, saying that something was empty was often done as a way to break one’s attachment by devaluing it; to see it as something intangible, as no more than an impermanent mirage or illusion not worthy of one’s attention, totally incapable of supplying any lasting satisfaction. This strategy -- abused and misunderstood -- has led to the misconception that Buddhism is an “other-worldly religion,” “life-denying” or “world weary philosophy.” At any rate, as Francis Cook elaborates, Indian Buddhists used emptiness as a weapon to demolish ordinary value and significance in and of the world, and once so demolished, a higher value and meaning emerged, expressing itself in the selfless career of the Bodhisattva.

The problem with this strategy, is that the power and effectiveness of the Bodhisattva were won at the expense of those features of experience which are most prized by most ordinary people. However, there was a latent potential within this doctrine of emptiness for a more affirming and positive approach to liberation that was brought to the fore by Fa-tsang and the other Hua-yen founders.

The Hua-yen teachers essentially discussed the doctrine of emptiness similarly to the Indian masters with the main difference being one of emphasis. That difference is that the Hua-yen masters chose to emphasize the point that emptiness is interdependence. AND, simultaneously, they emphasized that interdependence is emptiness. So, even for the Chinese, emptiness functioned as a way to critique the conventional mode of perception and experience, thus devaluing it. However, at the same time that the perception of emptiness abolished the clinging and grasping after independently existent selves or substances, there also emerged from this metanoia a very positive appreciation for the way in which things relate to each other in identity and interdependence. The Hua-yen masters interpreted emptiness in a positive manner without concretizing emptiness as did some other Mahayana schools, but neither did they fall into the greater error of even greater attachment to the world, nor did they abandon the basic Buddhist understanding of conventional experience as delusive and painful. So, by “positive,” I do not mean to infer that they see emptiness as some positive force or entity. What I do mean, is that in its emphasis on interdependent being (what Thich Nhat Hanh calls ‘interbeing’), Hua-yen was able to retain a positive, even joyous, creative appreciation of the absolute value of each aspect of this being. It is this celebration of each thing in its suchness that has always been one of the main appeals of Zen to me. Hua-yen and Zen are not content with simply demolishing false views; they wish to both give some idea of the ways things look to a Buddha and to help us see this very world as the dharmadhatu for ourselves.

The difference between the Indian and Chinese approach to emptiness is one that has great consequences not only for the styles of the respective traditions, but also for the ways of practice. Its implications are profound, since it emphasizes that the absolute is not an order of being completely distinct from the phenomenal order. Whatever reality is, it tells us, it is right here now, able to be seen if we can cease to make false discriminations. Samsara is Nirvana; what changes is the way of perception. This is the metanoia that Hua-yen encourages. The phenomenal world of interdependence is capable of being seen as “impure” when under the spell of deluded perception or as “pure” when seen in the light of prajna. But to see it as pure, which simply means to see it in its real aspect, is to see it as the interdependence and identity of its parts. There is nothing insignificant, mean or inferior, there is nothing to despise within the whole of existence, when it is seen properly free of all self-interest. Everything matters! Every item in the cosmos – this dharmadhatu – is of value, for everything is empty, and because of this, every particular phenomena contains and teaches that reality which shines from its (empty) heart!

The Fourfold Dharmadhatu

The first two aspects of the dharmadhatu are the particular (shih) and the universal (li). Other terms used for these two aspects respectively are: phenomena and noumena, relative and absolute, apparent and real, difference and sameness, events and principles, and historical and ultimate.

The first of the pair (shih), the realm of phenomena or the particular, is where all things are seen as “things,” distinct and different. All the myriad phenomena that are experienced in the empirical or conventional world are of this realm. Things and events are seen here as distinct and independent objects.

The second aspect (li), is the non-differentiated noumenon, which for Hua-yen is emptiness – again, not as an entity but as the non-self nature of all phenomena. It is the universal oneness of reality: all phenomena are empty. Now, for Hua-yen and Zen, this ultimate reality, glimpsed in meditation, which is often considered the goal of spiritual awareness and practice, is only half of the practice. What is required by Hua-yen and by Zen is for the Bodhisattva to integrate the perception of emptiness into the ordinary, daily activities and reality of the realm of the particular (shih). This is because, as discussed earlier, the particular and the universal cannot be regarded as two separate realms. They are interdependent: form is emptiness AND emptiness is form.

In his essay, "On The Golden Lion," Fa-tsang uses the metaphor of the golden lion to describe the dharmadhatu of shih and li. The lion shape is the particular and gold is the universal. He tells us that gold, lacking any self-nature, can be fashioned into an object such as a lion. The gold is li and the lion shape is shih. The lion is gold; it is not that the lion emanates from gold. Gold only exists in form, in this particular case, the form of a lion. There is no such thing as gold without form that then takes on one form or another. The phenomenal is the noumenal in phenomenal form. This is the third aspect of the dharmadhatu, the non-obstruction of li against shih (li-shih wu-ai) that is also referred to as the “mutual, nonobstructing interpenetration of the universal and particular. This is the realm where li and shih are seen as the inseparable unity. The particular is seen as an expression of the absolute, and the absolute as the testimony of the particular. Neither can exist without the other, and so taken together, they become a more meaningful concept. If we patiently look into any aspect of our lived experience we will see that the universal can only exist in the context of some particular situation. And, every particular context, when fully perceived, is seen to express the total universal truth. The particular and the universal completely inter-are without hindering each other.

The lion shape is only a shape. In itself the lion is unreal; there is only gold. From the point of view of gold itself, nothing has changed; it is still gold. And it is equally true that since gold always has some shape, the gold as gold does not obstruct its shape or form. It is only through form that gold can be, even though from the point of view of gold there is no lion form.

Since there is only gold, Fa-tsang continues, then when the lion shape comes into existence it is in fact the gold that comes into existence. Only from the conventional perspective does this seem paradoxical. Hua-yen reminds us that gold always has a shape, but that shape is nothing in addition to the gold itself. So if gold takes on a lion shape it ceases to be gold in the shape of a bar, for example, and takes on the shape of the lion. So when we speak of “gold,” we must remember that this is conceptual shorthand for “gold in x-shape” (a bar) and that when the golden lion comes into existence, that is, gold in lion-shape, we can say that gold comes into existence. Nonetheless, whether the lion shape occurs or ceases the gold as gold neither increases nor decreases. From the ultimate point of view, phenomena are the unborn.

So in the third aspect of the dharmadhatu (li against shih), we see how the realm of non-obstruction is reached by reducing all phenomena into noumena, not as some undifferentiated whole, but as a totalistic harmony of all antithesis that is both dynamic and unimpeded. But the first three aspects of the dharmadhatu are ultimately explanatory devices to approach the fourth aspect: the mutual, nonobstructing interpenetration of the particular with other particulars, or the non-obstruction of shih against shih (shih-shih wu-ai). Here, each particular phenomenon can be fully present and complementary to any other particular phenomena. This insight leads to a vision of the world as a field of complementariness rather than a world of competitive, conflicting, disharmonious beings.

“The gold and the lion are simultaneously established; all-perfect and complete,” writes Fa-tsang. This statement can be interpreted as representing the principle of Non-obstruction of li against shih or as the Non-obstruction of shih against shih. In the first case, the gold is li and the lion is shih: the two are mutually penetrating into and identical with one another. But in the infinite dharmadhatu, each and every phenomenon simultaneously includes all the rest of phenomena and noumena in perfect completion, without the slightest omission at all times. To see one object is to see all objects and vice versa.

Perhaps the most well-known expression of this vision of the cosmos is the image of Indra’s Net. The whole universe is seen as a multidimensional net with jewels set at every point where the strands of the net criss-cross. Each jewel reflects the light reflected in the other jewels in all directions. All of totality can be seen in each of its parts. What Hua-yen tells us is that this is no mere fantasy, but the way the universe actually is. Given this, what can it tell us about living in the Net of Indra?

As reiterated throughout this paper, Dharma is about practice, but practice is not merely what we confine to our cushions, nor is it merely our ritual practices. The teachings must give rise to a way of living in the world. The Bodhisattva must first act as if the vision of the Hua-yen were a certainty. Its teachings feature a range of holographic samadhi instructions to help clear away limited preconceptions, foster fresh perspectives and expand the practitioner’s capacities by expressing the reality of interbeing.

Two of these samadhis are the “lion emergence” samadhi and the “ocean seal” samadhi. In the first, upon every single hair tip abide numerous buddha-fields containing a vast array of buddhas, bodhisattvas and liberating teachings. In the “Ocean Seal,” awareness is like the vast ocean surface, reflecting and confirming all phenomena in the universe. Waves of phenomena arise and distort its clear reflectivity, but as soon as the waves settle, the clarity is there.

Recitation of the Avatamsaka Sutra itself can open the mind to its visions and has been a long-respected practice, either for individuals or groups. But perhaps the most important way that the Hua-yen can help us practitioners is its emphasis on integration of glimpses into the ultimate with the particular difficulties and challenges of our everyday situations. In this way, we can avoid the trap of seeking and grasping at blissful absorption in emptiness. Attachment to the ultimate is considered the most pernicious attachment, but attending to the conventional realities of our world with the sense of awareness of the totality balances our practice and informs our sense of wholeness. Ordinary life is the way of the Buddha, and Hua-yen, like Zen, reminds us of this important, and often neglected or forgotten truth.

One Hua-yen tool for bringing the universal into our everyday experience, which I have found quite helpful, are gathas, mindfulness verses which include practice instructions to be used as enlightening reminders in all kinds of everyday situations. Thich Nhat Hanh calls them, “bells of mindfulness.” Specifically, Chapter Eleven of the Avatamsaka Sutra, “Purifying Practice,” contains 140 distinct verses to encourage mindfulness in a variety of circumstances from awakening from sleep, to the whole process of eating; seeing a large tree, flowing water, flowers blooming, a lake, a bridge; entering a house; giving or receiving a gift; meeting teachers and other kinds of people etc. These gathas use the various situations to encourage mindfulness and remind us of the fundamental intention to help ourselves and others more fully express compassion and wisdom. Here’s one example from the Avatamsaka Sutra:
If in danger and difficulty,
They should wish that all beings
Be free,
Unhindered wherever they go.

Traditionally, a selection of such verses has been recited in East Asian monasteries before and after bathing, brushing teeth, taking meals, using the toilet and many other activities. Thich Nhat Hanh and Robert Aitken have written versions of gathas to meet our contemporary environment, such as driving, using the telephone and surfing the internet. While studying with Thich Nhat Hanh, I was encouraged to make up my own gathas, especially for situations where I might fall into aversion, greed or delusion. Living in New York City at the time, I had a strong aversion to riding the subway. So I wrote the following gatha to use whenever the opportunity to ride the subway arose. I must say, it literally transformed the experience for me!
When stepping into the subway car
I look at all those with me
Black, White, Red, Yellow, Brown
We are truly all in this together.

Hua-yen descriptions of the dharmadhatu point to the experience of wholeness that is one of the joys of sitting practice. From the perspective of Zen, meditation practice is not about attaining some special, new state of mind or being, but rather about fully awakening to the inherent completeness of this present bodymind. Hua-yen and Zen point to the embodiment of this sense of wholeness in our everyday activities, and the expression of this perfection and clear awareness amid ordinary life.

The Korean Connection

The justly celebrated “Ocean Seal” (haein do) of Uisang (625 – 702) the first master of Korean Hua-yen (hwaom) Buddhism “has been acclaimed by Chinese, Korean and Japanese masters alike as being the most masterful distillation and condensation of Hua-yen thought.” Uisang’s “Ocean Seal” encapsulates both in form and content the core vision of the Hwaom school, which the Korean tradition calls the “round” (won), or “all-embracing” view. It is a poem composed of only 210 Chinese characters, arranged in 30 verses of 7 characters each, with 4 sides, 4 corners, and 54 angles, concentrically patterned like a winding maze. It is a literary mandala, beginning and ending at the center.

This poem has been accorded such respect that in some of the kyo monasteries it has been awarded as a kind of certificate of achievement for monks who successfully complete their course of study. It is regularly chanted in some monasteries such as Haeinsa or Ocean Seal Temple in Kyongnam, Korea, as a dharani, with the intent of eliciting the supreme visionary experience of haein sammae or Ocean Seal Samadhi, the content of which includes both li-shih wu-ai and shih-shih wu ai.

According to Uisang’s poem, one enters the dharmadhatu, described variously as “round, interpenetrating, non-dual, unmoving but originally still, nameless, formless, and without distinctions, not attached to self-nature but manifested according to causal conditions, such that ‘One is in All and Many is in One.’” Thus, in one particle of dust is contained the ten directions, and incalculably long eons are identical to a single thought instant, whereupon particular phenomena and universal principle are completely merged without distinction and samsara and nirvana are harmonized together, although these interfusing and mutually identical realms are not confused but function separately… Thus, in accordance with the round-sudden teachings of Hwaom concerning original enlightenment and sudden awakening, the moment one begins to aspire with their heart, instantly perfect enlightenment is attained.”

Uisang arranged his poem so that both the first and last characters (Dharma and Buddha) are located in the center of the seal. His autocommentary says:
Question: For what reason are the characters at the beginning and end put in the center?
Answer: So to express that the two positions of cause and effect…in the dharma-nature school of Hwaom are both in the Middle Way.

In this elegant way, Uisang illustrates the key doctrine of Hwaom Buddhism that start and finish, or cause and effect are both in the same position in the Middle Way. They interpenetrate harmoniously free from all obstructions. In this way, the Seal illustrates the fundamental teaching of the Avatamsaka Sutra that the Fifty-two stages in the path of the Bodhisattva (i.e., Ten Faiths, Ten Abodes, Ten Practices, Ten Returnings, Ten Bhumis, Equal Enlightenment, and Wonderful Enlightenment) all interpenetrate without hindrance so that the very first whisper of faith through the elucidation of bodhicitta (the thought or aspiration to awaken for the sake of all beings) already contains as its contents all the subsequent stages. The first, last and all intermediary stages, representing past, present and future, all occupy the same position in the center of the Middle Way. It is this Hwaom doctrine, whereby a first stage Bodhisattva of newly arisen faith (the supposed ‘cause’) and a final stage Buddha of Wonderful Enlightenment (the apparent ‘result’) fully interpenetrate through unobstructed simultaneous mutuality, which establishes the foundation for the meditative experience of Sudden Enlightenment.

And with this, I conclude my paper with the original point expressed by Master Sosan: “In other words, all fifty-five stages of the path are already contained with a single act of initial faith.”


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