The Phenomenal Universe of the Flower Ornament Sutra

The Huayan, or Flower Ornament Sutra, is not widely known in the West, yet it has had a profound and lasting impact on Zen and Chan Buddhism.

By Taigen Dan Leighton

Photo by Lyle Vincent.

Chinese Huayan Buddhism is considered by many Buddhist scholars to be one of the highpoints of Mahayana thought, even of world philosophy.

The Huayan worldview—which emphasizes interconnectedness and employs provocative holographic metaphors such as Indra’s Net—is a fascinating, illuminating resource that can be very useful to contemporary Buddhist practitioners, even though very few know much about it. It was hardly predominant in ancient times either. The major Huayan commentators were active in China for a relatively brief period—from the sixth to ninth centuries—and their profound, dense, and challenging writings were never widely read. Furthermore, the school they established in China never achieved any lengthy institutional prominence, and in Japan, Huayan barely survives formally today as the Kegon school. Nevertheless, Huayan—with its intricate dialectical philosophy—provides the philosophical underpinning for Zen and much of the rest of popular East Asian Buddhism and its offshoots in the West. As a result, Huayan perspectives, and the practical instructions that grow out of them, have an enduring influence and applicability to modern Buddhist practice.

The Flower Ornament Sutra

The starting point for Huayan Buddhism is the extravagant, lengthy Flower Ornament Sutra, or Avatamsaka Sutra in Sanskrit, considered the most elevated scripture by the Huayan school. (Avatamsaka is translated as Huayan in Chinese, which is read as Kegon in Japanese.) The Chinese Huayan school features intricate, didactic philosophical speculations, illustrated with fascinating metaphors inspired by the sutra. Yet the Flower Ornament Sutra itself is a very different type of literature. It consists of highly sumptuous visions that offer a systematic presentation of the stages of development and unfolding of the practice activities of bodhisattvas. This sutra is sometimes described as Shakyamuni Buddha’s very first awareness upon his great enlightenment, which was too lofty for anyone else at that time to hear. Over 1,600 pages in Thomas Cleary’s translation, the Flower Ornament Sutra is a samadhi text, designed to inspire luminous visions and exalted experiences of mind and reality through its use of lush, psychedelic, evocative imagery.

Because of the book’s length, but also because of its unique quality as a text, most practitioners need some guidance on how to read the Flower Ornament Sutra, as it may seem impenetrable at first glance. This is not a book to read to gain intellectual comprehension. Rather, the cumulative impact of its profuse imagery inspires heightened states of samadhi, or concentrated meditative awareness. This effect can best be appreciated by bathing in the imagery, as if listening to a symphony, rather than trying to decipher a textbook. Reciting it aloud, by oneself or together with a small circle of practice friends, is a traditional approach.

Also, this extensive sutra doesn’t need to be read in its entirety to experience its impact. Of the thirty-nine chapters, two stand out as inspiring, independent sutras in their own right. One is the chapter on the ten stages, or grounds (the Dasabhumika Sutra in Sanskrit), one of the earliest Mahayana sutras, which details the ten stages of development of bodhisattvas before buddhahood, even the first of which is quite lofty.

The other sutra is the final chapter, the “Entry into the Realm of Reality” (Gandhavyuha Sutra in Sanskrit), which relates the journey of the pilgrim Sudhana to a sequence of fifty-three different bodhisattva teachers. These great bodhisattvas present a democratic vision of dharma, as they include women and men, laypeople and priests, beggars and kings and queens. The chapter culminates with Sudhana’s entry into the inconceivably vast tower of Maitreya Bodhisattva, the next future buddha—a lofty, mind-boggling episode that even the special-effects wizardry of George Lucas and his colleagues could not begin to capture. Maitreya’s tower, as extensive as all of space, contains a vast number of equally spacious towers overflowing with amazing sights, each without interfering with the space of any of the others.

Although these two sutras within a sutra stand out, any chapter of the larger Flower Ornament Sutra can serve as an entryway to its awareness because of the holographic quality of the text, in which each part fully exemplifies the whole. This interfusion of the particular with the totality is the heart of the Huayan philosophy and practice. The larger sutra is replete with myriad buddhas and bodhisattvas, described as filling every grass tip or atom. But the primary buddha of the Flower Ornament Sutra is Vairocana, the Reality Body Buddha (dharmakaya in Sanskrit) whose body is the equivalent of the entire phenomenal universe, which is known in Buddhism as the dharmadhatu. Vairocana is also the primary buddha in many mandalas in Vajrayana, or tantric Buddhism.

The heroic bodhisattva most prominently featured in the sutra is Samantabhadra (Puxian in Chinese; Fugen in Japanese), whose name means “universal virtue.” Often depicted riding an elephant, Samantabhadra, with his calm dignity, specializes in performing devotional observances and in artistic, aesthetic expressions of the sacred. He also resolutely practices the bodhisattva vow through accomplishing many varieties of helpful projects, each aimed at benefiting all beings and engaging the societal systems of the world. As a result, Samantabhadra can serve as a great encouragement and resource both for artists and for modern “engaged” Buddhism and its renewal of Buddhist societal ethics.

The Fourfold Dharmadhatu

Inspired by this Flower Ornament Sutra, the Chinese Huayan teachers were able to articulate a profound dialectical vision that is a part of the foundation for all East Asian Buddhism. The basic teaching of this philosophy of interconnectedness is the fourfold dharmadhatu. The first two of these four aspects of Huayan reality clarify the two fundamental aspects of spiritual practice, and indeed of our whole lives: the universal and the particular. These two aspects have also been described with the terms ultimate and phenomenal, absolute and relative, real and apparent, or sameness and difference.

The ultimate, absolute reality—the first part of the fourfold dharmadhatu — is glimpsed in introspective meditation; the practice of turning the attention within can serve to deepen awareness of the universal truth. In many religious traditions, seeing the universal oneness or reality is considered the goal of spiritual awareness and practice. But in Huayan Buddhism, and in all East Asian Mahayana thereafter, the bodhisattva’s integration of that awareness into ordinary, everyday activities and reality— into the particular, the second part of the fourfold dharmadhatu — is of crucial importance. As the eighth-century Chan master Shitou (Sekito in Japanese) declared, “Merging with sameness is still not enlightenment.” Seeing the oneness of the Universal is only half of the practice, if that. The relevance of this insight must be realized and expressed in the realm of the relative particularities and diversities of our world.

The third aspect of the fourfold dharmadhatu is the mutual, nonobstructing interpenetration of the universal and particular. Admittedly, this is difficult to take in at first, but with patience we see that universal truth can only exist in the context of some particular situation. There can be no abstract universal truth apart from its active presence in some specific causal condition. Also, every particular context, when fully examined, completely expresses the total universal truth. Moreover, the particular being or event and its universal aspect completely interact and coincide without hindering each other.

Based on this integration of universal and particular, the fourth part of the fourfold dharmadhatu is the mutual, nonobstructing interpenetration of the particular with other particulars, in which each particular entity or event can be fully present and complementary to any other particular. Viewed from the vantage point of deep interconnectedness, particular beings do not need to obstruct each other, but rather can harmonize and be mutually revealing. This has significant implications for how we can see our world as a field of complementary entities, rather than a world of competitive and conflicting beings.

Indra’s Net

A frequently cited expression of this vision of reality is the simile of Indra’s Net from the Avatamsaka Sutra, which was further elaborated by the Huayan teachers. The whole universe is seen as a multidimensional net. At every point where the strands of the net meet, jewels are set. Each jewel reflects the light reflected in the jewels around it, and each of those jewels in turn reflects the light from all the jewels around them, and so on, forever. In this way, each jewel, or each particular entity or event, including each person, ultimately reflects and expresses the radiance of the entire universe. All of totality can be seen in each of its parts.

Huayan teaching features a range of holographic samadhi instructions drawn from the Flower Ornament Sutra. These practices help clear away limited preconceptions, foster fresh perspectives on reality, and expand mental capacities by expressing our deep interconnectedness.

One example is the “lion emergence” samadhi, in which upon every single hair tip abide numerous buddha lands containing a vast array of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and liberating teachings. Another model is the “ocean mirror,” or “ocean seal,” samadhi. In this image, awareness is like the vast ocean surface, reflecting and confirming in detail all phenomena of the entire universe. Waves of phenomena may arise on the surface of the ocean, distorting its ability to mirror plainly; but when the waves subside as the water calms and clears, the ocean mirror again reflects all clearly. Our individual minds are like this, often disturbed by turbulence but also capable of settling serenely to reflect clear awareness.

The Golden Lion and The Hall Of Mirrors

Fazang (643-712), the third of the five patriarchs of the Huayan school, was a brilliant teacher who might be considered the true founder of the school. He was particularly adept at devising models and metaphors to illustrate the profound Huayan truths to people.

Fazang once taught the powerful Empress Wu, a dedicated patron and student of Buddhism, using a golden lion in her palace as a metaphor. He explained the nonobstructing interpenetration of the universal and the particular by describing in detail how the gold, like the universal principle, pervaded the object completely, but that its particular unique form was that of a lion. We can see it either as gold or as a lion. But each part of the golden lion is completely gold, and each part is also completely part of the lion.

Another time, Fazang illustrated the Huayan teachings for Empress Wu by constructing a hall of mirrors, placing mirrors on the ceiling, floor, four walls, and four corners of a room. In the center he placed a Buddha image with a lamp next to it. Standing in this room, the empress could see that the reflection in any one mirror clearly reflected the reflections from all of the other mirrors, including the specific reflection of the Buddha image in each one. This fully demonstrated the unobstructed interpenetration of the particular and the totality, with each one contained in all, and with all contained in each one. Moreover, it showed the nonobstructed interpenetration of each particular mirror with each of the others.

Along with these more accessible models, Fazang and the other Huayan masters, such as the fourth patriarch Chengguan (738-839), developed many intricate philosophical descriptions of various aspects of interconnectedness, such as the tenfold causes for realization of totality, the nonobstruction of space and of time, and the ten nonobstructions of totality. Lengthier study is required to fully appreciate and benefit from these various conceptual presentations. However, they do not contain new and separate teachings; rather they expand on and elaborate the Huayan dialectical philosophy of the interconnectedness of totality with all individual beings.

Implications For Practice

The Huayan teachings present splendorous, inspiring visions of the wonders of the universal reality, far beyond the limited perspectives caught within the physical details and conditioned awareness of our everyday lives. This teaching first of all encourages the possibility of a fresh, deeper way of seeing our world and its wonders. With the encouragement of these teachings, we can sense levels of spiritual interconnection with others, and with the wholeness of reality, that lift us beyond our ordinary attachments and prejudices. Such vision can help to heal our individual confusion, grasping, and sense of sadness or loss.

But beyond this deeper connection with wholeness, the Huayan teachings also offer guidance for more complete balance in practice. The emphasis on integration of glimpses into the ultimate with the particular problems and challenges of our everyday situations can help practitioners not get caught up in blissful absorption in ultimate reality. Attachment to the ultimate is considered the most dangerous attachment. But attending to the conventional realities of our world with some sense of the omnipresence of the totality helps to balance our practice, and can also further inform our deeper sense of wholeness.

Among the Huayan tools for bringing the universal into our everyday experience are gathas, or verses, which include many practice instructions to be used as enlightening reminders in all kinds of everyday situations. Specifically, the eleventh chapter of the Flower Ornament Sutra, titled “Purifying Practice,” includes 140 distinct verses to encourage mindfulness in particular circumstances. Some of the following situations are cited: awakening from sleep; before, during, and after eating; seeing a large tree, flowing water, flowers blooming, a lake, or a bridge; entering a house; giving or receiving a gift; meeting teachers, or various other kinds of people; and proceeding on straight, winding, or hilly roads.

All the verses use the situation mentioned to encourage mindfulness and as reminders of the fundamental intention to help ourselves and others more fully express compassion and wisdom, as in the following example:

Seeing grateful people
They should wish that all beings
Be able to know the blessings
Of the buddhas and enlightening beings.

Historically, a selection of these verses has been recited in East Asian monasteries as rituals before and after bathing, brushing teeth, taking meals, or while doing begging rounds. A number of present-day teachers, such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Robert Aitken Roshi, have rewritten such verses for everyday mindful awareness, bringing them into our contemporary contexts, such as driving on the freeway or using the telephone.

Huayan models of interconnectedness point to the experience of wholeness that is one of the great joys of zazen. From the perspective of zazen, meditation practice is not about attaining some special, new state of mind or being, but about fully realizing the inner dignity of this present body and mind. Huayan further explicates the importance of the relationship of wholeness to everyday activities, mirroring the central emphasis of Zen training on expressing clear awareness amid ordinary conduct.

Huayan in Chan and Zen

The strong influence of Huayan on Chan and Zen was initiated in the person of Zongmi (780-841), the fifth Huayan patriarch, who was also a Chan master descended from the famous sixth Chan patriarch, Huineng. A prolific scholar, Zongmi commented extensively on aspects of the Flower Ornament Sutra and Huayan teaching, but also wrote insightfully on many Chan issues. Much of what we know about the historical realities of early ninth-century Chan is from Zongmi’s writings. In his teachings, Zongmi synthesized not only Chan and Huayan, but also integrated native Confucian and Daoist traditions in an understanding that strongly influenced all subsequent Chinese Buddhism.

The Huayan fourfold dharmadhatu is the direct inspiration and starting point for the important Zen teaching of the five ranks by Dongshan (806-869), the founder of the Caodong Chan lineage, later brought to Japan as Soto Zen by Dogen (1200-1253). The five ranks teachings, which detail the five aspects of unfolding of the relationship between the universal and particular, became the philosophical foundation for Zen. This was not only true in the Soto school; Linji (Rinzai in Japanese) also developed teachings that echoed the fourfold dharmadhatu. Hakuin (1686-1769), the great Japanese founder of modern Rinzai Zen, also commented on the five ranks, which remain one of the highest stages in the koan curriculum of modern Rinzai Zen.

Huayan in Japan

The Japanese Kegon school is descended from the Chinese Huayan. One of the six early Nara schools from seventh-century Japan, Kegon is a very small school today. But Kegon is still known for its Todaiji temple in Nara, home of the largest wooden building in the world and of the largest bronze statue, the Great Buddha, which depicts Vairocana, the Dharmakaya Buddha.

Probably the best-known Japanese Kegon teacher is the passionately devotional Myoe (1173-1232), a fascinating figure who has recently drawn attention from Western scholars for his forty-year dream journal, celebrated by modern Jungian psychologists. Myoe made considerable efforts to develop practical applications of the Huayan teachings and the Flower Ornament Sutra. For example, he presented his own dreams and meditative visions based on his understanding of the Huayan teachings, and he encouraged others to use Avatamsaka visions to support and clarify their own practice.

Myoe was also a Shingon (Japanese Vajrayana) priest. Among his numerous other colorful activities, as an ardent young monk he cut off his ear like van Gogh to demonstrate his sincerity, and he is often depicted doing zazen on his sitting platform up in a tree at the temple where he taught.

Huayan in the West

Apart from its power to inform and illuminate meditation practice, Huayan philosophy is highly relevant to Buddhism’s potential contribution to environmental and ecological thinking. The dynamics of the mutual relationship of universal and particular in Huayan has already been influential in the modern deep ecology movement throught its clear expression of the interrelationship of the total global environment to the well-being of particular ecological niches.

The implications of this interconnectedness and the importance of the bodhisattva’s responsibility in Huayan is also a great encouragement and resource for modern engaged Buddhism and Buddhist societal ethics. This can be seen, for example, through the main Avatamsaka bodhisattva, Samantabhadra, who engages in specific projects for worldly benefit through his dedicated practice of vow as applied to benefiting all beings and all the societal systems of the world.

Huayan models of the interconnectedness of totality also have implications for modern science. Especially in cutting-edge realms of physics such as string theory, Huayan visions may provide inspirations for clarifying the dynamic interactions of various dimensions of reality.

Given how much Huayan Buddhism has to offer contemporary practitioners seeking to deepen their experience and understanding, even in realms outside of practice, it is fortunate that more material about this ancient teaching is becoming available. We can perhaps look forward to a renaissance of this profound teaching of interconnectedness in response to the pressing needs of our day.

Further Reading on Huayan:

Taigen Dan Leighton

Taigen Dan Leighton is the Guiding Dharma Teacher at Ancient Dragon Zen Gate, Chicago and the author of Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression.