The Phenomenal Universe
of the Flower Ornament Sutra
The Huayan, or Flower Ornament Sutra, with its vivid metaphors and extravagant visions, is not widely known in the West, yet it has had a profound and lasting impact on the way Zen and Chan Buddhism are practiced. Taigen Dan Leighton explores the sutra’s teachings on interconnectedness and the inspiration that it holds for practitioners today.
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.