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Huayan (華嚴, Pinyin: huáyán, Sanskrit: Avatamsaka) or Flower Garland is a tradition of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy that flourished in China during the Tang period. It is based on the Sanskrit scripture of the same name and on a lengthy Chinese interpretation of it, the Huayan Lun. The name “Flower Garland” is meant to suggest the crowning glory of profound understanding.</p>


Historical Background

The doctrines of the Huayan school ended up having profound impact on the philosophical attitudes of all of East Asian Buddhism. Established during the period of the end of the Sui and beginning of Tang dynasties, this school centered on the philosophy of interpenetration and mutual containment which its founders perceived in the Huayan Jing. Yet despite basic reliance on this sutra, much of the technical terminology that the school becomes famous for is not found in the sutra itself, but in the commentaries written by its early founders.

The founding of the school is traditionally attributed to a series of five “patriarchs” who were instrumental in developing the schools' doctrines. These five are: Dushun (杜順), Zhiyan (智儼), Fazang (法藏), Chengguan (澄觀) and Zongmi. Another important figure in the development and popularization of Huayan thought was the lay scholar Li Tongxuan (李通玄). Some accounts of the school also like to extend its patriarchship earlier to Aśvaghoṣa and Nāgārjuna.

Although there are certain aspects of this patriarchal scheme which are clearly contrived, it is fairly well accepted that these men each played a significant and distinct role in the development of the school: for example, Dushun is known to have been responsible for the establishment of Huayan studies as a distinct field; Zhiyan is considered to have established the basic doctrines of the sect; Fazang is considered to have rationalized the doctrine for greater acceptance by society; Chengguan and Zongmi are understood to have further developed and transformed the teachings.

After the time of Zongmi and Li Tongxuan the Chinese school of Huayan generally stagnated in terms of new development, and then eventually began to decline. The school, which had been dependent upon the support it received from the government, suffered severely during the purge of 841-845, never to recover its former strength. Nonetheless, its profound metaphysics, such as that of the four dharmadhātu (四法界) of interpenetration, had a deep impact on surviving East Asian schools, especially the Chan school.

Philosophy of the Hua Yen School

The most important philosophical contributions of the Huayan school were in the area of its metaphysics, as it taught the doctrine of the mutual containment and interpenetration of all phenomena: that one thing contains all things in existence, and that all things contain one.

Distinctive features of this approach to Buddhist philosophy include:

  • Truth (or: reality) is understood as encompassing and interpenetrating falsehood (or: illusion), and vice-versa
  • Good is understood as encompassing and interpenetrating evil
  • Similarly, all mind-made distinctions are understood as 'collapsing' in the enlightened understanding of emptiness (a tradition traced back to the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna)

Huayan makes extensive use of paradox in argument and literary imagery. The following quote from Dale S. Wright (1982) summarizes the range of such devices a reader is likely to encounter in a first foray into Huayan literature:

         The  first  type  of  paradox   is  modeled  after
       paradoxical  assertions found in many early Mahayana
       texts   that   emphasize   the   concept   emptiness
       (k’ung(f)/’suunyataa).  Beginning with the assertion
       that  a  phenomenon,  X, is  empty  (k’ung/’suunyaa)
       (that  is, since  X  originates  dependently, it  is
       empty  of  own-being),  one  moves  to  the  further
       paradoxical implication that X is not X.  An example
       from  Fa-tsang  is  the  assertion  that  “when  one
       understands that origination is without self-nature,
       then there is no origination.”(5)
         A second  type  of  paradox  is derived  from  two
       doctrinal  sources: the  Hua-yen  concept  of  “true
       emptiness”   (chen-k’ung(g)   )  and   the   Hua-yen
       interpretation  of the  dialectic  of the  One  Mind
       (i-hsin(h)) in the Awakening  of Faith.  Whereas the
       first  type  of paradox  worked  with  the  negative
       assertion   that  phenomenal   form  is  empty   and
       nonexistent  (wu so yu(i)), the second type reverses
       that claim by asserting that any empty phenomenon is
       an expression  of, and the medium  for, the ultimate
       truth of emptiness.  The union of opposites effected
       here is the
       identity  between conditioned, relative  reality and
       the ultimate truth of suchness (chen-ju(j)/tathataa) .
       Fa-tsang’s  paradoxical  assertion illustrates  this
       second  type.  “When  the  great  wisdom  of perfect
       clarity gazes upon a minute hair, the universal  sea
       of nature, the true source, is clearly manifest.”(6)
         The third variation of paradox is grounded in the
       Hua-yen  doctrine  of  the  “nonobstruction  of  all
       phenomena”  (shih shih wu-ai(k)).  According to this
       doctrine,  when  the  ultimate  truth  of  emptiness
       becomes manifest  to the viewer, each phenomenon  is
       paradoxically perceived as interpenetrating with and
       containing all others. This paradoxical violation of
       the conventional  order  of time  and space  is best
       exemplified by Fa-tsang’s famous Essay on the Golden
       In each and every  hair [of the lion]  there  is the
       golden lion.  All of the lions contained in each and
       every  hair  simultaneously  and suddenly  penetrate
       into  one hair.  [Therefore], within  each and every
       hair there are unlimited lions.(7)
         The common element in all three types of paradox is
       that they originate  in the tension  between the two
       truths,   between   conventional   truth   (su-ti(l)
       /  and  ultimate   truth  (chen-ti(m)
       /paramaarthasatya).  Our  task  of interpreting  the
       significance  of  paradoxical  language  in  Hua-yen
       texts,  therefore, will  begin  by  working  out  an
       initial  interpretation  of the two  truths  and the
       relation between them.

See also


Wright, Dale S. (1983). Philosophy East and West 32 (3).


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