Hua-Yen as a basis for absolute freedom

This is a rather elaborate slug for a coming post.

Hua-Yen (sometimes spelled Huayan) is a form of Buddhism that emerged in China around the latter part of the 2nd century CE and came to its full flourishing in the 7th century through the works of the third patriarch, and the real founder, Fa-tsang. Despite its rather kitschy manifestations (temple walls with niches packed with hundreds of tiny light up Buddhas) Hua Yen represents a rigorously thought out and deeply profound development of the better known Madhyamika doctrine of Indian Buddhism. The difference is that while Madhyamika succeeds brilliantly in determining what ultimate reality is NOT, it doesn’t come anywhere close to illuminating what it IS. This is the gap that Hua-Yen attempts to fill. How it does it is the stuff of sci-fi fantasy, quantum physics, and psychedelic dreams rolled into one. Hua-Yen offers us a universe where the Matrix meets the Monk.

A peculiarity of Chinese Buddhism is how traditions of philosophical scholarship arose through the study of individual texts and their commentaries rather than through ‘schools’ with distinct groups of followers and doctrines. This allowed for more fluidity between Buddhist thoughts systems. There were many points of intersection between Hua-yen scholars and other forms of the Chinese Buddhist tradition. In fact, many Hua-Yen scholars were also Ch’an masters.

In the case of Hua-yen, this scripture was the Avatamsaka (Flower Garland) sutra. This is because Buddhism arrived in China in a piecemeal fashion and not necessarily in the order of its development on the subcontinent. Buddhist texts arrived in China primarily via the Silk Route, through the work of itinerant translators stationed along some of the great cities along that passage. Buddhism was absorbed into a system of though already profoundly influenced by Taoism which had emerged between about 500 years earlier.

As a result of these and other factors, there was not the history of philosophical competition and debate in Chinese Buddhism that so characterizes Indian Buddhism. In China, practitioners played on multiple teams. This is key in any comparison of Hua-yen to Madhyamika, where many treatises were written defensively, either to uphold a position or to negate another.

Although it may not appear so at first, Hua-Yen is firmly grounded in the philosophical position of Madhyamika (Middle Way) of Mahayana Buddhism, which became the ontological foundation for the Mahayana tradition. The apex of Madhyamika thought is widely accepted to be the Madhyamika Prasingka doctrine as espoused by the second century Indian master, Nagarjuna. But whereas the Indian Prasangika scholars focused on the epistemology of the path to enlightenment, the Chinese set about trying to describe what might be seen through an enlightened lens. In other words, while the Prasangikas focused on laying out the path up the mountain, the Chinese were more interested in the view from the peak itself. Indeed for them, the view was the path, and vice versa. Hence according to Hua-Yen, to enter the path towards final enlightenment is, in an important sense, to have already arrived at that destination.

This meant that the elucidators of sunyata in China had to find a way to describe how the world would be experienced from this point of realization. The Prasangika perspective, with its focus on the negative as a tool of comprehension of the doctrine of sunyata (‘not this, not that’), was not a major influence in China. The Chinese preferred the use of affirmative language. Rather than rejecting what was not true, they preferred to demonstrate the essence of reality itself. Tsing-mi was the fifth patriarch in the Ho-tse line of Southern Ch’an but he was well-versed in Hua Yen that he came to through Ch’an (Zen). He writes:

For example, in the case of salt, when one says that it is not tasteless,
that is negation, and when one says that it is brackish, that is affirmation.
Or, in the case of water, when one says that it is not dry, that is negation, and
when one says that it is wet, that is affirmation

A very revealing passage by Tsung-mi is as follows, ‘Nowadays people say that negative speech is profound and affirmative speech is superficial. Therefore they just value expressions such as “neither mind nor Buddha,” “without conditions or characteristics,” “nothing whatsoever to be attained,” etc. Truly this is because they mistake negative speech for profundity and do not aspire after an intimate personal realization of the essence of the Truth.’ The supreme value accorded to the positive use of language (kataphasis) in the Chinese Buddhist tradition sits it in sharp contrast to the negative (apophasis) characteristic of Madhyamika in general and Prasangika in particular. The real difference between the two positions lies in the implications of the philosophy of Pratītyasamutpāda– interdependence or dependent origination.

Francis H. Cook, arguably the greatest modern commentator of the Hua-Yen masters, explains further. While both Indian and Chinese Buddhists understood emptiness as being synonymous with interdependence, the Indians emphasized the point that, because of this pervasive interdependence, things lack any ultimate reality and are unworthy of attachment. For the Indians, emptiness as the absence of any enduring permanence, substantiality, and value was of paramount importance. The Chinese chose to stress the point that emptiness is the interdependent relationship of real phenomenal events. The Indian view tends to be negative in its devaluation of events, and reduces them to the level of insignificance and triviality. The Chinese view tends to raise all events to a common level of supreme value by seeing their crucial roles in the nexus of interconditionality.

This is a difference in approach more than a fundamental departure from the Prasangika view, but it led to the accusation that the sunyata doctrine was misunderstood by Chinese Buddhist philosophers because they in some way objectified enlightenment. This may indeed be the case with individual masters, but it can also be argued that the Hua-yen vision of a universe of ‘infinitely repeated intercausality and identity’ (Cook, 1997: 23) finds its rational basis in the sunyata doctrine. Says Wright, ‘If…there is no object symbolizing ultimate truth, then that truth is not available to human experience.’ Hua-Yen did not objectify sunyata, therefore, it simply chose to present the unconditioned through the window of the conditioned. In this way, Fa-tsang explains, anything can become the “illuminating cause” (liao-yinu) of ultimate truth.

Hua-Yen also incorporated and developed the teachings on the “womb of Buddhahood” (tathagatagarbha) in a way previously unknown in the Buddhist world. The tathagatargarbha concept posits that living beings are imbued with the self-same nature as the enlightened buddha and as such are potential buddhas even in their ignorant state. Whereas the tathatagarbha teachings found expression in Madhyamika and Yogacara, and later in the Vajrayana tradition that was preserved in Tibet, in China it evolved from a note in the margins of Buddhist thought and practice to a full-blown exposition by the sixth century before the idea had even reached the Tibetan plateau.

For both the Prasangikas and Hua-yen practitioners, ultimate truth is ineffable. The Prasangikas responded to this ineffability by insisting on language of absolute negation that bent over backwards not to involve itself in implying anything other than the view itself (and engaged in all kinds of dizzying linguistic acrobatics in the process). The Hua-yen philosophers, however, took a different tack. If Buddha nature was empty of all defiled elements, they argued, this must mean that it was simultaneously replete with all positive Buddha-like elements. As the Ratnagotravibhnga states:

‘The Essence [of the Buddha] is [by nature]
Devoid of the accidental [pollutions] which differ from it;
But it is by no means devoid of the highest properties
Which are, essentially, indivisible from it.’

Not only does this text commiserate with those who feel discouraged by the emptiness doctrine, it challenges the notion that the Bodhisattva vehicle elicits compassion at least in its earlier stages. The text refers to how the pride that aspiring bodhisattvas feel in having resolved to reach enlightenment for the sake of others, causes them to ‘deludedly cling to the faults of others, not realizing that they are only adventitious, and that…they are full of infinite excellent qualities. As a result, ‘he cannot generate the compassion which regards self and other as equal’ (Ratnamati: 480cl 1-22; cf. Takasaki, 1966:306-8). Gregory, 1983:237.

In Madhyamika there is much discussion on the Two Truths: the conventional truth (Skt. saṁvṛti-satya) and the ultimate truth (paramārtha-satya). Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche explains: ‘The conventional truth is the mode in which things appear, and the ultimate truth is the mode of being, or the way things really are’. This didactic leads to what Gregory calls the ‘Madhyamika Problematik’ since it leaves ‘unexplained the relationship between ignorance and enlightenment (1983: 237). The doctrine of the tathagatagarbha answered this question by saying that ignorance and enlightenment are essentially not distinct (Gregory, 1983: 237). This sat well with the Chinese who tended to evaluate the “truth” of any given teaching more on the basis of its behavioral implications than on its abstract merits as a philosophically convincing position’ (Gregory, 1983: 237).

But there are other reasons why Nagarjuna’s position never gained the prominence in China that it did elsewhere. It is worth remembering that the Buddhist anatman system derived from a denial of the Brahmanical atman view. In China, there was no such system to contend with. Nagarjuna’s teachings arrived in China not as the champion debate team winner but as just another interpretation of Buddha’s teachings on emptiness. As such, the Prasangika view, held in such high esteem, particularly in parts of the Tibetan tradition, that to question its philosophical hegemony is even today to border on heresy, was evaluated on its own merits by Chinese scholars and found wanting because for them it only presented half of the picture, and the lesser important half to boot.

From the point of view of Hua Yen, sunyata is not adequately described as a negation of the inherent existence of phenomena. It is rather the mutual interpenetration and non-obstruction of all events (shishi wu ai). Steve Odin puts it another way, as the ‘nonobstructive interpenetration of universal-principle with particular-phenomena.’

In this realm, everything is causally related to everything else. Hua-Yen illustrates this with the image of Indra’s net, a vast net that encompasses the universe. A special jewel is found at the intersection of every horizontal and vertical weave in the net, special because each jewel reflects every other jewel in the net, so that looking into any one jewel, one sees them all. Every event or thing can disclose the whole universe because all mutually interpenetrate each other without barriers or obstruction.

This form of nondualism is not monistic because shishi wu ai does not obliterate the distinctions between things, but rather insists that everything is connected to everything else without losing distinctiveness. Identity and difference, in this view, are merely two sides of the same coin, which, though a single coin, still has two distinct sides that should not be confused for each other. Mutual interpenetration is temporal as well as spatial; past, present and future mutually interpenetrate. This presentation of sunyata found its emblematic metaphor in Fa-tsang’s Essay on the Golden Lion in which we find this ‘realm-embracing realm’ of Indra’s Net (Odin).

‘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.

Odin focuses on Korean Uisang’s ‘Ocean Seal’ of Hwaom rather than on the Chinese patriarchs, but the essence of these teachings is the same. Moving from lions to physics, he describes the Hua-Yen Via Positiva view as follows: ‘…since each atom is a refection of every other atom, and since each dharma is fully present in every other dharma, there is a perfect sameness between all things in the universe, negatively expressed as sunyata or emptiness, and positively expressed as alamacitta or purity.’

It is this doctrine that explains most satisfactorily presents a framework for ‘sudden enlightenment’. As Odin explains, from the perspective of Hua-Yen, ‘the 52 stages of the career of the bodhisattva also interpenetrate in the same way as everything else, so each stage is both cause and effect and each stage contains every other stage….Thus a first-stage bodhisattva and a final-stage buddha interpenetrate.’ Uisang’s Ocean Seal poem captures the fundamentals of such philosophical jujitsu.

In One is all
In Many is One
One is identical to All
Many is identical to One

Emptiness is thus regarded as a kind of meta-symbol of ultimate truth rather than an end in itself and as such it denies its own ultimacy. Even Madhyamika hints at this with the ’emptiness of emptiness’. This is why, in his commentary on the Heart Sutra, Fa-tsang says, “One cannot grasp emptiness by means of emptiness”.

What is so interesting about the Hua-Yen philosophers is that they were not bound by the conventions that had already constrained Buddhist discourse elsewhere by the time it arrived in China. They dared to attempt the impossible, that is, to try to describe the experience of an enlightenment mind. Nowhere in Madhyamika texts can such audacity be found and there is something essentially refreshing and tantalizing about the language used in the effort.

‘The experience is one of being grasped by or taken up into true emptiness. The Hua-yen patriarchs refer to this experience as the arising of nature (hsingba) or the tathagatagarbha (ju-lai tsangbb). This is the experience of the Buddha becoming manifest within oneself, breaking down the barriers and limitations of the self’.

As Wright puts it, it is only within the forms of experience that emptiness becomes available to us. ‘Ultimate truth, therefore, does not involve a set of propositions about reality but is an immediate awareness of reality itself.’ According to Nagarjuna, the manifestations of the phenomenal world exist dependent on causes and conditions and therefore have no self-supporting existence. Fa-Tsang seems to be suggesting a further development of Nagarjuna. He takes as read that the phenomenal world exists dependently but then suggests that it is dependent on emptiness itself as an immutability.

Fa-tsang uses the analogy of gold to explain this idea of the immutable and conditional. Gold retains the properties of gold no matter if it fashioned into a ring or a necklace or a cup. Its immutability is its ‘goldness’ but then in its various manifestations (ring, etc) its essential nature remains empty, so it’s essential nature remains immutable. Swop rings for living beings and the Buddha nature for the immutable and you have an outline of tathagatargarbha doctrine. The term ‘immutable’ has the connotation of a kind of permanent stasis but this is not what Fa-tsang had in mind. He seems to anticipate this critique when he adds the adjective ‘dynamic’ to immutable which he seems to have meant more as a kind of pervasiveness, an undifferentiation.

Chinese Buddhism developed with a markedly less sacerdotal flavour than did Tibetan Buddhism, where the guru (lama) was taken as a fourth object of refuge (along with the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha), and who achieves the same footing as the Buddha himself. In Tibet, it was almost as if the tathagatagarbha doctrine became subsumed within the context of ‘guru devotion’. Within the context of Vajrayana Buddhism, this doctrine became primarily relational in the sense that it was only through the guru/chela – teacher/student exchange that the student comes to realize his or her own inherent Buddhanature.

In Hua-Yen, however, although the teacher is far from unimportant in the process of spiritual development, the tathatagarbha is regarded more as an a priori doctrine that came to encompass the entire Buddhist path. All aspects of the path are contained within the Chinese interpretation of the tathagatagarbha view, like some Buddhist unified field theory. It is at once the fusion of all spiritual knowledge and action, along with its worldly counterpart, since one could not exist without the other. The ‘world’ then is not rejected as the stuff of desire, untrustworthy and inherently painful. The focus on renunciation of worldly concerns (Lama Tsong Khapa: Three Principles of the Path) in Tibetan Buddhism is not present in Chinese Buddhism, and non-existent in Hua Yen, except as a natural expression of embracing a way of being that is consistent with the inclinations of a person who is in touch with their enlightened essence.

It is in the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism that we find striking correlates with Hua-Yen but these are hard to identify because of the clandestine nature of Sakya teachings. Perhaps the only real difference between the philosophical basis of Hua-Yen (excepting the full-blown exegesis) and the esoteric teachings of the Sakya school, Jonang, and others, is that Hua-Yen was not kept a secret.

Hua-Yen has found some surprising elucidators out of the field of quantum physics, perhaps attracted to its doctrine of mutual identity (xiangji) and mutual inclusion (xiangru) which more than hints at a holographic universe. It is fascinating that Hua-Yen should develop in a society known for strict adherence to hierarchy, since it is ultimately the most soteriologically democratic and revolutionary of all Buddhist traditions. Enlightenment is not only possible for everyone, is not even just our birthright, it is our very state of being. In his Treatise on the Five Teachings, Fa-tsang lays out the famous metaphor of the building and the rafter to explain the relationship between part and whole in the Hua-Yen universe by which he is revealing the relationship between identity and interdependence (or in more Hua-Yen style language, interpenetration) . Cook explains.

‘[Fa-tsang] analyzes this relationship by means of six characteristics which are possessed by each part of the whole. The six are totality, particularity, identity, difference, integration, and non-integration. In terms of the rafter, this means that the rafter is the totality, a particular, identical with all other parts and consequently with the whole, different in form and function, integrated into, and thus part of, the whole, and non-integrated in the sense that the rafter remains an observable, removable part with its own nature. The rafter is all six simultaneously.’

Cook continues: ‘What do we mean first of all by ‘totality’! Fa-tsang answers, “It is the building.” But the building is just a number of conditions, such as a rafter. What is the building itself? Again Fa-tsang replies, “The rafter is the building. The reason is that this rafter itself completely creates the building. If you remove the rafter, there is no building. If you have a rafter, you have a building.” But how can a rafter all by itself wholly create the building if there are no roof tiles, nails, and other things?

It can not, says Fa-tsang, because if there are no roof tiles, nails, and the like, there is no such thing as a rafter. A real rafter is only a rafter in the context of the whole building, and therefore, when it is a real rafter, it wholly creates the building. A non- rafter can not do this.

One might argue that the rafter is only part of the building, but if you remove the parts you can never find the ‘building’. At what point does ‘buildingness’ cease? It is the parts together that constitute the building and in that sense the building is only an abstract idea. The rafter is also as Cook gently explains ‘only a rafter in the context of the building, and it is therefore itself the result of the causal building. In claiming that the rafter-part is the building whole, Fa-tsang is making the point that the two are completely interdependent, for there is no whole apart from parts and no part separate from the whole. Consequently, the parts which conjunctively make up the whole are not independently existing individuals at all; they are empty of independent being. The individual is simply a function of the whole environment and at the same time is the whole. We might note here that in physics, the Mach principle portrays a very similar situation.’

It is clear that Hua-Yen philosophy has enormous implications not only for helping us to imaginize the enlightened mind or to navigate quantum realities but for on the ground issues as well. It has implications as a thought-training guide for our emerging understanding of ecological systems. It also has implications for the development of social, economic and political perspectives that position the part, the individual, in relation to the whole (the ‘system’) in a way that emphasizes the interdependence of the two as opposed to a hierarchic tension.

About subincontinentia

writer and eternal optimist
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2 Responses to Hua-Yen as a basis for absolute freedom

  1. omatty says:

    Absolutely wonderful essay, thank you.
    As an update, Stephen Wolfram’s work theorizing the nature of space is now sounding an awful lot like the dharmadhatu. Space is made of “emes” which are both unique and contain the rest of the universe within themselves. All of reality is a “neighborhood of nodes” and their relationships are the only things that can be said to “define them.” The further physics goes, the more important the Huayan teachings will again become _()_

    • I love this so much. I apologize for the late reply, I’m terrible at this. Thank you for your comment and for the mention of Stephen Wolfram. Relationships being the only thing said to define them is deeply Huayen. I will certainly check him out.

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