Skip to main content



HUAYAN . A major tradition of Buddhist doctrine and practice that emerged in seventh-century China, Huayan (Jpn., Kegon; Kor., Hwaŏm) was soon transmitted to Korea and Japan, and has continued even into modern times to exert great influence on many aspects of religion, thought, and culture throughout East Asia. A product initially of the fruitful encounter between Mahāyāna Buddhism and elements of the native Chinese religious worldview, Huayan is especially noted for its liberating vision of the radical interrelatedness or interpenetration of all events and experiences, a unity amidst diversity wherein each and every particular phenomenon is seen both to incorporate and be absorbed by all other phenomena, without ever losing its own unique identity. It has often been characterized as a syncretism and, although more original than that description might suggest, it does in fact combine classical Mahāyāna themes like "emptiness" (śūnyatā ), "representation only" (vijñaptimātratā ), and the embryonic Buddhahood of all beings (tathāga-tagarbha ) with such native Chinese motifs as cosmic harmony, the essential rightness of the natural world, and the intrinsic goodness of human nature.

Although not at all lacking in practical relevance to such forms of actual religious life as meditation and morality, Huayan has traditionally been regarded, along with Tiantai, as one of the more theoretical or philosophical of Buddhist traditions, and as such has commonly been contrasted to supposedly more practical traditions like Chan (Zen) or Pure Land. That this contrast is an invidious oversimplification is seen in the actual history of the tradition, which abounds in examples of the amalgamation of practice with theory. This was the rule during the several centuries in which Huayan maintained its identity as a separate teaching lineage and it was even more apparent later when, having waned as a distinct "school," it continued to flourish either as a basic ingredient in other Buddhist traditions like Zen and Tantrism or as an influence upon non-Buddhist traditions like neo-Confucianism.

Scriptural Foundation

The scripture on which Huayan was based, and from which it took its name, is the Da fangguang fo Huayan jing (Sanskrit, following the Tibetan, Mahāvaipulya Buddhāvatasaka Sūtra ), known most commonly by the abbreviated title Huayan jing (Avatasaka Sūtra ) and usually referred to in English as the Flower Garland or Flower Ornament Scripture. This is a very long text composed of a number of originally independent scriptures of diverse provenance, all of which were combined, probably in Central Asia, sometime during the late third or the fourth century ce. It is a Mahāyāna scripture, mythopoeic and visionary in character like most of its genre and replete with grand descriptions of the Buddha, his extraordinary powers, his retinue of bodhisattva s and other heavenly beings, their qualities, and the myriad world-systems of Buddhist cosmology. Its occasion is the primal event itself, for the matters related by the text, insofar as they may be deemed temporal at all, are thought to have occurred during the period immediately following the Buddha's own experience of enlightenment, while he was still absorbed in the ineffable meditative experience (samādhi ) of all things as they really are.

Of special importance among the text's various themes is that of the bodhisattva path, with its many stages and wondrous spiritual attainments. All of this is conveyed in vivid imagery dominated by the motif of light and translucency. Pervasive radiance, the most salient feature of the scripture's world, is understood to represent the boundless scope and unimpeded force of the Buddha's insight, which reaches everywhere and before which nothing remains opaque. The text culminates in a final chapter, by far the longest and most cohesive, known in China as the Ru fajie pin (Chapter on entering the realm of truth) but elsewhere better known as the originally independent Gaavyūha Sūtra. This is the story of the youth Sudhana (Shancai), who represents all sentient beings aspiring to enlightenment, and of his long pilgrimage, during which he takes instruction from a number of spiritual advisers (fifty-two to fifty-four, depending on how one counts) and in effect accomplishes the bodhisattva path charted throughout the rest of the scripture. It is especially rich in the symbolism of fusion, interpenetration, and unity within multiplicity that would later inspire Huayan doctrine.

The earliest surviving version of the full text of the Avatasaka Sūtra is the Chinese translation done by Buddhabhadra between 418 and 420 ce (T.D. no. 278). That version comprises sixty fascicles (scrolls) and thirty-four chapters and is divided into eight "assemblies" (hui ) or scenes held at seven different locations. This was the version used by the earliest Huayan thinkers in their creation of the tradition. Another complete translation was done between 695 and 699 ce by Śikānanda (T.D. no. 279). This is in eighty fascicles and thirty-nine chapters, and it is usually divided into nine assemblies held at seven places. Shortly after its completion, this later version effectively supplanted Buddhabhadra's as the canonical foundation of the Huayan tradition.

Historical Outline

Study of the Huayan jing began almost immediately after Buddhabhadra's translation. The chronicles of fifth- and sixth-century Chinese Buddhism reveal not only that it was then a popular focus of scholarly scrutiny but also that it figured prominently in the devotional lives of many practitioners as a text to be chanted, copied, celebrated in maigre feasts, meditated upon, revered for its magical powers, and employed by artists as a repertory of themes. However, it was not until the early seventh century that anything even remotely like a distinctive Huayan "school" or lineage (zong ) can be said to have emerged. Scholars now trace such an origin to the Sui dynasty (589618) and the opening decades of the Tang dynasty (618907). Special attention has recently been given to a trio of monks associated in those years with the Zhixiang monastery, located in the Zhongnan mountains just south of the capital of Chang'an (Xi'an). The eldest was Dushun, also known as Fashun (557640), a meditation master and thaumaturge who was especially inspired by the Huayan jing and whose use of it in the performance of miracles earned him considerable prominence in local traditions of popular piety. He is also credited (but perhaps erroneously so) with the authorship of certain early Huayan treatises, the most important of which was the Fajie guanmen (Contemplations of the realm of truth), the locus classicus of the most famous of all Huayan doctrines, namely, the teaching of principle (li), phenomena (shi ), and the various modes of their interpenetration. Dushun was anointed by the later tradition as its "first patriarch," but it should be borne in mind that the conception of Huayan as a master-disciple succession in the manner of the Chan lineages is an anachronistic fiction.

Dushun's contemporary Zhizheng (559639) was a scholar-monk, heir to several of the scholastic traditions of sixth-century Chinese Buddhism and noted especially for his exegesis of the Huayan jing. These two men shared an outstanding student in the person of the monk Zhiyan (602668), traditionally held to be Huayan's second "patriarch." Zhiyan combined in his career both the emphasis on practice learned from Dushun and the breadth of scholarship fostered by Zhizheng and other of his teachers. He was expert particularly in the learning of two early Chinese traditions of Yogācāra Buddhism that incorporated important elements of Tathāgatagarbha thought, the Dilun school, based on Vasubandhu's Daśabhūmivyākhyāna (Exposition of the ten stages scripture) and the Shelun school, based on Pāramārtha's sixth-century translation of Asaga's Mahāyānasagraha (Compendium of Mahāyāna). He went on to apply his knowledge of these traditions in the study of the Huayan jing and composed several fundamental texts that are among the earliest pieces of distinctively Huayan literature. In the composition of these works Zhiyan created many of the doctrines that came to be characteristic of Huayan, not the least of these being the classical fivefold doctrinal classification (panjiao ) system, the rudiments of the sophisticated Huayan view of causation and dependent origination (yuanqi ), the teaching of "nature origination" (xingqi ), and the doctrine of the instantaneous achievement of buddhahood (yi'nian chengfo ).

Among Zhiyan's disciples, two were of special note. Ŭisang (625702) was a Korean monk who studied with Zhiyan in Chang'an in the mid-660s. He then returned to his homeland to establish Huayan as one of Korea's most important Buddhist traditions, beginning the process whereby Huayan came to enjoy proportionately greater and more enduring eminence in Korea than in either China or Japan. Ŭisang 's fellow student Fazang (643712), later judged to be the tradition's third "patriarch," was a man of enormous erudition and a prolific author especially skilled in the eloquent and methodical exposition of doctrine. He was Huayan's great systematizer and its first publicist. Much of his career was spent in codifying and elaborating the doctrines first formulated by his teacher and in adding to them teachings of his own devising, notably those born of his study of the Dasheng qixin lun (The awakening of faith in Mahāyāna).

The development of Huayan during the several decades following Fazang's death is complex. One of his disciples, the Korean monk Shimsang (Jpn., Shinjō; d. 742), was instrumental in transmitting Huayan to Japan, where it shortly became one of the dominant scholastic and ecclesiastical traditions of the Nara period (710794). Shimsang's lectures on the Huayan jing helped motivate Emperor Shomu (r. 724749) to construct the great Tōdai Temple and to install there the monumental Great Buddha, which ever since has stood as one of the foremost examples of Huayan influence on the arts. Another of Fazang's disciples, Huiyuan (c. 673743), departed from his master on several key doctrinal issues and was unfortunately dismissed by the later tradition as a kind of heretic. Familiar with Fazang's works, although never his student, was the layman Li Tongxuan (635?730?), whose several writingsincluding what was perhaps the first complete exposition of the eighty-fascicle translation of the Huayan jing are marked throughout by very original interpretations of Huayan themes.

The next phase in the history of Huayan is signaled by the contributions of its reputed fourth "patriarch," Chengguan (738839?). Born twenty-six years after Fazang's death and thus not his direct descendant, Chengguan nevertheless mastered the Huayan system, which he studied with a student of Fazang's student Huiyuan. He resided for many years in northern Shanxi, in the complex of monasteries located on the Wutai Mountains, long a center of Huayan devotion and study. His many treatises and exegetical works earned special distinction, particularly his immense commentary on the eighty-fascicle version of the Huayan jing, which would later vie with Li Tongxuan's work for pride of place among all commentaries on the scripture. Perhaps his most notable accomplishment was to have laid a foundation on which Huayan could consort with other kinds of Buddhism, not only the Monastic Discipline (Vinaya) tradition, Tiantai, and Sanlun (all of which he had studied) but also, and most significantly, Chan. Chengguan was a student of Chan during a crucial period in its history, just as it was in the process of taking the forms that would come to be regarded as classical. The Chan lineage with which he was most closely associated was the Oxhead (Niutou) tradition and this, in turn, had direct links with the classical Chan lineage par excellence, the Hongzhou school. Since Chan was then on the verge of becoming paramount among all Chinese Buddhist traditions, Chengguan's efforts to bring Chan and Huayan together were especially important; they helped assure a future for Huayan during the subsequent centuries of Chan dominance.

The last of the five great "patriarchs" of Huayan was the literatus-monk Zongmi (780841). An accomplished prose stylist and a scholar as well versed in China's "secular" traditions as in Buddhism, Zongmi combined a devout religious life with a successful clerical career and was cultivated by some of the foremost court scholars of his day. Like those of Chengguan, his Buddhist studies were by no means confined to Huayan. He too was a Chan monk, especially faithful to the Heze or "Southern Lineage" deriving from Shenhui (670762). He was especially noted for his advocacy of a text associated with none of the established traditions, the Yuanjue jing (Scripture of complete enlightenment), a Chinese composition devoted to themes of a Tathāgatagarbha sort. Against the background of mature Huayan doctrine, Zongmi classified all the varieties of Buddhism, including all forms of Chan, into a comprehensive and hierarchical overview of Buddhist doctrine and practice. He then extended that classification to include both Confucianism and Daoism by composing the famous Yuanren lun (Enquiry into the origins of man), a reply to the critique of Buddhism found in essays of similar title by Han Yu (768824), the great precursor of neo-Confucianism. Of special importance for the future of Huayan was his advocacy of a unification of Chan and the more doctrinal (jiao ) forms of Buddhism, Huayan being in his view the foremost of the latter. He is also sometimes identified as a bridge between Buddhism and neo-Confucianism.

After Zongmi, Huayan's history becomes rather diffuse. Traditional accounts continue to speak of a Huayan lineage extending through the end of the Tang into the Song dynasty, and such lineages did persist in Korea and Japan, but after the late ninth century the truly significant developments in Huayan were those occurring in other traditions that made use of Huayan themes. Huayan thought was particularly important in several lineages of Five Dynasties and Song dynasty Chan, the Linji master Dahui (10891163), for example, being only one of a great many prominent Song Chan figures indebted to Huayan. It was also absorbed just as deeply into Korean Chan (Sŏn), as may be seen in the thought of Chinul (11581210), Korea's greatest Chan teacher. And in Japan, where Esoteric Buddhism (Mikkyō) developed further than anywhere else in East Asia, Mikkyō practitioners like Myōe Shonin (Kōben; 11731232) made unique use of Huayan motifs in their Esoteric contemplations and writings.

The Teachings

Underlying the often bewildering array of technical doctrines that comprise Huayan is the single, unitary vision of a world in which all thingsboth the particular phenomenal things (shi, "phenomena") that comprise conventional worldly experience and the general noumenal truths or principles (li) that govern phenomenal realityare seen "to be without mutual obstruction" (wu'ai ), that is, to enter, include, penetrate, absorb, and fuse with each other, but to do so without losing their respective identities. In traditional Buddhist terms, this is simply a novel and ingenious reiteration of the cardinal doctrine of dependent origination (Skt., pratītya-samutpāda; Chin., yuanqi ), whereby things are said neither to exist in themselves (the error of eternalism) nor not to exist (the error of annihilationism). However, whereas it is more typical of earlier Buddhism to employ negative, "neither/nor" phrasing to express this teaching and its corollaries, Huayan favored more affirmative locutions, even if they required figurative rather than literal language.

Perhaps the best known and most effective example of this is the metaphor of the "net of Indra." This inspired trope pictures a universe in which each constituent of reality is like a multifaceted jewel placed at one of the knots of a vast net. There is such a jewel at each knot, and each jewel reflects not only the rest of the jeweled net in its entirety but also each and every other jewel in its individuality. Thus, each particular reflects the totality, the totality so reflected is both a unity and a multiplicity, and the reflecting particular maintains its distinctive but not discrete reality. All things and beings, Huayan teaches, are like these jewels. When this "metaphysical" insight is made to yield its soteriological or gnoseological implications it is seen to entail, among other things, the essential Buddhahood of each sentient being, the potential enlightenment at the core of all ignorance, the fundamental purity of all defilements, the eternality of each instant, the presence of the Buddha mind in all objects, and the final attainment implicit in even the most elementary stage of the path.

According to Huayan's five-part scheme of doctrinal classification, all other forms of Buddhism saw only a part of this comprehensive truth. Hīnayāna Buddhism saw the emptiness of beings, their selflessness, but not the emptiness of all events (dharma ). Elementary Mahāyānathe emptiness teaching and the version of the Representation Only teaching that held the mind to be essentially corruptsaw the insubstantiality of all things and beings, and the inveterate ignorance and impurity of the mind which infected and distorted the world, but it did not see the countervailing actuality of those things and beings or the deeper purity of their underlying wisdom. Mature Mahāyānathe Tathāgatagarbha tradition and the version of the Representation Only teaching that affirmed the essential purity of the mindsaw the immanence of transcendental reality, for example, the buddhahood in each sentient being, but ran the risk of a kind of docetism in which particular mundane things were subordinated to the universal supramundane truths they harbored and were not valued in themselves. The so-called sudden teaching (dunjiao )associated initially with the theme of silence in texts like the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa (The discourse of Vimalakīrti) but later with the translinguistic character of Chan practicesaw the limits and snares of language and conceptualization and emphasized the all-at-once nature of liberation, to which words and ideas can make no gradual approach, but it ran the risk of underestimating the need for effortful practice and the importance of language and imagination in practice. It was only Huayan itselfthe "complete" or "perfect" (yuan, literally "round") teachingthat comprehended the whole truth without succumbing to partiality or extremes. In this respect Huayan saw itself as the "one vehicle," identical (tong ) with all other vehicles combined insofar as it included them all, but also separate (bie ) from them in that it surpassed them all.

There was something about the Huayan worldview that East Asian cultures, shaped as they were by the values of classical Chinese civilization, found quite congenial. Perhaps it was the deft way in which Huayan thinkers combined Chinese values and notions, like the affirmation of "this world" or the conception of reality as a concrete order governed by principles of harmony and complementarity, with basic Buddhist concepts like insubstantiality, interdependence, and the essentially mind-made character of all things. No doubt the abstruse character of Huayan discourse needed the leaven of an emphasis on practice and experience, a leaven of the sort it was to find in its collaboration with Chan and Mikkyō, but with that it rose to be a major ingredient in the intellectual and religious life of the whole East Asian world, and it stands even today as a paramount example of the East Asian transformation of Buddhism.

See Also

Chinul; Dushun; Fazang; Kōben; Pratītya-samutpāda; Ŭisang; Zhiyan; Zongmi.


The best and most extensive scholarship on Huayan is that done by modern Japanese scholars. Those who have access to that language would do well to consult especially the works of Takamine Ryōshū, Sakamoto Yukio, Kamata Shigeo, Kimura Kiyotaka, and Yoshizu Yoshihide, to name only a few. Sustained Western-language study of the tradition got off to an inauspicious start with the publication of Garma C. C. Chang's unreliable and tendentious The Buddhist Teaching of Totality (University Park, Pa., 1971). The situation was improved considerably, however, by the appearance of Francis D. Cook's Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra (University Park, Pa., 1977), which, though clearly as much concerned to advocate Huayan as to present it to the academic community, is sound and informative. It deals especially with the thought of Fazang. Two other works of lesser value have recently appeared that put Huayan into the service of idiosyncratic Western philosophical programs. They are Alfonso Verdú's Dialectical Aspects in Buddhist Thought (Lawrence, Kans., 1974), which treats especially of uses of Huayan thought in Caodong Chan from a Hegelian perspective, and Steve Odin's very odd miscellany, Process Metaphysics and Hua-yen Buddhism (Albany, N.Y., 1982), which deals haplessly with the thought of Ŭisang and attempts to draw comparisons between Huayan and the work of Western thinkers like Whitehead, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and others.

Three different translations of the Huayan jing are now under way. Thomas Cleary's The Flower Ornament Scripture, of which the first volume has already appeared (Boulder, Colo. 1984), is an excellent rendering of the eighty-fascicle version of the Chinese text. The same version is being translated by members of the International Institute for the Translation of Buddhist Texts in Talmage, California. Theirs is a resolutely literal translation with interspersed commentary by the contemporary Chinese monk Xuanhua; more than ten volumes have so far appeared. Apart from a few standard pieces like Fazang's Golden Lion Treatise or Zongmi's Enquiry into the Origins of Man, which appear in indifferent translations in certain popular anthologies, not much of the enormous corpus of Huayan literature composed in China, Korea, and Japan has yet been translated into Western languages, but Thomas Cleary has recently published a collection of fine though sparsely annotated translations of several shorter works by Dushun, Zhiyan, Fazang, and Chengguan. The collection is entitled Entry into the Inconceivable (Honolulu, 1983).

New Sources

Gimello, Robert M. "Early Hua-yen, Meditation, and Early Ch'an: Some Preliminary Considerations." In Early Ch'an in China and Tibet, edited by Whalen Lai and Lewis R. Lancaster, pp. 149164. Berkeley, 1983.

Gimello, Robert M., and Peter N. Gregory, eds. Studies in Ch'an and Hua-yen. Honolulu, 1983.

Gregory, Peter N. "What Happened to the Perfect Teaching? Another Look at Hua-yen Buddhist Hermeneutics." In Buddhist Hermeneutics, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., pp. 207230. Honolulu, 1988.

Gregory, Peter N. Inquiry into the Origin of Humanity: An Annotated Translation of Tsung-mi's Yüan jen lun with a Modern Commentary. Honolulu, 1995.

Liu, Ming-wood. "The Lotus Sutra and Garland Sutra according to the T'ien-t'ai and Hua-yen Schools in Chinese Buddhism." T'oung Pao 74, nos. 13 (1988): 4780.

Obert, Mathias. Sinndeutung und Zeitlichkeit: zur Hermeneutik des Huayan-Buddhismus. Hamburg, 2000.

Shim, Jae-ryong. "Faith and Practice in Hua-yen Buddhism: A Critique of Fa-tsang (643712) by Li T'ung-hsuan (646740)." In Buddhist and Taoist Practice in Medieval Chinese Society, edited by David W. Chappell, pp. 109124. Honolulu, 1987.

Tachikawa, Musashi. "The Tetralemma in Chinese Hua-Yen School: In Comparison with That of the Madhyamaka-karika." In Kalyana-mitta: Professor Hajime Nakamura Felicitation Volume, edited by V. N. Jha, pp. 8799. Delhi, 1991.

Robert M. Gimello (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Huayan." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 20 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Huayan." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (August 20, 2018).

"Huayan." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 20, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.