Buddhism—Schools: Hua yan

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated


The Hua yan school of Buddhism developed in China between 6001000 CE, flourishing at the end of the Tang dynasty. It relies for much of its doctrine on exegesis of the Mahayana Buddhist scripture known as the Hua yan Jing. The name Hua yan (Japanese: Kegon ) is intended to be the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit Avatasaka, which means "flower garland." The term is ostensibly the title of a Sanskrit sutra, the Mahāvaipulya Buddhāvatasaka Sūtra. The Hua yan school developed a panjiao (system of classification of Buddhist doctrines), which takes the Hua yan Jing to be the most profound of all the Buddhist sutras. This is because it was, according to legend, spoken by the Buddha while in the throes of his awakening experience.

Central Texts

The term vaipulya in the title indicates that the text is a composite one, cobbled together from several other texts of various lengths and origins. Some parts of the text, for example the Daśabhūmika and the Gandavyūha, do exist in a Sanskrit original. In addition, some parts of the text are laden with Chinese phoneticizations of Sanskrit terms, which also indicate a likely Indian origin. The rest is more or less likely to be of indigenously Chinese origin, passed off as or uncritically taken to be translations of Sanskrit originals. For this reason, the origins of the Hua yan tradition are linked to the evolution of a fully sinicized Buddhism.

This is complicated by the fact that many of the key, pivotal translators and advocates of these materials were not indigenously Chinese but in fact were from Central Asia. China and India were kept culturally autonomous for a long time because of the daunting obstacle presented by the Himalayas, so early contact actually was more likely to take place in areas of easy access to the Silk Road. This complicated matters because of the cultural homogenization that also followed along with such developments. Since the latter part of the twentieth century, there has been much study about the extent to which the flow of ideas from many cultures along the Silk Road influenced the development of the uniquely Chinese forms of Buddhism.

There are two arguably complete versions, or translations, of the text in Chinese. The earliest consists of sixty chapters, produced by Buddhabhadra in about 420. Traditionally, this has been used by Hua yan writers as the standard text. In 699 a version in eighty chapters was produced by Śikananda. The only complete English translation of the Hua yan sutra, in three volumes, was produced by Thomas Cleary in the late 1980s. For reasons he does not explain, Cleary translates Śikananda's version, although it is not as historically important as Buddhabhadra's text.

In addition, there do exist various Chinese versions of parts of the sutra, such as the Gandavyūha, for which is there is a Sanskrit original.

Another text of crucial importance to the development of the Hua yan tradition is the Dasheng Qixin Lun (Mahayana awakening of faith). This text is also arguably an apocryphal text, written in Chinese but taken as a translation of a nonexistent Sanskrit text ostensibly titled Mahayānaśraddhotpāda. This text is cited by all the prominent Hua yan writers and is thus granted a substantial authority. This text has been linked to the ontologization of Buddhism as it developed in the Chinese context, perhaps due to Central Asian and Silk Road influences. Ideas that take shape in this text include such metaphysical notions as buddha nature and tathāgatagarbha (womb of buddhahood), which some scholars take to be countertheoretical to basic Indian Buddhist premises of the pointlessness of metaphysical assertions and speculations. In fact, within modern Japanese Zen traditions, there are those who suggest that East Asian Buddhism in general is not Buddhism. These critical Buddhists point precisely to the type of foundational tathāgatagarbha thinking that can be directly linked to the Awakening of Faith and its influence as topical, non-Buddhist elements that encroach on the central insights.

Patriarchal Lineage

According to the retrospective view of Zongmi (780841), there are four patriarchs or lineage figures in the Hua yan tradition, and he styles himself as the fifth patriarch. This comes to be seen as the orthodox lineage by the subsequent tradition. This standard list of patriarchs includes Dushun, Zhiyan, Fazang, Chengguan, and Zongmi. This is a retrospective lineage, which means that it is not at all clear that Dushun and Zhiyan saw themselves as members of a Hua yan school. This attribution is applied after the fact, as the tradition comes to consider the sources of its own emphases.

Dushun is said to have lived from 558 to 640. Although apparently prominent as an adept and miracle worker in his time, he is most influential as the purported author of a text known as the Hua yan Fajie Guanmen (Meditative approaches to the Hua yan Dharmadhātu). This text introduces the Four Dharmadhātu model that will be discussed later on, and thus provides a solid basis for the later developments in Hua yan thought.

Zhiyan (602668), the second patriarch, is not as well known. His most prominent contribution to the discourse is the so-called Ten Mysteries. These are basically a series of metaphors for interpenetration and mutual causation, and many of them are in fact redundant. Regardless, this language persists in the work of Fazang, perhaps the grand systematizer of Hua yan thought.

Although attributed as the third patriarch, Fazang (643712) may have been the first to think of himself as founding or joining a specific school of thought. Fazang's family was of Central Asian origin, in Samarqand, a prominent center on the Silk Road. A prolific writer, he wrote somewhere between sixty and one hundred works on various topics, the most important being commentaries on the Hua yan Jing and the Mahayana Awakening of Faith. He rose to prominence at the court of the empress Wu, after a series of performances in which he used such examples as a room of mirrors to demonstrate Hua yan principles of interpenetration and nonobstruction. Fazang's school stood in contrast to the school of Xuanzang, who had gone to India to learn Sanskrit and translate scores of Buddhist texts into Chinese. This conflict can be seen as being between the Indic and the sinicized forms of Buddhism. Ultimately, Fazang's view prevails, for a variety of philosophical, cultural, and political reasons. This may be an early and important stage in the sinicization of Buddhism.

Chengguan, the fourth patriarch, lived from 738 to 840. The lineage is somewhat obscure here, as Fazang's actual disciple, Huiyan, was understood by the later tradition to have corrupted the teaching. Chengguan, who was born after Fazang died, was nevertheless seen as the fourth patriarch in the sense that he is believed to have restored the integrity of Fazang's teachings. He did seem to have led a renewed interest in the school on the part of the ruling class and the scholars.

The last of the orthodox patriarchs is Zongmi (780841). Zongmi is best known for his syncretic concerns, including his interest in sorting out the various schools of Buddhism, especially Chan Buddhism. Because of his interest in panjiao, his works are a treasure house of historical information about the schools of Buddhism active at his time. What is perhaps most significant about Zongmi is his concern with reconciling and synthesizing Hua yan and Chan Buddhism. In fact, Zongmi is sometimes attributed with lineage roles in both the Chan and Hua yan traditions, though these claims cannot be accepted uncritically. This leads to an oversimplification expounded by the famous Japanese Zen scholar Daisetz Suzuki, who argues that Hua yan is theoretical and establishes the principle behind Zen that is practical. However, this is too polemic a description of the situation, since Chan and Zen have a long textual and theoretical history, while Hua yan does provide practices of its own, for instance the meditation on the Four Dharmadhātus discussed later in this entry.

Besides the so-called orthodox lineage just discussed, there are also a number of figures who belong to what might be called heterodox lineages in the sense that they follow exegetical lines of reasoning not adopted by the later traditions. These include, as mentioned, Fazang's student, Huiyuan, and the iconoclastic Li Tongxuan.

The Four DharmadhĀtus

Perhaps the most fundamental concept in all of Hua yan Buddhist thinking is the synonymy of emptiness and dependent arising. Emptiness (Sanskrit: śūnyatā ; Chinese: kong ) is a traditional Buddhist notion that refers to the absence of self-being in all things and events. It does not mean that things do not existit means that all things that exist do so in dependence on other things, which is the meaning of dependent arising (Sanskrit: pratītyasamutpāda ; Chinese: yinyuan ). Hua yan, consistent with characteristic Chinese attitudes, placed focus on the positive side of this formulation, that even though empty, things actually do exist.

This is perhaps most clearly expressed in the model of the Four Dharmadhātus as initially formulated in Dushun's seminal text, Meditative Approaches to the Hua yan Dharmadhātu, and subsequently developed further by Chengguan. The term dharmadhātu is a way of referring to the realm of all dharmas (events). In other words, the dharmadhātu is the world in the most comprehensive sense. This model of the world is represented sometimes, especially in the work of Fazang, in terms of the metaphor of Indra's jeweled net. This net consists of many-faceted gems, each of which reflects every other gem, and reflects itself reflected in every other gem.

The formula of the Four Dharmadhātus is proposed as a support for meditation practices. Although they are often rendered in such a way as to suggest that there are four separate realms, they more properly represent four types or orders of perspectives on experience. The first is the tacit, uncritical commonsense lower-order perspective, and the others are higher-order or meditative perspectives. The goal seems to be a type of perspectival flexibility, which corrects the obsessive-compulsive tendency to identify with a single perspective by acknowledging the multiplicity of perspectives available and by adopting higher-order perspectives that reconcile the inconsistencies present between lower-order perspectives. This is like standing in a hallway with two people on either end. I can see one or the other, because of my limited perspective, but I cannot see both simultaneously. If I were to stand above the hallway somehow and look down on it, I might be able to see both at once. Higher-order perspectives similarly circumscribe and sustain perspectives that appear incompatible at the surface level.

The first of these types of perspectives is termed shi, often rendered as "phenomenon" or "event." This is the tacit, ordinary, conventional perspective adopted and identified with by most people most of the time. It takes events at more or less face valueit does not raise questions about metaphysics or ontological or epistemological status. There is virtually an infinite set of possible perspectives at this level. Garma C. C. Chang, in The Buddhist Teaching of Totality (1971), offers the example of a glass of water. The water is seen by a chemist as H2O, or a universal solvent. It is seen by a firefighter as something to extinguish flames. It is seen by a thirsty person as something to drink. It is in fact all these things, potentially, though at any given time it may function in one or another way. The problem with this perspective arises when it is universally applied, even in cases when other perspectives seem to conflict with it. Although admittedly a silly example, if a firefighter were dying of thirst but could only see the water as a means of extinguishing fires, then he might die of thirst before he would think to drink the water. An obstinate application of disjunctive perspectives is counterproductive and causes frustration or suffering, the elimination of which is the goal of Buddhism in general.

The second type of perspective is represented by the word li, which translates as "rule" or "underlying or abstract principle." In that general sense, li is what all shi have in common. To shift perspective to the li is to resolve all distinctions into some commonality. For example, one can either see coffee and tea as separate things, which would be the level of shi, or one can see them as all being water, which is the level of li. However, in the case of Hua yan metaphysics, the li is śūnyatā (emptiness). What all things have in common is that they all lack self-causation or causal autonomy. Everything depends on everything else. The Buddhist texts warn, however, not to ontologize emptiness and make it into a thing. It is the nature of things, which is not a thing in itself. So whereas in the first dharmadhātu things are seen as distinct things, in the second they are all seen as empty of self-being.

The third dharmadhātu is called lishi wuai (nonobstruction of li and shi ). From this perspective, the emptiness of things does not interfere with the thingness of things. This would be experience things as in some sense distinguishable while simultaneously experiencing them as indistinguishably empty.

This does not, however, yet constitute full accomplishment. The final dharmadhātu is shishi wuai (nonobstruction between phenomena and other phenomena). By realizing that the emptiness of things does not interfere with the thingness of things, one is then able to realize that the specific nature of any one thing does not interfere with the specific nature of any other one thing. As Zongmi says in his commentary to Dushun's text, "all distinct phenomenal dharmas interfuse and penetrate in all ways" (Fox 1988, p. 299). In terms of the example used earlier in the description of the first dharmadhātu, the potability of the water does not interfere with the fire extinguishing properties of the water, which does not interfere with the solvency of water. All these manifestations are all potential manifestations of the same phenomenon. This is how the Buddha sees the world according to the Hua yan tradition, as omnipotentially present in a world of infinitely fractal possibilities. This is a liberation from the fixation on a single, lower-order perspective.

To put this model using modern concepts, one might look at a baseball as a baseball, intended for a certain use in a certain game according to certain rules. One would not be wrong in doing so, but one can also see the baseball as more basically composed of atoms. One would also not be wrong, of course. When one sees the baseball as a baseball, one sees what makes it different from everything else. When one sees the baseball as atoms, one sees what the baseball has in common with everything else, that is, one overlooks the distinctions between things. At the level of the third dharmadhātu, one is able to see that the phenomenal and atomic natures of the object do not interfere with each other. It is both atoms and a baseball. Meanwhile, the fourth level encourages one to see the baseball in either its phenomenal or atomic sense as overlapping with every other ostensible object in the universe. This is not far fetched. Phenomenally, one might point out that a baseball would not exist if there was not a game and a population to play it, and so is not entirely separable from those other events. Atomically, one notes that objects share ions with their environments in such a way as to constitute overlapping. It would not even make sense to suggest that an atom could exist in complete isolation, since in fact the atom is made of parts as well, which are made of parts, possibly ad infinitum, as modern string theorists suggest.

Fazang is particularly famous for a couple of metaphors used to demonstrate this principle of nonobstruction and mutual penetration. He is said to have made a huge impression on the empress Wu with these demonstrations, attracting much in the way of imperial support for his writing and translation projects. In one case he is said to have had constructed a room with mirrors on all four walls, as well as in the corners, floor, and ceiling. A torch and statue of the Buddha were placed in the center, and the result was reflections within reflections, each mirror reflecting the other mirrors reflecting itself. This suggested to Fazang a way of explaining how everything can simultaneously be the cause and the effect of everything else. As Chang notes in the The Buddhist Teaching of Totality, Fazang is said to have exclaimed that "[t]he principle of the simultaneous arising of different realms is so obvious here that no explanation is necessary" (1971, p. 24). Fazang is also known for using a golden statue of a lion to illustrate a similar principle. Although from one point of view the lion has distinguishable hairs and claws and limbs and teeth, from another point of view the lion is entirely and homogeneously gold.

It is worth pointing out that such an omnicausal model conflates the various types of causal relations that Aristotle, for example, distinguishes, such as efficient, material, final, contiguous, and other types of causal relations. By contrast, the purpose of the model is not to distinguish causal subtleties but to stimulate contextual and perspectival flexibility.

In general, the practice of Hua yan can be described as the attempt to deconstruct one's typically logocentric preoccupation with a fixed perspective, by engaging in a series of exercises that cultivate perspectival flexibility. This is seen to liberate one from the oppression of identifying with a single perspective, which leads to conflict and frustration.

There are many possible parallels between Hua yan thought and Western philosophers and philosophies. For instance, Alfred North Whitehead's process philosophy has been compared to Hua yan's emphasis on the actualization of events out of potentiality, an idea that is also present in modern quantum mechanics. Gestalt and other forms of cognitive psychologies share with Hua yan an emphasis on the importance of perspectival flexibility. In particular, contemporary phenomenological approaches have much in common with Hua yan's concern with the phenomenon qua phenomenon, and both share an emphasis on the importance of experience and perspective that renders metaphysical and absolute statements speculative and counterproductive.

See also Buddhism; BuddhismSchools: Chan and Zen.


Chang, Garma C. C. The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The Philosophy of Hwa Yen Buddhism. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1971.

Cleary, Thomas, tr. Entry into the Inconceivable: An Introduction to Hua-yen Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983.

Cleary, Thomas, tr. Entry into the Realm of Reality: The Guide. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 1989.

Cleary, Thomas, tr. The Flower Ornament Scripture. 3 vols. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 19841987.

Cook, Francis. Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981.

Fox, Alan. Elements of Omnicontextual Thought in Chinese Buddhism: Annotated Translations of Gui Feng Zong Mi's Preface to Collection of Various Writings on the Chan Source and His Commentary on "Meditative Approaches to the Hua Yen Dharmadhatu." Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1988.

Gimello, Robert. Chih-yen and the Foundations of Hua-Yen Buddhism. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1976.

Gimello, Robert, and Peter Gregory, eds. Studies in Ch'an and Hua-yen. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983.

Gregory, Peter. Inquiry into the Origin of Humanity. Honolulu, Hawaii: Kuroda Institute, 1995.

Gregory, Peter. Tsung-mi and the Sinification of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Liu, Ming-wood. The Teaching of Fa-tsang: An Examination of Buddhist Metaphysics. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1979.

Odin, Steve. Process Metaphysics and Hua-Yen Buddhism: A Critical Study of Cumulative Penetration vs. Interpenetration. Albany: SUNY Press, 1982.

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. Essays in Zen Buddhism, Third Series. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1971.

Takakusu, Junjiro. The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass, 1956.

Verdu, Alfonso. Dialectical Aspects in Buddhist Thought: Studies in Sino-Japanese Mahayana Idealism. Lawrence: Center for East Asian Studies, University of Kansas, 1974.

Wright, Dale. Emptiness and Paradox in the Thought of Fa-Tsang. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1980.

Alan Fox (2005)