Huayan Art

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The comprehensive and multidimensional vision of reality as expounded in the Huayan jing (Sanskrit, Avataṃsaka-sūtra; Flower Garland Sūtra) has provided a wealth of inspiration to Buddhist artists in all the Asian cultures in which the scripture was received. Not only is the text filled with exalted visions and holy themes, but its elaborate descriptions of "ocean-like assemblies" and the "jewels of Indra's Net" fired the imagination of the faithful. Hence it is no coincidence that in time an established set of themes associated with the various chapters of the Avataṃsaka-sūtra was developed. Most popular of these is the opening scene in which Śākyamuni Buddha, after his enlightenment, attains the transcendental body (dharmakāya) of Vairocana, the Cosmic Buddha. Later a pictorial scheme became popular in which the central scenes were represented together as the "nine assemblies in seven locations."

Each of these scenes is depicted as a standard buddha assembly with a seated Vairocana surrounded by all the bodhisattvas, arhats, divinities, and protectors. Another important Avatamsaka-related theme is provided by the Gaṅḍavyūha, a text that is an integral part of the long version of the Avataṃsaka-sūtra. This embedded scripture describes the youth Sudhana's spiritual journey in search of enlightenment. Some secular powers used its cosmological and encompassing vision of totality in order to adopt the authority and perceived enlightenment of a Buddhist theocracy. Hence the Avataṃsaka-sūtra inevitably came to be associated with the divine mandate of various ruling houses in East Asia.


Among the earliest expressions of Huayan-related art in China are the so-called cosmic buddhas, images in stone and bronze that depict the standing Vairocana. What distinguishes these images from other standing buddhas is the fact that their robes are adorned with numerous small images of buddhas and other beings meant to represent the totality of the dharmadhĀtu (dharma realm). The monumental buddha images in the Yun'gang caves outside of Datong in northern Shanxi are the earliest examples of Buddhist art in China relating to Vairocana. Stone sculptures dating from the late Northern Wei (386–534) and Northern Qi (550–577) found at the site of the Longxing Monastery in Shandong feature Vairocana images whose robes are painted with scenes of the dharmadhātu.

The Huayan school of Buddhism reached unprecedented popularity during the late seventh century through the efforts of the third Huayan patriarch Fazang (643–712). With solid backing from Empress Wu Zedian (r. 684–704) and the imperial court, the creations of various monuments associated with the Huayan school and its cosmology were initiated as part of a new cult of kingship in which the empress played the role of a cakravartin (wheel-turning ruler). One of the most famous Huayan-related images made around this period is the large Vairocana image carved in the grotto of the Fengxian Monastery in the Longmen complex of grottoes. The 13.5-meter-high image is carved in the style characteristic of Buddhist sculptural art as it flourished in the central provinces during the second half of the seventh century. Iconographically it does not bear any distinctive marks or characteristics that clearly identify it with Vairocana. This indicates that at the time of its making a distinct Huayan iconography had not yet developed. However, this appears to have changed in the following decades. Images of the adorned Vairocana wearing crowns and jewelry, symbols representing the transcendent and cosmic nature of this buddha, are found among the Buddhist carvings of Sichuan in sites such as Wanfo cliff in Guangyuan and at Feixian Pavilion in Pujiang.

The Huayan school remained influential throughout the Tang and left a strong imprint on the future development of Chinese Buddhism. Wall paintings and votive banners thought to date from the eighth century and featuring dharmadhātu tableaux—in essence an illustrated guide to the Avataṃsaka-sūtra's "nine assemblies in seven locations"—have been found in the Mogao caves in Dunhuang.

During the late Tang dynasty (618–907), Sichuan province developed a strong Huayan cult that is especially reflected in the expressive narrative stone carvings of Dazu. Some of the sculptural groups here give evidence of a merger between the imagery of Huayan and that of the Mijiao (Esoteric) school, a development that culminated in the creation of the pilgrimage center on Mount Baoding to the north of Dazu during the middle of the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279). This important pilgrimage site features monumental sculptural groups in stone depicting central scenes and tableaux of the Avataṃsaka-sūtra and related scriptures.

During the Northern Song (960–1127), the Gaṇḍavyūha reached new heights of popularity through the printing of the illustrated text of Sudhana's journey by master Foguo (eleventh–twelfth centuries), a monk of the Yunmen branch of the Chan school. The presence of Huayan imagery within the context of Chan Buddhism shows the extent to which the former tradition influenced other schools of Chinese Buddhism during the Song dynasty.

The Khitan rulers of the Liao empire (907–1125) were devout Buddhists and the Huayan school enjoyed special patronage. Numerous monasteries were built, including many belonging to the Huayan school. Among these were the Higher and Lower Huayan monasteries in Datong, where an impressive group of wooden sculptures stand on an altar in the center of the temple building, creating a maṆḌala-like arrangement with a figure of Vairocana in the center surrounded by attending bodhisattvas.

Holy Buddhist mountains such as Mount Emei in Sichuan and Mount Wutai in northern Shanxi province, being the abodes of the bodhisattvas Samantabhadra and Mañjuśrī, respectively, the primary attendants of Vairocana Buddha, have long been associated with the Huayan Buddhist tradition.


Huayan (Korean, Hwaŏm) Buddhism reached the Korean peninsula during the late seventh century, where it soon achieved the same importance and popularity as in China. A number of prominent monks, including Ŏisang (625–702) and his contemporary Wŏnhyo (617–686), actively propagated the teachings prior to the actual founding of the Hwaŏm school in the early eighth century. During the eighth century a number of monasteries belonging to the Hwaŏm school were built in different parts of the country. Outside the Silla capital of Kyŏngju, King Kyŏngdŏk (r. 742–765) constructed SŎkkuram, a manmade grottolike sanctuary, as a symbol of the close link between royal power and Buddhism. It would appear that the central buddha image at Sŏkkuram, an impressive sculpture in polished granite, was meant to depict Śākyamuni Buddha at the moment he manifests as Vairocana in accordance with the opening chapter of the Avataṃsaka-sūtra. The image is iconographically identical to ordinary images of Śākyamuni, but the context of the shrine itself, with its central altar and special rounded ground plan (perhaps a symbolic representation of the dharmadhātu), as well as the secondary images carved in relief along the sides, suggest that the Sŏkkuram Buddha is actually a representation of Vairocana.

During the ninth century, Esoteric Buddhism became increasingly popular in Korea, and many of its elements, such as its ritual practices and its art, were adopted by other schools of Korean Buddhism. Among other things this process resulted in the creation of Vairocana images that reflect the dual influence of both Hwaŏm and Esoteric Buddhism (Korean, milgyo). Vairocana images in early Korean Buddhism are always unadorned, that is, they are without crowns and bodily ornaments. It is only during the Koryŏ dynasty (918–1392) that adorned images chiefly associated with Esoteric Buddhism become prominent.

With the first printing of the Buddhist canon during the eleventh century, which established the Buddhist

scriptures in their definitive form, the Koreans also fixed the associated iconography. It became common to carve frontispieces on the blocks with an opening chapter of a given scripture, whereby iconographical forms and typologies became standardized. This was also the case with the Avataṃsaka-sūtra, which enjoyed a special popularity during the Koryŏ. Hence, all the major themes and scenarios of the sūtra were illustrated with explanatory cartouches inserted throughout.

During the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910) the importance of Hwaŏm Buddhism as an intellectual tradition declined. However, its imagery and cosmology still captivated the minds of the Korean Buddhists. This is especially evident in the tradition associated with the distinctly Korean votive paintings (Korean, t'aenghwa) hung above the main altars of temple buildings. Among the many themes depicted is that of the dharmadhātu with the "nine assemblies in seven locations." Interestingly, this follows more or less the same iconographical arrangement as the similar, but much earlier, Chinese Buddhist paintings from Dunhuang.


The teachings associated with Huayan (Japanese, Kegon) Buddhism were transmitted to Japan from China and Korea during the late seventh century, and the Kegon school became one of the leading denominations of Japanese Buddhism during the Nara period (710–794). During the eighth century a number of temples were established under imperial patronage for the Kegon school in the capital. Among these, Tōaiji, located in the center of Nara, is the most important and imposing. In this temple Emperor Shōmu (r. 724–749), imitating Empress Wu Zedian, established the Kegon school as an imperial cult. To this end he had cast in bronze a sixteen-meter-high image of Vairocana Buddha, the largest such image in the world at that time. The lotus petals of its enormous seat are adorned with engraved scenes of the dharmadhātu and imagery from the Avataṃsaka-sūtra. The image was dedicated in a large ceremony in 752.

During the ninth century the Kegon school declined with the transfer of the capital to Heian (Kyoto) in 794 and the rise of Tendai and Shingon Buddhism. However, even after its decline the Kegon school continued to exert considerable influence on Japanese Buddhism. During the late Heian period the charismatic monk Myōe KŌben (ca. 1173–1232) continued to transmit Kegon doctrines and practices at Kōzanji outside Kyoto. Due to his influence many pieces of religious art associated with the Avataṃsaka-sūtra were created, including paintings of the dharmadhātu and Sudhana's journey.

Southeast Asia

The Avataṃsaka-sūtra also became popular in Southeast Asia, where we find Sudhana's journey prominently displayed among the reliefs decorating the three-dimensional mandala edifice of Borobudur in Java, which was part of the Śailendra kingdom (ca. 750–860). Images in bronze and stone of Vairocana and other buddhas and bodhisattvas associated with the imagery of the Avataṃsaka-sūtra have also been found elsewhere in Java, most notably in the vicinity of Prambanam in the central part of the island.

See also:Central Asia, Buddhist Art in; China, Buddhist Art in; Hōryūji and Tōdaij; Japan, Buddhist Art in; Korea, Buddhist Art in; Southeast Asia, Buddhist Art in


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Henrik H. SØrensen