Huayan School

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The Huayan school is one of the uniquely Chinese traditions of Buddhism that emerged during the Sui (581–618) and Tang (618–907) dynasties. It is especially known for its comprehensive and rarefied system of religious philosophy, which is widely regarded as a pinnacle of doctrinal development in medieval Chinese Buddhism. Huayan teachings also exerted a significant influence on the doctrinal evolution of other Buddhist traditions throughout East Asia. Huayan's formation was related to and inspired by the Huayan jing (Sanskrit, Avataṃsaka-sūtra; Flower Garland Sūtra), and the school adopted its name from the scripture's title. Key Huayan concepts and doctrines, such as mutual interpenetration and identity, are based on religious motifs and discussions presented in the Huayan jing. Nonetheless, the Huayan school also drew on other texts and traditions, and was predisposed toward imaginative theoretical innovation. Accordingly, the full range of its teachings goes beyond parameters set by the Huayan jing and other canonical sources, and involves novel philosophical reflections on the nature of reality.

The mature Huayan system represents an ingenious amalgamation of mythopoetic motifs and doctrinal tenets of Indian provenance, on one hand, with philosophical outlooks and spiritual sentiments representative of indigenous Chinese religious and intellectual traditions, on the other. While they incorporate the main streams of MahĀyĀna scholasticism and substantiate their arguments by referring to an array of canonical sources, the writings of the Huayan patriarchs also reveal an unmistakably Chinese concern for harmony and balance, and a tendency to valorize the phenomenal realm. For that reason, the formation of the Huayan school is regarded as one of the culminating chapters in the sinification of Buddhism, especially in the transformation of doctrine.

The establishment of Huayan as a distinctive system of religious philosophy and practice was largely the work of a few brilliant monks active during the Tang dynasty, who were retroactively recognized as the tradition's patriarchs. Although there was relatively little original doctrinal development that occurred after them, Huayan teachings continued to be admired as a theoretical hallmark of Chinese Buddhism. They also left imprints on the evolution of Buddhist soteriol-ogy, especially as some of their key elements were absorbed into other traditions, such as the Chan school. Early on, Huayan was also transmitted to Korea and Japan, where it had a significant impact on the evolution of native Buddhist traditions. The Huayan worldview also exerted influence on other religious and philosophical traditions, such as neo-Confucianism, and it continues to provide a compelling vision with contemporary relevance.

Early history

The gradual formation of a loosely defined and broadly constituted Huayan tradition started soon after the first Chinese translation of the Huayan jing was made by Buddhabhadra (359–429) between 418 and 421. Before long, the scripture's influence was felt in different spheres of medieval Chinese Buddhism. In the scholastic arena, the text inspired doctrinal speculations, gave rise to exegetical traditions, and appeared in taxonomies of teachings (panjiao), where it was typically treated as a repository of the Buddha's most profound teachings. The Huayan jing also had broad popular appeal. It became a focal point of various cultic activities, including religious rites and vegetarian feasts, and it motivated pious acts such as chanting and copying. The text also inspired artistic responses, evident in the production of numerous images and painting of Vairocana, the cosmic buddha who is its central deity.

The history of Huayan as a distinct school of Chinese Buddhism is usually discussed in reference to its famous five patriarchs, all of whom were creative thinkers who left their indelible marks on the history of East Asian Buddhism. Such a view of Huayan history is somewhat problematic, inasmuch as at the time of the early patriarchs there was no awareness of Huayan as an independent tradition and no notion of a patriarchal succession. The first four patriarchs were retroactively recognized as such only after their deaths, as the notion of spiritual lineage became an important organizing principle, marker of religious orthodoxy, and source of legitimacy, largely due to the influence of the Chan school. Even so, there is no gain-saying the fact that the writings of the Huayan patriarchs are the core of Huayan's unique worldview, and that they encompass the main doctrinal and soteriological perspectives identified with the tradition.

Dushun. The putative first patriarch, Dushun (557–640), is an enigmatic figure who embodies both the popular and intellectual streams of the nascent Huayan movement. Also known as Fashun, he was revered by his contemporaries as a thaumaturge and meditation master, who was also recognized as a leading figure in local cultic traditions centered on the Huayan jing. His historical position in the doctrinal evolution of Huayan is based on his reputed author-ship of Fajie guanmen (Discernments of the Realm of Reality), a seminal text that formulates some of the basic principles and themes of the mature Huayan system, most notably the causal relationship between principle (li) and phenomena (shi). Although recent scholarship has raised doubts about Dushun's author-ship of this text, the evidence is not conclusive.

Zhiyan. Dushun was one of the teachers of Zhiyan (602–668), the second patriarch and the architect of the basic structure of Huayan's doctrinal system. Zhiyan came from a gentry family and was born in the vicinity of the capital. A quiet monk of scholastic bent and keen intelligence, he was steeped in the scholastic traditions of his time. Following his entry into monastic life in his youth, he mastered the doctrines of the Dilun and Shelun schools, which emerged during the sixth century in response to the transmission of tathĀgatagarbha doctrine and the YogĀcĀra school into China. Dilun was an exegetical tradition based on Vasubandhu's commentary to the Daśabhūmikasūtra (Ten Stages Scripture), while Shelun was a Chinese version of the Yogācāra tradition that was based on ParamĀrtha's (499–569) translation of AsaṄga's Mahāyānasaṃgraha. Zhiyan was also well versed in the vinaya and had studied key Mahāyāna scriptures, such as the NirvĀṆa SŪtra, as well as earlier commentaries on the Huayan jing, especially the one written by Huiguang (468–537). Zhiyan used his extensive learning and doctrinal mastery in his study and thorough analysis of the Huayan jing. He wrote a ten-fascicle commentary on the scripture and a few shorter works. In them, he formulated some of the key doctrines that became hallmarks of Huayan thought, such as nature origination (xingqi) and conditioned origination of the realm of reality (fajie yuanqi).

Fazang. During his most productive years Zhiyan lived a quiet life at Mount Zhongnan, south of Chang'an, and he shunned the public limelight. In contrast, his brilliant disciple Fazang (643–712) was at the center of the empire's cultural, religious, and political life, and was a recipient of great public recognition and imperial support. An exceptional scholar, creative thinker, and prolific writer, Fazang is regarded as the great systematizer of Huayan philosophy and effectively the founder of the tradition. Born in Chang'an of Sogdian ancestry, Fazang entered the monastic order only after Zhiyan's death. As a young man he participated in Xuanzang's (ca. 600–664) translation project, but left because of doctrinal disagreements. Later he was involved in ŚikṣĀnanda's (652–710) new translation of the Huayan jing, undertaken under imperial auspices. Fazang had an illustrious career, which was greatly helped by the unflagging patronage of Empress Wu Zetian, or Wu Zhao (r. 684–705). A record of Fazang's teaching presented to the empress is preserved as Jin shizi zhang (Treatise on the Golden Lion), a popular summary of Huayan doctrine whose title is derived from a statue in the imperial palace that was used by Fazang to illustrate his ideas.

Fazang was greatly successful in popularizing Huayan. His influence was such that the Huayan school is also often called the Xianshou school, after the honorific name Empress Wu bestowed on Fazang. His major works include a large (twenty-fascicle) commentary on Buddhabhadra's translation of the Huayan jing, entitled Huayan jing tanxuan ji (Record of Exploration of the Huayan jing's Mysteries); Huayan wujiao chang (Treatise on the Five Teachings of Huayan), which elaborates on his fivefold doctrinal taxonomy; and Wangjin huanyuan guan (Contemplation of Ending Falsehood and Returning to the Source), which deals with the philosophical and applied aspects of Huayan meditation. Fazang also wrote a history of the transmission of Huayan in China, Huayan jing zhuan ji, and an authoritative commentary titled Qixin lun yi ji on the Awakening of Faith (Dasheng qixin lun), an important text that had profound influence on the development of Fazang's thought.

Huiyuan. After Fazang's death, his student Huiyuan (ca. 673–743) completed Kanding ji, an abbreviated commentary on ŚikṢānanda's new translation of the Huayan jing, which was started by Fazang but left unfinished. Huiyuan also wrote a few additional works, but despite the prominent status he enjoyed during his lifetime he was subsequently ostracized and his teachings were labeled as heterodox. This censure was largely due to Huiyuan's divergence from aspects of Fazang's thought, especially his critique of Fazang's inclusion of the sudden teachings (dunjiao) in his fivefold taxonomy of teachings.

Chengguan. Huiyuan's strongest critic was Cheng-guan (738–839), who came to be recognized as the fourth patriarch. Since he studied under a disciple of Huiyuan decades after Fazang's death, Chengguan's recognition as a Huayan patriarch was based on his high stature and his contributions to the evolution of Huayan doctrine, rather than on his direct connection with Fazang.

An exceptional scholar of prodigious learning and deep religious commitment, Chengguan mastered a broad range of canonical literature. In addition, he studied the teachings of other Buddhist traditions, especially Chan, Tiantai, and Sanlun, and he was learned in non-Buddhist literature, including the Confucian and Daoist classics. Chengguan had a highly successful monastic career during which he served under seven Tang emperors and he was a recipient of numerous imperial honors, including the titles of national teacher, grand recorder of monks, and controller of the clergy. Chengguan's magnum opus is his monumental commentary on ŚikṢānanda's translation of the Huayan jing, which he supplemented with a sub-commentary. A masterpiece of medieval exegetical literature, Chengguan's work superseded all earlier commentaries and was recognized as an authoritative study of the scripture. The commentary exceeds the scope and length of the scripture and is unrivaled in its comprehensive coverage and subtle analysis. Chengguan's major contribution to Huayan's doctrinal evolution was his theory of the four realms of reality (dharmadhĀtu). He was also the first Huayan scholar to take into account the teachings of the Chan school, which he studied during his early years.

Zongmi. The connection with Chan was further extended by Chengguan's student Zongmi (780–841), the fifth and last of the Huayan patriarchs. Born into a gentry family in Sichuan, Zongmi received a classical education in his youth. He became interested in Chan during his twenties, and before long decided to enter the monastic order. Zongmi became a student of Chengguan in 812 after his move to Chang'an. Subsequently he had a successful clerical career and authored a number of works that cover a broad range of topics. Zongmi's position within Huayan is somewhat ambiguous because his writings do not focus directly on the Huayan jing, and because he was also recognized as a member of the Chan lineage. He made lasting contribution to the rapprochement between Chan and the doctrinal traditions of Buddhism (jiao), represented mainly (but not exclusively) by Huayan. He also introduced changes in his doctrinal taxonomy by including the teachings of Confucianism and Daoism, and by elevating the tathagatagarbha theory to a place of preeminence at the expense of the perfect teaching represented by the Huayan jing.

Li Tongxuan. Another notable figure during the Tang period was Fazang's contemporary Li Tongxuan (635–730), a lay recluse whose whole life is shrouded in mystery. Li's major work was his commentary on the Huayan jing (in forty fascicles), and he also wrote a few shorter works. Li studied Fazang's writings, but his exegesis of the scripture often adopts a different approach and puts forward novel ideas and interpretations. Although he was not widely recognized during his lifetime, Li's writings became popular after the Tang period among Chan monks, and they were transmitted to Japan and Korea, where they achieved high acclaim.

Further spread and influence

With Zongmi, the patriarchal tradition came to an end. Yet, that was not the end of Huayan history in China. Huayan continued to be studied as a major system of Buddhist philosophy. Its key tenets also became diffused as part of a general Chinese Buddhist worldview and they were gradually absorbed into other Buddhist schools. Huayan influences can be found in the records of many Chan teachers, including Dongshan (807–869), Caoshan (840–901), Fayan (885–958), and Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163). Huayan concepts and teachings, such as nature origination, were also absorbed into the Tiantai school. Huayan influences are evident in the writings of Zhanran (711–782), who revived Tiantai's sagging fortunes during the Tang, even as he tried to demonstrate the superiority of Tiantai over Huayan. The increasing scope of Huayan influences became a point of contention during the Tiantai debates of the Northern Song period (960–1126), as proponents of the Shanwai (Off Mountain) faction of Tiantai were criticized by Zhili (960–1028) and his Shanjia (Home Mountain) faction for their unwarranted adoption of Huayan metaphysics, mainly derived from the writings of Chengguan and Zongmi. There was also a modest Huayan revival during the Song, spearheaded by the reputed "four masters"— Daoting, Shihui, Xidi, and Guanfu—but their main focus was on commenting on the works of the Tang patriarchs rather than on charting new paths of doctrinal development for the school.

Korea. Beyond China, Huayan entered Korea (where it is known as Hwaŏm) at an early stage of the tradition's history. The first transmitter and leading Hwaŏm figure during the Silla period (668–935) was Ŭisang (625–702). Ŭisang traveled to China and became a student of Zhiyan at Mount Zhongnan. He was a senior colleague of Fazang and the two formed a lasting friendship. After returning to his native land in 671, ŭisang was successful in establishing Hwaŏm as a major Buddhist tradition on the Korean peninsula. He built a number of monasteries and secured the official patronage of the royal court, which bestowed on him the title of national teacher. Ŭisang's major work, the brief Hwaŏm ilsŭng pŏpkye to (Chart of the Huayan One-Vehicle Realm of Reality), was presented to Zhiyan during his stay in China and it remains a classic exposition of Huayan thought.

Because of the great influence of Ŭisang and his disciples, Hwaŏm became the primary theoretical system of Korean Buddhism and served as the foundation for U the subsequent doctrinal evolution of the native tradition, even after Chan (or Sŏn in Korean) became established as the predominant Buddhist school. Another major figure during the Silla period was Ŭisang's friend Wŏnhyo (617–686), arguably the foremost scholar in the history of Korean Buddhism. Although not formally affiliated with the Hwao˘m tradition, Wŏnhyo was deeply influenced by HwaŎm ideas and teachings, which shaped his creation of an integrated system of Buddhist philosophy that attempted to harmonize the differences of the various schools. Some of Wŏnhyo's writings were transmitted to China and his commentary on the Awakening of Faith exerted considerable influence on Fazang's thought.

Hwaŏm continued to be a major tradition of Korean Buddhism into the early part of the Koryŏ dynasty (918–1392). Its predominant position was supplanted by the resurgent Sŏn school, but Korean thinkers were able to create an integrated Buddhist tradition that incorporated teachings and practices from both of these schools. Major contributions in that direction were made by Chinul (1158–1210), the most prominent monk of the period, who created a successful synthesis that incorporated both Hwaŏm scholasticism and Sŏn meditation practice. Chinul was also fond of Li Tongxuan's commentary on the Huayan jing, which became an important text in Korean Buddhism thanks to his advocacy. Chinul's vision of an integrated and ecumenical Buddhist church became normative within Korea and, notwithstanding its past and present detractors, remains a principal model for a distinctive native tradition, in which Hwaŏm thought plays a more central role than it does in any other contemporary Buddhist tradition.

Japan. Huayan also entered Japan (where it is known as Kegon) at an early date. In 740 the Korean monk Simsang (or Shinjō in Japanese, d. 742), a disciple of Fazang, was invited by Emperor Shōmu (r. 724–749) to lecture on the Huayan jing at Konshōji (later renamed Todaiji) in Nara, the Japanese capital. The invitation was extended at the urging of Rōben (689–773), a descendant of Korean immigrants and a specialist in the doctrine of the Hossō school (Chinese, Faxiang school). As a leading Buddhist figure with good political connections, Rōben was instrumental in the establishment of Kegon as one of the eight schools of Nara Buddhism, which functioned as traditions of Buddhist learning rather than as independent sects. Rōben was also involved in the construction of the great Buddha at Tōdaiji, and subsequently he became the monastery's chief priest. The great Buddha, representing Vairocana as the principal Buddha of the Huayan universe, was consecrated in 752 under the auspices of Emperor Shōmu. Tōdaiji emerged as a focal institution for Kegon studies (and the study of other scholastic traditions) and a prominent center of Buddhist culture. Despite its turbulent history, including its destruction in 1180, the rebuilt monastery and its great Buddha statue remain potent symbols of Kegon's prominent place in Japanese Buddhism.

While interest in the study of the Nara schools declined during the Heian period (794–1185), there were prominent scholar-monks during the following Kamakura era (1185–1333) who continued the tradition of Kegon learning. Well-known examples include Myōe KŌben (1173–1232) and GyŌnen (1240–1321). Known as a restorer of the Kegon tradition, Myōe was also well versed in the teachings of esoteric Buddhism and Chan, and he was known for his strict observance of the precepts. His supporters included a number of prominent aristocrats, and he was successful in turning Kōzanji, a monastery located in the vicinity of Kyoto, into a center of Kegon studies. Gyōnen, a Kegon monk of extensive learning, was known for his expertise in the vinaya. He moved to Tōdaiji in 1277 and afterwards he lectured on the Huayan jing. He also presented lectures on Fazang's Wujiao zhang at the imperial court, which later awarded him the title of national teacher. Although Gyōnen is chiefly associated with the Kegon school, he was well versed in the teachings of other schools of Buddhism, as can be seen from one of his principal works, Hasshū kōyō (Outline of the Eight Schools), which is still read as a popular summary of the history and doctrines of the major schools of Japanese Buddhism.

Beyond the narrowly defined Kegon tradition, evidence of Huayan influences can be found in the writings of other major figures in the history of Japanese Buddhism. One such example is KŪkai (774–835), the founder of Shingon Buddhism, who drew on Huayan doctrine in his systematization of esoteric Buddhism, and who ranked Huayan just below Shingon in his tenfold taxonomy of the Buddhist teachings. Another example is SaichŌ (767–822), the founder of Tendai, who studied Huayan texts during his formative years and whose writings reflect the influence of Huayan ideas.

Taxonomies of teachings

Like other taxonomies of teachings (or "classified teachings" panjiao) created by medieval Chinese scholiasts, Huayan taxonomies involve the ordering of the major doctrines of Buddhism and exemplify the Chinese penchant for order and hierarchy. Within a given taxonomy each doctrine is recognized as a meaningful part of the totality of Buddhist teachings, while the whole structure performs the hermeneutical function of relating diverse Buddhist traditions to each other and integrating them into a comprehensive conceptual framework. At the same time, within such a rigid hierarchical ordering, all teachings, with the exception of the highest teaching, are judged to convey only partial understanding of the ultimate truth. The best-known Huayan taxonomy is the fivefold classificatory scheme created by Fazang. Within it, the lowest level is represented by the HĪnayĀna teaching, which reveals the emptiness of self but not the emptiness of phenomena (dharma). Next comes the elementary teaching of Mahayana, which consists of two parts: the Faxiang version of Yogācāra and the Madhyamaka/Sanlun teaching of ś ŪNYATĀ (emptiness). At the third level there is the advanced teaching of Mahāyāna, which is identified with the tathāgatagarbha doctrine (combined with the earlier type of Yogācāra that was transmitted to China by Paramārtha). That is followed by the sudden teaching, which involves the abandonment of words and concepts and the immediate realization of reality. Finally, at the pinnacle there is the perfect teaching that consummately reveals the whole truth without the slightest deficiency or partiality; Fazang identifies this teaching exclusively with the Huayan jing. While Fazang's fivefold nomenclature was based on earlier classificatory schemes developed by Zhiyan, who himself drew on taxonomies formulated by pre-Tang scholars such as Huiguang, his taxonomy represents an important point of departure inasmuch as it is the first one to present Huayan as being absolutely superior to all other traditions.

Fazang was criticized by his disciple Huiyuan for including the sudden teaching in his doctrinal taxonomy. Huiyuan argued that the sudden teaching does not qualify as a separate category because it has no doctrinal content specific to it. Following criteria employed in Tiantai taxonomies, he also noted that the sudden teaching refers to the manner of instruction and thus does not belong to Fazang's classification, given that its basic organizing principle is the content of the teaching rather than the manner in which it is communicated. Fazang's doctrinal taxonomy was defended by Chengguan, who argued (perhaps not entirely convincingly) that Huiyuan's critique was unwarranted, since he failed to realize that the sudden teaching corresponded to the newly formed Chan tradition. By identifying Chan with the sudden teaching, Chengguan was able to assign Chan a high position within his taxonomy and integrate it into the Buddhist mainstream, while still subordinating it to Huayan.


Huayan's system of religious philosophy and practice is a vast conglomeration of abstruse doctrines, expounded by recourse to a highly technical vocabulary. At its core is a holistic vision of the universe as a dynamic web of causal interrelationships, in which each and every thing and event is related to everything else as they interpenetrate without any obstruction. The Huayan depiction of reality is an ingenious reworking of the central Buddhist doctrine of pratĪtyasamut-pĀda (dependent origination), which postulates that things are empty of self-nature and thus lack independent existence, and yet they exist provisionally as they are created through the interaction of various causal factors. In Huayan's discussion of causality, the focus shifts away from the correlation between emptiness and form representative of prajÑĀpĀramitĀ literature and toward the relationship between individual phenomena or events (shi) and the basic principle (s) of reality (li). The causal relationship between phenomena and principle is that of mutual inclusion, interpenetration, and identity. That relationship is elaborated in Chengguan's doctrine of the four realms of reality (dharmadhatu): (1) the realm of individual phenomena (shi fajie); (2) the realm of principle (li fajie); (3) the realm of nonobstruction between principle and phenomena (lishi wuai fajie); and (4) the realm of nonobstruction between all phenomena (shishi wuai fajie).

The last two realms are also explained by the doctrines of nature origination and dependent origination of the realm of reality, respectively. According to Fazang's explanation of nature origination, all phenomena are ultimately created based on the "nature," which stands for the emptiness or suchness of things. Therefore, the nature is the source of all phenomena, and yet it does not exist outside of them. In that sense, the theory does not postulate a dichotomy between the absolute and phenomenal orders, but rather elucidates the interdependent relationship between ultimate reality and phenomenal appearances. The doctrine of dependent origination of the realm of reality goes a step further and shifts the focus to the causal relationship that obtains between individual phenomena. Based on the notions of lack of self-nature and the dependent origin of all things, it postulates that each phenomenon is determined by the totality of all phenomena of which it is a part, while the totality is determined by each of the phenomena that comprise it. Therefore, each phenomenon is determining every other phenomenon, while it is also in turn being determined by each and every other phenomenon. All phenomena are thus interdependent and interpenetrate without hindrance, and yet each one of them retains its distinct identity.

According to Huayan's viewpoint, any individual thing or phenomenon, being empty of self-nature and thus identical to the principle, can be seen both as a conditioning cause of the whole and as being caused by the whole. In addition, every phenomenon conditions the existence of every other phenomenon and vice versa. Accordingly, nothing exists by itself, but requires everything else to be what it truly is. The Huayan analysis of causality is not concerned with temporal sequencing and does not postulate causal processes that involve a progressive unfolding of events. Instead, its philosophy represents an attempt to elucidate the causal relationships that obtain among all phenomena in the universe at any given time.

A popular metaphor that exemplifies Huayan's notion of mutual interpenetration of all phenomena is that of Indra's net. The image of Indra's net of jewels originally comes from the Huayan jing, which describes how in the heaven of the god Indra there is a vast net that extends infinitely in all directions. Each knot of the net holds a gleaming jewel, and because the net is limitless in size it contains an infinite number of jewels. As the multifaceted surface of each jewel reflects all other jewels in the net, each of the reflected jewels also contains the reflections of all other jewels; thus there is an unending process of infinite reflections.

Notwithstanding the complex and recondite character of much of Huayan doctrine, its principles found resonance within large segments of the Buddhist world in East Asia. As they became key influences on religious and intellectual life, they were absorbed as elements of the native cultures. Huayan thinkers constructed a compelling and deeply satisfying worldview that was distinctly Chinese, yet based on essential concepts and teachings presented in the Buddhist canon. Huayan religious philosophy still retains its relevance to vital human concerns and has stimulated a significant cross-fertilization of ideas and viewpoints with modern philosophical and humanistic movements, includingengaged Buddhism and environmentalism.


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Mario Poceski