Huayan Buddhism: A brief introduction

Among its innovations, Chinese Huayan Buddhism revolutionized the Buddhist concept of anatta or no-self, not so much by simply rejecting the notion of the self as a result of the conditioned nature of subjectivity, but by arguing that there is no individual self, but a single transpersonal self instead, analogous to the Hinduism to which Theravada Buddhism reacted. Indeed, this sort of ontological idealism will come to characterize a great deal of the Huayan tradition. Influenced strongly by the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, which describes a cosmos of infinite realms upon realms, mutually containing one another, the combination of ontological idealism with an understanding of interpenetration that characterizes all phenomena as containing all other phenomena, will be reflected in a great deal of Huayan literature and anticipates many of the insights of Leibniz. From an ethical perspective, Huayan Buddhists began to argue that it is the central goal of the Buddhist to overcome the selfishness that sees the human as isolated and atomistic rather than inseparable from all other phenomena.

Nevertheless, the Huayan Buddhists did inherit from Madhyamaka the notion that all entities are conditioned in that they are causally dependent upon something else for its existence. Nevertheless, what distinguishes their approach from the Theravada understanding of emptiness is the notion that any one thing is dependent on the identities of everything else in a manner that anticipates Hegel’s doctrine of internal relations. One of the key metaphors from the Avatamsaka Sutra that illustrates this notion of mutual interdependence or interpenetration is Indra’s net or Indra’s web, which is a web that contains a jewel at every intersection of every two strands, and each of these jewels are so bright that they reflect all others. Leibniz’s notion of the monad comes to mind in this respect.

In addition to this, the Huayan adopt from the Yogacara the notions of “repository consciousness” (alayavijnana) and “womb of the Buddha” (tathagatagarbha). Alayavijnana is a Sanskrit word meaning “storehouse consciousness” or “ground consciousness” and basically refers to universal or collective consciousness. The network of individual consciousnesses are all understood as productions of this one universal consciousness. Dushun (557–640), the first patriarch of the Huayan School, uniquely used the Chinese term “li” (principle or pattern) to characterize the nature of ultimate reality while Indian Mahayana Buddhists have typically used the terms emptiness (sunyata) or suchness (tathata).

Dushun uses the Chinese term “li” to characterize the unfathomable component of reality to which the Enlightened person has access and gives it an epistemological flavor because, by definition, it is that to which the Buddhist has knowledge rather than the phenomenon considered in and of itself. What is controversial about this is that Dushun’s use of “li” is more of a “cataphatic” approach in that it implies we might be able to predicate something positive of this reality (or at the very least, that it is something substantive, even if we cannot describe it in language). “Shi,” meanwhile, refers to the realm of impermanent phenomena; yet Dushun saw li and shi as pervading one another, suggesting an intimate yet confusing relationship between the spatiotemporal and the boundless. Anticipating the insights of Leibniz’s monadology, Dushun appeals to the Lankavatara Sutra, which states that each wave contains the entire ocean and that each wave appears in every part of the ocean. The natural borders that appear to characterize phenomena, therefore, are illusory.

After Dushun, we have the second patriarch of Huayan Buddhism, Zhiyan, who likewise adopted a kind of fundamental idealism that grounds the emptiness of spatiotemporal phenomena, rather than characterizing all of reality as “empty.” Zhiyan’s work was understood by later scholars an attempt to elaborate upon Dushun’s work on the “total pervasion” and accommodation” of each shi with all others.

Next is Fazang, the third patriarch of the Huayan school of Buddhism, responsible for systematizing and extending Zhiyan’s teaching, as his foremost student. He is known for his commentaries on the Avatamsaka Sutra, which continued to be an influential force in Huayan Buddhism. As these others, he was an idealist who identifies the One Mind with the tathagatagarbha, which is understood as neither an individual consciousness nor something distinct from matter but the one and only producer and sustainer of all things. As his predecessors, he saw each dharma as including all others and as included within all others, each conditioning the identity of all others and conditioned in its identity by all others. He also critiques the Abidhamma’s analysis of consciousness as incomplete due to its lack of an analysis of repository consciousness (alayavijnana) characteristic of Yogacara Buddhism within the Mahayana tradition. Of course, since the Theravada tradition which produced the Abidhamma lacks such a concept, and indeed, arguably rejects it as a Hindu concept, we would not expect to find such an analysis. Contrary to the notion that dharmas are not empty, he argues that the dharmas are indeed empty, and that the superior teaching acknowledges this, in addition to providing an analysis of repository consciousness.

Next is Li Tongxuan, a contemporary of Fazang, who authored a commentary on the Avatamsaka Sutra. He was influenced by important work in Chinese thought, including the concept of yin and yang and often explicated Buddhist concepts using classical Chinese texts, such as the Book of Changes and his admiration for Lao-Tzu. Intriguingly, he also argued that all components of temporality, past, present and future, all co-exist in one atemporal moment, anticipating the B-theory of space and time held to by some contemporary philosophers. He even denied the absolute ontological distinction between ordinary sentient beings and fully realized Buddhas, since the co-existence of the future with present and past entails that those whom we perceive as not-yet-enlightened, will be enlightened in a future that is already present.

Our last patriarch is Guifeng Zongmi, who likewise argued for a form of ontological idealism and studied the Avatamsaka, as well as sitting under the Chan master Suizhou Daoyuan. He spent much of his time compiling texts for the Chan Buddhist canon, and is highly regarded by those in this tradition for doing so. Like Daoists who were influenced by Buddhism and Confucianism and attempted to synthesize these traditions into one philosophy, Zongmi tried to integrate Daoism and Confucianism into his Buddhism.

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