Huayan Buddhism

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Huayan BuddhismThe Huayan or Flower Garland school of Mahayana Buddhism is respected to this day for the quality of its scholarship and teaching. Huayan flourished in Tang Dynasty China and deeply influenced other schools of Mahayana, including Zen, called Chan Buddhism in China. Huayan was virtually wiped out in China in the 9th century, although it lived on in Korea as Hwaeom Buddhism and in Japan as Kegon.

Huayan, also called Hua-yen, is particularly associated with the Avatamsaka Sutra and the famous parable of Indra's Net. Huayan teachers developed a robust classification of doctrine and explained the interpenetration of all phenomena.

History of Huayan: The Five Patriarchs

Although a later scholar would be credited with much of Huayan's development, the First Patriarch of Huayan was Dushun (or Tu-shun; 557-640). Dushun and his students developed a deep interest in the Avatamsaka Sutra, which had first been translated into Chinese in 420. Guided by Dushun, Huayan first emerged as a distinctive school, although it wasn't yet called Huayan.

Dushun's disciple Zhiyan (or Chih-yen, 602-668), the Second Patriarch, passed this interest in the Avatamsaka to his student Fazang (or Fa-tsang, 643-712), the Third Patriarch, who sometimes is credited with being the true founder of Huayan. Fazang's fame as a scholar and his skill at explaining the Avatamsaka's teaching earned patronage and recognition for Huayan.

Fourth Patriarch Chengguan (or Ch'eng-kuan, 738-839), also a respected scholar, strengthened the influence of Huayan in the imperial court. The Fifth Patriarch, Guifeng Zongmi (or Tsung-mi, 780-841) was also recognized as a master or lineage holder of the Chan (Zen) school. In Japanese Zen he is remembered as Keiho Shumitsu. Zongmi also enjoyed the patronage and respect of the Court.

Four years after Zongmi's death, the Tang Emperor Wuzong (r. 840-846) ordered that all foreign religion be purged from China, which at the time included Zoroastrianism and Nestorian Christianity as well as Buddhism. The Emperor had several reasons for the purge, but among these were to pay his empire's debts by confiscating the wealth that had accumulated in many Buddhist temples and monasteries. The Emperor had also become a devout Taoist.

The purge hit the Huayan school especially hard and effectively ended Huayan Buddhism in China, By then Huayan had been established in Korea by a student of Zhiyan's named Uisang (625-702), with assistance from his friend Wonhyo. In the 14th century Korean Huayan, called Hwaeom, merged with Korean Seon (Zen), but its teachings remain strong in Korean Buddhism.

In the 8th century a Korean monk named Shinjo transmitted Hwaeom to Japan, where it is known as Kegon. Kegon was never a large school, but it lives on today.

Huayan Teachings

More than any other Huayan Patriarch, Fazang clarified and established Huayan's unique place in Buddhist history. First, he updated the doctrine classification system of the Tiantai patriarch Zhiyi(538-597). Fazang proposed this fivefold classification:

  1. Hinayana, or the teachings of the Theravada tradition.
  2. Mahayana, teachings based on Madhyamika and Yogacara philosophy.
  3. Advanced Mahayana, based on Tathagatagarbha and the teachings of Buddha Nature.
  4. The Sudden Teachings, based on the Vimalakirti Sutra and the Chan school.
  5. The Perfect (or Round) teachings found in the Avatamsaka Sutra and exemplified by Huayan.

For the record, the Chan school objected to being placed below Huayan.

Huayan's chief contribution to Buddhist philosophy is its teaching on the interpenetration of all phenomena. This is illustrated by the parable of Indra's Net. This great net pervades everywhere, and in each knot of the net is set a jewel. Further, each facet of the jewels reflects all the other jewels, creating one great light. In this way the absolute is one, perfectly interpenetrated by all phenomena, and all phenomena perfectly interpenetrate all other phenomena. (See also "The Two Truths.")

By Barbara O'Brien