What is Huayen?
The Huayen School of Chinese Buddhism takes its name from the scriptural text on which it is based, known in Chinese as the “Huayen Ching” and in Sanskrit as the “Avatamsaka Sutra”. (“Huayen” literally means “flower adornment” or “flower ornament”.) It was founded as a separate lineage in the seventh century and has continued down to the present day.
In fact, however, Huayen is not so much a “school” of Buddhism as a distinct “vehicle” (Yana) – a complete system of doctrine and practice. In the Huayen tradition itself, this system is called the Ekayana or the “One Vehicle”. The word “one” here implies “universal”, for Huayen claims to be a direct and complete revelation of the Dharma, of the ultimate nature of reality. It therefore includes, within its scope, not only the totality of Buddhist teachings, but also every authentic spiritual teaching and practice, wherever it might be found. The Avatamsaka Sutra expresses this universal accessibility by saying that there are buddhas teaching in every atom, and that the Dharma is being communicated in every single instant of time.
Huayen teaches that the mind of every single being is identical with the mind of the Buddha, and that recognition of this truth is what constitutes Enlightenment. In other words, all beings are primordially enlightened and their failure to perceive this is just a kind of illusion that needs to be dispelled. It follows that for Buddhist practice to be effective, it must be grounded in some degree of awareness of the enlightened mind that is already present within us. This is why Huayen says that the cause must be based on the result -- that the ethical and spiritual practices of Buddhism should be understood as having Enlightenment as their source rather than their goal.
Buddhist practice in Huayen, therefore, while not necessarily differing in form from the practices taught by other schools of Buddhism, is guided by a different understanding. Practice in Huayen is not a way to achieve Enlightenment but a way to actualize Enlightenment, to make it manifest in the world through one’s own conduct. In traditional Mahayana Buddhist terminology, this is referred to as “adorning the Buddha-realm”, or acting so as to transform this limited world of ignorance, ugliness and suffering into a limitless realm of wisdom, beauty and compassion.
For this reason, Huayen places great importance on awakening the aspiration to Enlightenment (bodhicitta). Perhaps the best-known saying in the Sutra itself is that “the moment the aspiration to Enlightenment arises, perfect Buddhahood has already been attained”. If we believe that Enlightenment is something separate from us, a distant goal to be aimed at, we will never achieve it. But if we can understand that Enlightenment is our own true nature, we will come to see that all our activities should be buddha-activities and that their sole purpose is to enable all other beings to realize this same enlightened nature. This understanding is what bodhicitta really means, and it is only in its realization or manifestation in the world through practices grounded in wisdom and compassion that Enlightenment is to be found.
~ “Huayen World” by Venerable Master Haiyun Jimeng
The three aspects of Huayen
Strictly speaking, when talking about Huayen there are three aspects that one should take into account. One is the teaching of the Avatamsaka Sutra itself, another is the teaching of the Huayen School, and the third is the point of view of the person who is expounding the Sutra. But it is the last of these three that people usually get to hear most of Fruit-sellers are bound to say that their own fruit is the sweetest, and in the same way, every priest, monk or nun is bound to say that the doctrine they are teaching is the best, otherwise there would be no point in their teaching it at all. So, the Huayen teachings that I would like to introduce to you today are based on my own personal reading of the Avatamsaka Sutra and on the conclusions that I have reached after studying the Huayen School as a whole. But if you really want to know what the Sutra has to say, you should go and study it for yourself, absorb its message directly, and then judge and choose for yourself, in accordance with your own wisdom. For when someone else expounds the Sutra, even though their exposition may be based on the text, when they try to convey its essential spirit or its deeper significance, they can hardly help doing so from their own point of view. Even a teacher who is already fully enlightened, let us suppose, will still be expressing his or her individual way of understanding the teachings that are being transmitted. After the realization of Enlightenment, every Buddha preaches the Avatamsaka Sutra, although when I say “preaches”, I am not referring to a verbal exposition, but to a direct manifestation of the realm of Enlightenment. Although each Buddha’s realization is equally profound, the way in which that realization is manifested is not necessarily going to be the same in every case. When different Buddha preach the Avatamsaka Sutra, therefore, different realms of Enlightenment may appear.
The Huayen (Korean Hwao’m, Japanese Kegon) School is based on the Avatamsaka or “Flower Ornament Sutra”, and counts as one of the four major schools of Chinese Buddhism. Its teachings emphasize the integration of Buddhist practice with all aspects of life, and yet, Haiyun believes that they are particularly suitable for the modern age.
The school took shape during the Tang Dynasty (618-906), and although the monk Tu Shun or Fa Shun (557-640) is regarded as its First Patriarch, the real founders were Chih Yen (602-668) and his chief disciple Fa Tsang (643-712). Another important figure at the time was the hermit-scholar Li Tung Hsuan (63 5-730, or 646-740). After the Fourth Patriarch, Cheng Kuan (738-839), who wrote a massive commentary and subcommentary on the Sutra, and the Fifth Patriarch, Tsung Mi (780-8 14), who was also a lineage-holder in the Chan tradition, the Huayen School entered a period of decline, although its influence remained pervasive in East Asian Buddhism generally, and in the Chan (Korean S’on, Japanese Zen) School in particular.