The Spirit and Distinctive Features of the Huayen Teachings
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.
We should read the Sutra as though we were examining a painting, where everything appears vividly all at once, so that it can be taken in at a single glance, and not as though we were watching television, where scenes are presented one by one and there is a clear sequence of before and after. Because when the Buddha achieved Enlightenment, the Huayen realm became manifest in its totality and it has remained without disappearing, right down to the present day. The Buddha has to use various means to let everybody know about this realm. Written and spoken words are one such means, but a very clumsy and troublesome one, because of the inherent rigidity of language, and because there are many things that language is simply not capable of expressing. Language, including writing and other symbolic systems, is very well suited to the rational mind, but the rational mind itself is something extremely rigid. It can only think of one thing at a time, it only goes forwards but doesn’t know how to go backwards, and it works by contrast and antithesis, whereas life is all-inclusive and is full of contradictions. Life is not some kind of problem that can be successfully resolved by the rigid, one-track rational mind. Of course, the shortcomings of the rational mind are not something that has only now become apparent. Shakyamuni Buddha saw them very clearly in his own day, so when he preached the realm of the Avatamsaka Sutra, he didn’t do so in an orderly sequence, chapter by chapter, as we like to imagine, but rather in the same way that we enjoy a painting when we take it all in with a single glance.
Let us take the example of a reclining buddha-image. When you look at it, it appears to you as a whole it’s not that the head appears first and the feet only afterwards. But if you want to describe it to somebody who is not there to see it, you have to do so step by step. First you might say “It’s a reclining Buddha”, then talk about the length of the head, the size of the ears, the height of the nose, the way the other physical attributes are depicted and so on. Proceeding like this, you might describe the features of the statue one at a time. So, the Avatamsaka Sutra, in attempting to convey to us the entire realm of the Buddha’s realization, runs into this problem of language. That is why it has been divided into seven locations and nine assemblies, in other words, the Sutra is expounded to nine different groups of listeners in seven different places, and these teachings are given one after another until we come to the end of the text. But although the exposition may be given in an orderly sequence like this, this is in no way meant to indicate a real sequence in time. For the whole realm of Enlightenment flashes forth in a single moment, and once it has manifested it never disappears again. When the Lord Buddha, sitting beneath the Bodhi-tree, saw the morning star at daybreak and Great Enlightenment shone forth within him, he said, “It is truly remarkable that all beings in the world possess the wisdom and qualities of the Tathagata.” And at that very moment, when he gazed at the star and spoke, the realm of Huayen became manifest in its entirety.
The Huayen view of the world
This is a scene that it is not really possible to describe, and I can only compare it to a splendid and beautiful garden. We have to imagine that all the flowers and plants in this garden are thriving, that everywhere there are blossoms opening, and that the whole garden is full of life, color and fragrance, even though in the midst of all this vigorous life there may be still some flowers that cannot open fully, because of illness or because of insufficient nourishment. By this simile I mean to suggest that according to the world of Huayen, everybody should be in a state of sound health; not only the individual but the whole of society should be in a splendid and flourishing condition. In the world according to some versions of Buddhism, on the other hand, one finds only an occasional rare and beautiful flower, blooming in solitary splendor high in the mountains or on the face of a cliff. But Huayen is not like this.
According to Huayen, one should not only open one’s own flower, but should encourage all beings to flower in the same way, no matter whether they are peonies, lotuses, lilies, dandelions or morning glories, they should all be in full bloom as far as they can. This is the Huayen view of the world, and since we are living in such a splendidly colorful world, I hope that each of you will do your best to be like flowers, and not like bitter melons.
But if we want to be healthy in body and mind, we must first develop our own integrity, have a correct view of life, and always be ready to share the good things we have obtained with other people. Today you have the good fortune to come and listen to the Dharma, but when you leave, you mustn’t go away thinking that those who didn’t get to come have been hindered by serious karmic obstacles or haven’t managed to acquire as much merit as you have. On the contrary, you should do your best to let them know about what you have learnt, and in this way, even if they don’t have the opportunity to come and receive the teachings directly, they can still receive them indirectly with your help. In this way you can spread your fragrance abroad, like a real flower, but if you cherish a self-centered attitude, and don’t communicate your understanding to others, then your own fragrance will also be lost.
When somebody expounds the text of the Sutra, it may be that they have only grasped fifty percent of its real significance. So those who are listening may end up being able to take in only thirty percent. And finally, when the members of the audience explain to others what they have heard, only ten percent of the real meaning may be conveyed. What is the point of it all? The point is that, as a result of this repeated transmission and dissemination, you yourself may be able to grow a little, possibly increasing your understanding from thirty percent to fifty percent, and then one day, perhaps when you least expect it, you may actually arrive at full understanding and achieve Buddhahood. Such is the realm of Huayen and the way in which it works.
The Avatamsaka Sutra
From the point of view of its content, the Avatamsaka Sutra can be divided into two parts: the realm of Enlightenment, and the path to Enlightenment. The full title of the Sutra is Mahavaiipulya-buddhavatamsaka Sutra, which means “The Great Expansive Buddha Flower Adornment Scripture”. Here the word mahavaipulya (great and expansive) indicates the realm of Enlightenment. What sort of realm is this? It is one in which essence, attribute, and function are all perfectly complete. It is the all- inclusive Dharmarealm (dharmadhatu), which is the realm of Buddhahood. Then the words Avatamsaka Sutra (Flower Adornment Scripture) indicate the path to Enlightenment. In other words, mahavaipulya is the object of realization and buddhavatamsaka is the capacity for realization. It is only when these two are brought together that realization can actually occur. We may not be able to understand exactly what the realm of Buddhahood is, because none of us has yet achieved Enlightenment. But the path to Enlightenment is something we are able to grasp, so in studying Buddhism this path is the key We must know how to begin with true understanding, and then how to practice Dharma correctly, in accordance with our understanding, so that we will eventually arrive at the goal of Buddhahood The Avatamsaka Sutra offers us a vast range of methods, countless ways of following this path to Enlightenment and encourages each individual practitioner to seek out his or her own method of practice.
Arousing a deep feeling of doubt
I often advise practitioners to try constantly to arouse a deep feeling of doubt, a fundamental questioning of their activities and their very existence, in their own minds. In such a case, as with a bird brooding on eggs, it is always best to produce your own. Otherwise, if it’s just an egg that you’ve picked up from the side of the road, how can you tell whether it’s good or bad, alive or dead, or even a genuine egg at all. You must produce your own sense of doubt, for only then can you be sure that the egg will hatch. So, it is with methods of practicing Dharma in general the choice must ultimately depend on the individual. For example, you can use the teaching of Emptiness (sunyatya) to shatter illusion, or practice transformation according to the teachings of the school of mind, or penetrate directly to the ultimate truth by relying on the teachings of the school of innate Enlightenment. So, when we are giving people guidance in the practice of Dharma, we always try to avoid imposing a single particular method on them. Because as soon as such a method is laid down for them, practitioners will naturally start to cling to it and develop a sense of dependence on it. So even if your master recommends a particular practice to you, you should only use it as a standard for comparison. You must on no account become dependent on another person or on any external medium.
The key to every practice
The key to every practice is learning how to use your mind, for its only though using your mind that you can accomplish what you have set out to do. To take a simple example, suppose you want to be reborn in Sukhavati, The Pure Land; for that too you have to use your mind. You can get to Sukhavati; just by repeating the Buddha’s name over and over again or reciting a lot of scriptures. If that were the case, many tapes and tape recorders would have already gone there. The scriptures and the Buddha’s name are only a means, and you have to understand how to use your mind when employing such means before you’ll be able to find your way to Sukhavati.
The same thing applies no matter whether you want to become an arhat, to achieve Buddhahood, to be a good bodhisattva, to simply take charge of your own affairs, to understand the cycle of birth and death, or to develop wisdom ­ for everything you have to use your mind. So, this is the basis for practicing Huayen--skillful use of the mind. How then should one use one’s mind? There is no need to go pestering your masters or fellow- practitioners for an answer to this question. You yourselves should try and learn from the world as you see it before you; from the practices you are already engaged in, and from every detail of your daily life. Pay close attention to all these matters and apply your mind to them. If you make this kind of effort, you will develop real understanding naturally, even though it may take some time. But if you are always wanting to ask somebody else, a whole lifetime might not be enough for you to learn how to use your mind.
If in the course of your journey you encounter some kind of bottleneck that you have to break through, or a fork in the path that requires you to choose, then you can go and ask for advice from your spiritual friends. In this case there are two kinds of people you can ask for assistance. One is your master, a teacher that is close to you and that you know you can trust, and the other is your fellow-practitioner. When I say “fellow-practitioner “, I am not referring to your partner, to your husband or wife, but to a fellow student of the Dharma, someone who is also following the Bodhisattva Path and is more or less at the same level as you. And in fact, you aren’t likely to find many such fellow-practitioners. You should know that one of the greatest pieces of good fortune in life is to encounter a spiritual friend you can rely on, one who will awaken the wisdom of the Dharmakaya that is within you. Such a person is your own Decircpamaeligkara Buddha. Once you have found a fellow-practitioner like this, he or she can help you learn by discussing things with you, and can stimulate you, correct you and encourage you while your Dharmakaya wisdom is maturing.
These are two of life’s greatest and most valuable blessings. To embark on the practice of Buddhism is something that concerns your own awakening and your own good karma, while spiritual friends and fellow practitioners are blessings that are the result of previous merit. Spiritual friends may thus be either fellow-practitioners or teachers, and the members of your household, too, can be spiritual friends and Dharma-protectors. If you are blessed with all these, your good fortune and good karma are truly exceptional, and you should rejoice and be congratulated.
Some things that you should be provided with while starting to practice Huayen
So far, I have been discussing some things that you should be provided with when you start to practice Huayen. But of course, you will need more than these to help you on the path to Enlightenment. First of all, there is the question of character or personality that I mentioned before. This includes a sound view of life and good relationships with other people, as well as the ability to deal with worldly matters effectively and to fulfill one’s responsibilities. There’s no need to aim at absolute perfection in all this; 85-90% is fine. If you insist on 100% perfection, you’ll be tense all day long, and constantly tormented by regrets. It’s much better to leave room for a little imperfection.
Then there is the type of character required of members of the Sangha. I am not referring here only to monks and nuns; this is something that applies to householders as well. Whether you are a renunciant or a member of a Buddhist group, in both cases you have to be prepared to make sacrifices, to offer your services, to be fully committed. How could it be possible, for example, for you to surrender your life rather than break the precepts, if you are unable to make an offering of your physical form? The preservation of a single teaching may require such sacrifices. In order for the Dharma to sprout and flourish, you must be prepared to pay the requisite costs in terms of practice.
For example, let’s say your original plan is to go traveling, but then you discover that doing a one-week meditation retreat is even more important than going off to enjoy yourself, so you decide not to go after all. This means that you will have sacrificed the cost you had invested in the trip, but even though from this point of view you have been able to let something go in giving up the chance to travel, you will also have managed to convert it into spiritual progress. And in truth, if you seriously want to practice, devoting a whole week to meditation once a year is necessary, in order to get yourself back on track again.
The third thing you need to cultivate as best you can be a religious spirit. By this I don’t mean just going and worshipping in the temple, but rather a strong motivation to pursue spiritual goals, to transcend your limitations. We must understand that improving the quality of life and transcending limitations are tasks that never come to an end. If we want to stride ahead towards unknown regions, it’s not enough to just drop out of the Three Realms of existence, to become like the flower I mentioned before, blooming in solitary splendor on same lonely cliff-face where others can only admire it. In order for the whole race of beings among whom we live to become like a great garden filled with flowers in bloom, every practitioner must be like a gardener, doing his or her utmost to scatter seed and till the soil, so that each seed of Enlightenment will be able to grow, flourish and bear fruit. If we are to attain this goal, we must live lives of continual transcendence.
It’s actually a fairly simple matter to accomplish something by practicing oneself. All you have to do is master a few techniques, and then there won’t be much of a problem. But to teach somebody else how to practice to the point of accomplishing something; that’s a hundred times more difficult. Just try converting your own wife, husband or children and you’ll soon find out what I mean. This is why you need to cultivate a strong religious spirit if you are going to practice seriously and push on into unknown territory. Then when you encounter difficulties or setbacks you won’t feel like giving up or be plunged into despair. So, we always need to encourage ourselves, and encourage others, to go on and not turn back on the path to Enlightenment.
A few of the basic conditions for Buddhist practice
These are a few of the basic conditions for Buddhist practice. Keeping the precepts is another important basic principle that needs to be observed when you are practicing Buddhism, for the precepts are also an expression of religious commitment. The monastic moral code is called Pratimoksa in Sanskrit, and it is a very special and remarkable means of achieving liberation from Samsara. This is not to say that merely observing the precepts can take you straight to the state of Liberation, but it can be of great help to us on the way.
The Vinaya, the Buddhist moral discipline, was established for us by Shakyamuni Buddha. As to whether the Buddha himself always observed the precepts, it is not an issue with which we need to concern ourselves. He was after all the founder, and he laid down the rules to provide a necessary standard for those who came after him ­ for us, his followers. For example, if you want to play a ball game, you must have rules in order to play. So too, there are rules for playing the game of life, and these form the Vinaya. In this game the object is to understand the cycle of birth and death, and to leave the Three Realms of existence. To achieve this, you must compete with impermanence, and if you don’t want to lose, you have to stick to the rules. So, I say that the ‘Vinaya provides a basic blueprint for the development and reconstruction of life’. It’s not a set of bonds or fetters. Those who keep the precepts should do so in a spirit of cheerful acceptance, for if you don’t you will end up being defeated again.
Nowadays there are a lot of new religious movements that proudly proclaim an absence of moral precepts, because, they say, this is an age of individualism, an age of freedom, and if you try to restrict people you are likely to provoke a counter-reaction, whereas if you don’t restrict them, they will be happy to join with you. Although those who advocate such doctrines may not yet be fully accomplished spiritually, still they are the founders of the tradition and can perhaps dispense with rules themselves, but if those who follow them lack discipline, they will certainly never succeed in what they are attempting to do. We have yet to see any truly successful disciples emerge from the movements founded by Osho or Krishnamurti, or from the Ananda Marga. Although the teachings may be good in themselves, without a set of rules to help people implement and develop them, they will soon disintegrate.
At our monastery in Taipei we also observe five kinds of precept according to the Huayen teachings. The first is the standard five precepts that are followed by practitioners of every form of Buddhism, whether Theravadin, Mahayanist or Tantric. Then there is the precept to help sentient beings that are suffering. This is based on the first of the bodhisattvas Four Universal Vows, namely, “Though sentient beings are limitless, I vow to free them all from suffering”. Most people are quite willing to help those who are well off to become free from suffering, but are more reluctant to help beings that are truly in distress, because such beings are likely to pour out all their sufferings onto you, so you have to be extremely patient and be prepared to spend a very long time before you can hope for real success. This is why those who want to follow the Bodhisattva Path must cultivate a mind of great compassion.
The third kind of precept we practice is based on the Dharma Initiation of Golden Light, which confers the precepts of the Dharma Protectors. For practitioners also have an obligation to protect the Dharma, and must be willing to undertake this responsibility. If you are following the Mahayana, you must constantly strive towards your goal, and pray that the teachings may always be present to your mind. That is why we have this kind of precept.
The fourth kind is the standard Bodhisattva Precepts, but the version we follow is the set of ten major and forty-eight minor precepts given in the Brahmajala Sutra. And lastly, the fifth type is the Precepts of Samantabhadra. These are special precepts, only found in the Ekayana.
But although there are a lot of precepts, we only ask that you keep just a single one, treating all the others as rules that you can follow while you are still learning. But this single precept you should keep, not only in this life but throughout all future lifetimes as well, and be prepared to die rather than break it. So, there is no need to be greedy one precept is enough, for otherwise you will find yourself observing precepts today and breaking them tomorrow. All the other precepts that you learn, you can use to help you make progress on the upward path. Everyone who is studying Buddhism, practicing the Dharma and following the precepts must take responsibility for his or her own conduct & shy; this is the true religious spirit. So, in this way you should draw up a blueprint for your own life, make your own commitments or vows, and choose the precepts you will follow. The scope of your ultimate spiritual achievements will be determined by this.
~ “Huayen World” Teachings and meditation methods in Mahayana Buddhism