An Introduction to the Flower Ornament Sutra

What follows is an excerpt from Entry into the Inconceivable: An Introduction to Hua-Yen Buddhism, the basis of which is the Avatamsaka or Flower Ornament Sutra. This is entire work is included in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume Five


To appreciate fully the comprehensive scope and detail of the Hua­yen teaching, it is necessary of course to delve into the scripture itself. Portions of this immense scripture were among the first Buddhist literature to be introduced to China, and translation of Hua-yen material went on in that country for centuries. Fragmentary translation seems to have begun in the second century; during the next two centuries at least a dozen separate translations from five books of the Hua-yen appeared, one book being translated no less than four times. The famous "Ten Stages" book, often treated as an individual scripture, was first translated in the third century.

In the early fifth century, a much better translation of the "Ten Stages" was made, to be shortly followed by a comprehensive transla­tion of the whole known Hua-yen scripture. This latter work re­mained the standard text for nearly three hundred years, until it was supplanted in the late seventh century by a monumental translation of a newly imported text. In the eighth century yet another transla­tion of the "Ten Stages" book was made, and the final and longest book, which, like the "Ten Stages," survives in Sanskrit as a separate scripture, was also retranslated. Because of the amount of material involved, a review of the contents of each book of the Hua-yen scrip­ture will be deferred to an appendix to this volume; at this point we can get a glimpse of the structure, content, and atmosphere of the scripture by reviewing some of the highlights of the final, most gran­diose book: "Entering the Realm of Reality."

This final assembly of the scripture begins with the Buddha in a pavilion in a grove in India, surrounded by five hundred great bodhi­sattvas, five hundred lesser saints, and innumerable nature spirits.

Reflecting on the difficulty of comprehending the perspective, knowl­edge, power, concentration, and other qualities of Buddhas, the as­sembly wish that the Buddha would reveal to them the course of his development, explaining it in accord with their various states and capacities of understanding. The Buddha, divining their thoughts, "fills the universe with great compassion" and enters concentration— whereupon all worlds become beautiifed and pure. Suddenly the pa­vilion and grove become boundlessly vast and magni.cently arrayed; at the same time, the same vision is seen taking place in every world in the universe. Then, from inconceivably distant worlds in the ten directions, come bodhisattvas bringing all sorts of mystical clouds; the bodhisattvas from the zenith display, in every part of their bodies and accoutrements, the practices of all Buddhas of all times. Describ­ing these bodhisattvas of the ten directions, the scripture says:

All were born from the practices and vows of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva; with the eye of pure knowledge they saw the Bud­dhas of all times and listened to the cycles of teachings set in motion by all the Buddhas; they had already reached the Other Shore of freedom; in each moment of thought they manifested great psychic transformations and approached all the Buddhas, with one body filling the assemblies of all Buddhas in all worlds; in a single atom they showed all objects in all worlds, to teach and mature all sentient beings, never missing the right time; from a single pore they emitted the sounds of the teaching of all Buddhas; they knew that all living beings are like illusions; they knew that all Buddhas are like re.ections; they knew that all births in all realms of being are like dreams; they knew that all consequences of actions are like reflections in a mirror; they knew that all originations are like mirages; they knew that all worlds are like magical productions; they had accomplished the powers and fearlessness of enlightened ones; brave and indepen­dent, they were capable of the "lion roar" [refuting all concepts]; they entered deeply into the inexhaustible sea of intelligence and attained knowledge of the rules of the languages of all crea­tures; they traveled unhindered through the realm of space; they knew all things, without any impediment; they have purified all the realms of psychic powers of bodhisattvas; with bold energy they crushed the armies of demons; they always comprehended past, present, and future by means of wisdom; they knew that all things are like space and were free from contention and grasping; though they stove diligently, yet they knew that omni­science ultimately comes from nowhere; though they observed objects, they knew that all existents are ungraspable, by means of knowledge of expedients they entered all realms; by means of knowledge of quality they entered all lands. . . .

The scripture goes on to say that the lesser saints, however, did not even practice this vista of the Buddha and bodhisattvas—they lacked the past mental development to do so and dwelt in one-sided emptiness, ultimate quiescence, and personal liberation. The scripture likens this situations to someone in a crowd having a glorious dream which is not known to others because they are not having the same dream, or to someone entering various states of concentration unknown to others who are not in those states.

Sudhana, from WikiCommons

Then the ten leading bodhisattvas each utter verses of praise of the Buddha, trying to broaden the perspective of the saints. Next Saman­tabhadra expounds the "lionstretch concentration," and the Buddha radiates light to induce the bodhisattvas into this concentration, re­vealing all Buddha-lands in the universe, each containing an equal number of Buddha-lands in each atom. The bodhisattvas then witness the deeds of the Buddhas in all those lands and attain myriad pro­found concentrations whence issue myriad kinds of knowledge and power; then the bodhisattvas emanate light from every pore, showing all kinds of teachings and practices of bodhisattvas. Finally the bodhi­sattvarepresenting wisdom, Manjusri, comesforth witha greathost, makes offerings to the Buddha, then goes south and dwells among humans. Eventually Manjusri comes to a city where five hundred lay­men, five hundred laymwomen, five hundred boys, and five hundred girls together. The boys are led by a youth named Sudhana; Manjusri, looking into Sudhana’s past development, expounds the teaching to him and sends him on a pilgrimage to visit teachers to learn all the various facets of bodhisattvahood. The bulk of the book then re­counts Sudhana’s journey, through which he attains the stages of bo­dhisattvahood hitherto described in the scripture. These teachers include Buddhist monks and nuns, male and female lay Buddhists, non-Buddhists, wizards, night spirits, and so on, who tell him of what they have realized, expounding wide-ranging, often very abstract teachings, recapitulating everything in the scripture; after imparting his or her knowledge to Sudhana, each bodhisattva assures Sudhana that his or her own attainments are no match for those of all the bodhisattvas and sends Sudhana to another teacher for further devel­opment.

Toward the end of his journey Sudhana is directed to Maitreya, the Buddha-to-be, personi.cation of loving-kindness. Sudhana comes to a great tower, the "tower of the treasury of adornments of the illumi­nator [Vairocana]," which represents the cosmos as seen by bodhisatt­vas. He re.ects that this tower is the abode of bodhisattvas who understand the emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness of all things, the abode of those whose intent it is to bene.t all beings, of those who have already left all worlds but who appear in the world to edify people, of those who observe emptiness yet do not form the view of emptiness, of those who course in formlessness yet always enlighten those who cling to forms, of those who practice wishless­ness yet do not give up the will for enlightening practice, and so on; in this vein Sudhana extols the qualities of bodhisattvas. Then Maitreya appears. He praises Sudhana before a great assembly and then exten­sively praises the determination for enlightenment. Finally Maitreya has Sudhana enter the tower, which is then seen to be boundlessly vast, as extensive as space, and magni.cently adorned with all man­ner of embellishments. Sudhana also sees that inside the tower are innumerable similarly adorned towers, each as extensive as space, yet not interfering with each other. This image symbolizes a central Hua­yen theme represented time and again throughout the scripture—all things, being interdependent, therefore imply in their individual being the simultaneous being of all other things. Thus it is said that the existence of each element of the universe includes the existence of the whole universe and hence is as extensive as the universe itself. This point, a basic premise of the whole Hua-yen teaching, is dealt with in more detail in the treatises translated in this volume.

At this point Sudhana enters unimpeded liberation and perceives all kinds of inconceivable realms in the features of the towers, includ­ing the career and deeds of Maitreya Bodhisattva as well as all manner of worlds and beings and all things in the universe. Then Maitreya enters the tower, bids Sudhana rise from his trance, and explains to him, "The nature of things is thus: these are appearances manifested by the assemblage of causes and conditions of bodhisattvas’ knowledge of things; thus their intrinsic nature is like phantasms, like dreams, like shadows, like reflections. . . ." Subsequently Maitreya further instructs Sudhana, telling him of bodhisattvas’ ten kinds of birthplace: "The determination for enlightenment is the birthplace of bodhisattvas, as they are born in the house of Buddhahood; faith is the birthplace of bodhisattvas, as they are born in the house of wise teachers; the stages of enlightenment are the birthplace of bodhisatt­vas, as they are born in the house of transcendent practices; great vows are the birthplace of bodhisattvas, as they are born in the house of sublime actions; great compassion is the birthplace of bodhisatt­vas, as they are born in the house of charity, kind words, altruism, and cooperation; contemplation and observation according to truth are the birthplace of bodhisattvas, as they are born in the house of transcendent knowledge; the great vehicle of universal enlighten­ment is the birthplace of bodhisattvas, as they are born in the house of skill in means of liberation; edifying sentient beings is the birth­place of bodhisattvas, as they are born in the house of Buddhahood; knowledge, wisdom, and skill in means is the birthplace of bodhisatt­vas, as they are born in the house of acceptance of the nonorigination of things; acting on all truths is the birthplace of bodhisattvas, as they are born in the house of all enlightened ones of past, present, and future."

Maitreya then continues: "Bodhisattvas have transcendent knowl­edge for their mother and skill in expedient means for their father; transcendent generosity is their wet nurse, transcendent morality is their nurse; transcendent tolerance is their adornment, transcendent effort is what nourishes and raises them; transcendent meditation is what bathes and washes them; good friends are their teachers, all the factors of enlightenment are their companions; all virtuous ways are their retinue, all bodhisattvas are their siblings; the determination for enlightenment is their house, practicing in accord with truth is the rule of the house; the stages of enlightenment are the location of the house, the acceptances are the family; great vows are the policy of the house; ful.lling enlightening practices is following the rule of the house; encouraging the progress of the great vehicle is succession to the family business."

Maitreya goes on to say that once they are born in this house, "be­cause they know that all things are like reflected images, they do not despise any world; because they know that all things are like magical productions, they have no attachment to any realm of being; because they know that all things have no self, they teach beings indefatiga­bly; because their essential nature is great kindness and compassion, they embrace all sentient beings without feeling strain; because they realize that birth and death are like dreams, they live through all ages—becoming, subsistence, decay, annihilation—without fear; be­cause they know that sense faculties, sense consciousness, and sense data are the same as the elemental cosmos, they do not destroy ob­jects; because they know that all conceptions are like mirages, they enter all realms of being without giving rise to delusion or confusion; because they know that all things are like illusions, they enter realms of demons without becoming affected or attached; because they know the body of reality, no afllictions can fool them; because they are free, they can pass through any realm without hindrance." Finally Maitreya sends Sudhana to see Manjusri again. Passing through more than a hundred and ten cities, Sudhana comes to a city called Sumana and stands before the gate thinking of Manjusri and seeking him. Then Manjusri extends his right hand over a hundred and ten leagues, pats Sudhana on the head, and teaches him and en­ables him to accomplish innumerable teachings and to be imbued with the infinite light of great knowledge, empowering him to attain the boundless memory power, vows, concentrations, psychic powers, and knowledge of bodhisattvas, thus introducing Sudhana to the site of the practice of Samantabhadra, and also placing Sudhana in Manjusri’s own abode—symbolizing Sudhana’s actualization of both knowledge (the realm of Manjusri) and action (the realm of Samantab­hadra). Then Manjusri disappears, and Sudhana wishes to see Manjusrias well as all teachers, "numerous as atoms in the cosmos," to associate with them, serve them, and learn all knowledge from them. Then, wishing to see Samantabhadra, Sudhana develops "a great mind vast as space, an unhindered mind relinquishing all worlds and free from attachments, an unobstructed mind everywhere carrying out all obstruction-nullifying practices, an umimpeded mind entering into all oceans of spaces, a pure mind entering into all realms of knowl­edge, a clearly aware mind perceiving the adornments of the site of enlightenment, a vast broad mind entering into the ocean of all en­lightening teachings, an all-pervasive mind edifying all sentient be­ings, an immeasurable mind purifying all lands, an inexhaustible mind living through all ages, an ultimate mind directed toward the ten powers of enlightenment’’—whereupon he perceives ten auspicious signs and ten kinds of light and then Samantabhadra sitting in the Buddha’s assembly. Observing Samantabhadra, he sees in every pore every feature of the mundane and spiritual worlds, and finally he sees himself in Samantabhadra’s being, traversing infinite realms, coursing in a sphere of endless, inexhaustible knowledge, ultimately becoming equal to Samantabhadra and the Buddha, filling the cosmos.

The scripture ends with a lengthy eulogy of Buddhahood. This concludes what many have considered the most grandiose, the most comprehensive, and the most beautifully arrayed of  the Buddhist scriptures.