Hua-Yen, or a View of Totality

Digital Bringers of Life by_AlexGroseth
Bringers of life by Alex Groseth

Before engaging the Sutra it is advisable that we present a brief overview of its doctrinal foundation, which is rooted in Hua-yen Buddhism. Also translated as “Flowery Splendor” (thus the title of the Sutra), Hua-yen is an all-encompassing matrix of syncretic-connections that are inter-dependent and thus constitute a resolution of form and principle as defined in such concepts as shih (phenomena) and li (noumenon)—both of which we shall explore more fully soon. The “holographic-model” is an apt depiction of the inner-mechanism of Hua-yen, wherein each three-dimensional image is a reflection and part and parcel of the larger whole—thus the microcosm within the macrocosm scheme of things. The school’s grand systematizer was Fa-tsang (643-712), its renowned Third Patriarch. One could say that he gave birth to its Holographic-Model when he exhibited it for Empress Wu in the following fashion:

Fazang illustrated the Huayan teachings for Empress Wu by constructing a hall of mirrors, placing mirrors on the ceiling, floor, four walls, and the four corners of a room. In the center he placed a Buddha image with a lamp next to it. Standing in this room, the empress could see that in the reflection of any one mirror clearly reflected the reflections from all of the other mirrors, including the specific reflection of the Buddha image in each one. This fully demonstrated the unobstructed interpenetration of the particular and the totality, with each one contained in all, and with all contained in each one. Moreover, it showed the nonobstructed interpenetration of each particular mirror with each of the others. (Process Metaphysics and Hua-Yen Buddhism, Odin pg. 3)

In league with the above scholars have accurately posited that the philosophy of the Hua-yen coincides with Alfred North Whitehead’s Process Theory of Actuality:

Whitehead’s schematic of creativity or creative synthesis, is reminiscent of the first principle governing the Hua-yen speculative system, this being summarized in the term, śūnyatā or “emptiness” (also translatable as “voidness,” “nothingness,” “openness,” or even “relativity”).
Both notions fuse multiplicity into unity, manyness into oneness, and the disjunctive universe into the conjunctive universe at the standpoint of every perspectival locus in nature, so that each event or occasion of reality constitutes a microcosm of the macrocosm. As Francis Cook rightly stated, the philosophical concept of causation is the central concern in both the Whiteheadian and Hua-yen Buddhist theoretical frameworks in that each dharma or event functions as a cause or supportive condition for every other event in the universe. In fact, both Whitehead’s category of creative synthesis and Hua-yen Buddhist śūnyatā represent sophisticated doctrines of universal relativity or dependent origination, in the sense of arising into existence through causation. The argument developed by both systems is that, since each event arises into momentary existence due to its causal relations to every other event in the universe, it includes or contains them all as elements necessary to its own composition; thus a profound social connection, ontological togetherness and cosmic cohesiveness of events is established within each one. (ibid, pg.2)

Although there is a salient distinction:

The distinction between these two theoretical frameworks in more dialectical terms, both Hua-yen and Whitehead argue that actuality is ultimately characterized as a dialectical penetration of polar opposites such as unity and multiplicity or subjectivity and objectivity. However, for Hua-yen this means a symmetrical or mutual interpenetration of opposites, i.e., unity-into-multiplicity and multiplicity-into-unity, subjectivity-into-objectivity and objectivity-into-subjectivity, thus establishing a simultaneous-mutual-containment among all events. However, for Whitehead there is only an asymmetrical or one-way dialectical movement of multiplicity-into-unity and objectivity-intosubjectivity; thus a cumulative penetration or cumulative fusion of events within a radically temporal structure is established. This is to say, whereas for Hua-yen, a subject and object simultaneously interpenetrate such that the subject contains the object just as much as the object contains the subject, for Whitehead subject and object are not simultaneous with each other; rather, each newly arising subject contains its multiplicity of antecedent objects, although that multiplicity of antecedent objects does not itself contain the newly arising subject, since the objects emerged into actuality independent of and prior to the subject’s existence. (ibid, pg.4)

One comes away with this with the understanding that “Totality”, in light of the Hua-yen, is exhibited as “realms-embracing-realms ad infinitum”. Of course, all this has a bearing on the wonders of the Dharmadhātu itself. It is in this context that we need to turn to next, but before we do we need to fine-tune our understanding of the aforementioned terms of Li (Principle) and Shih (Phenomena). Li means Absolute Principle, Noumenon, Suchness, the Unborn, and Universal Truth. Shih signifies phenomena, the formal realms, function and particular events. Yet it needs to be stressed that they both do not constitute a duality, but within the Dharmadhātu they subsist simultaneously. What this entails is that every material event in the phenomenal order represents the Absolute Principle with total perfection. Hence, the saying, “the one is the all, and the all is the one.” In other words, One is many and the many is representative of the One and Absolute. We can now turn to the Four Dharmadhātu:

1. The Dharmadhatu of ‘Shih’: This is a realm of phenomena, in which all things are seen as distinct, discrete and different objects, matter, events and Dharmas occur in the empirical worlds.
2. The Dharmadhatu of ‘Li’: This is a realm, in which the principles underlying all phenomena and the immanent reality upholding all Dharmas are seen. It is a realm beyond the perceptions of human beings, but can be visualized by the enlightened ones through intuition.
3. The Dharmadhatu of Nonobstruction of ‘Li’ against ‘Shih’: This is a realm, in which ‘Li’ and ‘Shih’ are regarded as the inseparable unity. That means, without one, the other would be meaningless. They are mutually interpenetrating and completely identical, i.e. they are nondual. This complies with the Principle of Nonobstruction of ‘Li’ against ‘Shih’.
4. The Dharmadhatu of Nonobstruction of ‘Shih’ against Shih’: This is the ultimate and the only Dharmadhatu that truly exists, as the first three Dharmadhatu are merely explanatory expediencies to approach this realm. In this realm, each and every individual ‘Shih’ enters into and merges with all other ‘Shih’ in perfect freedom, without the aid of ‘Li’, or the unhindred interfusion of particular with particular. (From Buddhism is a Nutshell, chapt.67)

Hence the Dharmadhātu is like a Cosmic Web of interconnecting variables that are all-inclusive:

In Hua-yen Buddhism, the dharmadhatu of all-merging suchness (conceived as a cosmic web of interrelations or as a universal matrix of intercausation) is t’i (essence) whereas each particular dharma is its yung (function). Or again, in terms of the basic Hua-yen formula li-shih-wu-ai (the unhindered interfusion of universal and particular), li (universal principle) is analyzable as essence (t’i) while shih (particular events) are analyzable as function (yung). Consequently, all particular events (shih) are simply a dynamic function (yung) of the same underlying essence (t’i), this being li or universal principle…
Or as developed in the Avatamsaka Sutra, since all atoms are merely a reflection (pratibhāsa) of every other atom, there is ultimately a perfect sameness (samatā) among all atoms in the universe, negatively expressed as sunyata or emptiness and positively expressed as amalacitta or purity. Thus, all events are wholly devoid of svabkāva or unique selfhood, since everything dissolves into everything else at the ontological level of sunyata. (Odin, pg.23)

Thus in this cosmic-framework, the True Suchness of Reality is to discover the Buddha-nature of all existence. Stated in another context this is the “Matrix or Womb of the Tathagata” which also served as a building block for the Hua-yen. This is not some vast network of “Being” as conceived in a Svabkāva framework, but a never-ending, never-beginning cycle of pure amalacitta, or the Absolute Consciousness of the Tathagata. Yea, this is the perfection of bodhignosis, the awakened-realization that the apparent fabric of space and its elemental structures are since beginningless time the Voidness of Śūnyatā.

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