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Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra

by Francis H. Cook

Buy the book: Francis H. Cook. Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra

Release Date: December, 1977

Edition: Paperback

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Buy the book: Francis H. Cook. Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra


Treading the Isthmus of Aristotle's Excluded Middle

Know that the whole world is a mirror, In each atom are found a hundred blazing suns. If you split the center of a single drop of water, A hundred oceans spring forth... Everything is brought together at the point of the present

- Mahmud Shabesteri, 14th Century Islamic Poet

Francis Cook has put together a fairly clear and cogent overview of Hua-yen Buddhism as seen primarily through the eyes of its third patriarch, Fa-tsang, considered to be the real founder of the school because of his role as the first to systematically and philosophically explicate the Hua-yen worldview. One of Cook's underlying arguments is that Hua-yen is an extensive and complex Chinese reworking of the Indian Buddhist doctrine of sunyata or emptiness (30). This thesis has been disputed by the Buddhist scholar, Paul Williams, on the grounds that such a view is the result of a misguided tendency among contemporary Buddhist scholars to reduce all of Mahayana philosophy - and by inclusion, Hua-yen - to a "series of footnotes to Nagarjuna", thereby eliminating the presence of genuinely original thought on the part of post-Madhyamaka, Mahayana thinkers. (Mahayana Buddhism London: Routledge, 1999. 132). However, it seems that Cook does not hold to the simplistic view he is accused of, evidenced by his claim that "the influence of indigenous Chinese modes of thought" contributed to the "*reinterpretation* of several fundamental Indian Buddhist ideas" (31). Despite the affinity between Hua-yen and Madhyamaka on certain fundamental doctrines, Cook concedes the originality and independent development of Hua-yen while acknowledging its Indian roots. Williams's argument that Cook's perspective renders Hua-yen a "footnote" to Nagarjuna perhaps only holds ground if it is understood in the same vein as Whitehead's famous - yet highly exaggerated - remark about Plato and the subsequent Western intellectual tradition.

Cook points out that Hua-Yen espouses a totalistic as opposed to a particularistic view of totality. Particularistic thinking, which dominates most of the history of Western thought, envisions the entities that make up phenomenon as distinct, isolated and discrete, separated by fixed and discontinuous boundaries. I, for example, am separate from my cat and the tree in the Amazon Rainforest. Particularism grows out of a tendency to analyse, discriminate, and erect categories. Moreover, a hierarchical schema generally accompanies particularism, so that certain entities are ranked as qualitatively superior to others. This makes me more valuable than my cat, and my cat more valuable than a tree in Brazil.

Totalistic thinking on the other hand, sees the whole rather the parts. This does not mean that it denies the parts, but rather that it sees the parts as parts of a whole, and the whole as a composite of parts. Just as parts are connected to the whole, and since the whole consists of the parts, the parts are also connected to each other. That is to say, entities interpenetrate, are intercausal, and are bound to each other in a sophisticated and intricate web of mutual dependence. This web - the Jewel Net of Indra - makes up the whole. What affects the tree in the rain forest, affects me, and what impacts me affects my cat. Unlike particularism, totalism lacks a hierarchical gradation of being, so that all things are equally important. To better understand this ontological egalitarianism, one must better understand the Hua-yen conception of existence. Hua-yen philosophy holds that the entities that make up being are fundamentally the same; their sameness exists through a shared emptiness, for it is through this underlying unity at the core level - sunyata - that the entities are existentially equal. Now when we say that the basic components of existence are empty, does this mean that they do not exist? Yes and no. Yes, because emptiness lacks being. No, because the things that exist, exist as conditions. What this means is that although each dharma (fundemental component) lacks a svabha, a self-essence or fixed-nature, (and hence is non-existent), it acquires existence through its function in the whole. But because its existence is only a function which is determined by its role in the whole, it is not existent in the same fashion as an independently existing-being which is what it is apart from the rest of beings. This is no doubt a highly perplexing worldview, one which is especially hard to fathom for those accustomed to thinking in terms of black and white, Aristotelian logic, with its notion of excluded-middle; but Buddhism (like Islam) is the religion of the Middle-Way, and dares to intellectually tread the path which Aristotle thought was not possible.

In order to clarify Hua-yen's puzzling doctrine, Cook brings to light Fa-Tsang's metaphor of the rafter and the building. Fa-tsang argues that a building cannot exist apart from the rafter that created it. This part is easy to understand, since it is obvious that buildings need rafters to exist. But Fa-tsang also contends that the rafter needs the building to exist. By this he means that the rafter's condition of "rafterness" is acquired by his construction of the building. From this perspective, the building causes the rafter to come into being. Without a building the rafter cannot be a rafter, in the same way that a father cannot be a father without son. "Fatherhood" is not an essential identity, but a condition, brought into being by a man's fathering a child. In similar fashion, the rafter becomes a rafter by erecting a building, prior to the erection of which he was a nonrafter. Now just as rafters and buildings stand in mutual need of each other to exist as rafters and buildings, similarly, nails, roof tiles, and all other components of the whole which make up the building, become what they are, and cause others to be what they are, through their interconnectedness. Apart from their respective conditions, they lack existence. This is emptiness. Through their conditions, they have being. This is existence. But if one holds exclusively to either existence or emptiness, one inescapably falls into one of the two errors of eternalism or annhilationism. The former is the view that things independently exist, the latter is the view that nothing exists. The correct view lies in the isthmus separating existence and non-existence. Although there are conceptual difficulties in fully grasping the Hua-yen vision of the universe, it is essential to keep in mind that the doctrine under question is not the product of an intellectual effort of an arm-chair philosopher to solve the perennial riddle of being. On the contrary, Hua-yen philosophy is in fact the dialectical explanation of a supra-dialectical experience, namely samadhi (non-dualistic enlightenment). Fa-tsang claims that the Hua-yen vision of the universe was taught by the Buddha *while* in a state of enlightenment, which is why the worldview has such tremendous significance. If one truly desires to see things as the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas see, then it is essential that the aspirant work towards enlightenment and praj├▒a-insight through meditation, for only the enlightened truly comprehend the nature of tathata - suchness. For this reason the Chinese say, "Hua-yen for philosophy, Ch'an [Zen] for practice". Commenting on this traditional saying, Cook adds, "the picture of existence presented by Hua-yen is the universe experienced in Zen enlightenment. Without the practice and realization of Zen, Hua-yen philosophy remains mere intellectual fun" (26).

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Worthwhile Reading if You Still don't "Get" Emptiness

Sometimes it seems that Cook can't quite keep the seeming contradictions of the viewpoint from Emptiness in his own head, but he generally provides a coherent exposition of the Hua-Yen view. This is not an easy subject to write about, and Cook does so cleanly and for the most part consistently. The occasional lapse into a somewhat substantialistic exposition can easily be forgiven. Like Hua-Yen itself, he avoids nihilism adroitly.

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