Nichiren Shu

Cosmology of the
Flower Garland Teachings

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

Won Buddhism

The following essay is based on a presentation I gave at the Won Buddhist Temple of Philadelphia during the time prior to my converting to the Nichiren Shu. This presentation was my attempt to summarize what I had learned about the Flower Garland Sutra and its teachings. I had been curious about the Flower Garland because it was the most influential sutra in mainland Buddhism and in many ways was the basis of the underlying philosophy of Zen Buddhism, especially in China and Korea. Nichiren Shonin also spoke very highly of the Flower Garland Sutra in the Kaimoku Sho. While Nichiren Shonin pointed out that it did not teach the One Vehicle or reveal the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha, he did praise its many other teachings and pointed out that no other provisional sutra could compare with it. In order to better understand why this sutra was so highly praised, I read the Thomas Cleary translation of it as well as several books about the Hua Yen school which was based on its teachings. I felt richly rewarded for my efforts. The Flower Garland Sutra opened up whole new dimensions of the Mahayana worldview to me. The least I could do was to share what I had learned with those who had encouraged my practice over the years - Rev. Bokin Kim and the members of her Friday night meditation/discussion group. In the presentation, I used illusory and ambiguous figures, a bronze lion, and a small scale model of the monk Fa-tsang's hall of mirrors complete with a candle and crystal in order to demonstrate the Hua Yen worldview.

This essay also owes a lot to the teachings of Thomas Berry. When I gave this presentation I had just graduated from the Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality where I had earned my M.A. in Spirituality. One of the guest speakers there was the ecologist and theologian Father Thomas Berry. He is sometimes referred to as a eco-theologian or even a geologian. In any case, I was very impressed by him and by his urgent prophetic call to a fundamental reevaluation of our civilization and its relationship with the natural world. In many ways, he enabled me to awaken to the practical meaning and value of the Hua Yen worldview. In many ways, that presentation was also my way of expressing my gratitude to Thomas Berry by passing on his words to others. I hope that those who read this essay will be similarly inspired to read Thomas Berry for themselves.

Back when I was in San Diego studying the western esoteric tradition, I had the following exchange with the teacher of the school I had joined: "Teacher, you've been saying that the whole world and everyone in it is an illusion. If that's true, then aren't you just my illusion and I'm really just teaching myself?" I asked.

"That's right." she said.

"Well, in that case, if you are just a figment of my imagination; then what am I to you?" I inquired.

"A figment of my imagination. Either way you look at it, I'm still teaching myself," was her response.

That conversation made quite an impression on me, and I recalled it a year later when I was debating "The Nature of Reality" in Los Angeles with a couple of friends. I forget the particulars of that debate, except that it revolved around the relative or absolute nature of Truth. Was Truth an object one could find through hard work or was it something that forever lay beyond direct apprehension? Perhaps Truth was merely subjective? My answer was that Truth was inter-subjective. In other words, the world arises through relationship and its Truth is discovered in community. As my former teacher indicated, we are all in a mutual process of creating each other and the world. Therefore, Truth can not be isolated or individual. As the Lotus Sutra states, "Only a Buddha together with a Buddha can fathom the True Reality of all existence." This is also the point of view of the Flower Garland Sutra and the Hua Yen school of Buddhism.

Before I dive into an explanation of the Hua Yen viewpoint, I would like to say a word about cosmology and its place in Buddhism. By cosmology, I am referring to the study of a comprehensive vision of the nature of the universe and humanity's place within it. The historical Buddha refused to get entangled with cosmology, comparing it to having a discussion about the particulars of a poisoned arrow before actually allowing it to be removed from one's flesh. In Shakyamuni's view, cosmology was a distraction from the immediate task of recognizing the immediacy of the human predicament for what it is and extricating oneself from it. Today, however, we are so engrossed in our "predicament" that we have created what sociologist Christopher Lasch has called a "culture of narcissism." As a culture, we are so concerned with our human predicament that therapy, drugs, escapism, and equally escapist transcendental or fundamentalist religions have blinded us to the fact that there is more to humanity than just individual humans. The human situation is different than it was in Shakyamuni's day; our situation has always been inextricably bound up with the world in which we live, but now we have the power to change that world in drastic ways. Our technical know-how and industrial progress have brought us to the point where, as the ecologist and theologian Thomas Berry has pointed out, "we have actually changed the chemistry of the planet." This is the danger. The problem of enlightenment is no longer solely a problem of seeing into the nature of one's own mind. Even Shakyamuni recognized the need to take care of one's physical body if right meditation is to be practiced. Now we must take care of our universe-body as well. Thomas Berry has also pointed out that, "We need the healing Beauty of the natural world. We need the Beauty for our imagination. To damage the outer world is to destroy the inner world." As Buddhists, we must acknowledge that a destruction of the inner world as a consequence of having no responsibility towards or appreciation for the cosmos and our role in it's unfolding is not conducive to right meditation or right livelihood. Berry's earnest recommendation is that we must learn to see that "the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects." With all of this said, I think it can be safely concluded that Buddhism must now come to grips with cosmology if it is to provide a healthy vision for a humanity that must learn to relate to the natural world in an entirely new way if it is to survive.

Now it is time to dive into the Hua Yen teachings to see what they might have to offer us in this respect. To begin with, let me put the Flower Garland Sutra in context. The sutra is a highly imaginative and profound attempt to expound the vision of the fully awakened mind of Shakyamuni Buddha at the time of his enlightenment. This makes it very different from all the other sutras which are records of Shakyamuni's teachings to others. The Flower Garland is more concerned with the enlightened state in and of itself, as opposed to the teachings which lead it. On this basis, the Chinese Buddhists of the Hua Yen school declared that it alone was the most profound "king of all sutras," whereas the other sutras were all provisional teachings leading back to the primordial experience of the Buddha's enlightenment expressed in the Flower Garland. While the followers of the Lotus Sutra in the T'ien-t'ai school contested this assertion, the Hua Yen school nevertheless became the dominant school of Chinese and Korean Buddhism until the Confucianist persecutions in the 9th and 15th centuries respectively.

The Flower Garland is famous for the identification of the Dharmakaya as the Buddha Vairocana (The Illuminator) whose body pervades the universe, its use of the imagery of the Jewel Net of Indra and the Tower of Vairocana, and the fifty-two stage pilgrim's progress of Sumedha from the initial aspiration to attain enlightenment all the way to full awakening. Countless principles and teachings have been derived from all of this, but I would like to focus on two of the most important phrases that have been contributed to Mahayana Buddhism by the Hua Yen school: li shih wu ai (the non-obstuction of principal and phenomena) and shih shih wu ai (the non-obstruction of phenomena and phenomena). I especially want to show how these two insights point towards a cosmology of inter-subjectivity.

Let us begin with li shih wu ai, the non-obstruction of principle and phenomena. In general, "principle" refers to emptiness and "phenomena" refers to the dharmas or experiences which make up the everyday world in which we live. Emptiness refers to the mutual dependence and relatedness which characterizes all things. In my understanding, emptiness is the principle of inter-subjectivity. In other words, things are empty of static self-existence; rather, they arise through a dynamic relationality. The 7th century Hua Yen monk Fa-tsang illustrated li shih wu ai through the analogy of a golden lion. If we think of the gold as the principle and the form of the lion as phenomena, then we can begin to understand how principle and phenomena can be simultaneously present and mutually supportive. In the example, the lion could not be a lion if it were not for the gold. Likewise, the gold must be presented to us in one form or another, so the form of the lion is the way in which the gold is presented to us. In the real world, this means that each of us is an exemplification of inter-subjectivity, and inter-subjectivitiy is present as the reality of our lives. Thus it is impossible to think of ourselves as existing apart from some context or relation to other things. This is our fundamental relationality. We can not exist in isolation. If we were not empty or inter-subjective, we would be something other than we are. If we were not as we are, there would be nothing to call empty. In the famous words of the Heart Sutra: "Form is not other than emptiness. Emptiness is not other than form."

If li shih wu ai points to the simultaneous presence of inter-subjectivity and individual phenomena, then shih shih wu ai carried the insight further by pointing to the presence of all in one and one in all without the loss of individuality due to the emptiness of all dharmas. Thomas Berry put it succinctly when he said "Things are distinct, but not seperate." The "Formation of Worlds" chapter of the Flower Garland states: "Thus does infinity enter into one, Yet each unit is distinct with no overlap." and "In each atom are congregations numerous as atoms...Yet with no crowding or confusion." How can we possibly make sense of this or even imagine it? Once again, Fa-tsang made recourse to the analogy of the golden lion. Each part of the lion (tail, teeth, ears, paws, etc...) makes no sense apart from the whole and each part lends its support to the whole. Without the context of the lion, the tail would no longer be a tail but simply a squiggle of gold. Likewise, without the coordination of parts, there would be no whole to support the individual members. Because of this mutual support of the whole and its parts, one contains the all and is contained by the all. As Thomas Berry has pointed out "We are totally implicated in one another."

Perhaps a quick study of ambiguous and illusory images might help to further illustrate these principles. From the standpoint of li shih wu ai, there are no individual subjects as such. Rather, there is the mutually supportive activity of the universe which creates the multitude of sentient beings and their worlds. As the figure of the illusory circles shows, there are not really any circles (individuals) at all; what one is seeing is a complex of lines (the dynamic activity of the universe) which give rise to the illusory circles and the equally illusory X (the world of the individuals) which arises from the complex of circles. Thus, illusion gives rise to illusion; and according to li shih wu ai, even the lines would not be there if there were no circles for them to create or radiate from.

illusion gives rise to illusion

From the standpoint of shih shih wu ai, the infinite intersubjectivities of the universe mutually support and contain one another. To grasp this we can look to the following three figures, which are also three different figures. Or perhaps we could say there are six figures, or none at all. It depends upon how we choose to view them. If we think about the mutual presence of two images (subjects) in one, we can perhaps begin to grasp how the dynamic flow of the world can originate from one or another, both or neither within the very same total experience. Is reality my own experience of the world or is it derived from the actions of others, or is it somehow neither or both? As the picture illustrates, the multiple images (subjectivities) of the world give rise to each other within the very same figure without impeding their distinct individuality. It all depends on what is revealed to any one point of view at any given moment. This is what I call inter-subjectivity. The "Formation of Worlds" chapter in the Flower Garland states: "Sentient beings are muddled by afflictions, Their conceptions and inclinations are not the same; According to their mental states they perform inconceivably many acts, Thereby forming the ocean of all lands."


If this view is a reality, and the formation of worlds depends on our inter-subjectivity, then one can conclude that this also means we are mutually responsible for the worlds that are formed. Judging from the current state of the world, it seems that the people of today are dangerously unaware of this. The continuing degredation of the natural world, the ticking time bomb of racial tensions in the U.S., the ominous rise of ethnic strife in Europe, and the continuing disregard of fundamental human rights in Asia reminds me of a verse from the story of Sumedha's pilgrimage in the final chapter of the Flower Garland: "Then because of the evil of mutual contempt, they lost their span of life, physical appearance, strength, and happiness - all was lost." This is the dark side of inter-subjectivity, mutual contempt and destruction owing to narrow self-glorification at the expense of all else. Because of inter-subjectivity, we all rise or fall together. To redeem this situation we must internalize and act upon the Hua Yen teachings of li shih wu ai and shih shih wu ai. In the prophetic words of Thomas Berry: "In the 20th century the Glory of the human has become the desolation of the Earth. The desolation of the Earth has become the fate of the human. All institutions must be judged according to how they promote or inhibit a mutually enhancive relationship between the subjects of the Earth."

The situation is dire, but not without hope. Shih shih wu ai may imply mutual arising or destruction, but it should also be remembered that li shih wu ai implies a universe wherein the ultimate principle is reflected endlessly in all phenomena throughout the universe. In this case the principle of emptiness, or inter-subjectivity, refers to the inherent capacity of compassion and wisdom in a universe wherein all phenomena mutually arise, contain and support one another. At some point self-understanding naturally breaks through into an intimate feeling and compassion for all things which are, after all, one's very own and to which one belongs. Thus, emptiness is also the principle of compassion and wisdom inherent in the very nature of an inter-subjective universe, and in this sense we can understand the assertion of Vairocana Buddha in the Flower Garland that "The buddha body extends throughout all the great assemblies; It fills the cosmos without end. Quiescent, without essence, it can not be grasped; It appears just to save all beings." Fa-tsang showed this through a series of mirrors reflecting one another just as all phenomena do in their mutual arising; and in the midst, a candle like the all pervading light of Vairocana endlessly reflected within them; and in the center a crystal reflecting all the mirrors just as Vairocana contains all the worlds within the reality of wisdom and compassion.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick 1993. 2001.

Suggested Reading

Berry, Thomas, C.P. and Clarke, Thomas, S.J. Befriending the Earth: A Theory of Reconciliation Between Humans and the Earth. Mystic: Twenty-third Publications, 1992.
Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990.
Chang, Garma C.C. The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The Philosophy of Hwa Yen Buddhism. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989.
Cleary, Thomas. Entry Into the Inconceivable: An Introduction to Hua-yen Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983.
Cleary, Thomas (tr.). The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1993.
Cook, Francis. Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.
Odin, Steve. Process Metaphysics and Hua-yen Buddhism: A Critical Study of Cumulative Penetration vs. Interpenetration. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982.
Swimme, Brian and Berry, Thomas. The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era - A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.

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