I mentioned Thich Nhat Hanh’s Cultivating the Mind of Love in a previous post. I finished the book, which is now one of my favorites by Thay. The chapters are drawn from a retreat at which Thay interspersed his own story of falling in love with a nun when he was a young monk with discussions of the Diamond, Lotus, Avatamsaka, Ugradatta, Vimalakirti, and other sutras. The love story was very poignant but it was the sutra discussions that really excited me. Thay delves into the historical background as well as the meaning of these wonderful source Buddhist texts.
In particular, the commentary on the Avatamsaka or Flower Ornament Sutra stirred long-forgotten memories. It all sounded so familiar and beloved, though remote. I searched through the shelf on which I keep the books from the various Asian philosophy and religion courses I took in college. Sure enough, way back in Chinese Buddhist Philosophy I read Hua-Yen Buddhism: the Jewel Net of Indra, by Francis H. Cook, which is basically a commentary on a commentary on the Avatamsaka Sutra. This past two weeks I’ve reread that book. It’s marvelous!
I’m not sure how much I got out of the book fifteen years ago and I’m sure I’m only glimpsing its treasures now. Nevertheless, I am also certain that reading it then and rereading it now plants and waters seeds in me that ripen under favorable conditions and will eventually sprout into understanding. It’s a slender volume printed in a small typeface and the middle in particular is thick with ontology and epistemology (two terms I barely remembered and had to look up, along with many other words used throughout). It’s undeniably dense and yet so lovingly written. I have to believe there is something particularly wonderful about the Avatamsaka Sutra if those who comment on it are so joyful about their subject matter.
The subject matter is interdependence, the interpenetration of emptiness and identity, the immutable law of interdependent origination. As weighty as that sounds, it’s not a dry analysis. This is about life itself – how we experience it and how we should practice once we realize our intimate connection to/with everything. As Cook writes, “there is a lot of ‘philosophy’ in Buddhism, in the form of logic, cosmology, and epistemology, but to be a Buddhist entails much more than having a certain philosophy of existence. One must make the philosophy a lived reality.”
So what is the lived reality of the Avatamsaka Sutra? Thay describes it in Cultivating the Mind of Love:
“Whenever I touch a flower, I touch the sun and yet I don’t get burned. When I touch the flower, I touch a cloud without flying to the sky. When I touch the flower, I touch my consciousness, your consciousness, and the great planet Earth at the same time. This is the Avatamsaka realm. The miracle is possible because of insight into the nature of interbeing. If you really touch one flower deeply, you touch the whole cosmos.”
Cook spends considerable time proving the salient concepts that underlie the sutra before turning to the lived reality, which he says necessitates the ethics of gratitude and respect. He describes how the practitioner must cultivate an attitude of fair-mindedness to everything else apart from ourselves, which is based on the realization that due to interdependent origination there is no everything else apart from ourselves. Just as I cannot be a daughter without my mother being a mother, and my mother cannot be my mother without me being her daughter, so we each are integrally connected with the universe to the point that we cannot exist without the universe, and the universe cannot exist without us.
As Thay writes in Cultivating the Mind of Love, “Look more deeply, and you will see yourself as multitudes, penetrating everywhere, interbeing with everyone and everything.” Thay frequently talks about how humans consist of nonhuman elements – within us for instance is the water, sun, and soil that provides the conditions for the plants that fuel us. Without these nonhuman elements, we could neither be in the first place nor continue to be sustained. Given this interbeing, how can anything be rejected or assigned a lesser value?
Or from Cook:
“In the Hua-yen universe, where everything interpenetrates in identity and interdependence, where everything needs everything else, what is there which is not valuable? To throw away even a single chopstick as worthless is to set up a hierarchy of values which in the end will kill us in a way in which no bullet can. In the Hua-yen universe, everything counts.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could somehow inculcate this concept in my children? Despite regular conversations about resources and conservation, they regularly throw away far more than a single chopstick and with little apparent recognition that doing so is wasteful. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could fully internalize this concept so that I looked upon everything and everyone as having equal value and being equally necessary for the existence of the whole, of which I am both part and entirety?
Cook continues later Hua-Yen Buddhism: the Jewel Net of Indra with an even more radical view of what emptiness and interdependence mean in terms of perceiving and living:
“I must be prepared to accept the fact that I am made for the use of the other no less than it is made for my use. If I can really grasp this, then even though I may recoil and scream as the eager tiger pounces on me, which is natural for me to do, perhaps in the last moment of consciousness before I am gratefully consumed by the tiger, I may have the grace to reflect that this is the tiger’s world as well as mine, and that I am for the use of hungry tigers just as much as carrots are for my use. Thus the least we can do is to be fair in our estimations as to the propriety of things.”
This brought to mind a wondrous article recently shared by a Sangha member about plants, which interact with the world in a way very different from how we mammals and other moving creatures do. These differences cause some to question or devalue the adaptations and abilities of plants, though theirs are no less effective than ours in promoting the survival and propagation of their species. By the end of the article, when I was reading about forests with interlocking root networks through which trees share nutrients, it seemed to me that plants have a greater practical awareness of interconnection than most humans do.
From the Avatamsaka Sutra or bodhisattva perspective, plants are as much part and whole of the universe as we are, as much as the stars and everything else. That is not something most humans perceive nor do many want to. But without expanding our awareness to perceive existence as the interdependent reality it is, our perception of the world remains colored by the lenses of our own biology and experiences, through which we arrange the world into hierarchies of values that always conveniently have us at the top, which might seem like a good thing except for the fact that such hierarchies create the endless strife and fear of samsara (existence seen through incorrect discriminative perception).
So how does one expand awareness to achieve the lived reality of the Avatamsaka Sutra? Cook reiterates that it’s not through reading and pontificating philosophy. Instead, we must develop compassionate perspective through meditation:
“Why compassion develops along with insight will be readily apparent, if it is remembered that in Buddhism, to be compassionate really means to treat the other in conformity with what that object is in reality, divorced from illusion, wishfulness, inference, hearsay, convention, and the like. Simply stated, to act compassionately means to act in accordance with reality. As long as I always react to experience in terms of what is beneficial or harmful to my self, I can never really be of effective use to others. When I am empty of a self, and when I no longer act in terms of selves, or within any conceptual framework, my relationship with the other will be that which the bystander would call ‘compassionate’.”
This was immediately relevant to me when thinking of parenting. Do I see my children as they actually are? Or do I react to them in terms of who I want them to be? In other words, when I look at my children do I really see them – or do I see only the parts of them that are beneficial or harmful in relation to myself, thus differentiating and creating boundaries between us? If I only see them in terms of me, how can I be a compassionate and effective parent?
I found parts of Hua-Yen Buddhism: the Jewel Net of Indra to be nearly impenetrable, but overall the reading was heart-opening. Cook ends with this lyrical encapsulation:
“When in a rare moment I manage painfully to rise above a petty individualism by knowing my true nature, I perceive that I dwell in the wondrous net of Indra, and in this incredibly network of interdependence, the career of the Bodhisattva must begin. It is not just that ‘we are all in it’ together. We all are it, rising or falling as one living being.”
I am so happy I rediscovered this book.
Now I want to read the sutra myself, so I need to save up to purchase the monumentally large and expensive yet apparently definitive English translation: The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra by Thomas Cleary (and then I may need weight training classes to carry it around – if ever a book should be converted for the e-reader, it is this one!). In the meantime, I will reread another of my college texts, Entry Into the Inconceivable: An Introduction to Hua-Yen Buddhism, by Thomas Cleary.
Then again, Francis H. Cook writes, if all I do is read and ponder Buddhist philosophy, then I am “merely indulging in intellectual fun, and Buddhism would claim that the problem of life is too pressing to waste in fruitless mind-games.” Similarly in Cultivating the Mind of Love Thay quotes one verse from the sutra and then says: “There are many equally beautiful verses to enjoy in the Avatamsaka Sutra, but since we know that touching one thing deeply, we touch the whole cosmos, we do not have to quote them all.” It is far more important to purify my mind and fill it with mindfulness, compassion, and love, for then, as Thay says, “we live in the Avatamsaka world”.
Personally, I find cultivating mindfulness, developing bodhicitta (the mind of enlightenment/love), and practicing meditation, all more challenging than reading a book! Nevertheless, I am comforted to know that because causes and results inter-are (after all, neither can exist without the other), the first step on the bodhisattva path necessarily contains within it the entire path, which makes taking that first step less daunting. However, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to continue walking the path – after all, if you don’t eventually achieve the result, then the cause couldn’t have originally come into being since a cause can’t be a cause unless there is a result . . .
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I think watching several seasons of the rebooted Doctor Who television series was of great assistance to me in following Cook’s explanation of Hua-Yen philosophy this time around. In particular, the Tenth Doctor (played by David Tennant) helpfully noted:
“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect. But actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey . . . stuff.”
Indeed. And not only that, but we and the big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff are one! Sometimes reading these commentaries and sutra quotes is like glimpsing a reflection of something breathtakingly beautiful that disappears when I try to bring my full attention to it. But that’s alright. In Cultivating the Mind of Love, Thay assures the reader on this point:
“The first teaching of the Avatamsaka is that everything is mind. Mind here does not mean mind consciousness, the intellect. It means something deeper, something individual and collective. Don’t worry if you don’t understand. You don’t have to understand anything. Just enjoy the words of this beautiful sutra. If they make you feel lighter, that is enough.”
What other jewels, familiar and beloved yet forgotten, await my rediscovery?
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T.S. Eliot — “Little Gidding”