Thursday, April 29, 2004

Buddhism/Zen Thursday: some Hua Yen

Five words: total, simultaneous, absolute, mutual interpenetration.

That, friends, is Hua-yen metaphysics in a nutshell. Hua-yen Buddhism (it's Hwa-eom, or Hwaeom, here in Korea) had a major influence on the course of Chan (Zen) thought in China. For a great little article on it, see here. The school seems to have been established sometime in the early 600s CE, which makes it roughly contemporaneous with the birth of Islam.

There are two famous images for understanding Hua-yen metaphysics propounded by Fa-tsang. One is the Jewel Net of Indra; the other is the Golden Lion (cf. the essay written around 704 CE).

Indra's Net is a favorite Buddhist image. Originally, Indra was a major Hindu god of the sky (among other things). His net has jewels instead of knots, and these jewels' facets all reflect the other jewels, with reflections reflecting reflections, ad infinitum. Fa-tsang makes reference to Indra's Net as a way to reinforce the larger metaphysical point he's trying to make in the Essay on the Golden Lion.

The golden lion is Fa-tsang's primary metaphor for explaining the nature of reality. A lion made entirely of gold has distinct parts, but all the parts, because they are made of gold, share the same nature, are the same thing. In this way we see there is an absolute unity of the noumenal and the phenomenal. The lion's parts all contain the entirety of the lion-- there is, as Fa-tsang writes in his essay, an infinity of golden lions, just as Indra's Net is an infinity of cross-referenced reflections.

Mahayana Buddhism took the Buddha, a person, and radically cosmicized him, making the Buddha (and the dharmas) into something reminiscent of fractal patterns, where a large pattern is composed of smaller versions of itself, and those smaller versions are themselves composed of even smaller versions, etc. I find that Stephen Kaplan's holographic model of pluralism actually works well as a modern version of the golden lion metaphor (even if I don't think it works well as a metaphysical model for religious pluralism): a hologram, when broken into parts, doesn't display fragments of the original image. Instead, each part projects the entire original image. The idea Kaplan is striving to express is that the whole is found in the parts.

The simultaneity of absolute interpenetration is something taken over by Zen. You can see a modern version of this in Masao Abe's refutation of process theologian John Cobb's contention that Zen and process theology see interdependence the same way. Abe rejected the idea that Zennists view universal interdependence as processual in the more "thermodynamic" sense intended by Cobb-- i.e., that universal process is sequential, events happening "before" and "after" other events. For Abe, the interdependence has the character of absolute simultaneity-- it's not a matter of rolling forward through space-time (in an unending chain of novelty and creativity) so much as it's a matter of everything already being as it is.

In Hua-yen thought, there are four dharma realms (dharmadatu, a Hua-yen term that also signifies the fundamental universal principle) and all phenomena possess, like the various parts of the golden lion, six distinct characteristics.

The four dharma realms:

1. reality/phenomena
2. principle/absolute/noumenon
3. the realm where (1) and (2) interpenetrate
4. the realm of ultimate harmony/non-obstruction

The six characteristics of all phenomena (in pairs):

Pair 1: universality/specificity
Pair 2: similarity/distinctness
Pair 3: integration/differentiation

This very much ties in to the Heart Sutra's contention that "form is emptiness, and emptiness is form." Those two phrases aren't to be seen as somehow sequential: they're both true simultaneously.

Enough Hua-yen for the evening. I'm still reading up on it. If you want to go blow your mind further, take a gander at Andi's recent post that continues her discussions on Buddhist notions of impermanence and no-self.


Chan, Wing-tsit. A Source Book on Chinese Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Ch'en, Kenneth. Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964.

Schuhmacher, Stephan, and Gert Woerner. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion. Boston: Shambhala, 1994. [surprisingly good source]


No comments: