華嚴Huayan (華嚴, Pinyin: huáyán, Sanskrit: Avatamsaka) or Flower Garland is a tradition of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy that flourished in China during the Tang period. It is based on the Sanskrit scripture of the same name and on a lengthy Chinese interpretation of it, the Huayan Lun. The name “Flower Garland” is meant to suggest the crowning glory of profound understanding.


Historical Background

The doctrines of the Huayan school ended up having profound impact on the philosophical attitudes of all of East Asian Buddhism. Established during the period of the end of the Sui and beginning of Tang dynasties, this school centered on the philosophy of interpenetration and mutual containment which its founders perceived in the Huayan Jing. Yet despite basic reliance on this sutra, much of the technical terminology that the school becomes famous for is not found in the sutra itself, but in the commentaries written by its early founders.

The founding of the school is traditionally attributed to a series of five “patriarchs” who were instrumental in developing the schools’ doctrines. These five are: Dushun (杜順), Zhiyan (智儼), Fazang (法藏), Chengguan (澄觀) and Zongmi. Another important figure in the development and popularization of Huayan thought was the lay scholar Li Tongxuan (李通玄). Some accounts of the school also like to extend its patriarchship earlier to Aśvaghoṣa and Nāgārjuna.

Although there are certain aspects of this patriarchal scheme which are clearly contrived, it is fairly well accepted that these men each played a significant and distinct role in the development of the school: for example, Dushun is known to have been responsible for the establishment of Huayan studies as a distinct field; Zhiyan is considered to have established the basic doctrines of the sect; Fazang is considered to have rationalized the doctrine for greater acceptance by society; Chengguan and Zongmi are understood to have further developed and transformed the teachings.

After the time of Zongmi and Li Tongxuan the Chinese school of Huayan generally stagnated in terms of new development, and then eventually began to decline. The school, which had been dependent upon the support it received from the government, suffered severely during the purge of 841-845, never to recover its former strength. Nonetheless, its profound metaphysics, such as that of the four dharmadhātu (四法界) of interpenetration, had a deep impact on surviving East Asian schools, especially the Chan school.

Philosophy of the Hua Yen School

The most important philosophical contributions of the Huayan school were in the area of its metaphysics, as it taught the doctrine of the mutual containment and interpenetration of all phenomena: that one thing contains all things in existence, and that all things contain one.

Distinctive features of this approach to Buddhist philosophy include:

  • Truth (or: reality) is understood as encompassing and interpenetrating falsehood (or: illusion), and vice-versa
  • Good is understood as encompassing and interpenetrating evil
  • Similarly, all mind-made distinctions are understood as ‘collapsing’ in the enlightened understanding of emptiness (a tradition traced back to the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna)

Huayan makes extensive use of paradox in argument and literary imagery. The following quote from Dale S. Wright (1982) summarizes the range of such devices a reader is likely to encounter in a first foray into Huayan literature:

The first type of paradox is modeled after paradoxical assertions found in many early Mahayana texts that emphasize the concept emptiness (k’ung(f)/’suunyataa). Beginning with the assertion that a phenomenon, X, is empty (k’ung/’suunyaa) (that is, since X originates dependently, it is empty of own-being), one moves to the further paradoxical implication that X is not X. An example from Fa-tsang is the assertion that “when one understands that origination is without self-nature, then there is no origination.”(5)
A second type of paradox is derived from two doctrinal sources: the Hua-yen concept of “true emptiness” (chen-k’ung(g) ) and the Hua-yen interpretation of the dialectic of the One Mind (i-hsin(h)) in the Awakening of Faith. Whereas the first type of paradox worked with the negative assertion that phenomenal form is empty and nonexistent (wu so yu(i)), the second type reverses that claim by asserting that any empty phenomenon is an expression of, and the medium for, the ultimate truth of emptiness. The union of opposites effected here is the identity between conditioned, relative reality and the ultimate truth of suchness (chen-ju(j)/tathataa). Fa-tsang’s paradoxical assertion illustrates this second type. “When the great wisdom of perfect clarity gazes upon a minute hair, the universal sea of nature, the true source, is clearly manifest.”(6)
The third variation of paradox is grounded in the Hua-yen doctrine of the “nonobstruction of all phenomena” (shih shih wu-ai(k)). According to this doctrine, when the ultimate truth of emptiness becomes manifest to the viewer, each phenomenon is paradoxically perceived as interpenetrating with and containing all others. This paradoxical violation of the conventional order of time and space is best exemplified by Fa-tsang’s famous Essay on the Golden Lion.
In each and every hair there is the golden lion. All of the lions contained in each and every hair simultaneously and suddenly penetrate into one hair. , within each and every hair there are unlimited lions.(7)
The common element in all three types of paradox is that they originate in the tension between the two truths, between conventional truth (su-ti(l) / and ultimate truth (chen-ti(m) /paramaarthasatya). Our task of interpreting the significance of paradoxical language in Hua-yen texts, therefore, will begin by working out an initial interpretation of the two truths and the relation between them.

See also

  • the Hwaeom school of Korea
  • the Kegon school of Japan.


Wright, Dale S. (1983). Philosophy East and West 32 (3). Huayan Huayan Hoa Nghiêm tông Хуаянь

buddha monk

buddha monk