The Golden Lion and Indra’s Net: Huayen Buddhism and the Refractive Embryo of Liberation Within the Fabric of the World
Many of the most powerful philosophies of the late twentieth century, including those often described as post-strucutralist, as seen in the works of thinkers such as Lacan, Badiou, or Deleuze, have a variety of aspects which are paradoxical in relation to more traditional notions of binary rationality. These non-dual, non-binary aspects, while not unique to twentieth century philosophy, and in fact, reminiscent of aspects of the thought of Hegel, Spinoza, and Plotinus, have more in common with the non-dual aspects of Asian philosophies than might first appear. In some senses, our futures seem to call to us from the past, and their voice is in many senses, nondual. It’s with this in mind that we can look to these philosophies as sources of potential inspiration for developing philosophies to help us reimagine our futures.
The Golden Lion and Indra’s net of jewels are probably two of the most powerful teaching metaphors in the history of philosophy, even though it’s likely you’ve never heard of them. I must admit, until recently, I hadn’t heard of them either. Being mostly trained in Western philosophy, my recent immersion non-Western texts to teach my first course on “Asian Philosophy and Religious Thought” has been an eye opener that was a long time coming. Little prepared me for what I’d find, nor the strong similarities to not only my philosophy of networks, but also so many trends in contemporary philosophy, as evidenced in particular with the incredible resonances between so much of what I found and the thought of Deleuze, particularly in regard to the most advanced forms of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist philosophy.
The Golden Lion and Indra’s net are metaphors used by the Huayen School of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism to teach their concepts. Radically nondual, fractal and holographic, Huayen is in many senses the highest development of Chinese Buddhist philosophy. While it is unclear if it had any direct influence on the formation of Vajrayana Buddhism of the sort seen in Tibet, with its emphasis upon virtual realities which I’ve described in other POSTS, the ideas refined by Huayen were well known to the Chinese and mostly Indian scholars who brought Tantric Buddhism to Tibet, where it merged with the original Bon religion of Tibet to give rise to the Vajrayana.
In what follows, I’ll sketch out, in language and examples more accessible to the current day, Fa-Tsang’s (Fazang) famous text “On the Golden Lion,” an elucidation of the Huayen school that he supposedly gave to the Empress of China in the early 8th century of the T’ang Dynasty. From here, I’ll go to the tricker metaphor of Indra’s Net, as articulated by Fa-Tsang’s predecessor Tu Shun (Dushun), the founder of the school from about 100 years prior, in his text “Cessation and Contemplation.” The first text can be found in Carl Olson’s “Original Buddhist Sources: A Reader,” although translated without commentary it is very difficult to understand. An excellent commentary, which includes much of the original in citation form, can be found in Donald Mitchell’s text Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience (p. 216-219). Tu Shun’s text can be found translated in Thomas Clearly’s Entry into the Inconceivable: An Introduction to Hua-Yen Buddhism, and is much more immediately readable than original text, so long as one consults the footnotes when necessary.
The Golden Lion
Fa-Tsang describes a golden lion state to the Empress as a tool to teach the concepts of his school’s approach to Buddhism, which he frames as the deepest truths of the Buddha himself. Ultimately, he could’ve used any common item to explain his example, and in Tu Shun’s text, a wooden headrest, a much more mundane object, is used instead. Nevertheless, the golden lion is a much more famous example. Fa-Tsang that a golden statue in the shape of a lion is composed of a basic material, in this case gold, shaped in a particular form, which in this case is that of a lion. We can’t even imagine what it would be like to have gold without a form, even melted gold has a form, if one that’s flexible. In this case, the form is that of a lion. Nevertheless, that form is to some extent an illusion, for what we see when we look at the statue isn’t really a lion, but rather, gold, gold in the shape of a lion. Gold is the lion’s essence in this case, because every aspect of the lion statue is ultimately made of gold, even if differently, depending on where it is in regard to the formal layout of the lion statue, which is to say, the shape of the statue as a whole.
The form of the gold in each aspect of the lion is then determined by the relation between this particular part of the lion and that of the whole. In this sense, the eye of the lion is shaped the way it is because of the relation of this part with that of the rest of the lion, and in relation to the form of lions in the world of which it is, to some extent or another, a reproduction. Form, then, describes how part and whole interpenetrate, in relation to the wider world which brings the form of whole and part into sync, and into sync with the aspects of the world which gave rise to it, in this case, the craftsperson who made the statue, the shape of real lions, the limitaitons of gold as medium in relation to the process of producing the statue, etc.
For Fa-Tsang, gold is the essence of the statue, that of which it is ultimately composed, and the form, that which relates part and whole, inside and outside, is everywhere and nowhere in the lion, in the way the whole relates with parts, inside and outside, and vice-versa. The form is ultimately then not quite there, for if you try to isolate it from these other aspects, you won’t find it. That is, the shape of this statue doesn’t make any sense as being that of a lion if removed from the context of the larger world of craftspeople and lions. Likewise the shape of an eye within a more general lion-like shape. Only in regard to this larger relational matrix is the form of the lion sensible, in the relation of part to wholes, and in relation to lions, humans, and the wider world. That is, the form of the lion only makes sense in context. It is therefore empty of its own being, its being is only ever being-with.
The gold which is the essence of the statue, for it pervades every aspect of the statue equally, nevertheless is also nothing but emptiness. We never see gold without a form, and so, apart from a form, it is ultimately nothing. It has no essence of its own, but rather, steals this from the way it is formed. While gold does have certain characteristics, these are hardly isolatable either. Gold only has the characteristics it does, such as yellowness or shininess or heaviness, in a relational perceptual matrix with humans in the conditions on earth. Elsewhere in the galaxy, or observed by aliens, gold may hardly evidence the characteristics it does. And in fact, gold only has the properties it does in relation to that of the other elements on the periodic table, those of subatomic particles, the laws of physics, etc. The essence of the characteristics of gold are hardly then to be found exclusively in gold, but rather, in a relational matrix of which gold is only a part. To use the language of Buddhist philosophy, it is then empty of its own being, its essence is emptiness, which is to say, it is relative and relational.
While its possible that what we are seeing is a trick of language, or the concepts used by humans, Huayen theorists argue that this doesn’t make their arguments invalid. Rather, language is itself subject to the same play of form and essence, just as is any concept used by humans, or the forms of humans themselves. Rather than solve the problem, these moves simply shift the problem elsewhere, without solving it.
If form and essence, the latter of which is in this case the matter gold, and the former in this case the shape of a lion, are ultimately empty of their own being, relational and relative, this fundamental emptiness of own being is in fact then the form and essence of anything we have ever encountered, up to and including ourselves, and the entire universe. And this is Fa-Tsang’s point. Emptiness, void, or to use the famous phrase of the Buddha, dependent origination, is the essence of all we ever experience, including ourselves and our world. All is ultimately empty.
The Lion’s Echoes: Quantum Physics and German Idealism
The insights presented by the Huayen theorists seem oddly similar to that of contemporary quantum physics. Most of matter is empty space, and if you examine those aspects which aren’t empty space, on closer example, those too are mostly empty space. According to Gary Zukav in The Dancing Wu-Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics, this means that matter and energy is likely little more than knottings of space and time, which is to say, the void, with itself by means of gravity, little more than its own curvature due to its motion in relation to the space and time it opens up as void within itself. If this all seems to fall apart under closer examination, you’re starting to understand something important both about the limits of contemporary physics, and the intuitions of the Huayen theorists about the ultimate constitents of reality.
For Huayen theorists, however, it is not merely the physical world which is this way, but rather, everything we experience. And here they are similar to the German Idealists, such as G.W.F. Hegel, as well as other philosophers who start not from a physical world for certainty, nor first person solipsism, but rather, see all of these as various aspects of the tissue of experience. While often described as an idealist, Hegel is much craftier than that, for his goal is to transcende the binary of self and world, matter and mind, by placing the much more slippery notion of experience at the core of his approach to the world.
For Hegel and his compatriot F.W. Schelling, the aspect of reality which is present in all of it, which is the unconditioned within the conditioned world, is the Absolute. The absolute is that which cannot be described properly in dualities, for it is that from which all dualities, binaries, and distinctions of any sort arise. To use Donald Mitchell’s seemingly Hegelian inflected description of the truth of reality in Huayen, it is that of which there is no opposite. That is, it is that primal stuff of the world of which all discriminations, divisions, and aspects, including subjects and objects, here and there, or before and after, are so many carvings.
The absolute as described by Hegel is speculative, which is to say, it is beyond linear reason, conceptual thought, and fully ‘sensible’ description in words. And yet, it is the most true thing in the world, present in any and all aspects of the world. Similar to the gold in the lion, it has not characteristics of its own, other than its ability to take on the form of any and all forms.
In this sense, Hegel’s absolute is void, empty, and yet, because of this, an essential aspect of any and all which has ever existed. And this void within any and all non-voids is what keeps them open to the possibility of difference and change. It is hope, time, and difference, present within the very stuff of the world.
The Deconstructive Impulse and the Boddhisattva Path
This voidness, described as emptiness (shunyata) within Mahayana Buddhism, is not nothingness, and the advocation of it as the ultimate truth is hardly nihilism, as Mahayanists firmly argue throughout their works. One of the earliest philosophers to argue this was the founder of the Madyamika school, the famed Nagarjuna. Arguably the most famous Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna’s method, and it is a method, is incredibly similar to that of contemporary deconstructionists, and in particular, the work of the arch deconstructionist, Jacques Derrida. Nagarjuna has been accused of having no actual ideas of his own. Rather, he parasites himself on those of others, and then shows that they make no sense. Producing paradoxes not unlike those of Zeno in the Ancient Greek tradition, he shows that all notions ultimately contradict themselves. Or to use the example of Fa-Tsang, and a lion statue both is and is not a lion, just as it is and is not gold. It is both, and neither.
The result, for Nagarjuna, is that every notion he’s given will show itself to ultimately be empty of its own being, and hence, all reality is fully relational, which is to say, any reifcation of this relational matrix is ultimately empty, and its essence is emptiness. Both the form and essence of anything is empty, for things are both empty and not empty, as well as neither. And Nagarjuna is nothing if not consistent, for he applies his deconstructive model to his own distinction between empty and non-empty, as well as that between nirvana and samsara. The world of samsara, of dependent origination, of causes and conditions, of things and contexts, is ultimately a division of emptiness into separate aspects. The result is what appears to be difference, but ultimately, it’s all the same, which is to say, empty, relational, relative. Nothing is what it is by itself, but only ever in relation to what’s around it. Self and other, world and individual, essence and form, whatever binary you give him, Nagarjuna will show that these are only ever aspects of emptiness, of the relational matrix whereby emptiness produces the world in its spacing and knotting with itself to give rise to so many distinctions which are only ever emptiness carving itself.
Despite and through this, both the carvings and the distinctions are empty, as well as neither, for emptiness is that which is always ever this, that, both, and neither, described in Huayen as the tetralemma. Any statement or entity will always imply the rest of the tetralemma, and drag a context in with it. If I say “this,” it is only ever in relation to “that,” and the context to make sense of any or either is both and neither.
Rather than nihilism, what we have here is relationalism, for this essence of relationalism which empties anything of refied own-being can be described as either completely full or comletely empty, for ultimately, as a non-dual formation, it is both and neither. This is why nirvana is samsara, and why this is hardly different from the Hindu notion that atman is brahman. While the flavor is different, these are simply varying forms of expressing the same structure, the non-dual essence of which all dualities are only ever aspects.
Rather than hypostatize this essence, Nagarjuna shows how it lurks within the terms used by his opponents. And his goal is that they will realize that if all things are empty, then we shouldn’t be attached to them, or even to emptiness as a reified notion, if we are looking for the ultimate truth. Rather, this truth, emptiness, is present in any and all things, and can take any and all shape. It is freedom, freedom from any particular thing. But it is not nihilism or nothingness, because it is also everything. It is freedom from any particular, and in this sense, opens any reified entity to change.
This is freedom. And this is why Nagarjuna sees the essence of liberation, of nirvana, as the core of emptiness lurking within the illusory distinctions of the world, the world of samsara. We cling to our reifications, and we suffer because we chase the shadows of the world, from the desire for certainty in knowledge, to the desire for the desires of our affective lives. Once we realize all these are ultimately empty, our fixations on particular aspects of the world being to lose our hold on us. We stop clinging. And we become models for others to follow to realize the same thing. While our words don’t quite communicate directly non-dual insights, because words are ultimately binary in nature, in that we must always choose this word and not that, nevertheless our statements can help point to the fundamental nonduality underneath all words, and all forms in the world. And in this, we can point the way to liberation for all.
Nirvana doesn’t require leaving this world, for that would imply nirvana is a place, and that we enter it in time. Rather, it is everywhere and nowhere, the essence of the world of suffering and illusion, and yet, the potential to free ourselves from our clinging to our limited graspings is within any and all. In fact, it is precisely the interpenetration of the any and all which insures this.
Yogacara and the Buddha-Embryo of Liberation
Nevertheless, many Buddhists still felt that with his emphasis on the emptiness of the nondual essence of things, Nagarjuna was too negative sounding, too similar in tone to the Therevada Buddhists who they saw as wrongly interpreting the Buddha’s words as a call for the negation, rather than liberation, of life. And so after Nagarjuna developed his deconstructive Buddhism, which came to be called the Madyamika school, the Yogacara school founda a way to synthesize the subtle psychology of the Abidharmists before them with the deconstructive insights of the Madyamika.
For the Yogacarins, most famously the brothers Vasubandhu and Asanga, all the categories of the mind developed by the Abidharmists are useful, so long as we keep in mind that they are ultimately empty as much as anything else. Each of them deconstructs, revealing a relational matrix which has a non-dual core. Just as with the Golden Lion, whose essence is gold, which turns out to be empty itself, so it is with the mind, whose essence is mind. For the Yogacarins, often called the “Consciousness-Only” school, all we ever experience, including the physical world, is ultimately mind. Of course, if everything is a trick of the mind, then it means that even what we consider matter, traditionally considered the opposite of mind, is also mind. The result is that the notion of mind becomes non-dual, with matter as simply its most concrete and common aspects. Mind and world become simply aspects of the tissue of experience.
If mind is present in everything, then it is non-dual, and is functionally the same as the emptiness of Nagarjuna. And it must ultimately be as empty as any of its aspects, and for the Yogacarins this is in fact the case. When mind is differentiated, it is what they call the storehouse consciousness (alaya-vijnaya). The storehouse contains all the common notions or concepts whereby humans divide the world up into aspects. Similar to Plato’s forms, the storehouse contains the ideas we use to categorieze the world of experience. And what the storehouse stores is seeds (bija), memory traces of actions which are propelled by habit energy (vajaya) into the world as projections, anticipations which help us interpret the raw sense data presented by the world. This sense data is originally empty, but we carve it up into aspects by means of the concept-seeds, each of which is itself also empty, which is to say, mind. Mind is all of these. Realizing that all are empty, we realize that mind is also, paradoxically, full, for it is everything and anything we have ever experienced. This knowledge liberates us, for it makes us see that mind is free to be anything we could ever imagine or dream. The very distinction between emptiness and fullness deconstructs. And while the Yogacarin tended to describe the truth of emptiness by means of another term, often translated as thusness or suchness (tathata), the basic ideas is quite similar. To meditate on the emptiness of something is to try to see it without preconceived notions, and suchness meditation is to see it similarly, with what the Cha’an theorists later would call ‘beginner’s mind.’ While one emphasize the emptiness of this experience and the other its presence, they are varying dual aspects of the ultimately nondual same.
In the process of suchness meditation, we come to see mind as clear. To use an example beloved of the Yogacarins, mind is like the ocean, a vast body of water. When disturbed by the wind, it forms waves, so many forms of water, but as with the golden lion, waves are nothing but formed water. Water can take any shape. We need to see the water within the waves, even if external stimulus, such as wind, incites us to imagine otherwise. Ultimately in this example, the wind would have to be water too, but the example still works pretty well nevertheless.
Yogacarin and Madyamika notions are like two sides of a coin, recto and verso, and this is how they have been taught ever since, as complementary foundations of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy. They are often linked in with one other tradition, that of the tathatagarbha literature. Never a distinct philosophical school, there were nevertheless various sutras which mentioned this notion, and later, those which synthesized these with Yogacara ideas. In these later texts, such as the Lankavatara Sutra, a text which was to have a profound influence on the development of the Huayen school, the purified mind, the base of the storehouse which is defiled by no formation of seeds, the emptiness of the water in relation to the waves, is the tathatagarbha.
From the Embryo to the Buddhaverse
The term tathatagarbha (a tathagata is a being ‘thus gone,’ a term commonly used to describe the Buddha) can be translated in various ways, such as Buddha-embryo, Buddha-womb, Buddha-essence, or Buddha-matrix, and was generally translated into Chinese as something along the lines of Buddha-nature. Once we realize that the pure essence of Buddha, of nirvana, of freedom and liberation from clinging, grasping, discrimination, and and suffering, is present as the core of anything we experience, we begin to see the world differently. We see the potential for liberation present within every aspect of the world, including ourselves. We see those who don’t see this with compassion, and we strive to help them see this, so that the entire world can be liberated.
And liberated from what? From fixation, reification, paralysis, paranoid clinging, and all the pain this brings the world. But we don’t fetishize emptiness either, for pure freedom would be nothingness. Rather, we stay in this world, because liberation only makes sense in regard to where we find ourselves. But it can be so much better. Each manifestation of the Buddha-embryo is itself an embryo of a better world and way of being. These realms of potential are described in many of the sutras as a buddhakshetra or buddhadhatu, translatable as a Buddhaverse or Buddharealm, respectively. As described in fantastical texts such as the Triple Lotus Sutra, these are worlds emanated by a Buddha, realms in which the truth can be taught without hindrance. This truth, or dharma, is the ultimate truth of the universe, and is the essence of the Buddha. In fact, the true body of the Buddha is nothing but the truth, known as the Buddha’s Dharma-body (dharmakaya). The Buddha has three bodies, a Dharmabody, but also a nirmanakaya, or emanation body which can be projected in various virtual forms, and the samboghakaya, or physical body of the historical Buddha. The Dharmabody is inconcievable and radically nondual, so we only ever see Emanation bodies of the Buddha in the various Buddhaverses, each ruled over by a Buddha or Boddhisattva, each of which is ultimately an emanation of the deeper truth of the universe.
The avatars of Hinduism in relation to the nondual nature of the Atman which is Brahman is not much different, and the most famous philosopher of Hinduism, Shankara, was greatly influenced by Nagarjuna, using similar methods to turn the insights of the Vedanta into a deconstructive enterprise to support his Advaita, or nondual, Vedanta philosophy, based on the basic principles of the Upanisads. It is worth noting that in both Hindu and Buddhist varities, gods teach the truth of nonduality to each person differently, manifesting by refracting their true essence to suit the form which would best communicate the truth of nonduality to any particular individual. This notion is described in Buddhism as “skillful means” (upaya), and is a principle of refraction. The Buddha brings deconstruction and reconstructive liberation to any and all depending on how he finds an aspects of the world in its particularity. Deconstructive dialectical reversal is the order of the day, and what it liberates is hardly different from the Deleuzian virtual, which is to say, the virtual potential to be anything imaginable, if ever only in relation to what is around it. The embryo of Buddhaverses is within any and all.
In the Buddhist form of this teaching, however, these various Buddhaverses are so many heavens, so many virtual realms, in which enlightened beings in this world can imagine how the world can be. These virtual realms can serve as sites of meditation, and through this, influence the way in which we act in the world when we aren’t meditating. The Buddha-embryo is the embryo of the ability of each aspect of the world to be reimagined and liberated in this manner. The Vajrayana use of visualization develops out of this, in which meditators project the aspects of what they want to see in themselves on the world and vice-versa, realizing these are projections, and yet using them to displace the projections which seem real to us in the world of our lives. In the process, what is consciously understood as fantasy impacts our reality, blurring the lines between these. Tibetan Buddhism makes extensive use of such notions.
When combined with Madyamika and Yogacara notions and methods, we have the fully developed foundation out of which the Huayen developed their ideas. Madyamika deconstruction provides the truth of emptiness, which turns out to be the fullness of Buddha-embryo, the essence of everythingness and nothingness, of liberation from the habit energy of the karmic seeds of our preconceptions, and the potential to transform the world as a result of the essence of freedom at the core of each and everything. The relational intertwining of the aspects of the world, in light of our habits and preconceptions, is what ties the world to the way it is, a world of reification and fixation, of suffering and paranoid defensiveness of each for themselves, of egos and possessions. But the Buddha-embryo releases the virtual potential within each and every aspect of the world, its potential to teach us how to see virtual Buddhaverses within everything. This is the potential for the liberation of ourselves, and the world, which are ultimately empty of own being, and hence, aspects of each other.
And this is why liberation is never for the self. This is the selfishness which the Mahayana accuse the Theravadans, who see nirvana as something which can be attained by the isolated self, for themselves alone. But it is impossible to be truly free or happy in a world that is in chains. No, because of the relational intertwining of any and all, my happiness and freedom will only ever be complete when I bring about that of all around me. Liberating the Buddhaembryo in any aspect of the world, I liberate myself, and vice-versa. The resonances leap beyond the reifications of self and other. There is a radical activist core at the heart of Buddhism.
The movement towards this potential, this Buddha-embryo which can make our world evermore a Buddhaverse, is radically nondual. Only by compassion does our wisdom increase, only by healing our inside does our outside heal, and vice-versa all round. The exchange of self and other is a crucial aspect of Buddhist meditation. Imagining that those who hate you were wronged by you in a past life, so as to teach us nondual forms of compassion. Even the notion of past lives is more complex than most Westerners think. For nondual Buddhism, past and future are a duality, and so rebirth is only ever in the present, in the continuation of suffering and attachment, but nonduality gets beyond this. Rebirth, or samsara, is separation, duality, binarity. It continues due to habit energy. Whether or not there is life after the death of the physical body, as believed in traditional Buddhism and Hinduism, or simply the death and rebirth of experiences, the ‘dharmas’ of the Abidharma school, the experiential events of which our world is composed in consciousness, is ultimately aspects of the same for traditional Buddhism. For those who find the notion of rebirth of the physical body a downside of Buddhist thought, the nondual core makes this simply a way of talking about the destruction and recreation of anything in any and each moment, as well as the ways in which the habits of our conceptions limits our relations to these. With or without rebirth of the physical body, the worldview still works fine so long as one takes an ultimately non-dual approach to these.
And in fact, if you look at how Yogacara terms for describing experience, such as habit-energy, seeds, storehouse consciousness, and others are linked with notions such as Buddha-embryo and Buddhaverse by texts such as the Lankavatara Sutra, each of these is ultimately deconstructed in Madhyamika style, for ultimately, concepts and words are imperfect vehicles for explaining nondual truths. Nonduality runs through all of these, and yet is only ever present in part in them, and so, we cannot ever say nonduality properly, only point to it, show it indirectly. Huayen Buddhism uses Yogarcara and Tathagathagarbha notions in this manner, using them to make its points, while deconstructing them in the process.
Indra’s Net: The Fractal, Holographic Universe
All of which brings us to the metaphor of Indra’s Net. Tu Shun does an excellent job of describing this metaphor, one which he says is difficult, and hence, should generally be preceded by a deconstructive and reconstructive enterprise. Fa-Tsang’s Golden Lion example is one of these. And in fact, Fa-Tsang describes something like Indra’s Net in the final parts of his treatise on the Golden Lion. He argues that the essence of lionness, and goldness, are within every aspect of every aspect of the lion, down to the hairs on the statue. His approach is fractal, and yet also, holographic.
The fractal tendency can be seen in early Mahayana Sutras, such as the Triple Lotus Sutra, which describe Buddhaverses within Buddhaverses, infinitely present within the atoms of each Buddhaverse. This sort of self-similarity is radicalized, however, when we see it used to describe the structure, not only of virtual Buddhaverses, but of any and all aspects of the world. A Golden lion statue, for example. Fa-Tsang argues that the form of any aspect of the statue only makes sense in relation to the whole, and in this sense, the whole is inside the part, if virtually, as well as within the essence of the part, which is to say, the the gold, any aspect of which presents itself as it does because of its relation to the whole.
And this is why Buddhists in this school, a crucial inspiration for Cha’an/Zen, argue that if you understand any aspect of the world, truly understand it, you understand it all. For the structure of the universe, of the interpenetration of part and whole, of each containing the other yet also not doing this, is present within any and all aspects of the world. The relational matrix of the universe is fractal and holographic. The part is within the whole, and whole within the part.
Fa-Tsang gives an example of this by surrounding the Golden Lion statue with mirrors. He describes to the empress how the mirrors reflect not only the lion, each showing different aspects of it from differing sides, but each also reflecting the reflections of the others. While Fa-Tsang and the Huayen use the term “reflection,” I actually prefer “refraction.” And the reason for this is that reflection implies sameness, but ultimately, these reflections of reflections are never quite the same, but shatterings of the whole and warpings and recombinations thereof. This isn’t the reflection of sameness, but the production of difference, spontaneously, out of pure void, an emptiness of which mirrors, image, gold, and lion form are all aspects. Combined with the notion of “skillfull means,” which clearly describes refraction rather than reflection, as well as the fact that each entity, for Huayen, is hardly identical, it seems to me that refraction is ultimately what is being described here, rather than reflection. The lion is, after all, gold and metal, and this particularity is as empty as the emptiness which is its ultimate essence. Any refraction expresses this nondual form, and viceversa, even if any is ever only this rather than that. And so, samsara is necessary to reveal nivrana, particularity to reveal the absolute.
Beyond and through any particularity and universality, virtual potential liberation is present within each and all. Fa-Tsang explains to the Empress that the reflections are virtually present in each other, and yet, real elements impact each other deeply. And so, the world is actually like Indra’s Net. According to legend, one which originates with the Samkya Hindu school but which is appropriated by the Buddhists, the king of the gods, Indra, spins around himself a net whose knots are each a jewel. Each jewel reflects and refracts the others, and in this way, each and the whole is present within each, any, and all. In various stories, Indra was described as driving a chariot, or being the axel of the wheel of the universe, with the distinct spokes as moments of time and Indra as the supratemporal core. If the spokes are like Indra’s reins on his chariot, Indra’s net of jewels, each of which contains virtual jewels within itself, is a fractal and holographic relational web whose discriminations emanate from a nondual core which is everywhere and nowhere, empty and full of any and all potentialities.
And identifying with this, to the point of dissolving one’s own ego, its possessions, the reifications and fixations that tie our world to its current form, is the way to liberate the world, and ultimately, to manifest compassion. And yet, to liberate the world it is not enough to do this simply in our minds. We need to change the world, to liberate all its aspects. This notion, of Indra’s net, traces itself back to the Avamtasaka Sutra (The Flower Garland Sutra), an early Mahayana text which gives the Huayen School its name, for the term Huayen is little more than a Chinese translation of Flower Garland. For Huayen, the deepest meditation is Flower Garland meditation, the notion that any and all apsects of the world contain and are contained in the whole, the Buddhaverse and Buddhaembryo within any and all. Nirvana is here and now, we just need to realize this, and act in accordance with this, in order to begin to unleash this and thereby start to change the world.
Activist Buddhism Beyond the Monastery?
If there is one aspect of traditional Buddhist philosophy that concerns me, it is its reluctance to change the world. Granted, the more Buddhist a society becomes, the more it transforms the entire society into the extension of a monastery. And yet, if Buddhism is truly nondual, then it needs to liberate itself from the fixations and reifications which even the Madyamika didn’t criticize, which is to say, the particular social formations of Buddhist monasticism. Buddhist Sangha is rigidly hierarchical, and has many fixations which are hardly nondual.
For example, the notion that Buddhism is against desire seems to miss the truth of nondualism. Clearly the Mahayana dispense with the simplistic attempt to extinguish desire present in the Theravada. Rather, they look for liberation from craving. And with the Theravada, it is not so much healthy desire that is seen as destructive, but rather, only addictive and controlling desire. The term for the cause of suffering in Pali is tanha, and while often translated as “desire,” more recent translators are using terms like craving to distinguish it from less destructive forms of desire which need to be present if Buddhism is to make any sense as a path. And so, in Pali, there is another word, chanda, often translation as “intention,” which describes the desire to do things in a way beyond attachment, beyond clinging, beyond the limitations of tanha. The desire to eat to live is chanda, while the way we eat when binge eating from stress, for example, is tanha. In the first case, we rationally consider the course of action, and then act on it. This implies something like desire, and yet, not a harmful desire, not an addiction. Binge eating to relieve stress, however, is compulsive, we know it is irrational, but we do it because we are caught in a loop of habit which is ultimately nonsensical. This is tanha, this is craving, and this is that from what Buddhism seeks to liberate us. Compassion for all addicted to fixations is the core of the Mahayana, with the addiction to our own egos and possessions as the first amongst these. For the Mahayana, pain doesn’t know the difference between self and other, nor suffering, nor liberation.
Desire for liberation, however, isn’t craving, so long as it doesn’t function as addiction, as tanha rather than chanda. A similar distinction arises in the nondual Western philosopher Spinoza, who argues, in good Buddhist fashion, that liberation is freedom from passions. But active passions, those which align with reason, which is to say, the essence of the whole of the cosmos, if consciously chosen, is hardly passion, because we are not passive then, but rather, we actively desire what is good for us, and are not passive to our confused desires, based on our inability to understand the whole. And so, we need to understand the structure of the whole, which is only present in partial form in any aspect thereof. Once we do, we can silence the partial and confused nature of our passions, and actively pursue that which syncs with the whole of which we are a part. Only this sort of choice can be active, because any other is following the limited desires of our bodies, which can’t see the big picture. The big picture is the path to liberation from passivity, and hence, the maximum possible liberation for any and all in relation to the whole. What is described by Spinoza is relatively similar to that at work in the difference between tanha and chanda, and in fact, helps illuminate it.
Buddhism is then hardly against desire, merely addictive craving, being passively run by our desires. When we cease desiring anything, we learn how to better desire anything. By losing ourselves we gain it back, and the whole world with it, and infinitely better. These sorts of paradoxical interventions, based on dialectical reversals, come into sync with the non-dual core of Buddhist philosophy, as well as that of many Western thinkers. The problem, however, is that many do not deconstruct some of their own fixations, and this ultimately limits them. Of course, each has to liberate the world in which they find themselves, and this determines which these are. But skillful means, refraction as upaya, can hardly remain stuck. What is liberatory in one culture or time place is hardly universal.
And so, if we are to truly understand the truth of the Buddha as nondual, then it must go beyond the skillful means whereby it revealed itself in a particular way to various societies in Asia in a particular way at a particular time and place. That is, we need to see the Dharmabody beneath the Emanationbody, and learn to dream up our own Buddhaverses from the Buddhaembryos within all aspects of the world, even the those which have reified the dharma into a particular, limited form. Nagarjuna’s own method of deconstruction can help make this happen, and Yogacara method of freeing us from the habit-energy of the seeds of the past to see beyond the limitations of the form taken by Buddhism or any other set of truths or institutions at work in the world.
There are many, many benefits to the current form of Buddhism. But any truth needs to mutate and evolve, to develop new skillful means, to liberate itself from its habit-energies of the past. To do any less, to our own habit-energies or that of others, would be to cease to liberate the world, which is ultimately the task which the Boddhisattva path, at least to the theorists of the past, seems to indicate.
From such a perspective, the fixations of our current world system, whereby capital is horded, and people are oppressed because of their citizenships status, race, wealth, gender, sexuality, all this is to be fought against. As with the Taoist notion of wu-wei, we need to take no unnecessary action, but also omit no necessary one, inaction in action and action in inaction. Unravelling fixation, and liberating the world requires we liberate the world from its reifying fixations. And that means moving beyond the monastery, and taking up an activist voice against the horrible injustices of the world. A radically activist nondual relation to the world, one in which the oppression of any is the oppression of all, in which passivity is as much a stultifying fixation as any other. A world in which compassion goes beyond the spiritual to all aspects, and the embryo of liberation knows no bounds.
Buddhism and Violence? Refraction and Politics
Before ending, it is worth noting that actual role that Huayen played in politics. Contrary to the popular Western image of Buddhism as a religion of peace, compassion, and ultimately, non-violence, this has not historically been the case. There have been Buddhist armies and wars, as well as assassinations, and likely much more. While Buddhism began as a religion which emphasized begging for alms, and only eating the food given one, with a prohibition on working for food or storing it for later, in practice, once the monastics stopped wandering around, and built monasteries, things began to change. Because of the doctrine of the accumulation of merit for layfolk, donating property and valuables to monasteries became popular for layerpsons looking to acquire better karma, or as Buddhism became tolerated and eventually supported by various states, to avoid paying taxes and levies of various sorts. While this allowed for the better teaching of the Buddha’s doctrines, it also quickly made the monasteries fabulously wealthy. With wealth comes power.
And because Buddhism was a missionary religion, it quickly spread, but often aimed at converting the most influential persons first, and that meant kings and their courts. Buddhist monastics were often included in royal courts because they could perform rituals and promise good fortune and karma for royalty and their endeavors, including those of a military nature. After learning about Buddhism first this way, monarchs often converted, and then propounded the teaching to their people as a way to unify the state, though usually after their wars were done, so they could now claim to be compassionate. Ashoka, the first Buddhist monarch, ruled vast swaths of India, and converted after his violent conquest, supposedly horrified by the carnage. Ashoka’s edicts are often considered some of the first major “human rights” documents in history, and they are preserved in the massive stone pillars he had carved with his edits and posted at the corners of his Empire. While the conversion has seemed relatively heartfelt to later scholars, it is hard to truly know through the mists of history, and genuine feeling and political convenience are not necessarily antithetical.
The history of Buddhist monasticism in India, China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, and beyond has since then been the history of the acquisition of enormous wealth, and popular resentment against this. From a religion of those wearing little but tattered rags, and owning nothing but alms bowls and a staff, begging for daily food, these notions became simply surface display. A monk may own nearly nothing, but live in a palace and control massive resources, and so, hardly need to technically own anything. While some parts of the world still emphasize the daily alms rounds, in many these became a thing of the past.
Popular resentment against the wealth and power of the monasteries were what hastened the demise of the T’ang Dynasty in China, because the corruption of the government and the monasteries had become so intertwined. Monastic discipline, or vinaya was radically weakened, and monasticism was largely seen as a way to gain education, wealth, and power.
Is it any surprise then that Buddhist monasteries began to take up arms? After all, many ended up having often thousands of serfs, and even slaves. And so, particularly in Korea and Japan, Buddhist monasteries began to have their own private armies. In times of social dissolution, these defended the monasteries and their wealth. And at times, even persecute rival doctrinal schools. Or attack the government. .