Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fractal Buddhism: The Avatamsaka Sutra

This post, with the beautiful, and beautifully appropriate, title "To See the Universe Whole", by Nonlinear Scientist Extraordinaire Raima Larter over at Complexity Simplified prompted me to collect my thoughts and some of my favorite references concerning the dreaded Avatamsaka Sutra. The good news about the Avatamsaka Sutra is that it's all in there. The bad news about the Avatamsaka Sutra is that it's ALL in there. If you know what I mean. The Avatamsaka was also totally fractal long before being fractal was cool.

The Avatamsaka Sutra is famous for its teaching of "unobstructed interpenetration", which can be explained by way of a famous image: the Jewel Net of Indra, "which has always been a favorite ... method for exemplifying the manner in which things exist":
Far away in the heavenly abode of the God Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of Deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each "eye' of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.... [T]his image ... symbolizes a cosmos in which there is an infinitely repeated interrelationship among all the members of the cosmos. This relationship is said to be one of simultaneous mutual identity and mutual causality.
[Cook 1973, p.1]

In Buddhism the Sutras are the sacred texts that contain the actual teachings of the Buddha in his own words. Each Sutra gives a time and place when and where it was spoken, and some idea of the circumstances, including who was there to listen.

The Avatamsaka Sutra was the very first teaching that the Buddha gave, still sitting on the spot where he attained enlightenment. Beings from across the earth and from across the Universe gathered in a great Cosmic Assembly to hear the first utterance of the Awakend One. Some people question the so-called "historicity" of the Avatamsaka Sutra and insist that it does not contain the words of the Buddha at all, and that it was written by others centuries after the Buddha had died. Technically speaking the Avatamska Sutra does not really make a "historical" claim so much as it claims to transcends ordinary space and time completely, not just in the meaning of the teaching it contains, but in the manner in which this teaching was delivered!

The Avatamsaka Sutra, which is also known as the Hua-Yen Sutra, therefore represents the most direct and complete expression of the Buddha's teachings. As such, this teaching is very advanced and difficult to understand, and so for the rest of his career as a teacher the Buddha tried various approaches to restating these teachings in ways that were more accessible.

A closely related Sutra is the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, which can be considered something like a Readers Digest Condensed Version of the Avatamsaka. The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment became part of the standard core curriculum for study among Zen Buddhists in China and Korea, but for some reason it faded to relative obscurity in Japan. This might be because the Hua-Yen and Zen schools were, technically, rivals - but in China and Korea Zen Buddhism developed a more syncretic attitude toward rival schools than the (at least somewhat) greater sectarianism in Japanese Zen. This is not limited to Hua-Yen Buddhism, but is also reflected in the attitude toward Pure Land and Esoteric/Tantric teachings as well, which are far more seamlessly syncretized with both Chinese Ch'an and Korean Soen than they are in Japanese Zen.

There are three standard English works on the Avatamsaka/Hua-Yen Sutra:

Entry into the Inconceivable: An Introduction to Hua Yen Buddhism by Thomas Cleary

The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The Philosophy of Hwa Yen Buddhism by Garma C.C. Chang

Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra by Francis H. Cook [quoted above]

Two English language versions of the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment (also known as the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment) are also available:

Complete Enlightenment: Translation and Commentary on the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment by Master Sheng Yen [this is far more accessible than the next one!]

The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment: Korean Buddhism's Guide to Meditation (With Commentary by the Son Monk Kihwa) edited and translated by A. Charles Muller

Also, the wikipedia entry on the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment is actually not too bad, and it talks briefly about it's relationship with Chinese Hua Yen Buddhism. That entry also contains a direct link to Charles Muller's English translation of the Sutra of Perfect Englightenment - including the complete text of Muller's brief but very informative Introduction.

But what about the Sutra itself?? The only English translation of the complete Avatamsaka Sutra is Thomas Cleary's 1,643 page tome, which has a list price of $100, but Amazon currently has it deeply discounted down to a mere $63. If you buy books by the pound, it's a pretty good deal:

The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra Thomas Clearly.

I love google image searches, don't you? If you do a google image search on "avatamsaka" the very first hit is the beautiful picture of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva illustrating this post (taken from here). He is a key figure in the Avatamsaka Sutra, and like all Great Bodhisattvas and other "persons of note" he has his own wikipedia entry.

"You do not attract what you want. You attract what you are."

Gods, can I be a snob. Seriously. But I am an open minded snob. That is, snobbery is just my default position - which can easily be trumped given some evidence to the contrary. Everyone has a default position, and as these things go assuming that "the two most common elements in the Universe are hydrogen and stupidity" seems like an excellent one to me.

As part of my snobbery I assume that any "spiritual teacher" who receives any media attention whatsoever is probably just a con-artist who has repackaged the combined spiritual teachings of Dale Carnegie and P.T. Barnum to come up with: "there's a potential buyer of my new $299 8-DVD Complete Guide to Everyday Enlightenment born every minute."

So the first time I saw Wayne Dyer doing his routine on PBS I thought I had his number, but good. My all-wise and long-suffering partner-in-crime, Beth, immediately called me out when she heard me muttering "what a load of horse-shit" under my breath: "You haven't even heard what he is saying!" But even as I began to launch into my "life is too short to waste time listening to this idiot's sales pitch" speech, I heard Dyer talking about things that he had learned from other teachers and also quoting from the Tao Te Ching and the Bhagavad Gita. Well, I thought, maybe he's not completely full of shit after all.

You see, here is my bottom line with teachers: do they portray themselves as "It", or do they portray themselves as fellow seekers, albeit perhaps a little further down the road than some of us? Teachers who fail to acknowledge their debt to those they have learned from are trouble, and that starts with "t" and that rhymes with "e" and that stands for "ego".

I was reminded of Dyer by this post on another blog on the subject of "The Law of Attraction". That post, in turn, has a link to a recent interview with Wayne Dyer with the very understated title "You are God".

OK - Wayne Dyer's teachings ain't exactly the Avatamsaka Sutra in terms of their intellectual depth. But while reaching an incredibly broad and diverse audience I honestly think that Dyer manages to fulfill Einsteins' admonition to "make things as simple as possible, but not simpler". Anyway, here is an excerpt from Dyer's interview:
I think the law of attraction has been misstated. You do not attract what you want. You attract what you are. That's how the law of attraction works.

Twenty-five centuries ago in ancient China, Lao-tzu said there were four virtues. If you live them-if you live in a place of God-consciousness–the universe will give you God-consciousness. If you live in a place of ego-consciousness, though, the universe will give you more of that.

One virtue is reverence for all of life. You revere all life. You never kill, you never harm, you never wish harm, and you never have thoughts of harm directed toward yourself or others. Another virtue is natural sincerity, which is manifested as honesty. Just be honest with who you are. Don't pretend to be something you're not. Don't be a phony. Walk your talk. That's how God works, so doing it is emulating how Source works. The third virtue is gentleness, which manifests as kindness toward all others.

The fourth virtue, which is relevant here, is supportiveness. If you say to the universe, "Gimme, gimme, gimme," which is what a lot of the work around the law of attraction says because of a misinterpretation, then the universe gives you back what you offered out. You get more "gimme, gimme, gimme." "Gimme" means you don't have enough. You have a shortage. The universe just keeps giving you more shortage because of what you're thinking and saying.

If, on the other hand, you say to the universe again and again, "How may I serve? How may I serve? How may I serve?" and you live a life of constancy reflecting that principle, the universe will respond back, "How may I serve you?"