Avatamsaka Sutra Frontispiece

Avatamsaka Sutra Frontispiece

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This work has been used in a variety of countries. Some major traditional titles include the following:

    : Mahāvaipulya Buddhāvataṃsaka Sūtra ( महावैपुल्यबुद्धावतंसकसूत्र). "The Great Vaipulya Sutra of the Buddha's Flower Garland." Vaipulya ("extensive") refers to key sizable, inclusive sūtras. "Flower garland/wreath/adornment" refers to a manifestation of the beauty of Buddha'svirtues or his inspiring glory.[N.B. 1]
    : Dàfāngguǎng Fóhuáyán Jīng (大方廣佛華嚴經), commonly shortened to Huáyán Jīng (華嚴經), meaning "Flower-adorned (Splendid & Solemn) Sūtra." Vaipulya here is translated as "corrective and expansive", fāngguǎng (方廣). Huá (華) means at once "flower" (archaic) and "magnificence." Yán (嚴), short for zhuàngyán (莊嚴), means "to decorate (so that it is solemn, dignified)."
    : Daihōkō Butsu-kegonKyō (大方広仏華厳経), commonly Kegon Kyō (華厳経). This title is identical to Chinese above, just in Shinjitai characters.
    : Daebanggwang Bul-hwa-eom Gyeong (대방광불화엄경), commonly Hwa-eom Gyeong (화엄경). This title is also from Chinese, the same words written in Hangeul.
    : Đại Phương Quảng Phật Hoa Nghiêm kinh, shortened to Hoa Nghiêm kinh. This title is similarly derived from the Chinese titles, transcribed in Quốc Ngữ.
    : མདོཕལཔོཆེ་ , Wylie: mdo-phal-po-che

During the beginning of the 4th century CE, Buddhist scholars began composing a new series of Sūtras with the purpose of synthesizing and organizing concepts from earlier Mahāyāna Sūtras, a task which the authors viewed as the third turning of the wheel of Dharma. Three Sūtras from this period left a major impact on the intellectual endeavor of Mahāyāna monastics: the Avatamsaka Sūtra, the Lankāvatāra Sūtra, and the Sandhinirmocana Sūtra. The underline theme found in these three Sūtras, including the Avatamsaka Sūtra is the experience of the universe formed by consciousness detailed within epic narratives.1

The Avatamsaka Sūtra is also know for expounding the teaching about the ever-abiding Buddha-nature that constitutes ultimate reality.2 However, some scholars believe the Avatamska Sūtra was composed earlier between 200 BC and 200 CE and played a major formative role in the development of Buddhist thought.3 Nonetheless the Sūtra played an important role in the formation of Mahāyāna Buddhist teachings, which cannot be down played.

"The Avatamsaka Sūtra or Flower Garland Sūtra was translated into Chinese by Buddhabhadra between 408 and 410 CE. It gives a very detailed account of Shakyamuni/Vairochana’s quest for enlightenment, and offers the view that existence is the combination of individual identity and interdependence, a crucial theme in the development of Indian Buddhist thought. The Avatamsaka Sūtra became influential in the late sixth and seventh centuries through the works of monks such as Fashun (557-649 CE) and Zhiyen (602-668 CE), and later was the central text of the semi-esoteric Huayen order in China, which is known as Kegon in Japan.”4

The mandala principle found in the Avatamasak Sūtra, “conveys the most extraordinary visions that engage the audience in creating a setting and developing a receptivity that makes it possible for them to receive the Universal Vehicle teaching of the profound freedom and magnificent destiny of all living beings.” 5

An example of this found in the Avatamsaka Sūtra, "the Buddha is surrounded by an enormous host of visitors, many from other universes, who sit in flower towers thousands of miles high, flown at more than warp speed across the reaches of space from worlds beyond as many worlds as there are grains of sand in sixty-two Ganges riverbeds. The towers are arranged in the cardinal directions, intermediate quarters, and at the zenith and nadir in a classical mandala formation. During the teaching, Shakyamuni Buddha now and then transforms himself into the sapphire-blue Vairochana, radiating magic light rays from his forehead that temporarily bestow on each member of the audience the intensely accelerated vision of all their past life experiences and all their future life attainments, up to and including attainment of perfect buddhahood in a future universe and performance of buddha deeds for the sake of all beings. At the end of the teaching, the Bodhisattva Maitreya introduces the hero of the tale, the pilgrim-seeker Sudhana, a banker’s son, into the magical tower of Vairochana. There Sudhana beholds the entire evolutionary history of Maitreya from a self-centered, unenlightened being to a functioning buddha.

At the same time, the panorama unfolds in infinite resonant variations in every atom of the universe, each containing infinite micro-universes, which contain infinite worlds where infinite living Sudhanas enter infinite Vairochana towers and behold infinite evolutionary panoramas of infinite living Maitreyas.”6

The Avatamasak Sūtra utilizes a narrative mandala principle for the reader, in which Buddha transports his audience into a new dimension of consciousness exploring the potentialities of their possible destiny.

154 – Avatamsaka Sutra – Each One of Us Has Unique Bodhisattva Gifts to Offer – Part 1

Part of our bodhisattva path is embracing our uniqueness and finding our own particular, special bodhisattva capacity, talents, and calling. Each of us has our own unique gifts to offer the world which will determine what kind of service we should devote ourselves to, it just takes some imagination to discover them. A teaching from Avatamsaka Sutra can help stimulate our imaginations in this regard.

Using Our Imagination about Bodhisattva Service

Book by Norman Fischer, The World Could be Otherwise, he emphasizes the importance of imagination in practice

We need to liberate ourselves from our limited views of self, other, world, possibility

Particularly important that we approach our bodhisattva practice with imagination

A Bodhisattva vows to save every last sentient being before retiring into the peace they are able to access themselves because of their practice

In Mahayana Buddhism, we all are aspiring bodhisattvas, no matter where we are on the path it&rsquos a direction that defines our practice and lives, not a goal we expect to achieve

When it comes to actual day to day bodhisattva practice though, our imaginations are usually limited. When we think of bodhisattvas benefiting sentient beings, our thoughts usually go first to people doing obvious, explicit work to help others, stuff where there&rsquos direct interaction between the &ldquohelper&rdquo and the &ldquohelped&rdquo and the service is something recognized as beneficial by society: Service professions like nurse, teaching professions, those selflessly devoting themselves to social causes, etc.

When we think of our bodhisattva activities, if we&rsquore not one of those involved in that kind of obvious, direct service, our imaginations are pretty limited &ndash friendly to grocery store clerk, try to be there for our friends, patient with family, etc. Of course these are important &ndash and may be very impactful &ndash but again, not very imaginative.

Each of us is incredibly unique. I know &ldquoincredibly&rdquo is an unnecessary modifier in this case, but it conveys something important &ndash it&rsquos not just that each of us differs a little along one dimension, thus technically being unique, but that our uniqueness is determined by countless factors. My worldview, experience, impulses, thoughts, emotions, etc. are different from yours, sometimes profoundly.

Part of our bodhisattva path is embracing our uniqueness and finding our own particular, special bodhisattva capacity, talents, and calling. Each of us has our own unique gifts to offer the world which will determine what kind of service we should devote ourselves to, it just takes some imagination to discover them. A teaching from Avatamsaka Sutra can help stimulate our imaginations in this regard.

Introducing the Avatamsaka Sutra

This message is beautifully conveyed by the Avatamsaka Sutra, The Flower Ornament Scripture: One of the major texts of Buddhism, like other ancient scriptures no single author, no clear time of origin &ndash emerged in Indian &ldquocultural sphere&rdquo during 1 st and 2 nd centuries AD.

According to translator Thomas Cleary, &ldquoperhaps the richest and most grandiose of all Buddhist scriptures, held in high esteem by all schools of Buddhism that are concerned with universal liberation.&rdquo[1] Became center of a philosophical school of Buddhism, Hua Yen, but is also influential in Zen.

My beautiful copy: Translated by Thomas Cleary, 39 chapters, 1,627 pages. Extra thin, fine paper (lovely heft, beautiful smell&hellip). Book on Amazon currently on sale for $100, usually $125.

Also available online, translation through City of 10,000 Buddhas (

One of my fondest practice memories, reading this aloud to one another with a small group of practitioners at Dharma Rain Zen Center &ndash meditatively, not trying to grasp intellectually.

I will read some parts in this episode so you get some sense of it.

Although like many Mahayana sutras it is presented as having been taught or overseen by Shakyamuni Buddha, much of the material is presented by archetypal bodhisattvas, or &ndash as Cleary puts it &ndash &ldquotranshistorical, symbolic beings who represent aspects of universal enlightenment.&rdquo

A Bodhisattva&rsquos Search in the Avatamsaka Sutra: Setting the Stage

Avatamsaka meant to stretch/blow your mind

Focusing today on Chapter 39, Entry into the Realm of Reality (383 pages in itself! Also &ldquosold separately&rdquo). Begins as many sutras do, Thus have I heard (as if conveyed by Ananda or another direct witness). Translation by Thomas Cleary:

&ldquoTHUS HAVE I HEARD. At one time the Blessed One was in Sravasti, in a magnificent pavilion in the garden of Anathapindada in the Jeta grove, together with five thousand enlightening beings, led by Samantabhadra, the universally good enlightening being, and Manjushri. The names were Endowed with Perspicacious Knowledge, Endowed with Essential Knowledge, Endowed with Unattached Knowledge, Endowed with Blossoming Knowledge, Endowed with Sunlike Knowledge, Endowed with Moonlike Knowledge, Endowed with Undefiled Knowledge, Endowed with Adamantine Knowledge, Endowed with Unemotional Knowledge, Endowed with Radiant Knowledge, Starlike, Mountainlike, Jewellike, Unattached, Flowerlike, Undefiled, Sunlike, Resplendent, Dispassionate, Radiant, Jewel Energy, Great Energy, Knowledge Thunderbolt Energy, Undefiled Energy, Energy of the Sun of Truth, Virtue Mountain Energy, Energy of the Light of Knowledge, Universal Glorious Energy, Universal Light Energy, Earth Matrix, Sky Matrix, Lotus Calyx, Jewel Matrix, Sun Matrix&hellip&rdquo [1]

This is only about ¼ of the list, which also includes &ldquoCrest of the Lord of Dragons, Voice of a World Leader, Sound of Stopping the Sufferings of All Worlds and Giving Comfort, Preeminent Splendor, and Voice of Encouragement of All Past Vows.&rdquo

&ldquoBeginning with these, there were five thousand great enlightening beings, all of whom had undertaken the acts and vows of universally good enlightening beings and were unhindered in their sphere of action, pervading all buddha-lands. They manifested boundless bodies, going to all buddhas. The sphere of their unobstructed eye was pure, seeing the miracles of all buddhas. They had attained to infinity in revelations, ceaselessly approaching the entries into enlightenment of all buddhas&hellip They had spacelike knowledge, pervading all universes with a net of lights.&rdquo [1]

The sutra says there were also 500 &ldquohearers&rdquo there with great spiritual powers, along with world rulers. These beings think:

&ldquoIt is not possible for celestials or humans to understand or enter into or focus on or know or cognize or think about or perceive clearly or distinguish or elucidate or establish in the body and mind of other beings the sphere of the enlightened, the realm of knowledge of the enlightened, the basis, the power, the fearlessness, the concentration, the state, the mastery, the body, or the knowledge of the enlightened, except by the support, the magic, the empowerment, and the past vows of the enlightened, by having the qualities of roots of goodness perfected by past buddhas, by being in the charge of spiritual benefactors, by purification of faith, liberative means, and knowledge, by attainment of illumination of higher devotion, by purification of the higher will of enlightening beings, and by the proceeding of the higher will on the undertaking of realizing omniscience.&rdquo [1]

Therefore the assembled beings beg the Buddha to teach, and he does &ndash but not necessarily in the conventional way!

&ldquoThen the Buddha, knowing what the enlightening beings were thinking, entered the concentration known as &lsquothe coming forth of the lion,&rsquo a world-illumining manifestation, of which the body is great compassion, the entryway is great compassion, the guide is great compassion, the means of access to the sky of truth is great compassion. As soon as the Buddha had entered this concentration, the magnificent pavilion became boundlessly vast: the surface of the earth appeared to be made of indestructible diamond, the surface of the ground covered with a net of all the finest jewels, strewn with flowers of many jewels, with enormous gems strewn all over&hellip Also the Jeta grove and buddha-fields as numerous as atoms in untold buddha-fields all became coextensive, vastly expanded, by the power of Buddha. There appeared varied arrays of all kinds of jewels, plains variously set with untold jewels, fences of uncountable jewels set around, and palm trees of various jewels arrayed in rows&hellip&rdquo [1]

It goes on! Through the Buddha&rsquos powers, the assembled get a holographic, kaleidoscopic vision of the infinite universe like a drug-free acid trip&hellip

Eventually a bunch of pious lay people &ndash 500 men, 500 women, 500 boys, 500 girls, come sit next to the bodhisattva Manjushri for the teaching. Manjushri takes note of a boy named Sudhana (meaning &ldquoGood Wealth&rdquo). After Manjushri offers teaching and all assembled set their minds on perfect enlightenment and &ldquomade them remember their past roots of goodness,&rdquo Sudhana makes a further request. He says, &ldquoNoble One, please give me a full explanation of how an enlightening being is to study the practice of enlightening beings, how an enlightening being is to accomplish, initiate, carry out, fulfill, purify (etc.) the practice of enlightening beings?&rdquo [1]

A Bodhisattva&rsquos Search in the Avatamsaka Sutra: The Journey

Manjushri responds to Sudhana, praising his determination and advising him to seek out spiritual benefactors to answer his question. To start with, he says: &ldquoSouth of here is a country called Ramavaranta there is a mountain there called Sugriva, where a monk named Meghashri lives. Go to him and ask I how an enlightening being should learn the conduct of enlightening beings.&rdquo

Sudhana does this. He travels for a week, and finally finds Meghashri, who praises his search and explains that he, Meghashri, has through his practice attained the ability to see the buddhas in all the lands of the ten directions:

&ldquoThat is, in the east I see one buddha, two buddhas, three buddhas, a hundred buddhas, a thousand buddhas, a hundred thousand buddhas, a million buddhas, a hundred million buddhas, a billion buddhas, a hundred billion buddhas, a quintillion buddhas&mdashI see incalculable, immeasurable, uncountable, inconceivable, incomparable, incomprehensible, unlimited, ungraspable, inestimable, unutterable numbers of buddhas. I see as many buddhas as atoms in this continent&hellip&rdquo [1]

However, although Meghashri has attained mindfulness of the buddhas, he says, &ldquohow can I know the practice, or tell of the virtues, of the enlightening beings who have purified the sphere of endless knowledge?&rdquo The monk tells Sudhana &ldquoGo, son&mdashsouth of here is a place called Sagaramukha, where there lives a monk named Sagaramegha. Go to him and ask him how an enlightening being is to learn and accomplish the conduct of enlightening beings&hellip&rdquo [1]

And thus it goes&hellip Sudhana goes to a teacher who explains what their bodhisattva practice is, and then says their understanding and practice is limited, so Sudhana should go visit so-and-so. This goes on so that Sudhana ends up visiting 53 different admirable bodhisattva teachers. They include monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen, girls and boys, royalty and merchants, non-human beings including spirits and deities, and non-Buddhists.

Each bodhisattva has to offer a different insight, spiritual power, or other benefit. This is where the Avatamsaka Sutra can help stimulate our imagination with respect for the infinitely varying forms bodhisattva service can take. Every bodhisattva Sudhana visits comes along with a complete story of Sudhana&rsquos arrival, his first interactions with and impressions of the bodhisattva, what Sudhana witnesses in the bodhisattva&rsquos realm, and then the bodhisattva&rsquos description of what it is they have awakened to or cultivated as their bodhisattva practice.

I&rsquom going to simple share with you a sampling of the bodhisattva ways of service, and in each example suggest how this kind of service might manifest in our everyday modern life. I&rsquoll share four examples and then continue in my next episode with more, as well as discussing some of the implications of the Avatamsaka message about how widely varying bodhisattva manifestations can be.

Examples of Various Bodhisattva Gifts and Service in the Avatamsaka Sutra

1) Monk Meghashri sees the reality of spiritual liberation throughout the universe

To backtrack a moment to the first bodhisattva, the monk Meghashri, who has attained the ability to see the buddhas in all the lands of the ten directions. First glance? What good is this to anyone, maybe just inspiring to Meghashri? But this is a deep and transformative insight not just into the possibility and reality of awakening and spiritual liberation in this lifetime, in the world we know, but insight into how this possibility of enlightenment appears throughout the universe in every direction. Imagine the attitude and manner of someone with this kind of perspective&hellip great faith and patience, which would naturally be communicated to anyone around.

Do you naturally have a broad perspective and faith that you, and others, will always find a way? Do you have the ability to see the potential in every situation? Do you have a deep conviction that the universe is an amazing and beautiful place? How might others benefit from these abilities? Maybe you express them directly, or in artistic expression. More likely you simply manifest these abilities in a more subtle way, by being steady and patient and positive?

Are you used to seeing these abilities/perspectives/aspects of your character as gifts that you can share with others?

2) Monk Sagaramegha utilizes his great discerning intelligence

Monk Sagaramegha (next bodhisattva) &ndash attained the universal eye&hellip

&ldquorevealing the practice of enlightening beings, showing the differentiation of the planes of all universes, showing the spheres of all truths together, the light purifying all lands, dispersing all challengers, crushing all demons and devils, making all beings happy, illumining the hidden recesses of all beings&rsquo minds, communicating to all beings in accord with their mentalities, illuminating the turning of the wheels of the senses of all beings.&rdquo [1]

Now, instead of Meghashri&rsquos vision of a universal enlightenment, Sagaramegha specializes in a vision of differentiation &ndash clearly discerning the differences between things, recognizing and responding appropriately to beings that mean to cause harm, and adapting one&rsquos approach based on carefully discerned capabilities and character of whoever you&rsquore dealing with.

Do you have a natural intelligence and concern, causing you to look deeply at things, discern what&rsquos really going on? Do you feel compelled to understand so you can solve problems for beings and see their lives go more smoothly? If you encounter an obstacle &ndash whether it&rsquos physical or technical or having to do with effective communication or teaching &ndash do you become even more determined to overcome it? Then your bodhisattva capabilities are akin to Sagaramegha&rsquos. At times we may dismiss these more &ldquointellectual&rdquo interests and talents as not being bodhisattva gifts or service, but the Avatamsaka sutra makes it clear they count!

3) Monk Supratishthita freely travels and takes whatever shape is necessary

&ldquoI have attained a light of knowledge called &lsquoultimate nonobstruction.,&rsquo whereby I am free from obstruction in awareness of the mental actions of all sentient beings&hellip comprehension of time divisions as being conceptual, and in noncorporeal pervasion of the buddha-fields in the ten directions, all by the attainment of nonbeing, nonabiding, and nondoing. By the realization of this mystic power of nondoing I walk, stand, sit, and lie down in the sky, disappear and appear, produce smoke and flame. Being one, I become many being many, I become one. I become now visible, now invisible. I go through walls unhindered, as through empty space&hellip whatever beings I see, small or large, underdeveloped or well developed, happy or unhappy, I adopt a corresponding physical form, in order to guide them to maturity and perfection in the appropriate time.&rdquo [1]

This may sound a little irrelevant to our daily lives if we assume this is a bodhisattva who has attained supernatural powers. However&hellip think more symbolically of what these abilities mean. Non-obstructed in service, able to freely and physically come and go and take whatever form is needed, do whatever is needed. Perhaps able to physically perform tasks or endure things that other people find amazing &ndash perhaps like wildfire fighting, or being a really good nurse, showing up at all the right times with whatever is needed, taking whatever role is needed most at that moment (firm medical guidance, shoulder to cry on, silent witness, bringing hot tea&hellip)

Are you naturally rather brave and willing &ndash physically, mentally, or emotionally &ndash to go wherever you see need, whenever you see it? Are you able to pretty easily set aside consideration for your own comfort in order to take care of others? Are you able to change up your appearance or attitude or approach fairly easily when the situation calls for it, rather than being attached to how you want to be?

4) The grammarian Megha attains the light of the spell of eloquence

Grammarian named Megha: the light of the spell of eloquence &ndash

&ldquoI have attained the light of the spell of eloquence: I know the speech of all kinds of beings in a billion-world universe I know the variety of speech of each kind of being I know the unity of speech of each kind of being&hellip I know the terms, speech, and concepts of all creatures I know the ideas of all sages I know the ideas of all ignoble people I know the speech of enlightening beings, expressed according to the mentalities and languages of sentient beings I enter into and focus on the oceans of utterances addressed to all sentient beings by the buddhas of past, present, and future.&rdquo [1]

Of course the descriptions in the Avatamsaka sutra are very grand and flowery. There are some people in the world who know many languages and are very knowledgeable and educated about everything that can be expressed in words, but the spell of eloquence can manifest in all kinds of different ways.

Are you good at explaining things to people? Really getting across some concept, or process, or set of instructions &ndash so that the light of understanding goes off for people and they go, &ldquoOh! I get it!&rdquo Do you have a way with words, writing or speaking clearly and concisely, or able to express your deepest heart through poetry or prose? Are you intrigued by words and concepts and reading, devouring the words of the masters because you crave the moments of liberation you experience when those words break you free from some limited view? Are you convinced that most people would do the right thing if only the case for it were made to them in a way they truly understood?

Accepting Our Own Bodhisattva Gifts

In the next episode I&rsquoll discuss more about the process of identifying and cultivating your unique bodhisattva gifts and way of service, but because we&rsquore discussing the spell of eloquence: Some people have told me I have some of this skill of eloquence. &ldquoEloquence&rdquo sounds like an overstatement to me, as my writing and speaking style is very conversational, but one of the greatest compliments I&rsquove received was an endorsement blurb my teacher Gyokuko Carlson offered for the back of my first book, Idiot&rsquos Guide: Zen Living: &ldquoDomyo Burk has a knack for putting people at ease by explaining things that are otherwise daunting.&rdquo

You might be surprised to know that this would not have been my first choice of bodhisattva talent. I mean, I don&rsquot mind&hellip we all like to be good at things, and it would be awesome if we were at least passably good at everything we wanted to do. But while I&rsquove always been drawn to words, reading, concepts, written and verbal expression, trying to explain things so people understand, etc., I&rsquove figured the bodhisattvas who really have it together don&rsquot need to say anything at all. They radiate strength and inspiration from their very being. They are self-disciplined and spare with words, delivering brief, strategic, transformative messages at just the right moment. You&rsquore drawn to hang out with them, willing to wait around for days or weeks for that moment when they don&rsquot just explain something to you, they guide you skillfully to realize it for yourself. There is a part of me which believes the old saying, &ldquoThose who can&rsquot do, teach.&rdquo Of course, I don&rsquot believe for a second that teachers in general deserve that statement, but part of me thinks if I was a real Zen teacher I wouldn&rsquot talk so much. I wouldn&rsquot need to explain.

But here we go: In this lifetime, I&rsquom drawn to expressing and explaining things with words. I want to explain and celebrate everything that way. So if I want to be an effective bodhisattva, it&rsquos best if I embrace the gifts I have and share them, rather than wasting time judging them or wishing I was someone else. After all, even the most amazing bodhisattvas in the Avatamsaka sutra tell Sudhana, &ldquoI&rsquove attained such-and-such, but that&rsquos just one thing, there&rsquos a whole lot I don&rsquot understand and can&rsquot do, you ought to go speak to so-and-so, she really understands bodhisattva practice.&rdquo

So I&rsquoll leave you with that much to chew on for now&hellip in my next episode I&rsquoll continue with examples of bodhisattva service from the Avatamsaka sutra and suggest how they manifest in the lives of us ordinary beings. Then I wrap up with a discussion about how we identify, embrace, and cultivate our unique bodhisattva offering.


[i] Cleary, Thomas (translator). The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 1993.


Illustration of the Avatamsaka Sutra at Songgwangsa in Suncheon, Korea.

The sutra, among the longest Buddhist sutras, is a compilation of disparate texts on various topics such as the Bodhisattva path, the interpenetration of phenomena (dharmas), the visionary powers of meditation and the equality of things in emptiness. According to Paul Demiéville, the collection is “characterized by overflowing visionary images, which multiply everything to infinity, by a type of monadology that teaches the interpenetration of the one whole and the particularized many, of spirit and matter” and by “the notion of a gradual progress towards liberation through successive stages and an obsessive preference for images of light and radiance.” Likewise, Alan Fox has described the sutra’s worldview as “fractal”, “holographic” and “psychedelic”.

The East Asian view of the text is that it expresses the universe as seen by a Buddha (the Dharmadhatu), who sees all phenomena as empty and thus infinitely interpenetrating, from the point of view of enlightenment. This interpenetration is described in the Avatamsaka as the perception “that the fields full of assemblies, the beings and aeons which are as many as all the dust particles, are all present in every particle of dust.” Thus, a Buddhas view of reality is also said to be “inconceivable no sentient being can fathom it”. Paul Williams notes that the sutra speaks of both Yogacara and Madhyamaka doctrines, stating that all things are empty of inherent existence and also of a “pure untainted awareness or consciousness (amalacitta) as the ground of all phenomena”. The Avatamsaka sutra also highlights the visionary and mystical power of attaining the spiritual wisdom which sees the nature of the world:

Endless action arises from the mind from action arises the multifarious world. Having understood that the world’s true nature is mind, you display bodies of your own in harmony with the world. Having realized that this world is like a dream, and that all Buddhas are like mere reflections, that all principles [dharma] are like an echo, you move unimpeded in the world (Trans in Gomez, 1967: lxxxi)

As a result of their meditative power, Buddhas have the magical ability to create and manifest infinite forms, and they do this in many skillful ways out of great compassion for all beings.

In all atoms of all lands
Buddha enters, each and every one,
Producing miracle displays for sentient beings:
Such is the way of Vairocana….
The techniques of the Buddhas are inconceivable,
All appearing in accord with beings’ minds….
In each atom the Buddhas of all times
Appear, according to inclinations
While their essential nature neither comes nor goes,
By their vow power they pervade the worlds.(Cleary 1984–7: I, Bk 4)

The point of these teachings is to lead all beings through the ten bodhisattva levels to the goal of Buddhahood (which is done for sake of all other beings). These stages of spiritual attainment are also widely discussed in various parts of the sutra (book 15, book 26). The sutra also includes numerous Buddhas and their Buddhalands which are said to be infinite, representing a vast cosmic view of reality, though it centers on a most important figure, the Buddha Vairocana (great radiance). Vairocana is a cosmic being who is the source of light and enlightenment of the ‘Lotus universe’, who is said to contain all world systems. According to Paul Williams, the Buddha “is said or implied at various places in this vast and heterogeneous sutra to be the universe itself, to be the same as ‘absence of intrinsic existence’ or emptiness, and to be the Buddha’s all-pervading omniscient awareness.” The very body of Vairocana is also seen as a reflection of the whole universe:

The body of [Vairocana] Buddha is inconceivable. In his body are all sorts of lands of sentient beings. Even in a single pore are countless vast oceans.

Also, for the Avatamsaka, the historical Buddha Sakyamuni is simply a magical emanation of the cosmic Buddha Vairocana.

The Huayan School and Beyond

The Huayan, or Hua-yen, school of Mahayana Buddhism originated in 6th century China from the work of Tu-shun (or Dushun, 557–640) Chih-yen (or Zhiyan, 602-668) and Fa-tsang (or Fazang, 643–712). Huayan adopted the Avatamsaka as its central text, and it is sometimes referred to as the Flower Ornament school.

In brief, Huayan taught the "universal causality of the dharmadatu." The dharmadatu in this context is an all-pervading matrix in which all phenomena arise and cease. The infinite things interpenetrate each other and are simultaneously one and many. The entire universe is interdependent conditioning arising out of itself.

Huayan enjoyed the patronage of the Chinese court until the 9th century, when the Emperor -- persuaded that Buddhism had grown too powerful -- ordered all monasteries and temples to close and all clergy to return to lay life. Huayan did not survive the persecution and was wiped out in China. However, it had already been transmitted to Japan, where it survives as a Japanese school called Kegon. Huayan also deeply influenced Chan (Zen), which did survive in China.

The Avatamsaka also influenced Kukai (774-835), a Japanese monk and founder of the esoteric school of Shingon. Like the Huayan masters, Kukai taught that the whole of existence permeates each of its parts


An excerpt from the first chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra (Flower Ornament Scripture):

THUS HAVE I HEARD. At one time the Buddha was in the land of the Magadha, in a state of purity, at the site of enlightenment, having just realized true awareness. The ground was solid and firm, made of diamond, adorned with exquisite jewel discs and myriad precious flowers, with pure clear crystals. The ocean of characteristics of the various colors appeared over an infinite extent. There were banners of precious stones, constantly emitting shining light and producing beautiful sounds. Nets of myriad gems and garlands of exquisitely scented flowers hung all around. The finest jewels appeared spontaneously, raining inexhaustible quantities of gems and beautiful flowers all over the earth. There were rows of jewel trees, their branches and foliage lustrous and luxuriant. By the Buddha&rsquos spiritual power, he caused all the adornments of this enlightenment site to be reflected therein.

Cleary, Thomas.
The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of The Avatamsaka Sutra.
Boston & London: Shambala Publications, 1993: 55. Print.

Languages of India and abroad

Pali-English dictionary

Avaṭaṃsaka, (= vaṭ°) see Vin Texts II. 347. (Page 82)

context information

Pali is the language of the Tipiṭaka, which is the sacred canon of Theravāda Buddhism and contains much of the Buddha’s speech. Closeley related to Sanskrit, both languages are used interchangeably between religions.

Discover the meaning of avatamsaka in the context of Pali from relevant books on Exotic India

Sanskrit dictionary

Avataṃsaka (अवतंसक).—An ear-ornament, an ornament in general अशोकस्तबकेनेव दिङ्मुखस्यावतंसकम् (aśokastabakeneva diṅmukhasyāvataṃsakam) V.5.3 प्रासादाट्टा- वतंसका (prāsādāṭṭā- vataṃsakā) (laṅkā) Rām.

Derivable forms: avataṃsakaḥ (अवतंसकः).

Source: Cologne Digital Sanskrit Dictionaries: Edgerton Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary

Source: Cologne Digital Sanskrit Dictionaries: Benfey Sanskrit-English Dictionary

Avataṃsaka (अवतंसक).—[avataṃsa + ka], m. and n. An ear-ring, [Vikramorvaśī, (ed. Bollensen.)] [distich] 141.

Source: Cologne Digital Sanskrit Dictionaries: Cappeller Sanskrit-English Dictionary

Avataṃsaka (अवतंसक).—[masculine] the same, as adj. ([feminine] sikā) crowned with (—°).

Source: Cologne Digital Sanskrit Dictionaries: Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary

[Sanskrit to German] (Deutsch Wörterbuch)

Source: Cologne Digital Sanskrit Dictionaries: Sanskrit-Wörterbuch in kürzerer Fassung

2) Titel einer buddh. Schrift.

Sanskrit, also spelled संस्कृतम् (saṃskṛtam), is an ancient language of India commonly seen as the grandmother of the Indo-European language family (even English!). Closely allied with Prakrit and Pali, Sanskrit is more exhaustive in both grammar and terms and has the most extensive collection of literature in the world, greatly surpassing its sister-languages Greek and Latin.

Discover the meaning of avatamsaka in the context of Sanskrit from relevant books on Exotic India

Viewing the Lotus Sutra from the Avatamsaka Sutra

I’ve spoken before of perspective in viewing the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren and T’ien T’ai examined the Lotus Sutra from the perspective of the Buddha’s highest teaching and used that perspective to interpret the provisional teachings. A very different result occurs when the perspective is shifted so that other sutras are used to view the Lotus Sutra.

Here’s a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peaceful Action, Open Heart:

When our mind faculty and our other sense faculties have been transformed and purified as a result of the merit we have received from hearing, understanding, and practicing this wonderful Dharma, then we need hear only one gatha or one line of the Sutra to understand all sutras and teachings. We do not need to study the entire Tripitaka in order to understand the Buddhadharma. One gatha contains all other gathas, one teaching reveals the deep meaning of all other teachings, just as the truth of impermanence contains the truth of no-self and the truth of interbeing.

A follower of Nichiren would have no problem with that observation. But then Thich Nhat Hanh goes on:

This is the meaning of the Avatamsaka Sutra: the one contains the all.

Repeatedly in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peaceful Action, Open Heart, he returns to the Avatamsaka Sutra [the Flower Garland Sutra]. In discussing Chapter 21, The Supernatural Powers of the Tathāgatas, when the Buddha emitts rays of light with an immeasurable variety of colors from his pores, Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

Then there is the image of the rays of light emitted by the Buddha. “Light” in Buddhist sutras is a metaphor for awakened understanding. The world of the Avatamsaka Sutra is a world of light. The Buddha is light beams of light stream out from each pore of his body. His light of mindfulness is very strong, and with that source of light the Tathagata is able to illuminate all the world-spheres, as if by shining the beam of a powerful lamp into them. With the light of his great spiritual power the Buddha can see clearly whatever phenomenon the light of his mindfulness rests upon.

We also have the source of this light in our own consciousness. When we develop our capacity for mindfulness and allow it to shine within us and around us, we are able to see many things that we cannot ordinarily perceive. When the light of mindfulness, of awakened understanding, illuminates a leaf, a blade of grass, or a cloud, we are able to see all the wonders of that phenomenon and the multidimensional world of the Avatamsaka Sutra is opened up to us in an amazing way. And just like the Buddha, thanks to mindfulness we too can perform miracles.

Suppose there is someone who lives very mindfully, dwelling in concentration. She comes home, goes out, stands, sits, speaks, chops vegetables, washes pots, carries out all the activities of daily life in mindfulness and concentration. In all her actions of body, speech, and mind she shines the light of mindfulness. When others encounter her they are able to get in touch with that mindfulness, and they are influenced by it. Touched by the light of her mindfulness, the seed of mindfulness in their own consciousness begins to sprout, and naturally they also begin to cultivate mindfulness in their activities as she does. This is a true miracle that any one of us can realize.

The light of mindfulness of those around us – a brother or sister, parent or teacher, spouse or partner – shines out onto us, and thanks to that we also begin to cultivate mindfulness and shine it out toward others. What is a Buddha? A Buddha is nothing other than the light of mindfulness, and that light, wherever it shines, is able to show us the wonderful truth, the ultimate dimension of whatever it illuminates. Those who are touched by the light of mindfulness in turn shine the light of their mindfulness upon other people and objects. Just as the Buddha’s rays of light, when they reached all the other world-spheres, caused the countless Buddhas to emit their light, when we live mindfully we shine that light broadly all around us and help others get in touch with and shine their light of mindfulness as well.

Another example of this comes in Thich Nhat Hanh’s discussion of Chapter 28, The Encouragements of the Bodhisattva Universally Worthy. Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

Universally Worthy is the last bodhisattva mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, and his role here is to protect and preserve the Sutra, to “broadly propagate it and cause it never to perish.” However, this brief chapter is not extensive enough to reveal the full dimension of Samanta-bhadra, who is called the bodhisattva of Great Action. So we can use elements from other sutras, such as the Avatamsaka Sutra, in which the great action of Samanta-bhadra is explicated more fully, to complete the chapter on this bodhisattva in the Lotus Sutra.

Clearly Thich Nhat Hanh uses the Lotus Sutra to illustrate his teaching rather than using the Lotus Sutra as the basis of his teaching. The difference is not subtle.

See also (Relevant definitions)

Search found 9 books and stories containing Avatamsaka Sutra, Avataṃsaka Sūtra, Avataṃsakasūtra (plurals include: Avatamsaka Sutras, Avataṃsaka Sūtras, Avataṃsakasūtras). You can also click to the full overview containing English textual excerpts. Below are direct links for the most relevant articles:

Guide to Tipitaka (by U Ko Lay)

The Great Chariot (by Longchenpa)

Part 2c.5 - The wisdom of the noble ones that is attained < [B. The gradation of powers of those who meditate into high, middle, and low]

Watch the video: Avatamsaka Sutra lecture at Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, 1st ground #6 (August 2022).