images of the crossing over

Where everything needs everything else

Shoes and Paddy, South Chung-jeong Province, Seocheon.

In the Hua-yen universe, where everything interpenetrates in identity and interdependence, where everything needs everything else, what is there which is not valuable? To throw away even a single chopstick as worthless is to set up a hierarchy of values which in the end will kill us in a way which no bullet can. In the Hua-yen universe, everything counts.

Francis H. Cook, Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most be his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

To everyone who has left comments here during the past couple months, thank you: I’ve read them all but haven’t had time to reply. Housekeeping matters here, especially concerning resizing the photos in old entries to accommodate the new template (which is also begging the question, to keep or not?, at present) are in a woeful, neglected state.

In about a week or so, my class will finish Cheng-kuan’s lengthy introductory commentary to the Avatamsaka Sutra and finally enter the Sutra proper itself. Hua-yen, or in the Korean pronunciation, Hwa-eom Buddhism is a specific aspect of Chinese Buddhist thought and history that I’ve had to approach in Western literature mostly from side-paths. With the exception of three books on Hua-yen Buddhism in English–one by CC Chang, one by T. Cleary, and the last by Francis Cook–it’s easier to find extensive resources on the various components that are drawn together in the great network of Hua-yen though: Yogacara, Tathagatagarbha, Chinese influences on Buddhist thought, Ch’an. In between the main thrusts of these movements and histories, Hua-yen runs like an underground stream, surfacing here and there but rarely studied in its full. I gave up on CC Chang’s book quickly. He was an notable scholar but too in awe of the Buddhist religion to reign in his prose or some of his judgements in his scholarly work. Cleary’s book I will read as I study the sutra itself (and his translation of it), since mostly focuses on translations of various treatises on the sutra by the patriarchs of the tradition. Cook’s book, however, is both accessible and well-informed, written from a perspective that both deeply esteems the Hua-yen Sutra and has spent time considering the text’s relevance to the world of cast-off shoes and human relations, the environment and society.

I have a thing for the cast-off objects of the world. Not that I am a great conservator, an accomplished economist of the not-one-rice-grain-wasted school, not that I am immune to the lure of shiny new things. (I am particularly susceptible to new pens, new notebooks, new stationary pads, new books; less so to new shoes but not to new rosaries, somewhat skilled at deferring the hunger for new teacups but not above pestering a friend to give me one as a present or shamelessly admiring a handsome coffee mug. I am a consumer trying to undermine her own habits, and only partially successful.) But I am nonetheless concerned with what has been cast off, curious about their new existences after their initial and obvious function has been set aside. These shoes were waiting just thus on the embankment of a paddy in South Chung-jeong Province last August. Are they truly cast off? I don’t know. Perhaps they’re just resting, until the farmer returns to the paddy to work.

This curiosity, at first aesthetic, takes on a new importance in the light of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Although I didn’t chose to include Walden on my summer extracurricular reading list because I knew that Thoreau would speak so directly, from his own experience and view, to some of Hua-yen’s most central messages to us in the physical, mundane world, Thoreau is becoming an excellent companion. In a world where everything needs everything else, our modes of life are not individual choices without consequence, nor are our mistakes, made in ignorance or greed or even misguided goodheartedness, easily bartered away with an action of the opposite apparent value. The implication being, as I experience it in my own life, that we cannot pay the price of a cast-off pair of shoes by recycling several cola bottles. We cannot save the soul we lost in a moment of anger by loving the one we struck the next moment. Does this make our acts of contrition and repentance meaningless? No; but those acts don’t erase the past so much as guide the future. The first lesson of anger isn’t to love, it’s to not get angry. And the first lesson of casting off is not to recycle elsewhere, it is to understand that nothing is ever thrown away and forgotten, but remains, in a new form and function, continuing to affect us and be affected by us, in a world where everything needs everything else.

6 responses

  1. I have D.T. Suzuki’s translation of the Lankavatara Sutra, though I haven’t cracked the cover in decades. I remember a roommate who was into Zen Buddhism reading a few chapters of it and throwing it aside in disgust — “This isn’t Buddhism at all!”

    FWIW, Garma C.C. Chang’s wife was my Chinese teacher at Penn State. He himself had retired by then, though, and I never got to meet him. I made it through much of his translation of Milarepa at one point, but not The Buddhist Teaching on Totality. And now that you’ve said it’s not really worth reading, its unread pages will no longer taunt me from the bookshelf.

    June 21, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    • Barry,

      I’ll send you an email; in mid-October I’ll probably be at school, which is kind-of-opposite direction from Mu Sang Sa but easily accessible by the high-speed train (KTX). Let’s keep in touch.


      Chang was an important part of Buddhist scholarship and translation, and I’m not trying to knock his contributions at all. But, in comparison to other scholarly works on Buddhist history and thought, his suffer from a little too much awe. I’m sure I’ll miss some insights by not reading Totality, but on the whole Cook, and especially Cleary, are formidable in their own rights. Cook in particular has a wry sense of perspective on his own infatuation with Hua-yen thought that gives his obvious enthusiasm balance.

      If you’re interested in Lankavatara readings (Yogacara)–which is different from the Avatamsaka (Hua-yen)–WAIT! Bill Porter (aka Red Pine) is finishing his translation of that sutra now. It’s scheduled for publication and release in early winter next year. Sutra plus commentary from one of my favorite translators. As for your roommate, I myself haven’t read the Lanka yet and so I don’t know what might have prompted his disgust, but Yogacara/Cittamatra (Mind-only) is the backbone of the Lanka, and Yogacara forms one of the three legs of the philosophical tripod supporting Zen practice. I’d be curious to know why he thought so. (Maybe Suzuki played a part; I’ve always struggled with his translations.)

      June 21, 2011 at 8:07 pm

      • I like what little I’ve read by Red Pine, so I will keep an eye out for that — thanks! Can’t believe I confused Yogacara with Avatamsaka. It really has been too long since I last beat my head against the Buddhism wall.

        June 21, 2011 at 8:20 pm

      • Dave,

        I interviewed Porter for our school magazine–which was an honor and a lot of fun–and we spent a lot of time discussing his current work on the Lanka. Most of that, unfortunately, didn’t make it into the written interview. Too technical and not general-readership enough, a pity because I think his comments and insights regarding his process apply to anyone who works with texts in translation. I’m eagerly awaiting this new book.

        June 22, 2011 at 2:23 am

  2. Hi Sunim, Thank you for another wonderful post. They come so sparingly but each is a jewel.

    I plan to visit Korea in mid-October and would appreciate an opportunity to meet with you. Although I don’t have any real itinerary at present, I imagine I’ll stay in Seoul for a few days (probably at Hwagyesa) and then visit and stay at Musangsa for a day or two. And, of course, sightseeing….

    You can email me if you like. And, of course, if your schedule won’t permit a visit, I certainly understand.


    June 21, 2011 at 6:25 pm

  3. Bill Young

    I’ve missed your posts, and very much enjoyed reading this most recent one. I forwarded it to John LaRue while we were visiting him, and we all agreed that we have a good bit of work to do to in using less and using things more productively. John, as he would cheerfully acknowledge, accumulates books and hunting hardware with enthusiasm, and the rest of us, well, that you already understand. A longer letter will be on the way in a few weeks discussing our trip.

    Bill Young

    June 22, 2011 at 2:03 pm

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