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The Avataṃsaka and Buddhism in Asia

The Avataṃsaka

Buddhism can be described as a “Pan-Asian” phenomenon in the sense of being a powerful factor in shaping South and East Asian cultures (though not including the Asia west of Afghanistan). As such, it may serve as a key to understanding the direction of shared cultural developments that have taken place across its area of influence over the past two millennia. One way to approach this would be to take one Buddhist text corpus and describe its historical and geographical diffusion by looking at textual evidence, artistic expressions, and the influence it has had as expressed through particular philosophies and views of the world.


Certain texts, or text corpora, will stand out in this regard, and the Buddhāvataṃsaka Collection (BA) is indeed such a textual corpus which has had a great impact on Asian religion, culture and politics. It has been studied extensively historically, but also by modern Buddhology, and represents what we may call a Pan-Asian phenomenon, originating in India (probably in the 2nd Century CE) and spreading all over Asia. 


The Buddhāvataṃsaka (Chi: 華嚴 Huayan; Jap: Kegon; Kor: Hwaeom: Viet: Hoa nghiêm; Tib: Sangs rgyas phal po che) is a large collection of more or less individual sūtras, appearing as chapters in the great collection. The title Buddhāvataṃsaka (or the often used shortened title Avataṃsaka) has been variously translated as “Flower Ornament”, “Flower Adornment”, or “Flower Garland”, and is a reference to a particular miraculous ability only possessed by the Buddha, where he simultaneously manifested in seven (or eight) different assemblies to teach. In short, the work is concerned with two central topics: eulogising the Buddha’s abilities and appearance in the world as a teacher, and describing the career and spiritual development of the bodhisattva, all of which encapsulates the mahāyāna ethics, practices, philosophies and ontologies of emptiness.


The project

The project initiated by the Norwegian Institute of Philology (PHI) will investigate when and where the Buddhāvataṃsaka collection was formed, the alternatives being Central India, Gandhāra or Central Asia, or in China. The collection has probably grown throughout its history, but a central part, containing the basic cosmology definitely existed in the second century, as it is translated at that time by Lokakṣema, and soon after by Zhiqian, aptly called the “Proto-Avataṃsaka” by Jan Nattier. As it depicts the basic view of the cosmos, it may have been a stem onto which other chapters were added – however, this cosmology was changed in a remarkable way, as Buddha Śakyamuni occupies the place of the “Central Buddha” in the Proto-Avataṃsaka, an honour take over in the later version by Vairocana. The cosmos depicted, if read as a political analogy, aptly describes a central power (the central buddha) with tributary states, whose tributary governors visit the centre. In this way, the BA had a political importance evidenced, at least from the early Tang dynasty, in Central, East and South Asia throughout its history up to modern times. 

Among the longest chapters of the BA are the Bodhisatvabhūmi (Bbh) and the Gandhavyūha (Gv), and, though much shorter, the versified Bhadracaryāpraṇidhāna (Bp), and these have been the only chapters with complete Sanskrit versions available until now. Recently, however, the Sanskrit version of the Anantabuddhakṣetraguṇodbhāvananāmamahāyānasūtra has appeared from Lhasa, a text which belongs to the BA. The Bbh, Gv and Bp may be described as the most important chapters, and are amply quoted by scholastic literature in most schools of Indian, Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist schools. Further, in the context of the iconic arts, there are innumerable depictions of the themes of the BA, as well as the very grandiose expression of the Gv in the Barabuḍur stūpa, which is modelled after the Gv, and then the Daibutsu in Nara, generally interpreted as a representation of Vairocana. The Bbh and Gv were popular and influential throughout the Buddhist traditions also as separate sūtras, and are central BA chapters representing the “gradual path” as opposed to “sudden enlightenment”, with the gradual development of the bodhisatva through stages until awakening. This is illustrated by the model of ten bhūmis in the case of Bbh, and by the travels of the bodhisatva Sudhana to visit 52 (or 53) teachers (kalyāṇamitra, “spiritual friends”) representing his gradual development in the Gv. Concomitant with the gradual spiritual development is also a hierarchical view on the individual. Thus it is not surprising that the BA in several historical instances has been the foundation of political ideologies underpinning a central authority, tributaries and a hierarchical society.

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