Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra (Iaswr Series) 1st Edition
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Cook writes,“Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net...it stretches out infinitely.” A single jewel hangs at each eye of the net, the jewels are as infinite as the net itself. “If we now arbitrarily select on of these jewels for inspection...we discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also a reflection of all the other jewels.” To further explain this image, Cook uses the analogy of a rafter in a building: The building would not exist as a building if it weren't for the rafter thus the rafter, as one piece has the full power of causing the building. Yet, the rafter would not have the functionality of a rafter if it weren't for its function as part of the building, thus the building also has full power of causing the part. As an absolute truth neither building nor rafter have a function separate from one another; Both the whole and the part are dependent on one another for their very identity – in that knowledge, both the rafter and the building are identical because they are dependent.
If we look deeply into the net, we can see the value of every part or piece of the cosmos and the value of the cosmos as a whole. I suspect that Cooks writing itself was strongly influenced by the image of Indra's jeweled net (He strings wise philosophical jewels among strands of interconnected thought provoking words.) ...after all words are dependent on sentences and sentences are dependent on words. So, in considering the analogy of the rafter and the building, if one part truly does have the value of the whole and if I could pick one part of Cook's book to exemplify the whole book, the rafter, so to speak, I would choose the very last two sentences in the very last paragraph which reads: “It is not just that “we are all in it” together. We all are it, rising and falling as one living body."
The Hua-Yen was a school that explored Buddhism through high philosophy and explored Emptiness like no other school of Buddhism ever has. This book really takes the reader deep, deep into the philosophy behind Emptiness and can be a challenging read. From my own experience though, having been a Buddhist for years, I finally understood Emptiness after reading this book about halfway. Having understood Emptiness, much else in Buddhism became much more clear. That right there gives this book 5 starts.
To reiterate, this book is not for new Buddhists but rather for philosophers or Buddhists who already have a strong familiarity with Mahayana Buddhism. If you are one of these folks, don't pass up the great work done here.
Francis "Dojun" Cook needs no introduction to fans of Buddhism, having written several fine books on Japanese Zen master Dogen's thought as well as this book and various articles on Hua-Yen. All are highly recommended reading. Cook combines the rare combination of scholar and practitioner, the latter a result of being a zen practitioner for many years. This gives a practical (or "practice-oriented") edge to his writing that is often missing in scholarly works. As another reviewer noted, there is an old Chinese saying that the summit in historical Buddhist study would ideally be "Hua-Yen for theory; Chan for practice", and Cook certainly appears to embody both sides.
Cook's book is evidently an outgrowth of his early interest in Hua-Yen as evidenced by his PhD thesis: "Fa-Tsang's Treatise on the Five Doctrines: An Annotated Translation". Indeed, Cook makes much use of this particular treatise (in Chinese: Huayan Wujiao Zhang) in his "Jewel Net" book, going into detail to elaborate on Fa-Tsang's/Fazang's metaphors such as a house -together with each part such as rafters, roof, etc.- displaying an interdependence and interpenetration of parts and whole (or "universal" and "particular"), and also the unobstructed interpenetration of each part with each other part (Chinese: shishi wuai fajie: a novel teaching of the Hua-Yen school). Heady stuff, especially how this totality vs. individual illuminates traditional Mahayana doctrines such as "emptiness" and "co-origination" in novel ways. Fazang, the so-called "3rd Patriarch" of Hua-Yen (although some suspect he was actually the primary synthesizer of Hua-Yen doctrines as a system), was a brilliant thinker and it shows in his efforts to utilize appropriate metaphors (not all his) of complex Hua-Yen teachings- the familiar "Indra's Net", the "Golden Lion", the house and rafters, etc.- I simply don't have space to wade into Hua-Yen teachings here, and there is plenty of literature now out on Hua-Yen that folks can refer to. As for Fazang, he evidently wasn't just a perceptive thinker, but also a reported miracle-worker (who isn't in ancient Chinese philosophy?) and who also had a shrewd political eye, judging from his popularity with Empress Wu Zhao, who naturally sought support for her rule from Buddhist doctrines. By anyone's standards, Fazang is a hugely important figure in classical Chinese philosophy.
As for Hua-Yen thought in general, readers of both books by Chang and Cook might want to go further and explore some modern scholarship in this area. Well-known scholar Steven Odin, for instance, has contrasted traditional Hua-Yen teachings on time vs. contemporary Process metaphysics, and the resultant dialogue has been interesting. On other topics, Cook himself disagrees with Garma Chang's description of "emptiness", the latter displaying too much of a subjective interpretation of the traditional "Mind-only" doctrine, according to Cook, who favors a more objective interpretation of "Mind". So there's plenty of room for scholarly debate there. Another reviewer also mentioned the innovations the Chinese brought to the older Indian doctrine of emptiness; Cook mentions the Chinese re-vamping of this doctrine in the book and elsewhere. The Chinese image enlarged the Indian description from a largely negative one, emphasizing the inconsequential nature of phenomena, to a more robust image, where phenomena are the "fullness" of totality because of being empty- hence, each side emphasized a different aspect of emptiness. These changes by different cultures on standard Buddhist doctrines are also the subject of scholarly discussion, which readers can wade into (at their own peril)...
At any rate, needless to say, the Hua-Yen books by Chang and Cook largely set the stage for Hua-Yen thought to become more familiar to Western audiences. For that, each deserves five stars for giving the public an entrance into this difficult material.
Readers, I hope your chops for abstract thought are in place here, you'll need it for penetrating the abstruse Hua-Yen universe. But hey, effort like that is what life is all about :-)
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Hua-Yen is the 'philosophy of Zen', words added to the enlightened experience of oneness/equality and intercausation/interpenetration of all phenomena.