The Avatamsaka Sutra

The Flower Garland Scripture

Manjusri and Vairocana
Two of the "Three Worthies of Huayan," Manjusri and Vairocana. These are part of the Dazu rock carvings in Sichuan Province, China. The Dazu carvings date from the 9th to the 13th centuries CE. © Claire Plumridge / Getty Images

The Avatamsaka Sutra is a Mahayana Buddhist scripture that reveals how reality appears to an enlightened being. It is best known for its sumptuous descriptions of the inter-existence of all phenomena. The Avatamsaka also describes the stages of development of a bodhisattva.

The title of the sutra usually is translated into English as Flower Garland, Flower Ornament or Flower Adornment Sutra. Also, some early commentaries refer to it as the Bodhisattva Piṭaka.

Origin of the Avatamsaka Sutra

There are legends that tie the Avatamsaka to the historical Buddha. However, like the other Mahayana sutras its origins are unknown. It is a massive text -- the English translation is over 1,600 pages long -- and it appears to have been written by several authors over a period of time. Composition may have begun as early as the 1st century BCE and probably was completed in the 4th century CE.

Only fragments of the original Sanskrit remain. The oldest complete version we have today is a translation from Sanskrit into Chinese by Buddhabhadra, completed in 420 CE. Another Sanskrit to Chinese translation was completed by Siksananda in 699 CE. Our one complete (so far) translation of the Avatamsaka into English, by Thomas Cleary (published by Shambhala Press, 1993) is of the Siksananda Chinese version. There is also a translation from Sanskrit into Tibetan, completed by Jinametra in the 8th century.

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.

Read More: Indra's Jewel Net

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

Avatamsaka Teachings

All reality is perfectly interpenetrating, the sutra says. Each individual phenomenon not only perfectly reflects all other phenomena but also the ultimate nature of existence. In the Avatamsaka, the Buddha Vairocana represents the ground of being. All phenomena emanate from him, and at the same time he perfectly pervades all things.

Because all phenomena arise from the same ground of being, all things are within everything else. And yet the many things do not hinder each other.

Two sections of the Avatamsaka are often presented as separate sutras. One of these is the Dasabhumika, which presents the ten stages of development of a bodhisattva before buddhahood.

The other is the Gandavyuha, which tells the story of the pilgrim Sudhana studying with a succession of 53 bodhisattva teachers. The bodhisattvas come from a a broad spectrum of humanity -- a prostitute, priests, laypeople, beggars, kings and queens, and transcendent bodhisattvas. At last Sudhana enters the vast tower of Maitreya, a place of endless space containing other towers of endless space. The boundaries of Sudhana's mind and body fall away, and he perceives the dharmadatu as an ocean of matter in flux.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "The Avatamsaka Sutra." Learn Religions, Aug. 26, 2020, O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 26). The Avatamsaka Sutra. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "The Avatamsaka Sutra." Learn Religions. (accessed June 9, 2023).