A Commencement Ceremony for Exploring the Great Flower Adornment Scripture

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A Dharma talk by Tenshin Roshi for a gathering of the No Abode community opening study of the Avatamsaka Sutra.  

AI Summary: 

The talk focuses on the exploration of the Avatamsaka Sutra, also known as the Flower Adornment Scripture, emphasizing its significant but underexplored role in Zen Buddhism. The speaker recounts the influences and personal motivations for studying the sutra and articulates a heightened commitment to dive into its teachings.

- **Referenced Texts and Individuals**:
- Avatamsaka Sutra (Flower Adornment Scripture) - central scripture in the talk.
- Shun Hua - Chinese abbot, mentioned for introducing Avatamsaka Sutra lectures in the West in 1971.
- Suzuki Roshi - Mentioned for seldom discussing the Avatamsaka Sutra.
- Kadagiri Roshi - Discussed the completeness and lack of engagement with the sutra.
- Hongzhi Zhengzui - Cited for integrating teachings of the Avatamsaka Sutra into the Book of Serenity.
- Empress Wu - Credited with composing a verse typically recited at the beginning of sutra study.

The importance of the sutra in understanding the interplay of the universal and the particular, as well as its metaphorical representations of reality, are discussed. The speaker’s narrative weaves through personal anecdotes, historical context, and reflections on future aspirations to study and teach the sutra.

AI Suggested Title: "Exploring the Zen Depths of the Avatamsaka Sutra"


I request your support in offering a commencement ceremony this morning. The commencement ceremony is offered to the practice of the great teaching of the Avatamsaka Sutra. I wish this morning to be a ceremony where we acknowledge that we are starting, or some of us, or perhaps all of us, are starting a wholehearted exploration, a trailblazing


exploration in the practice of the Avatamsaka Sutra, which could be translated into English as Garland Scripture or Flower Adornment Scripture. So I have been, for a few months, devoting my life to reading and taking notes and reciting and memorizing and visualizing the sutra,


this sutra, this large sutra. As part of the ceremony, I might just mention a few of the conditions or influences which have led me to want now to embark on a study of this sutra together with the Great Assembly. And I've already started to study it with, in some sense, two other Great Assemblies. An assembly of dharma successors, an assembly of people who have been shiso. We've already started to open this great scripture and to contemplate it, read it, recite it, memorize it,


and converse about it. Causes and conditions influencing this ceremony and the practice which may flow from this ceremony. I just happened to pick this up this morning because I wanted to just see the Chinese characters for a verse. A verse that is recited when making incense offerings. So I opened this up, and on the cover of this notebook is a detail of the Parinirvana painting,


a painting of the Parinirvana Buddha. There's also a painting over there. This is a detail of some of the Buddha's disciples who are at that Parinirvana of the Buddhas. These two disciples appear to be Japanese aristocrats who are, one of them is praying and the other one is blowing his nose because he's crying. I put that picture on this notebook. I don't know how long ago, but probably about 50 years ago I put it on there. How many years ago? Fifty. And the first thing I find is Avatamsaka Sutra. I didn't know I was going to find it, but there it is. And it describes one of the main teachings of a school of Chinese Buddhism which focused on the teachings of this sutra.


And it says Avatamsaka Sutra in this note, but then it has a little squiggle which says approximately equal to Soto Zen school. And then also there's other things in here like the incense verse. And the incense verse goes something like this in English. Precept incense. Samadhi incense. Liberation incense. This is something which we can say when we offer incense. Quietly or out loud. We offer with our right hand usually. Precept incense. Samadhi incense. Liberation incense. Or Nirvana incense.


This is like bright light clouds pervading the Dharma realm. Just like Buddha's body pervades the Dharma realm. This incense offering creates clouds of radiance. This says radiance rather than fragrance. Clouds of light which pervade the Dharma realm. The same realm where Buddha's body pervades. Making this offering in ten directions to inexhaustible Buddhas. Observe that this fragrance which pervades universally realizes Nirvana. This incense offering and its fragrance which pervade the ten directions realize Nirvana.


I have not seen much in Zen writings by Zen teachers in China and Japan and Korea. I have not seen much of them talking about the Avatamsaka Sutra. I don't mention it that much. I can hardly remember Suzuki Roshi ever mentioning it. And the not mentioning of it is part of the influences that lead me to mention it. Part of what's leading me to commence an exploration of this sutra is that I feel that it's time to acknowledge and enact how important this sutra is in our tradition. And in my studies, I found a text in the library here,


which is a preface to this great scripture. And in the preface, the Chinese abbot Shun Hua, who is the founder of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, he said something like, It's 1971 and this is a very important time because now, for the first time in the West, we will start having lectures on the Avatamsaka Sutra. He was saying that the same year that Suzuki Roshi died. I did not hear him say that in 1971. I was kind of occupied with our teacher dying. Now I see that he started to teach this sutra 52 years ago.


In California. Another influence in this commencement is that I just happened again to find a folder from a class that I audited in Berkeley 50 years ago, 1973. I was allowed to audit a class on Chinese Buddhism taught by a noted Japanese scholar, Kajiyama Sensei. And in my notes, I found a discussion of the Avatamsaka Sutra,


which the scholars said, this is the most complete scripture in Buddhism. And nobody understands it, so it's useless. Here it is, the most complete picture of any scripture of the Bodhisattva path. And it's so great, nobody understands it, including the people in the sutra say they don't understand it. Also, I remember approximately for 50 years ago also, I was talking to Kadagiri Roshi about this sutra, and he said, yeah, it is the most complete, and nobody reads it. Maybe some Zen priests in Japan read it,


but I haven't heard a peep from them about it. That was before the English translation had appeared. Before we even had a translation, he said it's the most complete, and therefore nobody reads it. When the translation occurred, I got a copy for him and gave it to him, which he thanked me for, and also, I don't know if he read it, but I gave it to him. And now I'm thinking, that was good that you gave it to him. Also, I have a number of examples of Kadagiri Roshi's writing in this little notebook. And I told him my English translation,


and he gave me this incense verse, and I wrote it down and translated it, and he liked the translation. So, 50 years ago, the Chinese abbot started to teach it. However, I don't know of a so-called Western teacher embarking on a series, on a path of studying the sutra. We have not really studied it at Zen Center as a group. Many people have read it, some have read the whole thing. Many people at Zen Center have chanted it. We often chanted it at New Year's, and a number of priests led chanting groups that went on for years at City Center and Tassajara. So people at Zen Center have been chanting,


have been reading this sutra out loud for a long time. But I don't know of anybody at Zen Center actually sitting down in a group and exploring it together. But I feel called to do so, and I have responded. And as I have responded, I have been, I don't know what to say, I have been overwhelmingly inspired to continue to explore it. But as part of my overwhelming inspiration to study this scripture and the infinite clouds of assemblies that surround it, I wonder, did anybody want to do this with me? So you have supported the ceremony which is the commencement, but I don't know if any of you are going to want to study it with me.


But I'm going to keep bringing it up until nobody's in the room. So... As I'm being inspired, I simultaneously think, I wonder, would anybody else be interested in this? I mean, like to really do it. And excuse me, but I... That's another influence, is that when the Buddha awoke, the Buddha thought, this is really wonderful, but no one would be interested in this. It's just too much. But he was begged to do so, and he did teach. Again, in my notes from 50 years ago, it said... I also found a note from a talk I gave, and the two of them together say the same thing, which is, this sutra says that it occurred,


this sutra occurred, this sutra happened at the site of Shakyamuni Buddha's first awakening. That's when the sutra is occurring. And the people who are listening to it are divine beings, not humans, and, at the beginning of the sutra, innumerable bodhisattvas. So my notes said that this sutra was given before what we usually think of as the first teaching. So one story is, the Buddha gave this teaching to the bodhisattvas, and then he tested this sutra on some enlightened beings, and he found that they could not handle it. They weren't bodhisattvas. They were arhats and pratyekabuddhas. He tested it on them, and they just thought he was crazy.


So then he put it aside, put this teaching aside, and taught the Four Noble Truths. And then people saw Shakyamuni Buddha, and they thought he was not crazy, and they joyfully listened to his teaching, and they all entered the Buddha way, which is wonderful. Now, this teaching is a teaching which occurred before that. And then there's other teachings which occurred after that. Another influence leading me to want to do this is that for a number of years, again, I've been studying the verse commentary


on Zen stories in the Book of Serenity. So the Book of Serenity has 100 main cases, and each case has a verse commentary on the case. And the verse commentaries are written by a teacher who was basically teaching the teaching of the Avatamsaka Sutra through verse comments on Zen stories. So this teacher, named Hongzhi Zhengzui, he was a student of the sutra, and the teaching of the sutra, and he's the one who put our main Soto Zen koan collection together, and he made these verse commentaries, which are poetic, metaphorical versions


of the teaching of the sutra. Hongzhi Zhengzui. So he's the one who put the Book of Serenity together. In the first case of the Book of Serenity, the story is that the Buddha ascended the seat and sat. And then Manjushri said, and then Manjushri struck a gavel and said, clearly observe the Dharma of the King of Dharma. This is the first case of our Zen collection. Manjushri says, clearly observe the Buddha, clearly observe the King of Dharma, the King of Dharma's Dharma is thus. That's the first case in the Book of Serenity.


And then Hongzhi writes a poem about it. But before I tell you his poem, if you can wait, I want to mention that that phrase, clearly observe the Dharma of the King of Dharma, the Dharma of the King of Dharma is thus, that phrase is in the first book of the Avatamsaka Sutra. It's slightly different. Instead of saying, clearly observe the Dharma of the King of Dharma, it says, clearly observe the King of Dharma. The Dharma of the King of Dharma is thus. So in the koan version of it, they add two characters, King of Dharma, in this first line. This is the first case of our Zen koan collection. It's from the Avatamsaka Sutra. Then his verse commentary is,


the unique, or the one, the unique reality, the one reality, the unique breeze of reality, the one breeze of reality. Do you see it? Again, Avatamsaka Sutra teaches like that. One wind. Then he says, creation constantly works her loom and shuttle. Literally it says, the mother principle is constantly working her loom and shuttle, incorporating the patterns of spring into the ancient brocade. The loom and the shuttle,


the loom represents the upright, the unbiased, the universal. Unbiased like, not biased towards any particular, the universal, unbiased, upright reality, universal reality. The shuttle represents particular individual phenomena. And these two are being constantly worked together. The upright and the biased are constantly working together to create the ancient brocade of the Buddha, incorporating today, again and again, into the ancient brocade. Just like right now, we are incorporating today into the ancient brocade. This is another reason


for thinking maybe it's time to go to the sutra. Because the main teaching of Chinese Soto Zen is this teaching of the interfusion of the upright and the inclined, or the universal and the particular. Also, the chants we do that have been done in Japan and the West, in Zen temples, we often chant the harmony of difference and equality. The harmony of the difference and equality is perhaps the central teaching of the Avatamsaka Sutra. It's a poem written by one of our ancestors which is celebrating the particular


and the universal in harmony. It literally says sameness and difference. The intimate integration and interpenetration of difference and equality in a harmonious way. This is another influence leading me to want to explore this sutra. Also, another chant which we do regularly or in Asian temples every day is the Precious Mirror Samadhi. The Precious Mirror Samadhi. That's a samadhi focusing on this sutra. And the first line says, the teaching of suchness, the teaching of thusness. Back again to the sutra.


The sutra is teaching thusness. The teaching of the Buddha is teaching thusness. And this thusness is an intimate transmission. So, our stories, our Zen stories and our comments on the Zen stories are strongly imbued with the teaching of this sutra. But studying the sutra is another experience which I hope to explore with whoever wants to explore it. Another influence of me bringing it up now is that in a few days


I will officially be 80 years old. So... And some of you have asked me to stay around. And one of the people who I really love is saying, I'm not ready for you to go. Please stay for ten more years. Just ten. I said, okay, I'll try. I said, I'll try. So what am I going to do while I'm waiting around for permission to go? Maybe it's time to study this sutra. She didn't say 20 years. She said ten. Maybe there will be ten. How about now finally studying this sutra which for 50 years I've been waiting to start. Maybe now we can do it.


Maybe now we can really get into it for ten years. Or for two, or whatever. I've already started. I'm letting you know that I'm going to keep trying to explore, explore, explore. Old men must be... No, old men ought to be explorers. And I thought, why didn't he say old men and women? And I thought, well maybe because women are more into exploring even when they're old. I know a lot of old women who are still exploring. But maybe old men kind of like say, I don't want to explore anymore, I'm too old. I can't do that. I can't study the Alpha. I couldn't study the Alpha Samsara Sutra when I was 20. I can't... Maybe when you're 80 it'll be easier to study the Alpha Tamsaka Sutra. Anyway, that's also an influence that makes me say, now may be the time.


We'll see. I'm going to check it out. I'm going to explore. I'm exploring it when I'm alone and I'm exploring it when I'm in groups, like now. And again, in the exploration I think, who will do this with me? It's so awesome. It's so tedious. It's so repetitive. It's so glorious. And it's glorious in a way that almost blinds me. It's hard to study it. With some very senior people I asked, I said, do you want to try to read the first, half of the first book? They had a hard time. It's hard. But they wouldn't have had a hard time reading a novel. Most novels, they zip through. But these very intelligent, educated people,


they had a hard time reading half of the first book. But they did. And I don't know if they want to continue. There's one of them. He's saying yes or no. Yes, let's continue. One of the themes which is most common in this sutra is oceans. Oceans of dharmas. Oceans of teachings. Oceans of beings. Oceans. We're going out into an ocean now. This is not a simple little teaching. It's not one essay. It's an ocean. An unsurpassed, penetrating, and perfect dharma


Is rarely met with Even in a hundred thousand million kalpas Having it to see and listen to To remember and accept I vow to chase the truth of the Tathagata's words An unsurpassed, penetrating, and perfect dharma Is rarely met with Even in a hundred thousand million kalpas Having it to see and listen to To remember and accept I vow to chase the truth of the Tathagata's words An unsurpassed, penetrating, and perfect dharma Is rarely met with Even in a hundred thousand million kalpas


Having it to see and listen to To remember and accept I vow to chase the truth of the Tathagata's words So this verse which we just chanted was, I heard, composed by the Empress of China. Empress Wu, supposedly, wrote this verse. And usually when you open a sutra, the traditional way is to chant this sutra three times, to chant this verse three times. It is a gatha, it is a four-lined verse. And all the verses that I think, let me know if I'm wrong, I think all the verses in this sutra, and there's many of them, they're all gathas, they're all four lines. Easy to memorize. One.


Memorizing all of them is more difficult. In these other venues, I have invited people to memorize one gatha, one verse from the sutra. I invite you to memorize one verse. And the next time we meet, if you did, you could tell me. And if you didn't, you can tell me you didn't. And you can even tell me why you didn't, or how much you enjoyed not memorizing. All right. This morning I recited the first verse of the sutra. Did you hear me? Here's the first gatha of this great sutra. In English. The Buddha body extends throughout all the assemblies.


Actually, it says, all the great assemblies. This is on page 65. Throughout all the great assemblies. It fills the dharma realm without end. Quiescent, without nature. It's ungraspable. It appears in the world for the sake, no, it appears for the sake of the world. That's the first verse of this sutra. That verse and the sentiment of that verse and the many, many other ones which are basically saying the same thing is deeply penetrated our practice.


Now that you hear it, you'll be able to hear it in so many of our practices, so many of our ceremonies, is that message. So, we chant that verse twice for the opening, then after the two times we open the book, which I did as you were chanting the third time. And here's the beginning. Thus is the first word of the sutra. It's also the first word of many other sutras, even the Himalayan sutras, the historical ones in Pali and Sanskrit. They start with thus. What's thus? The teaching of the World Honored One is thus. The teaching of the King of Dharma is thus. So we start the sutra with thus. And we can stop right there, or go on.


The teaching of thusness is the teaching of this sutra. The teaching of thusness is the teaching of the Precious Mere Samadhi. The teaching of thusness is the harmony of difference and unity. Thus. And then it says, I have heard. And then it says, at one time. At one time. In all these Buddhist sutras, at one time. They all occur at one time. It doesn't say, it could. Thus I have heard. Occasionally, or every now and then, or at various times, it says at one time. The sutra is saying, it's all happening at one time. All the different times are really


originally one time. And the original one time is the original one time of thus. Who is saying that? In the early scriptures, it was Ananda. Who sang this sutra? Are you saying it? Am I saying it? I just did say it. I just said thus. Would you please, if you wish, would you please say thus? Who said that? You just said the teaching of the Buddha. Thus you said it. And also, I have heard, didn't you hear? This could be you talking. This could be me talking. Thus I have heard.


At one time. The Buddha. The Buddha is at one time. Thus. There's more. There's more. There's more than just the first line. And there's more notes in here than the ones I told you. And they're really interesting, I think. But what do you think? I don't know. If I keep offering it, these teachings, and people come to me and people lose interest, I might stop. Because I can study it. I mean, I guess if nobody comes, I won't talk. So today I talked a lot, but if you weren't here, I would have been quiet. So,


someone said, I hope when you want to retire, you will do so. And I said, I'm not, I'm not doing this teaching thing because I want to. I'm doing it because I'm being asked to. If nobody asks me, I'll just be quiet. I'm kind of a quiet guy, actually, you might not know. So I, I don't see myself retiring. Actually, yesterday, I was having lunch with a young woman who calls me granddaddy. So, of course, she said, Granddaddy, are you going to retire? And I said, No. And she said, I think that's what she said. And I said, How do you feel about that? And she said, I don't want you to move. This eleven-year-old female


bodhisattva. And I said, I don't want to either. And she moved on from there. And I'm still stuck there with, if I'm called, I will talk, I will speak, I will practice. If I'm not, I'll just be quiet. I'll just be quiescent, without a nature, ungraspable. And so will you. You're just like that. That's your thusness. You're quiescent. You have no nature. And you're ungraspable. That's the first verse of this sutra. When you do speak, are you graspable?


Not the Buddha body. The Buddha body of my speech is not graspable. The sounds you hear, you might try to grasp the sounds, but that's not the Buddha body of my speech. And the Buddha body of my appearance is ungraspable. And the Buddha body of your appearance is ungraspable. And the Buddha body of your appearance is quiescent and free of any nature. That's the Buddha body. The Buddha body isn't owned by anybody. It's all-pervading, dharma-realm-filling reality, which we call the Buddha body. And it teaches thus, and it happens at one time, according to all sutras, really. But this is a big, heavy one that says at one time, and over and over,


at one time, at one time, at one time, at one time. And then furthermore, furthermore, furthermore, at one time, at one time, furthermore. It's repetitive. It's an ocean of magnificent clouds of offerings. So, I welcome you to share, maybe in the afternoon session, you could share how this sutra is, how this offering is impacting you. Maybe you could talk about it in the next session, because it's getting past twelve now. Yes, Homa. It comes through speech,


it comes through hearing, it comes through our movement, our body, everything that is, it just flows through these eyes, ears, nose, face, all of that. What I'm questioning is the question of harmony, which is what is really my, my passion, my heart. Is the speed, the sight, and the hearing, and the taste, and this physical realm, that it sees itself, it is fully aligned and fully upright. So the, the physical and the buddha body, I'm looking for that, that, fully aligned, and I'm questioning the physical now,


if the physical at some point, or what, no, the question is more, what physicality is it? What, what formation of physicality is that it can see itself in total harmony with the world? Why? That's what you're questioning? Thank you.