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The Avatamsaka Four Dharma Realms and the Shurangama Meditation of Listening Intersect in Zen

Preview of Upcoming Presentation

Seen as stages of practice, Chinese preeminent monk Chengguan’s theory of the Four Dharma Realms and Guanyin’s perfected meditation method via one’s ears inevitably meet complementarily to enhance our understanding of meditation as a practice.

More than mere philosophy, the teaching of the Four Dharma Realms requires both theory and practice. The Chinese Huayan School's descriptions of magnificent, dream-like states not only can be read as a philosophy but can be contemplated upon and experienced in meditation mindstates. With the Four Dharma Realms specifically, Chengguan provided specific contemplations such as that on true emptiness, the non-obstruction between phenomena and noumenon, pervasive embodiment, and others. Where phenomena are dualistic, when contemplated upon through a singularity, a noumenon that is the same among the differences, awareness expands to non-obstruction between phenomena and noumenon. At some point phenomena and noumenon become one in perfect integration, or emptiness. And finally, the meditator enters the Dharma Realm of the mind that is simultaneously the greatest expanse, where emptiness extinguishes to become ineffable wondrousness.

The Shurangama Sūtra’s stages of meditation as Guanyin described in his realization of enlightenment complements the Four Dharma Realms precisely. Seen below, the typical linear and two-dimensional portrayal of these stages of meditation offer us a glimpse of how a meditator moves from noticing dualistic sense objects to an investigation of the nature of the ear, to an awareness that ends in the emptiness of dualities, and finally to the extinction of that emptiness.  

(From Translating Totality in Parts: Chengguan's Commentaries and Subcommentaries to the Avatamsaka Sutra by Guo Cheen)

The complementarity between these Avatamska and Shurangama developments affirms, plus multiplies their dimensions manifold with, the Zen fundamentals of one mind (一心 yixin), “everything is but from the mind” (萬法唯心 wanfa weixin), and from emptiness a plethora of wonder bursts forth (妙有miaoyou)


Admonitions: Part II

More from Buddhist monastic teachers.
With instructions from different people, pronouns shift.

Again, as explained more fully in "Admonitions: Part I", these instructions were directed at monks and nuns and excerpted from my translation of Admonitions for Monastics 緇門警訓.

Even monastics perpetrate grave errors . . . . behavior that can be even more offensive and deceptive.
I turn my back on justice.
I cover errors and promote my own virtues.
I delight in seeing misfortune befall others and mask others’ capabilities.
I lie, cheat and bribe, competing for gain and fame.
I contend over who is right and who is wrong, battling with people.
I appear to have comportment but that only adds to my deceit.
I harbor conceit internally and furthermore am lax and mad.
I immerse myself in laziness and indulge in sleep.
I am shamelessly miserly, jealous, and greedy.
It is best that we restrict our boorish and uncouth speech because they are ineffectual.
Questions should be impassioned and profound; it is not about twisting a few words.
Never give in to win reputation.
Never slight juniors on the basis of rank or seniority.
Always stay away from unkind juniors.
Never be obsequious to others due to an agenda.
Never reject others due to personal prejudice.
Never try hard to draw near those who are unkind; be kind and never detest those who are unkind. 
Never praise yourself for some capability.
Never speak ill of others without knowing much.
Never dismiss articles of law because the congregation objects.
Never blame others when slandered.
Never find fault with others.
Do not peek at women.
Observe the laws of the State.
The mouths of the [gossiping] assembly can melt gold
Endless contention becomes slander.
In contemporary times, five out of ten brothers speak obsequiously, flattering officials in the audience into decorating and building hermitages.
Monks above and below should unite. Each has his own strengths and weaknesses, so we should aid and cover for one another. Do not let outsiders hear about any ugly family business. Though such disclosures seem harmless enough, they do reduce faith in others after all. Just as insects on the bodies of lions eat the flesh of lions.


Admonitions: Part I

The Buddha Shakyamuni never established any rules for his Order until problems developed. Most of the Buddhist proscriptions were established as individual cases occurred. For instance, it was not until several dozen monks committed suicide by their own or another’s hands due to extreme (and excessive) disgust for their bodies, that the Buddha instituted the first precept for laity and monastics, refraining from killing.

Similarly, monastic teachers offer instructions on improper actions as their students enact them.
Hence a question for Buddhist educators follows: what is the insight to the Buddha’s prohibitive teachings? Would not preventative education be more effective? While I invite others’ views on this, I venture to offer one possibility. For practitioners whose minds are often calm, the power of suggestion multiplies manifold for them -- just as a small pebble thrown into a waveless and quiet sea stirs up seemingly extensive ripples in comparison to the hardly palpable effect of that same pebble in a tumultuous ocean of high tides. By establishing rules before anyone has committed the said transgressions is to describe those transgressions, thereby causing the students to mirror those wrongdoings in their assumed to be particular serene minds (which is experienced by the brain as if the event is occurring in actuality). Most of us know nowadays that by commanding ourselves to “NOT eat” only leads the brain to focus on the affirmative part of the sentence “EAT”.  

I cannot fathom the full extent of the Buddha’s wisdom and do not wish to digress further. Let me return to the topic of monastic lessons on offenses committed. These instructions by monastic teachers were directed at monks and nuns in Buddhist monasteries and excerpted from my translation of Admonitions for Monastics 緇門警訓.

It seems apt that the following excerpts and this particular compilation begin with a response from monk Zanning (919 – 1001 C.E.) to one poignant question:

Question:         Why have you published a brief                                     history about the Sangha?
          This could start trouble.
Answer:           To make Buddhism flourish and the                             proper Dharma long abide.

To such a succinct answer, meditation master Dayuan adds further irony, “The thought of [what occurs in the Sangha] so saddens me; grief is so overwhelming that my heart is in pieces. So how can I remain silent and not pass on these warnings? . . . . I offer my myopic views in the hopes of clarifying some things for future generations.”

With that, here is part 1 of the exhortations from various monastic teachers:

They have no words that can help the newer students who ask questions. If they do have something to say, their words are not drawn from any Buddhist text. When slighted, they scold the new students for being impolite.
They consider those who can compete for fame and gain capable, while they consider the circulation of the Dharma child’s play.
Nowadays monks’ conduct is mostly superficial and abusive.
People only see different masters praise their own faction, hence they become attached and different factions criticize each other.
To those who are in the role of a teacher: I suspect you do not have much shame or virtue. You may think that you undoubtedly will achieve Buddhahood. If you do not praise yourself, why would you be so arrogant about such petty views and limited knowledge of yours?
They may be six feet in height but they have no wisdom. The Buddha calls their kind deluded monks. Their tongue may be three-inch long, but they cannot explain the Dharma. They are what the Buddha calls mute monks.
People who talk about zen nowadays like to confuse each other with coded words.
Spitting and dragging a bowl, making bodily noises that only disturb the great assembly.
They despise poor guests and favor affluent guests, valuing laity and slighting monastics.
They secretly measure the lengths of deceased monastics and check out their belongings. ….They carve up the valuable items to such an extent that they are worse than ordinary merchants. They do not know to reflect and be ashamed, instead, they consider their finds bargains.
They look down on meditators as if they have been enemies for hundreds of lives, and yet they treat the powerful and the elite like they have been relatives for countless eons.
The level of filth that messed about in the sea of Buddhas in the past had never reached the height of today. We may talk about this with wise individuals but not petty individuals.


Buddhist Persecution Past and Present

Whereas Shakyamuni Buddha accepted students from all walks of life, including the Untouchables who were born into the lowest echelon of the hierarchical Indian caste system, some so-called monastic teachers have told other monastics that they are ill suited for the monastic life. 

Political infighting in Buddhist monastic orders past and present have led to monastics being overtly and covertly forced into becoming lay people. The force behind laicization varies.

In historical China, the most egregious form of forced laicization occurred under emperor Wu. He ordered the destruction of all things Buddhist. According to Xu Liu’s records of history, the emperor “was soon able to boast of closing over 4,600 monasteries, confiscating enormous tracts of monastery land, laicizing 260,500 monks and nuns. . . . scriptures were burned and priests were executed.”

Master Hsuan Hua (1918 - 1995) had revealed the many extreme tactics and power plays that his disciples employed to oust fellow monks or nuns. Search for not yet censored or "cleaned up" talks by this enlightened teacher for some unfortunate specifics that I do not wish to iterate here. Unpublished transcripts of disciples' self-revelations also affirm these stories from the 60's and on.


Chinese-English Buddhist Translation Theory Proposed

The Dynamic Possibilities Theory
One Possibility
As a result of pondering sacred text translation discourses east and west, four aspects of Buddhist philosophical views of language and texts, I have developed one possible theory for the translation of Buddhist sacred texts from Chinese to English. I balance American Bible Society theorist Eugene Nida’s dynamic equivalence theory on the target side plus Buddhist intentionality and continued dialogic with the interlocutor of the sacred text on the author side -- if we have to name sides in what I mean to be cycles as seen in the diagram below. To elucidate too, “intentionality” as Buddhist scholar Masao Abe identifies it, is “not so much a textual question as it was -- and more properly is -- a human and existential one.” He insists that the capacity for deep interlocution is in the Buddhist sacred texts long after the death of the author or orator.
Ground this equation in ancient Buddhist translation models, including the determination to evolve spiritually, the divide morphs among participants, languages, texts, contexts, motives, and understanding with each additional dynamic interaction. 
The following is my published illustration in Translating Totality in Parts: Chengguan's Commentaries and Subcommentaries to the Avatamsaka Sutra. This two-dimensional diagram is meant to resemble an infinity symbol where each member along the translation spectrum is so intimately connected to the others that there is no reified one or the other.