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Author of this essay:

Abbot John
(August 26, 2007)

by Abbot John

When I think of the "Flower Ornament Sutra" I think of it as exactly that, a Flower Ornament: a finishing touch boutonniere put on when we're done dressing and can begin to celebrate a special occasion.

After years of reading the sutras I see them as casting different lights that illuminate the different stages of the Zen man's life or, perhaps, the Zen man's differing temperaments.

Of all the sutras I've read, there are a few that I particularly like. Each has been my favorite at a different stage of my life. I first singled-out that much loved pair, the Diamond Cutter and the Heart Sutras. Both of these were short, but each revealed to me certain qualities about the Buddha and Buddhism hat I had overlooked from my early and limited vantage point. I read them over and over, giving the lines a cadence that was much like prayers said with a rosary. The words worked their magic and I could see far and wide enough to begin to scope out Buddhism's distant horizon. Both sutras were especially helpful in breaking down that obstinate obstacle - the attachment to "self." (I always had to be a little careful with them when considering Sunyatta (the Void) - to keep myself from falling into the nihilism trap. But when I read with a certain circumspection, these sutras proved to be invaluable.)

My next preference was for the Surangama. This sutra appealed to my existential self and was, all in all, a practical lesson in extinguishing it. I was able to transport myself into the time when TV, movies, and long English novels were not the entertainment of the day, a time when a group of dedicated people would sit around a campfire and explain to each other what thread they followed to untie a knot, while thinking that by having untied one knot they could untie all knots. The Surangama was a practical handbook for meditative processes written and elaborated on by people who had plenty of time to follow its advice. Today's Zen people would probably prefer a writing style more reminiscent of a Powerpoint presentation with bullets and numbers; but a thousand years ago or at any time that the reader had or has the leisure to appreciate the Surangama's more elaborate "campfire style," the text is perfect. I think it appealed to me because of the way it challenged me to listen intently to catch the nuances of a number of characters who told the same story but with differing details.

I then gravitated to the Lankavatara. To me the Lanka was a very personal experience because one of its phrases resonated with me in an extraordinary way. "Turning over in the deepest seat of consciousness" became a kind of mantra for me, a phrase that seemed to wind its way through all other spiritual thoughts in my mind, clarifying them. I derived great benefit from this important account of the Buddha's speech "upon entering (Sri) Lanka." I'm sure my interpretation of it does not jibe with most scholarly versions, but somewhere it is written that if a devotee has a spiritual experience that is different from what the pandits and gurus describe, he should go with his spiritual experience. In religious matters, spiritual experience takes precedence over formal explications. That single phrase "turning over in the deepest seat of consciousness" remains a spiritual staple of mine; and I don't worry much about how other people interpret things.

All of the above sutras appealed to me at just the right time. By that I mean, they contained information that I needed at a particular stage of my practice. Yet, dependable and loyal, they continue to stick with me.

The Flower Ornament is now my personal favorite because it feels so much like a finishing touch. It is a huge work and, like a collection of Krishnmurti's essays, belongs more on a bedside table than a library shelf. A few pages read before turning out the light will shut out the day's outward worries and open an inward door to the more important considerations of understanding and resolve that promote a peaceful and healing sleep.

When I read this sutra it is more as a pleasure than as a duty or a schooling experience. It has brought me to tears on more than one occasion, but for the life of me I can't tell you why. Jeweled skies, golden cities, emerald trees, flower ladened paths, alabaster houses without roofs, majestic mountains, and placid waters all somehow engage me in a feeling of remembrance of things to come. It is as fascinating as a campfire and as casual. This sutra is not one I'd recommend to beginners. You don't put that flower in your lapel until after you dress.

Yet, the sutra's allusions to fantastical realms seem to me to be bait that seduce a hungry mind into seizing and being seized by the Dharma's hook. Anyone who desires to be on the Path, who proceeds step by step in the enlightening Way, is instructed in the kindest of manners: "Great enlightening beings have ten kinds of pure tolerance," says the Sutra, going on to name them. "Pure tolerance that calmly endures slander and vilification in order to protect others; pure tolerance in calmly abiding weapons to protect self and others; pure tolerance in which anger and viciousness cannot arise since the mind is unshakable; pure tolerance that does not attack the low but is magnanimous when above; pure tolerance in saving all who come for refuge, giving up one's own life if necessary; pure tolerance that is free from conceit and does not slight the uncultivated; pure tolerance in not becoming angry at injury because of understanding the world's illusory nature; pure tolerance that does not revenge offenses because of seeing self in others; pure tolerance that is not afflicted by desires because of being detached from all objects; pure tolerance in knowing all things have no origin or end."

It is in passages like this - whether translated awkwardly or gracefully - that we come face to face with the elegant simplicity of Truth.

The Flower Ornament has the strange ability to take the reader back to the best of times past and forward to the best of times yet to come. There are, as we all know, a number of odd experiences that occur during deep meditation; and despite the fact that they are so vivid, it is always impossible to describe them in a meaningful way. Perhaps it is because they occur in parts of our mind in which language, itself, is transcended that we can never seem to put into words the joy, the awe, and the strangely exciting serenity we felt - and continue to feel after the meditation has ended. Maybe it is that the language of the Avatamsaka is so rich that it beggars our normal speech.

A year or so ago I learned that the Venerable Fo Yuan, the Abbot of Yun Men (Ummon) Temple, - the man Hsu Yun formally designated at the 13th Patriarch of that lineage, is also devoted to the Avatamsaka. I remember smiling to think of my "kinship" to a great master. "Well," I said aloud, "That makes two of us." I didn't need anyone to put an Imprimatur on my practice, but it pleased me to know that I wasn't alone out there in some spiritual left-field.

Reading the Sutra every evening is like drinking cool fresh water when your mouth is parched. Nothing else can satisfy a thirst in quite the same way.

And also, I love thinking in the kind of cosmological scenarios that the Flower Ornament describes. It just inspires me and makes me happy.

The Avatamsaka does not contain a hidden secret. There is no cryptic key that, once solved, will direct you to further adventure. It is not to be read or studied like a treasure map. It IS the treasure. When you read it you are already there. Gate! Gate! Paragaté! Parasamgaté! Bodhi Svaha.

Humming Bird
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