400. The Dharmadhatsu

Nagajuna famously said trying to understand emptiness was like trying to pick up a poisonous snake. Without skill, you would be caught by the venom. And the most usual venom is nihilism. Poisonous Nothing.

It’s something which Buddhists have been accused of almost from the start: if everything is empty then nothing has any meaning. So we can do whatever we like. More broadly, emptiness, and hence buddhism, is attacked as a joyless pessimism—it’s vacuity, nothingness.

Buddhists have grappled mightily against this charge. One of the most profound refutations was by the Chinese Huayan School, those practitioners who focused on The Flower Garland Sutra and who primarily flourished in 7th Century T’ang dynasty China.

Their starting point is looking at the statement “form is emptiness and emptiness is form” in a different way. To just focus on the first part is unbalanced, we need to focus on both. If we do,  then everything: me, the wall, you, the trees, the birds; everything is, as it were, both form and emptiness.

Because emptiness is indivisible, like space or like the ocean, there isn’t a million billion bits of emptiness to correspond with the million billion forms, there’s just one emptiness. So every ‘thing’ – including you and me – is both particular and universal.

From that basic realisation they manifest a new world of interrelatedness and interdependence. Because emptiness reaches everywhere and is a fundamental aspect of form, of me and you, then, as it were, we penetrate everywhere, and so does everything else. And thus, everything, everywhere, interpenetrates me. This is the vision expressed in Indra’s Net.

In elucidating all of these ideas [and moving further away from erroneous conceptions of emptiness] they make use of the Chinese terms Li and Shi.

Li wasn’t originally a Buddhist term. It originally meant something like ‘underlying principle’. For example, that which causes the heavenly bodies to move predictably in the sky.

Shi is phenomena. Li and Shi completely interpenetrate, like form and emptiness, but without the nihilistic baggage that emptiness often seems to carry. 

The Huayan Masters adapt Li and Shi to fit within a re-envisioned buddhism, Li coming to mean something like emptiness and Shi something like form. The terms are usually translated into English as principle and phenomena, and they crop up all the time in the Chinese buddhist texts, for example, the Sandokai.

Their vision occurs in apparently nonsensical statements. Dogen, for example, talks about Mount Sumeru being contained within a mustard seed, which is a direct quote from The Flower Garland Sutra.  This interpenetration of everything is a radical restatement of dependent origination.

The particular innovation of the Hauyen school is to say not only that  form and emptiness don’t obstruct each other but  form and form don’t obstruct each other either.

The actualisation of this interpenetration and mutual non-obstruction they call the Dharmadhatu, The Buddha Realm. Zazen is often described as objectless meditation, but I don’t think that’s true. The Dharmadhatu, is the ‘object’ of meditation, while at the same time we, and everything else, are within it. That’s the real koan. And just as the Dharmadhatsu is like a body, so our body mind within Zazen is like the Dharmadhatu 

Excluding Nothing