The Avatamsaka Sutra and Buddhist Tantra

There are two ways a person can go about understanding Buddhist teachings. One is to study the sutras and commentaries, to listen to teachers and try to make sense of what they are saying on an intellectual level. The other way is to practice in line with what has worked for people in the past, all the way back to the Founder of the Tradition. When someone takes this second path, and they start to get some results, their reference point is then their own experience.


I say this only by way of preface to what I’d like to shine a light on here, which is the meeting place of the Avatamsaka Sutra teachings and Tibetan Buddhist Tantra. Both of these have been written about extensively, from the academic and practical points of view, but I’ve not seen them described together, and so I have this motivation to say what I see as they ways they converge. Everything I’ll write here is just my own experience, of course, not backed up by any lineage or body of teaching, to my knowledge. I just thought it may be an interesting and potentially useful approach to the spiritual life, and so here goes.

When Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the Avatamsaka Realm, it’s from the perspective of someone who is describing his own experience:

“In the Avatamsaka realm, the first thing that you notice is that there is a lot of light…”

On retreat with Thay on the Avatamsaka and Lotus Sutras in 1993, he made it clear that there is a way to know what is talked about in these scriptures for ourselves. The first couple of days he had us practice, he said, as preparation for more than just hearing the words, but of experiencing these truths for ourselves. The preparatory practices, or ways into these experiences, on retreat or in our lives, are the practices of mindfulness, and insight, and of great love.

I came to understand what a great poet Thich Nhat Hanh is by seeing how his teachings have unfolded for me and his students over the years. Although he introduced these themes in a five day retreat, those familiar with his way of thinking could sense that his recommendation during that short retreat was really for our whole lives.

Without mindfulness, concentration, and insight, the mind stays on the surface of things, but with it, more and more of this reality reveals itself. Having great love for our own lives, the lives of others, and this world is also indispensable to having a more true vision. The light he speaks of as being everywhere in the poetically named Avatamsaka Realm is there because of our affection and appreciation, because the light in us is revealing the beauty and preciousness of all of life.

He goes on to say:

“The beings in that realm emit light, and if you are struck by one of the beams of light, you yourself begin to emit light as well…”

and this is exactly how the world interacts with us, and how we share our realization with one another, with language, with memory and inspiration; with a look, in our joy of living, and in the gentleness and generosity we show one another. Far from solid objects we pass around, this light moves through all kinds of mind made barriers, to reach us in profound ways. We then go on with this life, giving in myriad ways.

An interesting thing happened in Buddhism a few centuries after Shakyamuni gave the teachings preserved in the Pali Canon. Sutras began appearing that had what seem to be fantastic elements to them, mythologies and descriptions of divine realms that were absent or given little mention in the earlier dispensation. Why could that be? One reason is given by scholars, who look at things from the outside. They debate the suppression or advancement of doctrines from an external, historical point of view. Another approach, in line with what I said earlier, is from the perspective of someone who actually practices the teachings of the Historical Buddha.

As a result of taking up these teachings, a person is freed from the limitations of taking things to be what they are not, and, with love and compassion, more and more of what this life is is known and engaged with.
All those sutras – The Prajna Paramita, The Lotus Sutra, The Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra, and others, are describing the world as it is for someone with a degree of realization. Debate if you like, but I think that’s missing the point, and by a very wide margin.

So where does it leave us humble practitioners? On the level of theory, it all sounds wonderful, but what to do with that? How could any of this help us in our daily lives and practice? Here again is where a Guide is invaluable. These worlds are not just fancy descriptions of experiences we can have, but they have a point to them.

All of the Mahayana teachings turn on the vow to benefit others. That vow as it’s expressed is something much greater than the usual motivations we have, even when they are just and necessary in our time. The great Tibetan teacher, Yangthang Rinpoche, said that to think this world is the only one there is would be like looking through the eye of a needle and claiming that’s all there is. The needs are extensive in just this world that we see alone, but the vows we hear about and are encouraged to take up in the Mahayana cover all we can see and feel for, and all that we will see as we mature, and as our capacities develop.

Buddhism is made accessible, I know, by limiting it to what people need in their lives, and what they can think of as attainable goals, such as getting out of their own suffering. Beyond this though, we find just how much we are able help one another, and a change happens in how we hold this whole venture, of getting free, and becoming available to our family and the world. The emphasis changes to one of endless dedication, borne of love.

This is the starting point for Buddhist Tantra. They say we need the renunciation of lesser motives and those kinds of enjoyments that hold us back from fulfillment, the right view of ourselves and others and this world, and great love and compassion. These Three Principle Aspects of the Path provide the entry to practicing Buddhist Tantra.

What tantra shows us is essentially how a person with these realizations sees themselves and others and this world, how they live, and their qualities and activities.

In formal Tantric practice, there are intentionally created visualizations of pure lands, seeing ourselves and everything and everyone else as being divine and completely made of light; of inviting lineage teachers and Buddhas and Bodhisattavas and their blessings; and there is sending out light and blessings to meet the needs of beings in this world, and in other realms as well. All this is ‘performed’, we could say, during a vajrayana meditation. It is then dissolved, and one rests in clarity without concepts about self, others, and actions. We then dedicate the merit, and rise up to enter into our daily activities, all the while training in the recognition that what we just imagined in meditation is the way things actually are in themselves to an awakened person.

If poetry and symbol are not understood from the inside, then religious teachings are worse than useless. The forms of vajrayana practice – a being with a thousand arms, emitting light, for example – is then at best an object of external worship, and at worse it can be a source of division. Whole books can and should be written about poetry and prose in religion, but suffice it to say here that if we are not using our own experience as a reference point when viewing metaphorical teachings, we’re likely to get it wrong, and create problems. On the other hand, if spiritual imagery and metaphor, from any tradition, speaks to our own experience, it can only enhance our life and practice.

According to those who would take Buddhism and other religions just so far, our own salvation, and perhaps helping along a few others is enough to build a whole life’s practice around. An interesting thing happens though as we grow and mature, and as our vision becomes more clear, and that is, that our compassion and our willingness to help others gets stronger, and more extensive. We then quite naturally start to search out other ways to uphold and to encourage our precious family, all beings, everywhere, and whatever their circumstances.

We don’t really know just what we can accomplish until we experience healing and enlivening paths for ourselves, or until we meet someone who radically shifts our thinking about what is possible. When that happens though, we start to think about the whole matter of the spiritual life differently. It opens up brilliantly, and shows itself to be an endless path of learning and being of benefit.