Like the Lotus school, the Flower Garland school is an example of a school basing its identity on a particular text. With hundreds of Sutra texts to choose from, schools based upon singular texts assert a strong statement relating to the veracity, profundity, and breadth of their schools’ source material. The school and its foundational text illustrate the profound contribution of Chinese thought to the development of Buddhism. The Flower Garland school and its foundational text the Flower Garland Sutra are no different. Other important texts in the school include Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, the Descent into Lanka Sutra, and the Lotus Sutra.

Founded by Tu-shun (557-640) and developed by Fa-tsang (643-712)1, the Flower Garland school upholds the teaching of the Dharma Realm and its interpenetrative nature as the ultimate reality. All things are interrelated and interpenetrated in the Dharma Realm of the Flower Garland school and its eponymous foundational text. This concept is sometimes visualized as a matrix, or net, in which all things contain some aspect of all other things. The Dharma Realm is the representation of reality that is seen to fully enlightened being. A Buddha or Bodhisattva with penetrating wisdom sees the unity and totality of all things as represented by the Dharma Realm.

The totalism of the Flower Garland school embraces four varieties of causation, which precede from the complex and universal to the simple and sublime: causation through Dependent Origination (also called action-influence), causation through Storehouse Consciousness (also called ideation-store), causation through the Buddha-Nature (also called the matrix of the thus-come), and finally, causation through the Dharma Realm.2  The universal principle of causation Dependent Origination relates to action creating action, and, since action is preceded by thought, the Storehouse Consciousness is at the root of actions.  Further, the seed of Budda-hood (Buddha-Nature), is within the Storehouse Consciousness.  Buddha-Nature’s matrix, with its pure and impure energy, manifest as birth and death and good and evil.  The ‘thusness’ at the root of the original term for Buddha-Nature refers to the ‘thusness’ which pervades all things (the thusness of which all things pervade).  The Dharma Realm principle refers to the collective creation of all things by all beings and is nothing less than the truth of the universe creating itself.

The Totalistic principle of the Kegon School was developed chiefly in China. It is indeed a glory of the learned achievements of Chinese Buddhism.3

The Flower Garland school’s classifications of Buddhist doctrine4 reflects its reverence for the concept of totality:

  • The Doctrine of the Small Vehicle (Hinayana, or Original Wisdom):  This doctrine admits the existence of all separate elements (dharmas) and hold that Nirvana is equal to elimination.  Causation is explained purely by Dependent Origination.
  • The Elementary Doctrine of the Great Vehicle (Mahayana):  Two primary strains emerge in basic Mahayana thought:  Idealism and Negationism.  The Idealists favor the Storehouse Consciousness as the primary factor in causation and admit that not all human beings can attain Nirvana.  The Negationists believe that the lack of ongoing, essential being is the truth of existence, and, by implication, agree that all human beings can attain this understanding and achieve Nirvana.  The Negationists, in their understanding that Nirvana is attainable to all humans, are close to the final doctrine of the Mahayana.
  • The Final Doctrine of the Great Vehicle (Mahayana):  This is the belief that all beings possess Buddha-Nature and can become enlightened (or attain Nirvana).  
  • The Abrupt Doctrine of the Great Vehicle:  Enlightenment is attainable without teaching.  Pure reason emerges within someone without a doctrine being presented to them.
  • The Round Doctrine of the Great Vehicle:  The totalistic doctrine which encompasses all other teachings.  The Round Doctrine is also called the One Vehicle (ekayāna), which encompasses the other three vehicles, which are: the Small (Original Wisdom), the Gradual (the elementary Mahayana (Yogachara) and the final Mahayana (Madhyamaka and the concept of all humans possessing Buddha-Nature)), and the Abrupt (Zen).

Samantabhadra: The Paragon of Practice and Meditation

Samantabhadra is an important bodhisattva to many Buddhist traditions. However, it is in the Flower Garland Sutra in which he is the model for bodhisattvas everywhere. He is typically portrayed along with the Shakyamuni Buddha and Manjushri.  He is also associated with Vairochana.  He is particularly important to the Tendai and Kegon traditions.  Samantabhadra appears in the final chapter of the Lotus Sutra to vow to the Buddha that he will protect anyone who preserves and teaches the Lotus Sutra.  Thus, Tendai practitioners might have Samantabhadra to thank for their possession and reverence of their foundational text.  Further, in the Flower Garland Sutra, the Buddha proclaims that Samantabhadra made ten vows on his way to achieving full Buddhahood.

Vairochana: The Primordial Buddha

While Samantabhadra is an ideal Bodhisattva to the Flower Garland school, Vairochana is its central figure. Vairochana is a celestial Buddha from which all other bodies emerge. He is the Dharma body from which the historical Buddha emanated. This dharma body is tantamount to emptiness. The Flower Garland Sutra‘s labyrinthine, kaleidoscopic presentation of the manifold nature of reality holds Vairochana to be at its center. Vairochana is viewed similarly by the Shingon and Tendai schools. An entire chapter of the Flower Ornamenr Scripture is devoted to the various praises bestowed upon Vairochana Buddha by various bodhisattvas and other honorable celestial beoings.