Reflections of the Flowerbank World

The Avatamsaka Sutra in art

Dale S. Wright and Tom Wudl

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Detail from Unattached, Unbound, Liberated Kindness, 2013. Pencil, gouache, 22 karat gold, and gum arabic on rice paper.


The Flower Ornament Scripture (Sanskrit, Avatamsaka Sutra; Chinese, Huayan Jing) is one of the most influential of all Buddhist classic texts. Early Mahayana lore in Central and East Asia held that this sutra was the first teaching of the Buddha immediately following his awakening, and that because of its exalted origin, very few at the time could grasp its full meaning. Over the centuries, the Avatamsaka came to be considered one of the most profound of all Mahayana texts. In the 20th century, D. T. Suzuki, widely considered the most influential figure in the introduction of Zen Buddhism to the West, remarked that “Huayan [the school of thought based on the sutra] is the philosophy of Zen and Zen is the practice of Huayan.”

For many years, the Los Angeles–based artist Tom Wudl has been meditating on the Avatamsaka Sutra, slowly and carefully producing drawings and paintings inspired by it. Grounded in a daily meditative discipline that includes both silent meditation and contemplation of images in the sutra, Wudl’s art probes the depths of Buddhist visionary experience.

One of the primary themes in the Avatamsaka is the ultimate interdependence and interpenetration of all things. This theme appears in the sutra itself and in later commentaries as “the jeweled net of Indra,” a visual image of a net strewn through space with sparkling, multifaceted jewels hanging from each of its countless interstices. Because of the interreflection among jewels, the appearance of each jewel depends on the appearance of other jewels, just as all things in the world reflect the influence of other things. The implication of this is that each jewel—each object in the universe—“contains” the entire cosmos within it.

The Known Universe #2, 2012. Ink, silver leaf, gold powder, pencil, and gouache on rice paper and vellum.


The net linking all jewels together brings the complex interconnection between all things into visual display. In many of Wudl’s paintings, this net provides the background skein that ties all images in the work together into a cosmic totality...

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