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The Awakening of Faith: The Classic Exposition of Mahayana Buddhism

The Awakening of Faith: The Classic Exposition of Mahayana Buddhism

by Asvaghosa

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Comprehensive and coherent, this guide to a complex system of Buddhism is so authoritative that it has been employed in the instruction of Buddhist priests. Readers will find that it offers the keys to the essentials of Mahayana Buddhism, a liberal and theistic branch of the faith practiced chiefly in China and Japan.
Translated by the distinguished scholar Teitaro


Comprehensive and coherent, this guide to a complex system of Buddhism is so authoritative that it has been employed in the instruction of Buddhist priests. Readers will find that it offers the keys to the essentials of Mahayana Buddhism, a liberal and theistic branch of the faith practiced chiefly in China and Japan.
Translated by the distinguished scholar Teitaro Suzuki, the text discusses how humans can transcend their finite state to partake in the life of the infinite. Practices and techniques to assist believers in the awakening and growth of faith appear here, in addition to the most developed form of tathagata-garbha, or Buddha-matrix teachings.
This accessible work was written specifically for those who prefer a brief and pithy presentation to extensive discourse.

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The Awakening of Faith

The Classic Exposition of Mahayana Buddhism

By Asvaghosa, Teitaro Suzuki

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14877-9



ADORATION to the World-honored Ones (Bhagavat) in all the ten quarters, who universally produce great benefits, whose wisdom is infinite and transcendent, and who save and guard [all beings].

[Adoration] to the Dharma whose essence and attributes are like the ocean, revealing to us the principle of anâtman and forming the storage of infinite merits.

[Adoration] to the congregation (samgha) of those who assiduously aspire after perfect knowledge (samvaksambodhi).

That all beings (sarvasattva) may rid themselves of doubt, become free from evil attachment, and, by the awakening of faith (çraddha), inherit Buddha-seeds, I write this Discourse.


FOR the purpose of awakening in all beings a pure faith in the Mahâyâna, of destroying their doubts and attachment to false doctrines, and of affording them an uninterrupted inheritance of Buddha-seeds, I write this Discourse.

There is a principle whereby the root of faith in the Mahâyâna can be produced, and I shall explain it.

The explanation consists of five parts:

I. Introductory.

II. General Statement of Principles.

III. The Explanation Itself.

IV. The Practice of Faith.

V. Benefits [derived therefrom].


There are eight inducements [to write this Discourse]:

1. A general object, i. e., that the author might induce all beings to liberate themselves from misery and to enjoy blessing, and not that he might gain thereby some worldly advantages, etc.

2. That he might unfold the fundamental truth of the Tathâgata and let all beings have a right comprehension of it.

3. That he might enable those who have brought their root of merit (kuçalamûla) to maturity and obtained immovable faith, to have a philosophical grasp of the doctrine of the Mahâyâna.

4. That he might enable those whose root of merit is weak and insignificant, to acquire faith and to advance to the stage of immovable firmness (avaivartikatva).

5. That he might induce all beings to obliterate the previously acquired evils (durgati or karmâvarana), to restrain their own thoughts, and to free themselves from the three venomous passions.

6. That he might induce all beings to practise the orthodox method of cessation [or tranquilisation çamatha] and of intellectual insight (vidarçana), to be fortified against the commission of mental trespasses due to inferiority of mind.

7. That he might induce all beings in the right way to ponder on the doctrine of the Mahâyâna, for thus they will be born in the presence of Buddhas, and acquire the absolutely immovable Mahâyâna-faith.

8. That he might, by disclosing those benefits which are produced by joyfully believing in the Mahâyâna, let sentient beings become acquainted with the final aim of their efforts.

Though all these doctrines are sufficiently set forth in the Mahâyâna Sûtras, yet as the predispositions and inclinations of the people are not the same, and the conditions for obtaining enlightenment vary, I now write this Discourse.

There is another reason for doing so. At the time of the Tathâgata the people were unusually gifted, and the Buddha's presence, majestic both in mind and body, served to unfold the infinite significances of the Dharma with simplicity and yet in perfection. Accordingly there was no need for a philosophical discourse (çâstra).

After the Nirvâna of the Buddha there were men who possessed in themselves the intellectual power to understand the many-sided meanings of the Sûtras, even if they read only a few of them. There were others who by their own intellectual powers could understand the meanings of the Sûtras only after an extensive reading of many of them. Still others lacking in intellectual powers of their own could understand the meanings of the Sûtras only through the assistance of elaborate commentaries. But there are some who, lacking in intellectual powers of their own, shun the perusal of elaborate commentaries and take delight in studying and cultivating enquiries which present the many-sidedness and universality of the doctrine in a concise form.

For the sake of the people of the last class I write this Discourse, in which the most excellent, the deepest, and the most inexhaustible Doctrine of the Tathâgata will be treated in comprehensive brevity.


In what does the general statement consist?

The Mahâyâna can be briefly treated as to two aspects, namely, What it is, and What it signifies.

What is the Mahâyâna? It is the soul of all sentient beings (sarvasattva), that constitutes all things in the world, phenomenal and supra-phenomenal; and through this soul we can disclose what the Mahâyâna signifies.

Because the soul in itself, involving the quintessence of the Mahâyâna, is suchness (bhûtatathatâ), but it becomes [in its relative or transitory aspect, through the law of causation] birth-and-death (samsâra) in which are revealed the quintessence, the attributes, and the activity of the Mahâyâna.

The Mahâyâna has a triple significance.

The first is the greatness of quintessence. Because the quintessence of the Mahâyâna as suchness exists in all things, remains unchanged in the pure as well as in the defiled, is always one and the same (samatâ), neither increases nor decreases, and is void of distinction.

The second is the greatness of attributes. Here we have the Tathâgata's womb (tathâgatagarbha) which in exuberance contains immeasurable and innumerable merits (punya) as its characteristics.

The third is the greatness of activity, for it [i. e., Mahâyâna] produces all kinds of good work in the world, phenomenal and supra-phenomenal. [Hence the name Mahâyâna. (great vehicle).]

[Again this Dharma is called the Mahâyâna;] because it is the vehicle (yâna) in which all Buddhas from the beginning have been riding, and Bodhisattvas when riding in it will enter into the state of Buddhahood.


In what does the explanation of the general statement consist?

This part consists of three subdivisions:

1. The Revelation of the True Doctrine.

2. The Refutation of False Doctrines.

3. The Practice of the Right Path.

1. The Revelation of the True Doctrine.

In the one soul we may distinguish two aspects. The one is the Soul as suchness (bhûtatathatâ), the other is the soul as birth-and-death (samsâra). Each in itself constitutes all things, and both are so closely interrelated that one cannot be separated from the other.

A. The Soul as Suchness.

What is meant by the soul as suchness (bhûtatathatâ), is the oneness of the totality of things (dharmadhâtu), the great all-including whole, the quintessence of the Doctrine. For the essential nature of the soul is uncreate and eternal.

All things, simply on account of our confused subjectivity (smrti), appear under the forms of individuation. If we could overcome our confused subjectivity, the signs of individuation would disappear, and there would be no trace of a world of [individual and isolated] objects.

Therefore all things in their fundamental nature are not namable or explicable. They cannot be adequately expressed in any form of language. They are without the range of apperception. [They are universals.] They [things in their fundamental nature] have no signs of distinction. [They are not particulars.] They possess absolute sameness (samatâ). [They are universals.] They are subject neither to transformation, nor to destruction. They are nothing but the one soul, for which suchness is another designation. Therefore they cannot be [fully] explained by words or exhausted by reasoning.

While all words and expressions are nothing but representations and not realities, and their existence depends simply on our confused subjectivity, suchness has no attribute [of particularity] to speak of. But the term suchness is all that can be expressed in language, and through this term all other terms may be disposed of.

In the essence of suchness, there is neither anything which has to be excluded, nor anything which has to be added.

Now the question arises: If that be so, how can all beings conform to and have an insight into [suchness]?

The answer is: As soon as you understand that when the totality of existence is spoken of, or thought of, there is neither that which speaks nor that which is spoken of, there is neither that which thinks nor that which is thought of; then you conform to suchness; and when your subjectivity is thus completely obliterated, it is said to have the insight.

Again there is a twofold aspect in suchness if viewed from the point of its explicability. The first is trueness as negation (çûnyatâ), in the sense that it is completely set apart from the attributes of all things unreal, that it is the real reality. The second is trueness as affirmation (açûnyatâ), in the sense that it contains infinite merits, that it is self-existent.

And again by trueness as negation we mean that in its [metaphysical] origin it has nothing to do with things defiled [i. e., conditional], that it is free from all signs of distinction existing among phenomenal objects, that it is independent of unreal, particularising consciousness.

Thus we understand that suchness (bhûtalathatâ) is neither that which is existence, nor that which is non-existence, nor that which is at once existence and non-existence, nor that which is not at once existence and non-existence; that it is neither that which is unity, nor that which is plurality, nor that which is at once unity and plurality, nor that which is not at once unity and plurality.

In a word, as suchness cannot be comprehended by the particularising consciousness of all beings, we call it the negation [or nothingness, çûnyatâ].

The truth is that subjectivity does not exist by itself, that the negation (çûnyatâ) is also void (çûnya) in its nature, that neither that which is negated [viz., the external world] nor that which negates [viz., the mind] is an independent entity.

By the so-called trueness as affirmation, we mean that [as soon as we understand] subjectivity is empty and unreal, we perceive the pure soul manifesting itself as eternal, permanent, immutable and completely comprising all things that are pure. On that account we call it affirmation [or reality, or non-emptiness, açûnyatâ]. Nevertheless, there is no trace of affirmation in it, because it is not the product of a confused subjectivity, because only by transcending subjectivity (smrti) can it be grasped.

b. The Soul as Birth-and-Death.

The soul as birth-and-death (samsâra) comes forth [as the law of causation] from the Tathâgata's womb (Tathâgatagarbha). But the immortal [i. e., suchness] and the mortal [i. e., birth-and-death] coincide with each other. Though they are not identical, they are not a duality. [Thus when the absolute soul assumes a relative aspect by its self-affirmation] it is called the all-conserving mind (âlaya-vijñâna).

The same mind has a twofold significance as the organiser and the producer of all things.

Again it embraces two principles: (1) Enlightenment; (2) Non-enlightenment.

Enlightenment is the highest quality of the mind; it is free from all [the limiting] attributes of subjectivity (smrti). As it is free from all [limiting] attributes of subjectivity, it is like unto space (âkâça), penetrating everywhere, as the unity of all (dharmadhâtu). That is to say, it is the universal Dharmakâya of all Tathâgatas.

On account of this Dharmakâya, all Tathâgatas are spoken of as abiding in enlightenment a priori.

Enlightenment a priori is contrasted with enlightenment a posteriori. Through enlightenment a posteriori is gained no more than enlightenment a priori.

Now we speak of enlightenment a posteriori; because there is enlightenment a priori, there is non-enlightenment, and because there is non-enlightenment we can speak of enlightenment a posteriori.

Again, when the mind is enlightened as to its own ultimate nature, it is called perfect enlightenment; when it is not enlightened as to its ultimate nature, it is not perfect enlightenment.

Common people (prthagjana), who, becoming conscious of errors that occur in a succession of their mental states, abstain from making conclusions, may be spoken of as enlightened; but in reality theirs is non-enlightenment.

Çrâvakas, Pratyekabuddhas, and those Bodhisattvas who have just entered their course, recognising the difference between subjectivity and the trans-scending of subjectivity both in essence and attributes, have become emancipated from the coarse form of particularisation. This is called enlightenment in appearance.

Bodhisattvas of the Dharmakâya, having recognised that subjectivity and the transcending of subjectivity have no reality of their own [i. e., are relative], have become emancipated from the intermediate form of particularisation. This is called approximate enlightenment.

Those who have transcended the stage of Bodhisattvahood and attained the ultimate goal, possess a consciousness which is consistent and harmonious; they have recognised the origin from which consciousness [or mentation] starts. This will truly be called enlightenment.

Having transcended the attributes of enlightenment and the subtlest form of particularisation, they [i. e., Buddhas] have gained a perfect and eternal insight into the very nature of the soul [i. e., suchness], because the latter now presents itself to them in its absolute and immutable form. Therefore they are called Tathâgatas, and theirs is perfect enlightenment; and therefore it is said in the Sûtra that those who have an insight into the non-reality of all subjectivity, attain to the wisdom of the Tathâgata.

In the preceding statement we referred to the origin from which consciousness [or mentation] starts according to the popular expression. In truth there is no such thing as the origin of consciousness [or mentation]; for consciousness [being purely subjective] has no absolute [but only a phenomenal] existence. How can we then speak of its origin?

The multitude of people (bahujana) are said to be lacking in enlightenment, because ignorance (avidya) prevails there from all eternity, because there is a constant succession of confused subjective states (smrti) from which they have never been emancipated.

But when they transcend their subjectivity, they can then recognise that all states of mentation, viz., their appearance, presence, change, and disappearance [in the field of consciousness] have no [genuine] reality. They are neither in a temporal nor in a spatial relation with the one soul, for they are not self-existent.

When you understand this, you also understand that enlightenment a posteriori cannot be manufactured, for it is no other thing than enlightenment a priori [which is uncreate and must be discovered].

And again enlightenment a priori, when implicated in the domain of defilement [i. e., relativity], is differentiated into two kinds of attributes:

(1) Pure wisdom (prajñâ?); (2) Incomprehensible activity (karma?).

By pure wisdom we understand that when one, by virtue of the perfuming power of the Dharma, disciplines himself truthfully [i. e., according to the Dharma], and accomplishes meritorious deeds, the mind [i. e., âlaya-vijñâna] which implicates itself with birth-and-death will be broken down, and the modes of the evolving-consciousness will be annulled; while the pure and genuine wisdom of the Dharmakâya manifests itself.

Though all modes of consciousness and mentation are mere products of ignorance, ignorance in its ultimate nature is identical and not-identical with enlightenment a priori; and therefore ignorance in one sense is destructible, while in the other sense it is indestructible.

This may be illustrated by [the simile of] the water and the waves which are stirred up in the ocean. Here the water can be said to be identical [in one sense] and not-identical [in the other sense] with the waves. The waves are stirred up by the wind, but the water remains the same. When the wind ceases, the motion of the waves subsides; but the water remains the same.

Likewise, when the mind of all creatures which in its own nature is pure and clean, is stirred up by the wind of ignorance (avidya), the waves of mentality (vijñâna) make their appearance. These three [i. e., the mind, ignorance, and mentality], however, have no [absolute] existence, and they are neither unity nor plurality.

But the mind though pure in its essence is the source of the awakened [or disturbed] mentality. When ignorance is annihilated, the awakened mentality is tranquilised, whilst the essence of the wisdom remains unmolested.

Incomprehensible activity which we know proceeds from pure wisdom, uninterruptedly produces all excellent spiritual states. That is to say, the personality (kâya) of the Tathâgata, which in exuberance contains immeasurable and ever-growing merits, reveals itself to all beings according to their various predispositions [or characters], and accomplishes for them innumerable [spiritual] benefits.


Excerpted from The Awakening of Faith by Asvaghosa, Teitaro Suzuki. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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