Monday, July 1, 2019

The Awakening of Faith attributed to Asvaghosha (Buddhist Text)

"The Awakening of Faith" is a probable Chinese origin Mahayana Buddhist text likely composed between 400-600ce. However it is attributed to Asvaghosha (80-150ce), so you can already see the complicating factors. It is considered a keystone treatise on "suchness," and deservedly so, but it is not without its flaws. The version I read was translated by Yoshito S. Hakeda and published by Columbia University Press in 1967. There are many versions out there (seeming print on demand reprints of another translator's version), but you can get this one used for cheap!

"The Awakening of Faith" is sometimes titled "Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana." In this case, one should not mistake Mahayana in the title with the sect of Buddhism bearing that name. Here, it is another term for "suchness" or "thusness." At its core, The Awakening of Faith is a brisk treatise that connects suchness with the tathagatagarbha and the wisdom literature. For that alone, it was well worth the read.By way of "quick," and imperfect explanation of terms:

Suchness/Thusness - The ultimate state of non-discrimination/non-differentiation where one is perfectly in tune with the absolute nature of existence while simultaneously rejoicing in the perfection and perfect imperfection of each moment without longing or clinging to that moment. It has often been likened to the feeling that "this, as it is right now, this is as it should be." The goal of Mahayana Buddhism is to live in a state of suchness in all moments, no matter what is occurring, to find that radical acceptance without attachment.

The Tathagatagarbha - translated in many ways including the womb or seed of the Buddha, the Tathagatagarbha is the buddha-nature, the perfectly enlightened existence, that is the true essence of each sentient being and thus the only thing about a being which can be said to be true in absolute reality. One could look at it as saying that we are all already a buddha but that we are so clouded by ignorance that we must undo that ignorance through the four noble truths and eightfold path to return to the perfectly enlightened state that is our true and only essence.

The Wisdom Literature - this is the prajnaparamita, alternately translated as the perfection of wisdom, this is a body of sutras and commentaries - highlighted perhaps by the Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom and Nagarjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. The wisdom literature focuses on two features: 1) the Bodhisattva path and 2) the concept of no-self or emptiness of absolute existence.

The Bodhisatva path is that of one who has committed fully to reach enlightenment but has delayed the final stage in order to ceaselessly work to bring all other sentient beings into enlightenment. A Bodhisatva does what they do for the benefit of all sentient beings.

The idea of "no-self," or emptiness of absolute existence, posits that there is the ultimate (absolute) reality and the conventional (phenomenal) reality. In ultimate reality, nothing has an own-self, all dharmas are devoid of any inherent existence. They exist only due to causes and conditions (dependent origination, if this, then that, if not this, then not that - a table is not a table, but is the wood and work and knowledge and time, the wood is not wood, but is the reconstituted molecules...). Also, there is no self because things are not static over time. They do not come in the world one way and cease all in an instant without ever changing. From the moment something is created (due to causes and conditions) it is constantly changing and deteriorating, thus there is no absolute, immutable, and unchanging existence to any dharma.

The conventional reality is that which we observe through our senses. It exists only in that we determine it exists by experiencing it, by differentiating one thing from another, yet since nothing has an own-self, all things are fundamentally the same in their ultimate reality - all things are non-self.

The beauty of the prajnaparamita (and Nagarjuna's work) is that fundamentally there is no distinction between ultimate and conventional reality. While there is no ongoing inherent existence (such as a soul) that comes into being on its own or lives after death (because all things come about through causes and conditions), there is also very clearly that which our senses perceive. There is no denial of the existence of conventional reality. The wisdom literature stresses that it is only our ignorance and need to differentiate between ultimate and conventional reality that we even see those as two different things. So we know that nothing has an eternal existence, things only exist due to causes and conditions, but we also know that things do exist, we can touch and taste and smell them, so where do we go from here?

That is the focus of Awakening the Faith. It ties together these three concepts. Suchness is the work's focus, and is explained here as being the state of absolute non-discrimination, including non-discrimination between ultimate and conventional reality. At the same time, it makes clear that in ultimate reality, sentient beings are defined at their only true essence as the tathagatagarbha, the inherent buddha-nature. That buddha-nature is not a thing, because in the ultimate reality there are no dharmas, dharmas are empty of own-self. The tathagatagarbha thus also has no own-self. Instead, it is the undefiled state of existing in suchness that is the pre-deluded no-self.

But we must acknowledge conventional reality, where we use our senses and know things exist phenomenally. But we know that those things did not spring into being as an immutable essence. Instead, they exist due to causes and conditions, thus dependent on everything else (an elaboration on dependent origination), and defined in the conventional reality by what they are and are not (discrimination).

Dharmas have no own-self, but dharmas also do exist conventionally, got it. But at the same time, in ultimate existence their "self" (essence) is no-self. That no-self is the tathagatagarbha, a perfectly unfettered capacity for enlightenment. And what is enlightenment? It is existing in suchness at all times in all ways such that one does not see a difference between ultimate and conventional reality, for there is not only non-duality (between conventional and ultimate reality) but there is not non-duality because there are not two things to be non-dual with. It is the non-dual nature combined with the not non-duality of conventional and ultimate reality as embodied by suchness that is the central teaching in The Awakening of Faith.

The Awakening of Faith is therefore profoundly important in Mahayana Buddhism. But it is not without its complications, as mentioned in the first paragraph. First, due to the suspect authorship (although historically attributing things to long-dead people was not seen as problematic) there is some speculation that aspects of the text have been added at a later date. Some of these are quite clear where the tone shifts dramatically even to the point of being more propogandistic than truth oriented.

There are also many passages that belittle Hinayana Buddhists. If there is anything in Mahayana texts that bothers me, it is when it disparages other approaches to Buddhism. That just seems fundamentally at odds with the purpose and spirit of Buddhist practice. However, some of these may be later additions to the text or through translation may come off more critical than intended. I cannot read it in the original language to know.

The text is also very brief (100 pages) given the complexity and importance of its topic. It was meant to be used as a teaching tool by those familiar with many other sutras and commentaries and thus would be able to expound upon this text through direct instruction. Reading it on your own, you might be best situated if you've read many other Mahayana texts rather than making this your first one. As I mentioned, it really does tie together many other streams of Mahayana teaching.

The translation felt stiff to me. Some of that could be that it was translated in the 1960s, some could be the style of the translator, and some could be the actual root text. The text didn't sing to me, but the words were still important. Although, as I am prone to like to remind, even the Buddha said that the texts, his words, are not the Dharma. The Dharma is a lived experience and this text should be looked at as one tool to help a person arrive at living that experience. The commentaries and notes in this edition were very helpful and frequently reference other critical texts including Nagarjuana's work and the wisdom literature as well as several commentaries on The Awakening of Faith.

All in all, it was a valuable read for me, as it did get me thinking about "suchness" in a much more complete way. I had always thought of it as a state of being in the moment of absolute insight into the ultimate reality while simultaneously taking joy in the "rightness" of the moment in a conventional sense. But getting there is tough, and by combining tathagatagarbha literature and wisdom literature, Awakening the Faith provides a critical step forward on my path at integrating all these streams.

If you've been reading a lot of Mahayana literature and you haven't read this, then I do recommend it, as imperfect as parts are, the overall concept is extraordinary. However, if you're a relative newbie to this, then start with some short Mahayana sutras as well as the first discourse (you can't go wrong there). Work your way up into the prajnaparamita sutras and Nagarjuna's work, then Awakening the Faith will pull it all together.


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