Hu-Jan Nien-Ch'i (Suddenly a Thought Rose): Chinese Understanding of Mind and Consciousness

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Hu-Jan Nien-Ch'i (Suddenly a Thought Rose): Chinese Understanding of Mind and Consciousness
Citation: Lai, Whalen. "Hu-Jan Nien-Ch'i (Suddenly a Thought Rose): Chinese Understanding of Mind and Consciousness." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 3, no. 2 (1980): 42–59.

Article Summary

The Issue: In the Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna (Ta-ch'eng ch'i-hsin lun,b henceforth abbreviated as AFM), is found a unique explanation of the origin of avidyā, ignorance:
Hu-jan nien-ch'i, ming wei wu-mingc
Suddenly a thought rose; this is called ignorance

     This idea has baffled many modern scholars as it has traditionally charmed many a Far Eastern Buddhist. What is meant by "suddenly"? What constitutes "thought"? The most recent translator of the AFM, Yoshito Hakeda, has appended this remark to the passage:

There has been much discussion on the meaning of hu-jan in connection with the origin of ignorance, mainly on the basis of interpretations proposed by Fa-tsang,d (1) that ignorance alone becomes the source of defiled states of being. It is the subtlest; no other state of being can be the origin of this. It is therefore said in the text that ignorance emerges suddenly. (2) Commenting on a quotation from a sūtra, he says "suddenly" means "beginninglessly," since the passage quoted makes clear that there is no other state of being prior to the state of ignorance. (3) The word "suddenly" is not used from the stand point of time, but is used to account for the emergence of ignorance without any instance of inception.
. . . A monk of Minge China, glosses "suddenly" as pu-chüeh,f which may mean "unconsciously" or "without being aware of the reason."
. . . If hu-jan is a translation of a Sanskrit word, the original word asasmāt may be posited. Akasmāt means "without reason" or "accidentally."[1]
The above remark does not actually answer the question of the origin of the concept, hu-jan (suddenly) or the identity of nieng (thought). We become only more aware that hu-jan is one crucial justification for ch'anh (zen) "sudden enlightenment," itself a unique idea. Concerning the meaning of nien and wu-nieni (no-thought), I have shown in a related article that (a) Hakeda is not the first repeatedly to read nien as wang-nien,j vikalpa; Śikṣānanda's AFM was bothered by the same term; (b) but both managed to distort the original meaning; for (c) nien is rooted in a peculiar understanding in pre-Buddhist Han China.[2] Nien is the incipient thought, associated with yink that disrupts the (otherwise passive, yang,l mind. In this present article, I will cite more evidences—this time focusing upon the concepts of shih,m consciousness, and hu-jan, suddenness—to show again why the AFM cannot be fully understood without reference to the native mode of thought. (Lai, "Hu-Jan Nien Ch'i (Suddenly a Thought Rose)," 42–43)
  1. Yoshito Hakeda, trans., Awakening of Faith attributed to Aśvaghoṣa (New York: Columbia, 1967), pp. 50-51; passage on "suddenly a thought rose ... " in Taishō Daizōkyo (henceforth T.) 44, p. 577c of the Paramārtha text, 'interestingly edited off in the Śikṣānanda text, T. 44, p. 586a. See note 2 below.
  2. Whalen W. Lai, "A Clue to the Authorship of the Awakening of Faith: Siksananda's Redaction of the Word ' Nien' '."