On the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna

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On the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna
Alex Gardner
Original content written for the Buddha-Nature Project.



The Treatise on the Awakening of Faith according to the Mahāyāna (Dasheng qixin lun 大乗起信論) is an immensely important treatise popular in all traditions of Buddhism in East Asia. It was written in China in the middle of the sixth century, heavily influenced by Indian Yogācāra and tathāgatagarbha teachings, providing a scriptural foundation for both buddha-nature theory and the doctrine of original enlightenment. The text synthesized tathāgatagarbha and ālayavijñāna theories to explain how the mind is the source for both enlightenment and ignorance. A relatively short text at just nine pages, it lucidly, if densely, explains important topics such as the nature of mind and consciousness and the threefold bodies of the Buddha, concluding with elegant meditation instructions.

The Awakening of Faith famously posits the notion of "one mind" that has two aspects: the absolute, which is equivalent to tathāgatagarbha, and the phenomenal, which is ālayavijñāna. The second aspect, the "storehouse consciousness," is used to explain the possibility of ignorance—thought (nian 念) arises "suddenly" from the one mind to fracture all the world into conceptual phenomena, leaving all beings in a state of nonenlightenment. Yet all such ignorance is mere delusion; it does not stain the true nature, which is buddha-nature (tathāgatagarbha), or original enlightenment (benjue 本覺). The process of realizing one's true nature leads one to the state of actualized enlightenment (shijue 始覺), which is no different in principle from original enlightenment. The Awakening of Faith explains:

Grounded in the original enlightenment is nonenlightenment. And because of nonenlightenment, the process of actualization of enlightenment can be spoken of.[1]

The relationship among mind, thought, and ignorance is famously illustrated by the metaphor of the ocean and its waves. Just as wind creates waves on the ocean, ignorance creates thought in the mind. The wind cannot change the nature of the ocean's water; whether agitated or still, the water remains wet. In the same way, ignorance cannot change the nature of mind. It stirs up the mind into thoughts, but just as the waves are also wet, the mind and its thoughts remain by nature enlightened. When ignorance ceases, the natural state of mind is revealed.

The treatise is divided into five sections. The first contains the author's statement of purpose, in which he gives eight reasons for composing the text. The second part contains a summary in the form of an outline of the subsequent sections. Part three contains the philosophical discussion of the nature of mind and its two aspects, touching on important points of doctrine such as the three bodies of the Buddha and suchness. Part four is dedicated to five meditation practices, and their benefits are described in section five. In all sections the author puts his own voice in dialogue with an implied audience, clarifying points of doctrine in a question-and-answer format.

Authorship and Editions

There are two versions of the Awakening of Faith in the East Asian Buddhist canon, the more popular of which is the Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō.[2] The first version, T1666, is traditionally believed to have been composed by the second-century Indian poet Aśvaghoṣa and translated in 550 or 553 by the sixth-century Indian monk Paramārtha (499–569), who arrived in China in 547. However, doubts over both men's involvement arose almost as soon as the text appeared. Aśvaghoṣa is credited as the first poet of the kāvya style, and in his three surviving works there is no hint of Mahāyāna theories. The preface to the sixth-century translation credited to Paramārtha was a later addition and contains multiple anachronisms. As explained by Tarocco, it was deemed "dubious" (yi 疑) in a catalog of Indian translations written in 594. Not all readers accepted this judgment, however, and it was definitely (at least until the modern era) overturned in the influential eighth-century Record of Buddhist Scriptures of the Kaiyuan Reign (Kaiyuan Shijiao lu 開元釋教錄).[3]

The current international scholarly consensus is that the Awakening of Faith was composed in China.[4] The debate continues, however, as to whether it was composed in Sanskrit by an Indian or in Chinese by a native teacher or perhaps even composed in Chinese by an Indian translator. Scholars have pointed to indigenous Chinese theories in the text to argue for a Chinese original, while others have argued that there is evidence that the author was well acquainted with the tathāgatagarbha literature summarized in the Ratnagotravibhāga. Some scholars have suggested that Paramārtha himself might have been the author.[5]

A second Chinese recension titled A New Translation of the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna (T1667, Xinyi Dasheng qixin lun 新譯大乘起信論) was, according to its introduction, produced around the year 700 by the Khotanese monk Śikṣānanda (652–710), then famous for his new translation of the Avataṃsakasūtra. He allegedly brought an Indian original of the Awakening of Faith to China with him and also located a second Sanskrit manuscript in China. As told by Hakeda, other sources claim that the Sanskrit version Śikṣānanda found in China was in fact a translation made by the great Chinese adventurer Xuanzang (玄奘 602–664), completed in India at the request of priests there. Śikṣānanda's version, Hakeda notes, "was obviously done with constant reference to the older version, from which it borrows words, phrases, or whole clauses with little or no modification."[6]Whalen Lai has argued that this second version is actually a revision made by followers of Xuanzang's short-lived Yogācāra school, done to make the text conform to orthodoxy.[7]

The Awakening of Faith proved influential from the very start. The first commentary appeared in 580, written by the monk Tanyan (516–588 曇延),[8] and was followed over the centuries by more than 170 others written in China, Japan, and Korea by some of the great religious leaders of East Asian Buddhism. Jingying Huiyuan (523–592 淨影慧遠) wrote an early commentary that contributed to the development of the Southern Dilun school (南地論宗) to which he belonged.[9] Jingying Huiyuan also composed an important commentary on the Sūtra on the Visualization of Amitābha (Guan Wuliangshou Jing 觀無量壽經 *Amitāyudhyānasūtra), one of three foundational scriptures for the Pure Land tradition, and in fact the Awakening of Faith may have influenced early Pure Land practice, containing as it does a quotation from an unidentified sūtra advocating for Amitābha practice as a means to salvation.[10]

The Chan patriarch Shenxiu (神秀 606?–706), the leader of the Northern school (beinzong 北宗) of Chan 禪, wrote a commentary on the Awakening of Faith and made it part of his tradition's curriculum. Although polemical histories of Chan define the Northern school as following the "gradual path" (jianwu 漸悟) to enlightenment in place of the "sudden path" (dunwu 頓悟) embraced by the Southern school (nanzong 南宗), things were not so simple. The monk Heshang Moheyan 和尚摩訶衍, who represented the sudden path in the famous Samye Debate in Tibet, for example, belonged to the Northern school. The great Korean monk Wǒnhyo (617–686 元曉), one of the major figures in the spread of Buddhism in Korea, also composed a commentary, making the Awakening of Faith a key text in that country's Buddhist traditions. Wǒnhyo believed the Awakening of Faith to have been a commentary on the Vajrasamādhisūtra, which itself has been shown to be a Korean composition.[11] A commentary by a man named Nāgārjuna 龍樹, about whom nothing is known, inspired thirty-six subcommentaries and was used by the Japanese monk Kukai (774–835 空海), the founder of the tantric Shingon school 真言宗. Kukai used it in his systematization of doctrine and required his students to study it, thereby making it a key scripture in Shingon.

It played an even more central role in the establishment of the Huayan school 華嚴宗, one of the major Buddhist traditions of China. Fazang (643–712 法藏), the founder of the tradition and its reputed third patriarch, studied the Avataṃsakasūtra as a youth; as a third-generation immigrant from Sogdiana in Central Asia, he was fluent in several languages from the region. He assisted Śikṣānanda (the same monk who is said to have retranslated the Awakening of Faith) and Yijing (635–713 義淨) in their translation of the Avataṃsakasūtra in 699 and used it and the Awakening of Faith to develop Huayan's central doctrine of the interpenetration of all phenomena.[12] Huayan, while not formally a Yogācāra school, absorbed the Dilun tradition and used positive language to describe ultimate reality. Much of its vocabulary was drawn from indigenous Chinese traditions, such as "principle" (li 理) and "phenomena" (shi 事), which largely replaced the terms "emptiness" and "form" in Huayan and Chan tracts. Fazang's commentary, which among other things divided all of Buddhism into four—Hīnayāna, Mahāyāna, Yogācāra, and Tathāgatagarbha—is considered the definitive commentary, the basis for all subsequent compositions on the text.[13] Zongmi (780–841宗密), Huayan's fifth patriarch, further expanded the role of the Awakening of Faith in Huayan's doctrine, to the point of elevating it above the Avataṃsakasūtra.[14]


The Awakening of Faith was first translated into a European language in 1900 by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1870–1966). It was published in Chicago by Open Court Press, with a publisher's preface by Paul Carus, the managing editor of the press (and the son-in-law of its founder, the German-American zinc magnate Edward C. Hegeler). Carus had only six years earlier published the influential Gospel of Buddhism, which played a large role in popularizing Buddhism in the early twentieth century. Suzuki intended his translation to further disseminate Buddhism in the West and to defend it from its critics.[15] Sensitive to the current Western preference for Sanskrit and Pāli Buddhist scriptures, Suzuki dedicated the first forty-one pages of his introduction to the life of Aśvaghoṣa; it was still several decades before scholars would begin to doubt the attribution. Suzuki translated from the second version of the Awakening of Faith, T1667, a decision that he did not explain. In contrast to the scores of commentaries on T1666, there exist only three commentaries on this version, all written in the seventeenth century by the same man, a monk named Ouyi Zhixu (智旭 1599–1655). Tarocco reasonably surmises that T1667, because the indigenous Chinese elements of the original had been revised out, offered Suzuki a better option for presenting the text as a work of classical Indian Buddhism.[16]

Seven years after Suzuki's translation was published—although it apparently was completed more than a decade earlier—the British Baptist missionary Timothy Richard (1845–1919) published his rendering of the Awakening of Faith under the title The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana Doctrine: The New Buddhism. By "the new Buddhism" he meant "a form of Christianity." As explained by Tarocco, by the time of his translation Richard had lived in China for close to twenty years, writing pamphlets in Chinese in an attempt to convince Chinese elites of the material benefits of Christianity. Such was likely his reason for his reimagination of the Awakening of Faith, which was then enjoying popularity in China. Richard fantasized that Saint Thomas, the disciple of Jesus who brought Christianity to Syria and India, had met Aśvaghoṣa and preached to him. The Awakening of Faith was the poet's own attempt to convert Hīnayāna Buddhists to the Mahāyāna, which Richard believed was in fact Christianity in "Buddhistic nomenclature." Richard relied on Yang Wenhui, a Republican Chinese government official and lay Buddhist scholar who is considered a founding father of modern Chinese Buddhism. Yang later expressed regret for assisting Richard with his Christian interpretation of a text he held in great reverence.[17]

A third translation was published over the course of two years in four issues of the English Christian mystic magazine Shrine of Wisdom, in volume 11, numbers 42 to 45. This was done by the editors of the magazine, apparently from a Sanskrit translation of the Chinese. It was published in book form in 1964 by the same magazine.[18]

The American Lutheran missionary and inventor Dwight Goddard (1891–1939) made a translation of the Awakening of Faith with a Chinese monk named Wai-tao that was included in the 1952 revised and expanded edition of his Buddhist Bible. Goddard, who in 1934 attempted to establish an American Buddhist monastic order, first published the book in 1938, a year before his death. The translation was followed by the famous Daoist scripture Daode jing, which, Goddard explained, had a "close affinity to Buddhism." The text is quite fanciful, with multiple interpolations by the translators that are not identified as such; Hakeda remarked that the translation "suffers from excessive freedom in rendition."[19] Goddard earlier published a commentary to Suzuki's translation, in 1933, under the title The Principle and Practice of Mahayana Buddhism: An Interpretation of Professor Suzuki's Translation of Ashvaghosha's Awakening of Faith. This was done despite Goddard's criticism of the translation as "marred by too great an interpretation of it as a metaphysical text"[20] and the fact that Suzuki objected to Goddard taking on the project, presumably doubting his ability to sufficiently understand the material.[21]

A fifth, readable and well-introduced translation was published in 1967 by the Columbia University professor Yoshito S. Hakeda (1924–1983). Like Richard, Hakeda translated from T1666. His work was revised and reprinted in 2005 by the Bukkyō Dendō Kyōkai (Society for the Promotion of Buddhism) and the Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research as part of their English Tripiṭaka Project, and it was also reissued that same year by Columbia University with a new introduction by scholar Ryuchi Abé. For the new edition the outdated Wade-Giles system of phonetics was replaced with the modern Pinyin system. Hakeda interspersed the text with his own commentary, which, like his translation, is notable for the absence of jargon or neologisms so common in translations of Buddhist scripture.

  1. Hakeda, Awakening of Faith, 17–18.
  2. References to the Taishō are customarily given with a "T" before the number of the text.
  3. See Tarocco, "Lost in Translation?" 327. The reconstructed Sanskrit for the title is *Mahāyāna-śraddhotpāda-śāstra.
  4. See Demiéville, "Sur l'authenticité du Ta Tch'ing Ki Sin Louen"; Lai, "Hu-Jan Nien-Ch'i" and "A Clue to the Authorship of the Awakening of Faith"; and Grosnick, "The Categories of T'i, Hsiang and Yung” and "Cittaprakṛti and Ayoniśomanaskāra in the Ratnagotravibhāga."
  5. See particularly the work of Lai and Grosnick, particularly "The Categories," in which he argues that Paramārtha was the author. Robert Sharf (Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism, 322, n85) dismisses Grosnick's claim of Indian origins in the concepts of the Awakening of Faith, arguing that one could find Indian antecedents for most any Chinese theory were one intent on doing so. Still, it is not unreasonable to suppose, as Jikidō Takasaki has argued, that the sixth-century author of the Awakening of Faith—whether that person was Indian or Chinese—would have a familiarity with the Ratnagotravibhāga. That treatise was translated in the second decade of the sixth century by Ratnamati, a man whose disciples did much to popularize both ālayavijñāna and tathāgatagarbha theories, so much so that earlier scholars such as Walter Liebenthal ("New Light") suggested that one of Ratnamati's disciples composed the treatise. Dirck Vorenkamp, in his introduction to his translation of Fazang's commentary on the Awakening of Faith (An English Translation), also speculates that Paramārtha composed the treatise. Keng ("A Re-examination," 2) has argued against the attribution of the Awakening of Faith to Paramārtha on the grounds that it does not conform to Paramārtha's other compositions.
  6. Hakeda, Awakening of Faith, xxvi.
  7. Lai, "A Clue to the Authorship of the Awakening of Faith." See also Tarocco, "Lost in Translation?" 328.
  8. See Liebenthal, "The Oldest Commentary of the Mahāyānaśraddhotpāda Śāstra."
  9. The Southern Dilun school was a Yogācāra tradition based around Ratnamati's interpretation of Vasubandhu's Daśabhūmivyākhyāna. It split from the Northern Dilun over a disagreement as to whether the ālayavijñāna in ordinary beings is by nature pure or defiled, or mixed. The Northern Dilun followed Bodhiruci's interpretation that ālayavijñāna is tainted and therefore only provisionally real, while the Southern Dilun held that it was fundamentally pure but associated with impure elements. The Northern school was eventually incorporated into Xuanzang's Faxiang school, while the Southern was superseded by the Huayan school. The Daśabhūmikasūtra, the basis of Vasubandhu's commentary, is included in the Avataṃsakasūtra (huayan jing 華嚴經). Paramārtha also taught that the ālayavijñāna contained both pure and impure elements.
  10. The quotation is: "If a person meditates wholly on Amitābha Buddha in the world of the Western Paradise and wishes to be born in that world, directing all the goodness he has cultivated [toward that goal], then he will be born there." Hakeda, Awakening of Faith, 80. Hakeda (xxvii) notes that some scholars have suggested that the passage was a later addition.
  11. Buswell, The Formation of Ch'an Ideology in China and Korea
  12. On Fazang and his commentary on the Awakening of Faith, see Vorenkamp, An English Translation of Fa-tsang's Commentary on the Awakening of Faith.
  13. Fazang conceived the summary of the text into "one mind," "two aspects," "three greatnesses," "four faiths," and "five practices." The three greatnesses refer to characteristics of suchness.
  14. On Zongmi and his reading of the Awakening of Faith, see Gregory, Tsung-mi and the Sinification of Buddhism.
  15. D. T. Suzuki wrote in his translator's preface: "Even Christians who were without sympathy for 'heathen' religions have now taken up the study of Buddhism in earnest. Nevertheless, it appears to me that the teachings of Sakyamuni are not yet known in their full significance and that they do not yet command just appreciation. Though intolerant critics lose no chance of vigorously and often wrongly attacking the weak points of Buddhism, which are naturally seen at the surface, clear-sighted people have been very slow to perceive its innermost truth. This is especially the case with the Mahayana school." Suzuki, Açvagosha’s Discourse on the Awakening of Faith in the Māhāyana, x. There is a cottage industry of criticism of Suzuki for his role in spreading a very modern interpretation of Buddhism in the West. See, for example, Robert Sharf, "The Zen of Japanese Nationalism." and Judith Snodgrass, Presenting Japanese Buddhism to the West.
  16. Tarocco, "Lost in Translation?" 337, building on the work of Lai.
  17. See Tarocco, "Lost in Translation?" and The Cultural Practices of Modern Chinese Buddhism: Attuning the Dharma.
  18. See Editors of the Shrine of Wisdom. "The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana by Asvaghosha," Shrine of Wisdom, 11, no. 42–45 (1929-1930). The book is: Editors of the Shrine of Wisdom. The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana by Asvaghosha. Fintry Brook, Surry, England: Shrine of Wisdom.
  19. Hakeda, Awakening of Faith, xxxiii.
  20. Goddard, Buddhist Bible (1952), 668.
  21. Goddard included a letter from Suzuki in which the Japanese monk expressed his opposition. See Goddard, Principle and Practice, xi.