The Mahāyāna-shraddhotpāda-shāstra


We next will be exploring perhaps the most significant document, alongside the Lankavatara Sutra, for adherents of Unborn Mind Zen as well as the best concise-systematic treatment of the Mahayana as a whole. This ‘Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana’ is attributed to the great early Buddhist philosopher and poet, Aśvaghosha:


The fact that Aśvaghosha’s name was attached to the text, however, undoubtedly has had much to do with its popularity. He is known in Chinese as Maming or “Horse-neighing,” a literal translation of Aśvaghosha; the name derives from the saying that his poems were so moving that when they were recited even the horses neighed in response. So great is the love and respect that Aśvaghosha commanded as a poet and religious writer that he has been honored with the title of bodhisattva, and it is easy to imagine why any writer would be happy to bear such a name or have such a name associated with the text he composed. (The Awakening of Faith Attributed to Aśvaghosha, Yoshito S. Hakeda, pg.4)

Modern scholars are at odds as to the authentic-writer of the text since there are no extant copies in Sanskrit; all other copies originated from the Chinese version, Dacheng qixin lun. I’d prefer to conjecture, though, in the tradition of the great Chinese Monk and founder of the Hua-yen school, Fa-tsang (643-712 ), whose commentary heralds as the “final authority” that the shāstra’s rightful creator is non-other than Aśvaghosha. An even earlier commentary by the monk Tanyan (516-588) concludes that the text was written by Aśvaghosha and its translation by Paramārtha. Historically there were no-less than six different “Aśvaghosha’s” since the Buddha’s parinirvana, covering a period of six-hundred years. There are many narratives pertaining to his character, my favorite being the “Lankavatarian” connection:

‘When six hundred years are passed after the disappearance of the Tathagata, ninety-six different schools of the tirthakas will arise, and professing false doctrines, each will struggle against the other to destroy the law of Buddha. A Bhikshu called Asvaghosha, however, will in an excellent manner proclaim the essence of the Dharma and defeat all followers of the tirthakas… 

… Asvaghosha Sramana transforming himself into the figure of a great nāgarāja (i.e., snake-king) with 86,000 heads and 86,000 tongues, simultaneously proposed 86,000 contradicting questions and asked the Tathagata [for the solution] . He then gave him a triple answer explaining all those paradoxes. The nāgarāja then proposed tenfold questions, again asking the Tathagata [for their solution], to which he gave a hundredfold answers and explained their paradoxes. When this dialogue came to an end, Buddha said to the nāgarāja : ‘Very good, very good, O Asvaghosha Sramana ! In order to guard the castle of the Dharma, thou hast assumed this form of destruction, establishing the doctrine of Buddha. Be patient, be patient, always discipline thyself in this way, always behave thyself in this way, do not go round in a small circle, but make a universal tour.’ The nāgarāja then abandoning his assumed beast-form revealed his own real character and approaching the peerless, honored one and saluting him said rejoicingly in verse, etc., etc. This is the sixth Asvaghosha.” (Awakening of Faith, Suzuki, pg.8-9)

For Lankavatarians the Awakening of Faith is a companion-piece to the Lankavatara Sutra. In this form of a Naga King, Aśvaghosha shares a unique connection with the nāgās of the Lanka, as they are supreme guardians and protectors of the Buddhadharma. Another prominent-connection is the Tathāgata-garbha:

It was the Chinese monk Fazang who, in his definitive commentary on the Awakening of Faith, for the first time drew attention to the great importance of this concept, to which he felt proper notice had hitherto not been paid either in India or China. In the introduction to his commentary to the Awakening of Faith, Fazang made an attempt to classify all Indian Buddhism under the following four categories: (1) Hīnayāna; (2) Mahāyāna; (3) Yogācāra; and (4) Tathāgata-garbha. As the important works belonging to the last, he lists such texts as the Lankāvatāra Sūtra, Ratnagotra-śāstra,and the Awakening of Faith… 

From the point of view of the history of Buddhist thought, the Awakening of Faith may be regarded as representing the highest point in the development of the Tathāgata-garbha concept in Mahāyāna Buddhism. (Hakeda, pg.9) 

*Whoever the real author may be, the sensitivity shown by the text of the Awakening of Faith to respond to the intellectual demand of Chinese Buddhist communities has made “Mind-Only,” tathāgatagarbha, “One Mind,” and other major themes of the text essential for the development of Buddhism in East Asia throughout its long history. (ibid, pg.25)

The text itself is not a sutra, but rather a shāstra, meaning a form of thesis in Buddhism. In the form of a shāstra, therefore, the great foundation of the Mahayana is presented in a concise—yet very thorough systematic teaching. The Root-Principle has to do with Tathatā—both in Its Absolute aspect as Bhūtathatā as well as what the Unborn Mind School of Zen refers as Its “Pluralized Obstruction Mode” aspect: hence Suchness vs.Samsara. Yet in some fashion they still pervade each other. This is the great Cosmic-Pervasion as viewed from the samsaric cycle of birth and death and IT’s Absolute Stature as Nirvānic-Dharmakāya:

Absolute Suchness, ultimately speaking, transcends everything. But tainted with Ignorance it manifests itself as Conditional Suchness. And our phenomenal world, subjective as well as objective, is the result of the sport of this Conditional Suchness. When true knowledge dawns we realize that we are no more finite beings but Absolute Suchness itself… 

‘The reason why the Tathāgata nevertheless endeavors to instruct by means of words and definitions is through his good and excellent skillfulness. He only provisionally makes use of words and definitions to lead all beings, while his real object is to make them abandon symbolism and directly enter into Reality.’ (A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy, Dr. Chandradhar Sharma, pg.85)

As far as the translation used in this series, I much prefer Suzuki’s 1900 version; yet a little of the style and language employed is considered somewhat archaic by today’s standards, so while it will be incorporated when warranted the more contemporary Hakeda version whose own commentary is said to reflect Fa-tsang’s position will also be utilized.

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