Recently, after a visit to the doctor, I stopped by the local University of Washington (transferring buses) and stopped off at my favorite used-bookstore: Magus Books. I stop there about once every 1-2 years to look for rare and hard to find books by Roger Zelazny, but I also look at the Buddhist books sometimes.
I was fortunate to find a nice, used hardcover translation of a 6th Century Buddhist text called The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, known as daijō kishinron (大乗起信論) in Japanese, and daeseung gishinron (대승기신론) in Korean. The translation is by Professor Hakeda, who also did a great translation of the writings of Kukai. The book was published in 1969, so it’s probably out of print.
Anyhow, the Awakening of Faith is a famous, but unusual text in Buddhism. It is not a sutra. It is a śāstra (shastra), which is a kind of thesis or essay in Buddhism. Shastras were often written by famous Buddhists in India like Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Asanga and so on, as a way to expound their particular understanding of the Buddhist doctrine. Shastras were useful as a way of “summarizing” Buddhist sutras into a single teaching.
Shastras are not well known now, but in the ancient days when Buddhism was imported from India to China (and then Korea, Japan, Vietnam) they were critically important in the development of Asian Buddhism because they helped provide a kind of “structure” to the Buddhist teachings. The shastras of Nagarjuna helped found the Sanlun School (三論宗, “Madhyamika”), the shastras of Asanga helped found the Fa-xiang (法相宗, “Yogacara”) school and so on. They were often valued as highly as the sutras themselves.
The trouble is that Shastras in general are very hard to read and understand for modern readers, because they were written for an audience long ago that already understood the concepts and vocabulary. There’s a lot of “implicit” language that is hard to understand now, and requires a lot of commentary. This is probably why they’re not widely studied anymore except for scholars. I purchased a copy of Nagarjuna’s shastra, the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (中論). The translation is great, but the content of the book is really, really terse and cryptic. Reading a few chapters gave me a headache. ;p
Anyhow, the point of all this is that the Awakening of Faith is unusual because:
- It is a shastra, but it was likely composed by someone in China, not India, who attributed it to the Indian monk Ashvaghosa.
- No original Sanskrit version has been found (hence people think it was composed in China) and it is not found in Tibetan Buddhism.
- The shastra is popular in East Asia because it is more practical and less cerebral.
Modern Buddhists might not know about the Awakening of Faith, but it was pretty standard reading for all East Asian Buddhists throughout history. Many famous Buddhists you might know have all quoted from, or provided commentary, on the Awakening of Faith. This includes Kukai, Wonhyo, Fa-zang, Shinran and many others.
The copy I have is pretty short, about 78 pages total, and has 5 sections. The early sections are very short, but very cryptic. Section 2 is only 4 pages, but reading it made my head hurt. However, each section is easier and more practical than the last. So, Section 3 explains section 2, and section 4 explains how to put section 3 into practice, etc.
The purpose of the Awakening of Faith is to provide a single, comprehensive explanation of the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism (大乗仏教, 대승 불교). It’s like a “textbook of Mahayana Buddhism”, but the order is kind of reversed from a modern book: the hard stuff is at the beginning, and gets easier as you read it.
Many of teachings you find in Zen, Shingon or Yogacara Buddhism are explained in this text such as:
The principle [of Mahayana] is “the Mind of the sentient being.” This Mind includes in itself all states of being of the phenomenal world and the transcendental world. (pg. 28, section 2)
The triple world [past, present, and future], therefore, is unreal and is of mind only. Apart from it there are no objects of the five senses and of the mind. (pg. 48, section 3)
After reflecting in this way [the suffering of all beings], he should pluck up his courage and make a great vow to this effect: may my mind be free from discriminations so that I may practice all of the various meritorious acts everywhere in the ten directions; may I, to the end of the future, by applying limitless expedient means, help all suffering sentient beings so that they may obtain the bliss of nirvana, the ultimate goal. (pg. 101, section 4)
The first two quotes sound very similar to things you might read or hear from Zen or Shingon teachings. The third quote sounds similar to the Four Bodhisattva Vows, doesn’t it?
That’s because many of the things we know about East Asian Buddhism were heavily influenced by the Awakening of Faith.1 Whoever wrote this shastra did a very effective job of summarizing Mahayana Buddhist thought into a short, concise text that inspired many generations that came later.
I haven’t finished the book yet (more than halfway through), but I hope to post more quotes later. Anyhow, if you would like to learn more about The Awakening of Faith, there are many other translations available, so definitely pick up a copy if you can. Although it is not easy to read, I highly recommend to anyone interested in the deeper aspects of Mahayana Buddhism.
1 Arguably, the other major influence is the Lotus Sutra.