Buddhist philosophy, Chinese

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G002-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 12, 2024, from

5. The Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna

These debates and their ramifications dominated Chinese Buddhist thought in the sixth century. On one side was a substantialistic nondual metaphysic whose eternalistic ground was variously called Buddha-nature, mind, tathāgatagarbha, Dharma-dhātu and suchness (tathatā; in Chinese, rulai). On the other side was an anti-substantialist critique that eschewed any form of metaphysical reification, emphasizing emptiness as the absence of permanent selfhood or independent essence in anything. To the anti-substantialists the tathāgatagarbha position sounded dangerously close to the notion of eternalistic, reified selfhood that Buddha had rejected. Mahāyāna texts had declared that there were four conceptual perversions or reversals behind human delusion: (1) seeing a self in what lacks self; (2) seeing permanence in the impermanent; (3) seeing happiness in what is suffering; and (4) seeing purity in the impure. Yet starting with the earliest tathāgatagarbha texts – such as The Lion’s Roar of Queen Śrīmāla – tathāgatagarbha was brazenly defined as ‘self, eternal, happiness and pure’. In the face of these and other disparities, the Chinese asked how, if there is only one dharma (teaching), there can be such incommensurate variety.

The Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna, a Chinese composition purporting to be a translation by Parāmartha of an Indian text, became an instant classic by offering a masterly synthesis of Buddhist teachings that seemed to resolve many of the disparities (see Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna). Its central tenet is that there is one Mind that has two aspects. One aspect is suchness and the other is saṃsāra, the cycle of birth and death, arising and ceasing. Suchness also has two aspects, emptiness and non-empty. Emptiness in this text means suchness is beyond predication, neither one nor many, neither the same nor different. Non-empty means it is endowed with all the marvellous qualities and merits of a Buddha, ‘as numerous as the sands along the banks of the Ganges’. The link between suchness and the realm of arising and ceasing is tathāgatagarbha in association with the ālaya-vijñāna. Ignorance, enlightenment and pursuit of the Path are all on the arising and ceasing side.

In a pivotal passage that would become foundational for most forms of Chinese, Korean and Japanese Buddhism, the Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna states that on the basis of Original Enlightenment there is non-enlightenment; on the basis of non-enlightenment there is initial enlightenment; and on the basis of initial enlightenment there is final enlightenment, which is the full realization of original enlightenment. Beyond the problem of theodicy that it raises (the text does not offer a clear explanation for why or how non-enlightenment arises), several issues emerge. First, suddenly there is no longer simply one enlightenment that is achieved at the culmination of a spiritual path, but instead several enlightenments, one of which (original enlightenment) precedes even entering the path. What the text calls initial enlightenment had been termed bodhicitta or cittotpāda (arousing the aspiration for enlightenment) in previous Buddhist literature. Arousing this aspiration is what the title Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna signifies. Now, rather than marking a singular, ultimate achievement, the term ‘enlightenment’ referred to several things: an atemporal originary ground upon which everything else plays out, including non-enlightenment; one’s initial resolve or insight that leads one to begin pursuing the path; the final achievement at the end of the path, an achievement that is not only anticlimactic, but is little more than an unravelling of the intersection of original and initial enlightenment. This reinforced the conviction of Chinese Buddhists that the conflationist approach, with its emphasis on Buddha-nature or mind as ground, was the correct view.

One of the first to recognize the importance of the Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna was a Korean monk named Wônhyo. He wrote a commentary on the text that reached China, where it influenced Fazang, a foundational thinker of the Huayan school, who used its ideas as a major cornerstone for his thinking. Since the Dilun, originally an independent text, had eventually been incorporated into the Huayan Sutra as one of its chapters, and that scripture became the basic text of the Huayan school, many of the issues that had emerged from the debates on the Dilun were absorbed and reconfigured by the Huayan thinkers. In a sense, it was ultimately Ratnamati’s interpretation that prevailed after two centuries of debate. The Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna became pivotal for Chinese Buddhism, is still one of the foundations of Korean Buddhism and, though it has been eclipsed in Japan by other texts such as the Lotus Sutra, many of its ideas, such as the idea of original enlightenment (hongaku), still exert a profound influence. This text set the stage for the development of distinctively East Asian forms of Buddhism.

Citing this article:
Lusthaus, Dan. The Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna. Buddhist philosophy, Chinese, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G002-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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