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The Awakening of Faith

A book review by Andrew May

First published in The Middle Way, November 2006

THE AWAKENING OF FAITH: Attributed to Asvagosha, translated with commentary by Yoshito S. Hakeda, Columbia University Press, New York, 2006, ISBN 0 231 13157 7, pp. 136, £13.50.

In the middle of the sixth century a short text appeared in China entitled Dasheng qixinlun, or "Treatise on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana". Purporting to be a translation from an earlier Sanskrit version written by Asvagosha, The Awakening of Faith has had a huge influence on Mahayana ("great vehicle") Buddhism in East Asia, and is held in high esteem by schools as diverse as Zen, Kegon, Shingon and Pure Land. Strangely, however, the text is unknown in India and Tibet, and no Sanskrit original has ever been found. Even if such an original exists, it is unlikely to be the work of the famous second century poet Asvagosha, whose known writings adhere to the Theravada view – a view that is disparagingly referred to in this text as Hinayana ("lesser vehicle").

Whatever its origins (and the intriguing possibility that it is a Chinese "forgery" cannot be completely dismissed) The Awakening of Faith is a remarkable work: a concise yet thorough tutorial on Indian Mahayana thought in its most refined form, laid out in logical sequence from theoretical basics to practical realisation. Despite the mystery surrounding the author’s identity, his aim is clearly to communicate his subject matter as directly and unambiguously as possible, without the confusing metaphors and anecdotes so often found in Mahayana writing.

The Awakening of Faith is predicated on the notion of a single unconditional Absolute, referred to by various terms including "suchness" and "Buddha-nature", that intersects the world of the senses. This Absolute is seen as true reality while the world of the senses is an illusion. A failure to appreciate this distinction is, according to this view, the basic flaw of the Hinayana position. Indeed, the "Mahayana" in the work’s title is nothing other than the Absolute itself – the Great Vehicle on which all beings are capable of riding to enlightenment.

This newly reissued translation by Yoshito Hakeda was first published in 1967, and is the most reliable version of the text available to English-speaking readers. It includes a useful introductory essay as well as copious annotations, drawing on 1400 years of commentarial tradition in addition to Hakeda’s own scholarship. Rather than appearing as textbook-style footnotes or endnotes, most of the annotations are interwoven with the main text, producing a much more natural reading experience. As a result, this is not just a book for academics, but for anyone with a basic knowledge of Buddhism who is looking for a quick, non-nonsense introduction to the essentials of Mahayana thought.

Copyright © 2006 Andrew May

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