The-Awakening-of-Faith-Attributed-to-Asvaghosha-Translations-from-the-Asian-Classics-

Review :

Take my review of the book with a grain of salt since my understanding of important matters like the nature of enlightenment, which the text deals with, is small.

The Awakening of Faith is a Mahayana text, attributed to the Indian Asvaghosha, that survives only in Chinese. It is a terse summary of the essential points of Mahayana Buddhism, namely the nature of the absolute reality or enlightenment and of the relative reality or nonenlightenment, their relationship to one another, and how one goes about integrating the absolute and the relative, thus achieving enlightenment.

The translator (Hakeda) wrote a very good introduction to the text that is clear and succinct. He discusses the possible origins of the text (i.e., whether it is an Indian original, a Chinese original, or a blend of an Indian and Chinese work) and who might have written it since it is clear that it was not written by the same Ashvaghosha who wrote other Buddhist works such as Buddhacarita (The Life of the Buddha). He also goes over important concepts integral to the text such as One Mind, Suchness, and tathagata-garbha, and places the work within East Asian Buddhism as a whole. A student of Hakeda's wrote an "Introduction to the Reprint Edition" which, among other things, tells stories of Chinese and Korean masters. I found these stories very helpful because they show how the material in the text is not a mere intellectual curiosity, but how it can (and is meant to) be integrated into the fabric of life to relief the suffering of beings.

The text is difficult for a number of reasons. One reason is the author's terseness. The translator remediates this somewhat by giving many helpful comments, embedded into the text itself, to elucidate the meaning and by giving a very helpful introduction, but still, the author assumes the reader has a great deal of prior knowledge. The second reason is the nature of the material itself. A reader of Buddhist texts that deal with the nature of reality (such as this text) inevitably comes across paradoxical statements like the following:

"... to be completely free from erroneous views, one should know that both the unenlightened and the enlightened states are relative and have no particular qualities of their own-being that can be discussed. Thus, all things from the beginning are neither matter nor mind, neither wisdom nor ignorance, neither being nor nonbeing; they are ultimately inexplicable." (p. 78)

To interpret this passage correctly, it is important to be aware of the context in which it is meant to be read. Otherwise, it is likely to leave a feeling of frustration, tantamount to "Well if the unenlightened and englightened states have no qualities, why am I reading this and why did the author write it!", or, perhaps, "It is utter nonsense to speak of something as neither being nor nonbeing. It must be one of them!" But the author goes on to to write something very useful in understanding this text and other texts like it:

"And yet they [the enlightened and unenlightened states:] are still spoken of. It should be understood that the Buddhas, applying their skillful means, make use of relative speech in a provisional manner in order to guide people ... to the truth; for if anyone thinks of anything as real and absolute in its own right, he causes his mind to be trapped in the unenlightened state and consequently he cannot enter the state of enlightenment." (p. 78)

So saying things like "the unenlightened and enlightened states are neither being nor nonbeing" is not done with the purpose of being paradoxical. It is the attempt to use language to explain something that cannot be described by language. It is like describing to someone what it is like to eat chocolate; language can only go so far. Ultimately to know chocolate one must experience it first hand by eating it (thanks to Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche for the chocolate analogy). Statements such as "the unenlightened and enlightened states are neither being nor nonbeing" are meant to show that the mind that divides things up in a dualistic way (that is into either being or nonbeing, either good or bad, etc.) needs to be left behind in order to enter the state of enlightenment.

Some things I learned by and some of my experience of reading this:
* There is a lot I don't understand!
* In the language of the text, "thoughts" (which I take to mean dualistic distinctions) are what keep you from realizing your Buddha-nature. Trying to not make dualistic distinctions has been very liberating for me.
* Since I have almost exclusively read Buddhist texts from the Tibetan tradition, it was interesting to me to read this text, which is unknown in Tibetan. Reading it was kind of like eating a very common vegetable prepared in a way I had never imagined possible. The vegetable itself is familiar but the preparation is foreign.
* There are two Buddhist masters named Nagarjuna.
* I find Hakeda's (the translator) writing extremely eloquent. I plan on checking out other books of his.
* A favorite quote from the book:

"It is indeed as though the author had written in the spirit of the ancient Sanskrit grammarians, who were said to have rejoiced, as over the birth of a son, when they were able to save even a syllable in the formulation of their grammatical rules." (p. 2)

The image of grammarians being gleeful over cutting syllables is very funny to me.


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