The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana is a treatise that was written in China around about 550 a.d. It’s attributed to Aśvaghoṣa who certainly didn’t write it and the translation is attributed to Paramartha, an important Indian buddhist monk who relocated himself to China. He may have written it. He may also have written the Buddha Nature treatise.
It’s a really important treatise. It comes at a point when the Chinese appear to have assimilated the Mahayana sutras which, following on from and balancing Narajuna, give a positive language and a positive view of emptiness.
Using terms such as ‘thusness’ or ‘suchness’ or ‘the tathagatagarbha’, the Treatise uses that positive language more comprehensively, and it immediately precedes, and plays a part in forming, the distinctively Chinese schools: the T’ien–t’ai–the Tendai school, the Huayan school, the Zen school and the Pure Land school.
The most famous commentary on the treatise was by Fazang, the third patriarch of the Huayan school.
The Treatise sets out, in a very systematic and terse way, the nature of reality. It takes as its starting point a position of imminence rather than duality or transcendence. The nature of that imminance it calls ‘Suchness’ . When Suchness manifests itself in the phenomenal realm, (which is not separate from the absolute realm) , it’s called ‘Mind’.
This is an extremely important point because it helps clarify what people like Mazu/Baso meant when they were talking about Ordinary Mind.
It continues, in a clearer and more methodical way, the innovation in the Lankavatara Sutra of combining two separate Mahayanan threads. The first, originally in the Tathagatagarbha sutra and later in the Nirvana sutra, is of all beings having – in some sense – Buddha Nature. The second is the Yogacara concept of the eight consciousnesses, but specifically the alaya -storehouse- consciousness. Putting these two together was natural, as the Chinese chose to use the word ‘zong’, treasure house/storehouse for both the alaya consciousness, and also the tathagatagarbha.
The basic idea is that our underlying reality is thusness or suchness but that is overlayed by ignorance. That ignorance doesn’t have a beginning ( because it has never truly existed), but it does have an end.
When there’s a turn to enlightenment, the eighth consciousness, the storehouse consciousness, ( which is anyway fused – in a not entirely clear way – with the Tathagatagarbha Buddha Nature) purifies itself, and the tathagatagarbha emerges.
That is one really helpful aspect of the treatise because that perspective is the one which generally attains dominance within Chinese Buddhism subsequently, but is often assumed rather than stated, which can make understanding what people of that time were trying to say difficult.
The overarching metaphor which is used in the Treatise is the ocean and the waves. The ocean ( in a departure from the more negative use of the ocean as a metaphor for samsara) represents suchness or mind and the waves represent phenomenal reality. The waves are created by the wind of ignorance or externality. The point is that the waves -ignorance- are conditional, but the ocean isn’t, yet even in that conditionality, the waves are always part of the ocean. Just as the waves are always wet, Suchness is always here, whatever our confusion.
We can also see the importance of Faith, standing in stark contrast to our ideas of attainment and self improvement.
When the wind dies down through practice and through faith, the ocean becomes like a mirror, clearly reflecting whatever is there. Reflecting the moon above. Rendering visible the pearl of wisdom at the bottom of the ocean.
And that also ties in with Yogacara, where it’s said that the eighth consciousness, when purified, becomes like a great mirror. And the mirror metaphor is very frequently used by the Zen teachers, although not exclusively in this way.
There’s a dance between different but related metaphors: the ocean and the waves and the mirror. And we must add space, which in the Treatise is used as a synonym for suchness, thusness and emptiness. It’s used in that way because space is indivisible.You wouldn’t say there’s 10 square metres of space in my room and outside there’s another 50 square metres of space and the two are different. Space is the same space whether it’s here or a billion miles away, and the space holds all beings within it.
In that sense, space is a metaphor ( and in meditation, the reality) for the unitary nature of being expressed in the Dharmakaya. Which is why it’s said that the Buddha’s true body, the Dharmakaya, is just like space.
In the treatise the word mahayana isn’t a reference to the Mahayana school. It’s a reference to suchness. So it’s faith in suchness, not in the tenets of the Mahayana.
The Treatise is in effect saying that faith in the reality of suchness manifests suchness. So what is primarily required from us is faith,because everything follows from that. And, the first classic of Zen literature is Verses of Faith Mind.