CHAPTER 2: BEFORE THE QUEST BEGINS
"Awakening of Faith in Mahayana" which provides the core for the development of different schools of Mahayana Buddhism, is invaluable not only for scholars of philosophy, metaphysics and religion, but also for scientists of various disciplines like nuclear physics, psychology and cosmology.
Three Vehicles for Enlightenment
If you ask Buddhist devotees how do they cultivate towards Enlightenment, some may say they meditate, some work fervently on a koan (or a seemingly illogical question, like what is your face before you were born), and others totally immersed in chanting mandras (or mystical combinations of special sounds, like Om mani padme hum). There are many other effective ways in Buddhist practice to realize spiritual fulfilment. This rich variety of cultivation methods, known as expedient means, often puzzles the uninitiated, but they provide the devotees with a wide choice according to their respective convenience, facilities, and levels of development. And when we know that there are not one, but three main traditions of Buddhism, we can appreciate the great variety.
The three traditions are Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. They are not three religions, but three main approaches to the same religion, and they all accept and practise the same basic doctrines. Theravada Buddhism, which means Buddhism of the Council of the Elders, is popularly practised in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia and Laos; whereas Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddhism of Great Vehicle, is popular in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.
Vajrayana Buddhism, which means Buddhism of the Diamond Vehicle, and which is sometimes known as Tibetan or Tantric Buddhism, is popular in Tibet and Mongolia. Vajrayana Buddhism was developed from Mahayana Buddhism, and much influenced by Indian Tantrism and the native Tibetan Bon religion. Vajrayanists frequently employ mandras, mudras (mystical formations of fingers) and mandalas (mystical designs often in geometrical figures) in their spiritual cultivation. Some Vajrayanists regard sex, which the Theravadins and the Mahayanists categorically steer clear of, as a means to spirituality.
Soul, Sub-Atomic Particles and Cosmic Reality
The most notable difference between Theravada and Mahayana is their attitude towards Enlightenment. Theravadins believe that spiritual fulfilment is a personal affair, attainable only with one's own effort. Their aim is Nirvana, which is a state of perfect mind where the aspirant is liberated from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth, and not annihilation or extinction as some people wrongly imagine. Mahayanists believe that spiritual fulfilment is a universal accomplishment, whereby the more spiritually advanced can help their juniors, though personal effort is still important. Their aim is Buddhahood, a state of Enlightenment where one's mind becomes the Universal Mind.
Another fundamental difference between Theravada and Mahayana, possibly more significant than their different attitude towards Enlightenment though it is not as openly acknowledged, concerns what, for lack of a better English term, is called the "soul". Theravadins insist that there is no such thing as a permanent soul, and that the belief in the existence of the soul is one of the biggest mistakes man has ever made. What is transmitted from one life to another during rebirth, is not the soul, but the karmic force of the previous life. A common comparison is that when a rolling marble hits another marble and causes the latter to roll, what is transmitted is not an eternal part of the first marble, but its rolling momentum which is not its integral part.
Mahayanists, on the other hand, believe that there is a soul, or "zhen wo" in Chinese, meaning the "real me". The Chinese master, Hui Yuan (344-416), explained that while the physical body disintegrates, the soul does not; because of the indestructibility of the soul, the endless cycles of birth and rebirth are possible. His distinguished disciple, Tao Sheng (ca.360-434), asked: if there is no permanent self or soul involved in the cycle of birth and rebirth, then is there a permanent self in nirvana? If there is no self, what is it that enters nirvana? In fact, in Chinese Buddhist history, there was constant debate between the Buddhists and the Taoists or Confucianists on the question of soul.
Another decisive difference concerns their concept of the Buddha. Both the Theravadins and the Mahayanists accept the concept of the triple body of the Buddha, namely the physical body (rupakaya), the transformational body (nirmanakaya), and the spiritual body (dharmakaya). Both the Theravadins and the Mahayanists hold similar views regarding the physical and transformational bodies of the Buddha. The physical body is the one the Buddha uses to appear to men at any one time, and the transformational body is the many manifestations that the Buddha may employ to appear at different times and places. Hence, it is a common misconception to think that Theravadins regard the Buddha as all Siddhartha Guatama represents; and the statement that Siddhartha Guatama is the founder of Buddhism, which many Westerners regard as a historical truth, is actually incorrect according to Buddhist teaching. All Buddhists believe that there have been many Buddhas before Guatama Buddha, and there will be many after him. The triple body concept also refers to the transformational body, the reward body and the spiritual body, and will be explained in a later chapter.
The Theravadins and the Mahayanists hold different views concerning the Buddha's spiritual body. To the Theravadins, the dharmakaya or spiritual body of the Buddha is the summation of all the qualities and teachings of all the Buddhas that have come and will come to the world. To the Mahayanists, the dharmakaya of the Buddha is the Supreme Reality, omnipresent and omniscient. It is what Westerners would call the Almighty God. Guatama Buddha and all other Buddhas who have come and will come, are the personifications of this Eternal Buddha.
Another interesting difference, but little known to the public, between Theravada and Mahayana concerns their philosophical concept of the universe. Both the Theravadins and the Mahayanists, using their minds in deep meditation where our modern scientists would use sophisticated technology, have studied and analysized all physical, emotional and mental phenomena in the universe into sub-atomic particles or forces called dharmas. At a time before scientists discovered (rediscovered?) physical sub-atomic particles, these dharmas were traditionally translated as elements. Emotional and mental sub-atomic particles or forces are still unknown in modern scientific vocabulary, though concepts like morphogenic fields and the exchange of not only energy but also information as a basis of life, proposed by far-sighted biologists like Rupert Drake and Lyall Watson, suggest an awareness of their presence.
The Theravadins contend that according to the principle of pratityasamutpada, or the doctrine of dependent origination, there is a causal relationship between the temporal sequences of these physical, emotional and mental sub-atomic particles or forces, which they consider as real entities. The Mahayanist masters expound that because of pratityasamutpada, the existence of these particles or forces, if any, is only relative and not real. Therefore, all phenomena which we may see as real because of our illusion, owe their apparent reality to these illusory sub-atomic particles or forces, but actually have no objective existence.
Modern scientists must be astonished to find that many centuries before the bubble-chamber or even the simple microscope was invented, Buddhist masters have classified these dharmas or sub-atomic particles and forces in ways more profound and detailed than in modern physics, chemistry or psychology. For example, as early as the 6th century, the Kosa or Ju She school (Realism school) of the Theravada tradition taught that the whole phenomenal world of both mind and matter is comprised of dharmas, or sub-atomic particles, which are of three levels, namely paramaanu, anu and raja. Paramaanu is the finest particle, and cannot be further divided. Seven paramaanu form one anu, and seven anu form one raja. Kosa masters also stated that the shortest time measurable is the transition of one particle to another, and that space and time are relative.
In the Kosa school sub-atomic particles are classified into seventy five types, which are of two main categories, namely samskrta-dharmas (created particles) and asamskrta-dharmas (non-created particles). The samskrta-dharmas are further divided into four groups: rupani (form), citta (mind), caitasika (mental faculties), and citta-viprayukta-samskrta (neither sub-stantial nor mental). Kosa Buddhists believe that particles are real but they exist only momentarily or instantaneously. Therefore, all phenomena, including man and the universe, are fleeting; there is nothing that is constant for a moment.
It should be pointed out that Buddhism is very practical, and does not indulge in speculative philosophy. The amazing information mentioned above was not a product of imagination nor intellectual reasoning; but derived from the masters' direct experience in very advanced levels of meditation.
Mahayanists, on the other hand, regard the phenomenal world as an illusion. This does not necessarily mean that phenomena are not real, but they appear differently at different levels of consciousness. The Avatansaka or Hua Yen school (Garland school) of Mahayana Buddhism, for example, teaches a totalistic approach whereby all dharmas simultaneously arise, co-exist and mutually penetrate to become one organic unity. Whether we experience dharmas as phenomenal manifestation or as transcendental reality, depends on our perspective and spiritual development. This point will be explained in some detail later when we study the "Awakening of Faith in Mahayana".
Another subtle difference between Theravada and Mahayana is their perspective on nirvana. Both have questioned whether nirvana is a transformational state of mind or another dimension of being, and both have emphasized it more towards a transcendental mental state rather than a metaphysical dimension. But the Theravadins regard nirvana as eternal, blissful and the opposite to phenomena, whereas the Mahayanists believe that attaining nirvana involves a subjective mental change of outlook, and not an objective transformation of phenomena.
The great second century Indian Buddhist master, Nagarjuna, who is frequently respected as the Second Buddha, explains that:
- Nirvana is that which is neither abandoned nor acquired, it is neither a thing annihilated, nor a thing eternal; it is nether destroyed nor produced. ... Nothing of phenomenal existence (samsara) is different from nirvana, nothing of nirvana is different from phenomenal existence.
In other words, nirvana and samsara, or, in an imperfect analogy, heaven and hell, are two aspects of the same reality, which may be expressed in physical, psychological or other dimensions. Through spiritual development that brings about a subjective transformation of outlook, the same physical, emotional or mental situations that may be hell to other people, can become heaven to us. The change is psychological, not ontological; if the phenomena were ultimately, objectively real, no power can change them.
Thus, it is obvious that those who say that Buddhism is nihilistic chiefly because they think attainment of nirvana equates disintegration into the unknown, have not understood the Buddhist teaching adequately.
Many centuries after Nagarjuna, Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan Buddhism, expounds the same principle from a different angle when he says:
When a mortal is enlightened, he is a Buddha.
When a Buddha is unenlightened, he is a mortal.
Hui Neng's quotation suggests that every being, including non-human, has the opportunity to attain Buddhahood, or Cosmic Reality, which in Mahayana philosophy is even more worthy than attaining nirvana. In "Awakening of Faith in Mahayana", Asvaghosha provides a fascinating explanation of what Cosmic Reality is, and how we can experience it.
The Great Work of Horse-Neighing
What do you think of a teacher whose sermons were so inspiring that even horses neighed to show their gratitude? This, according to a popular legend, was how Asvaghosha got his name. Asvaghosha, or Ma Ming in Chinese, means Horse-Neighing.
There were six men with the same name of Asvaghosha who had significant connection with Buddhism, but the one credited to be the author of "Awakening of Faith in Mahayana" probably lived in the first century in India. He was a great philosopher who took pride in deriding Buddhism, but after a debate with Parsvika, a famous Buddhist master of northern India, Asvaghosha embraced Buddhism and helped to propagate it. He was later valued as a national treasure.
Besides "Awakening of Faith in Mahayana", Asvaghosha also wrote many other important Buddhist texts, such as "Life and Work of the Buddha", "Developmental Stages of Bodhisattva", "Experiences and Methods of Miraculous Powers", and "Treatise on Non-Being".
"Awakening of Faith in Mahayana" is one of the most important works on Buddhism, providing the conceptual framework upon which most, if not all, Mahayanist schools derive their basic philosophy. It is called "Mahayana Sraddhatpada Sastera" in Sanskrit, and "Da Cheng Qi Xin Lun" (pronounced as "Ta Ch'eng Ch'i Hsin Lun") in Chinese. Its original Sanskrit version, however, is now lost, and the most authoritative source for reference at present is its first Chinese translation done by the eminent Paramartha (Zhen Ti in Chinese) in China in 550. There is another translation by Sikshananda in the 7th century, but this version is not as popular.
The immense importance of "Awakening of Faith in Mahayana" can be seen from the fact that more than 170 major commentaries have been written on it. Indeed, it is amazing that for such a great work, only four translations in English (Dr. D.T. Suzuki, 1907; Rev. Timothy Richard, 1907; Bhikshu Wai-tao and Goddhard, 1937; and Yoshito S. Hakeda, 1967) are available.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, there has been some controversy over the question whether Asvaghosha was genuinely the author of "Awakening of Faith in Mahayana". Some believe that this great work was actually written by one or more unknown Chinese writers who generously assigned the authorship to Asvaghosha; others picking on linguistic features which they argue did not belong to Asvaghosha's time say this work was a forgery, compiled at a much later date than that purported; while a few question whether the translator, Paramartha, had sufficient command of the Chinese language for this formidable task.
While it is difficult to prove the case either way, the following points are pertinent. This controversy is a modern development; all along in the past there was never any doubt on Asvaghosha as the author. One should also bear in mind that among the countless Buddhists who accepted Asvaghosha's authorship without question were Enlightened masters of very high calibre, certainly not gullible dumb-bells ready to accept anything thrust onto them.
This great work was written in Sanskrit about twenty centuries before us, and first translated into Chinese about fifteen centuries ago. While keeping to the original as much as possible, subsequent translators or copy-writers, would often render archaic linguistic features into current grammatical usage for the benefit of contemporary readers. Hence, finding a Chinese expression typical of 6th century or even 16th century usage, does not prove that the original work could not be written in the 1st century in Sanskrit.
Paramartha, considered to be undoubtedly the most important translator of Buddhist works of the time, was a highly respected Buddhist master and scholar well versed in both Sanskrit and Chinese. Even if we presume that he were not learned in Chinese, he was definitely helped by capable Chinese scholars in the translation work.
One should also note the attitude of the Chinese and the Buddhists concerning authorship. Both the Chinese and the Buddhist paid little importance in the attachment to names. Many Chinese Buddhists, for example, do not even know the personal name of the Buddha; some may know him as Sakyamuni, his clan's name, but very few know his personal name, Siddhartha, or his family name, Guatama. It is not that they have little respect for Siddhartha, but that both the Chinese and the Buddhist value practical usefulness rather than nominal flattery. To them, what is important in "Awakening of Faith in Mahayana" is not whether the author is Asvaghosha or someone else, but whether what the author teaches in the book is worthy of following. If it is not, even if they know for certain that the author is the Buddha himself, they will leave it aside.
"Awakening of Faith in Mahayana" is certainly a worthy book. Many common queries concerning Buddhism, like whether it is polytheist or even atheist, or whether the adept is simply extinguished when he enters nirvana, will be clarified when this great work is understood. Many intriguing concepts like the external world is an illusion, the eternity is contained in a moment, as well as the seemingly illogical statements of Zen masters will become clear and meaningful when we grasp the great truth of Asvaghosha's masterpiece.
Western readers may be astonished to find it exceedingly short, consisting of only a few pages in Chinese! But because both classical Chinese and its original Sanskrit are extremely concise languages, the knowledge and wisdom contained in this small volume is simply astounding. Because of its intrinsic profundity as well as the terseness of language, very few people today can understand it without the help of commentaries.
In presenting this great work, my first objective is to make it as clear and pleasant to read as possible. First, the original text in classical Chinese is given, so that those who can read Chinese will have an authoritative source for reference. Then, especially for those who do not know Chinese, the original Chinese text is given a literal translation into English, so that we can have, even as an imitation, some idea of the pregnancy of the original work. Because of the linguistic difference between Chinese and English, such a literal translation is likely to be problematic, and sometimes comical. The comical aspect is due to the literal translation, of course not due to its original meaning. Such problems are overcome in the interpretation that follows.
This interpretation is actually a figurative translation of the Chinese text, together with expansion of relevant information, which is often needed if the meaning of profound, esoteric concepts written in an immensely concise classical language is to be readily comprehensible to modern readers. This is followed by a commentary, where unfamiliar or interesting ideas, as well as background knowledge necessary for understanding the passage, are provided. This commentary includes important comments made by great masters in the past, like Hui Yuan, Yuan Xiao and Fa Zang (also known by his honorary title, "Xian Shou", meaning "First among the Wise").
"Awakening of Faith in Mahayana", as befitting a religious text, begins with an adoration and a prelude, and concludes with a prayer for the welfare of all humanity. The text proper is divided into five parts:
Part 1: Cause and Effect. Eight reasons for writing this work.
Part 2: Establishing the Meaning. Brief discussion on transcendental and phenomenal aspects of reality.
Part 3: Explanation. Basic concepts of Mahayana teachings, and the philosophy and methods in achieving spiritual fulfilment.
Part 4: Faith and Practice. Beliefs, approaches and practice in realizing cosmic reality.
Part 5: Benefits. Benefits from spiritual development.
Chapter 1 -- Introductiuon
Chapter 2 -- Before the Question Begins
Chapter 3 -- Adoration
Chapter 4 -- Prelude
Chapter 5 -- Part 1: Cause and Effect
Chapter 6 -- Part 2: Establishing the Meaning
Chapters 7 to 26 -- Part 3: Explanation
Chapters 27 to 29 -- Part 4: Faith and Practice
Chapters 30 and 31 -- Part 5: Benefits and Blessing
Chapter 32 -- From Samsara to Nirvana
The gist of "Awakening of Faith in Mahayana" is traditionally summed up by past masters into a comprehensive phrase. When translated literally, this phrase is "One heart, two gates, three bigs, four faiths, five movements", which is of course quite non-sensical to the uninitiated. The meaning and beauty of the Chinese expression become apparent when it is translated figuratively: "One Reality, two ways of manifestations, three dimensions of universal application, four aspects of faith, and five areas of practice".
In a nutshell, it means that the one and only Supreme Reality is manifested in two principal ways, as transcendental Absolute or phenomenal world. The Reality, manifested transcendentally or phenomenally, is applicable universally, and is expressed in three dimensions. Spatially it expresses itself in limitless forms, limitless characteristics, and limitless uses; temporally, it stretches back to the beginningless past, operates in the timeless present, and extends to the endless future. To attain realization of Cosmic Reality, we must have unwavering faith in the Absolute Truth, the Teacher, the Teaching, and the Discipline, which are the four aspects of faith. And in our training for spiritual realization, we must practise devotedly in the five areas of charity, morality, tolerance, perseverance, and meditation.
"Awakening of Faith in Mahayana" which provides the core for the development of different schools of Mahayana Buddhism, is invaluable not only for scholars of philosophy, metaphysics and religion, but also for scientists of various disciplines like nuclear physics, psychology and cosmology. But most important of all, it presents to us, whether we are scholars, scientists or otherwise, a highly remarkable and comprehensive understanding of Cosmic Reality, and offers us, irrespective of our individual religious conviction or even lack of it, practical ways to experience this Reality directly. Such spiritual fulfilment, when one is ready for it, represents man's greatest achievement, for what accomplishment can be more meaningful and rewarding than that of realizing our transcendental origin and destiny? So let us with hope and inspiration, turn the page to begin our quest for Cosmic Reality.