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The Awakening of Faith by Ashvaghosha

Ashvaghosha (also spelled Asvaghosa) (AD 80? – 150?) is considered one of the founding father of Mahayana philosophy during the second century. A book that is attributed to him - Mahayana-sraddhotpada-sastra (The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana) - instructs in how to practice a Buddhist faith (Mahayana). Below are comments.

Ashvaghosha was a philosopher and poet, and is considered India's greatest poet before Kalidasa (of the 400s AD). He became a disciple of a Buddhist scholar as a result of a heated debate with him.


A Chinese version of the text first appeared about 550 CE. It is the oldest extant version known. The text contains an early doctrine about Buddha Bodies and reality. E. H. Johnston says "The ultimate reality consists of an Absolute," dharmakaya, which has various aspects, such as Tathagata, the sphere of the individual, the essential nature of Mind - which is pure, radiant, spiritual [cf. Hakeda 1967:14].

The term Tathagata is one of the epithets given to the historical Buddha, but it later came to be used in Mahayana Buddhism in a much wider sense. In some words in denotes Suchness, the Absolute, Eternal Buddha-nature (Dharmakaya). The meaning of many of the central words in the text depend on their context, and it is a recognised complication. (Hakeda 1967:13)

In the old times it was generally thought that the work was by Ashvaghosha, and the Chinese translation was made by Paramartha (499-569 AD) from West India. Ashvaghosha means "horse-neighing", (Chinese: Ma-ming). 1 One is to grasp the essential meaning of that too, namely that horses were said to neigh with delight over his poetry. However, there could be more than one Ashvaghosha. One commentary mentions six Buddhist teachers with that name. (Hakeda 1967:6-8, passim)

What was sought after at the time of writing the text, was a comprehensive, terse style that yet contained much meaning. The discourse (text) is highly esteemed in various schools of Zen. However, the text is so terse that it is difficult to understand it, and translators interpret it differently according to the skills and experience. There are numerous commentaries. 170 commentaries have been written on it (1967). (Hakeda 1967:4, 5, 11)

The work ends with practices and techniques for growth - in a discourse made for bringing men and women to enlightenment. The basic premise of this line of thinking is that the Absolute is at the same time both transcendental and immanent. Suchness (i.e., self-nature) alone is real, and Suchness in man is the Buddha-nature. And besides, most central terms like One Mind and Mind may seem confusing to some who know nothing about the ways of thinking in early Buddhism. (Hakeda 1967:13, 15, 44)

The old book is dominated by doctrines that did not appear till a few centuries after the time of the esteemed Buddhist philosopher Ashvaghosha (born in 80? AD). The text has a prominent place in Tibetan religion and culture. Among standard commentaries on the work is that of Hui-yŁan, Wonhyo, and Fa-tsang, "the third patriarch". He has been accepted as the definitive authority. There is a second translation of the same text, by a monk named Sikshananda, about 150 years after that of Paramartha, but that translations does not help much. The oldest translation (by Paramartha) deals better with deep-going and central problems. (Hakeda 1967:6, 8, 9, passim)

Four English Translations

The Rev. Timothy Richard published his translation in 1907. It "suffers from an attempt to read Christianity into the text," says Hakeda. Richard's translation is extremely sympathetic to the use of Christian concepts out of context, to the end that "his translation inevitably is more Christian than Buddhist in tone", it may be added. But it is the one translation on-line today (Hakeda 1967:7).

There are three more translations worth mentioning. The one by D. T. Suzuki (1900) is the most reliable of the three oldest English translations. The translation by Bhikshu Wai-tao and Dwight Goddard in 1937 contains unwarranted interpretations and is excessively free in renditions. Professor Yoshito S. Hakeda has translated and commented the book more recently. His much recommended book was published on Columbia University Press in 1967. (Hakeda 1967: 17)




I take refuge in the omniscient, omnipotent Saviour Buddha,
As the Reality in the Mahayana.
What is the use of many Words?
You find the elements of the invocation in the one attributed to Ashvaghosha in Professor Hakeda's translation.

In the following you get a shortcut - the main ideas of the whole work and additions of 31 October 2005. The source is the Richard text. It has been enriched by main ideas from another source. Padmasambhava's excellent treatise could be best to compare with. [Link]

Reasons for Writing the Book

It is fit both to study and correct the errors of ordinary men [cf. F]

One can show the means by which one may ascend to the abode of Buddha (or God [cf. G].

Adhering to the benefits of this Faith is well [cf. H]

Men's abilities and attainments are different, and how they receive instruction is necessarily different too.

Some have not enough soundness and brightness (intelligence) to understand the Scriptures unassisted by extensive explanations. [Mod]

A terse style is fit for handy people, generally. [Mod]

The profound Dharma teems with applications. [Mod]

An Outline

The All is to be expounded to help others. Abusing others is a sin. *

The (Deep) Mind of all sentient beings also embraces unsaved beings.*

The Soul-Self is vast, covers vast expanses and the splendid possibilities.*


There is meaning, correction, and different steps of progress. *

Revelation of True Meaning

One Mind and Its Two Aspects

The eternal transcendent God is also the temporary immanent Soul. These two aspects are really one. *

The Deep Mind is the essence of the invisible and the visible worlds. *

Deep Mind is the same behind or within all forms.

The different forms of the universe are not real differences of spirit.

The real essence of things is unchangeable and indestructible. We therefore name it True Essence or True (Deep) Reality. However, the nomenclature of these matters is imperfect. But if false notions are given up, this gives the most meaning.

True Reality is apparently Unreal but true; that is, True Mind is eternal outside Time, of purity, and we call it the Real One. But it has no form.

By relevant enlightenment is meant at least that which has no false notions.

When those who have arrived at different stages of attainment, are enlightened, and from the highest attainment they will be able to see the true nature of the One Mind. This state is the eternal. It is the perfect enlightenment.

One is to apprehend that which is behind thought, on the way to sound wisdom.

If the water in the ocean, on account of wind, forms itself into waves, the fluid nature of water remains. Much similarly, the true nature of man is a clear pure mind. It can be moved.

A practical blessing follows pure wisdom, and may not cease. It then seems natural.

Some speak of four attributes of the main enlightenment. greatness, expansion and clarity. Such qualities form part of the true nature of the Essence or Deep Mind.

One should be deeply lead to practise goodness by methods suitable to the needs.

From imperfect ideas of the enlightenment people are able to understand the meaning of words around enlightenment.

Emotions produce both joys and sorrows.

Attention can cleave to anything of Deep Mind (in time).

Perfect enlightenment cannot be added to anyone.

Real Wisdom is invisible.

Many finite forces which control human nature, such as the changes of mind and consciousness, arise from our unenlightenment. They may be seen manifested in our feelings.

The faculty of thought can be very strong in common men.

The faculty of thought is also called the independent faculty. [Implied: thought fosters, goes along with, and helps independence.]

Even the higher saints when they have attained to their perfect state cannot understand the whole of it.

When we speak of the original nature of the mind, eternally without thought, we call it eternally unchanged.

Some can be delivered from confusion by sound thinking (and intellect).

Some get confused through subjective perception that does not correspond very well with what it is about.

In great wisdom the Deep Mind collapses confusions and dangers.

Progress towards purity of mind is beneficial.

By steps one gets rid of confusions, till in the state of Tathagatahood (Buddhahood) you are free from it altogether.

Bad people differ from the eternal.

Bad and mean ones cannot follow the perfect wisdom of the universe from deep inside.

If the depths of mind cease to be erroneous, then the universe also ceases to be erroneous. Opposite that, great ignorance in relation to the True Real Nature is made apparent.

If there were no Real Nature, there would be nothing to show off to anyone.

One may reckon with four great influences at work all the time. The first is a pure influence called the Real One. The second is a cause of dire confusion, called ignorance. The third is mind confusion. The fourth is falsity at play.

How is it that confusion influences are acting incessantly? A certain deep ignorance colours the Tathagatha (Deep Buddhahood) in the finite mind. As a result, there arise false, imperfect ideas, and these colour the Buddhahood inside, so that one does not understand things well.

The highest saints of the middle school and the highest saints (Bodhisattvas) of the advanced school (the Mahayana), are caused to suffer by false ideas and notions, and so they have sorrows.

As ignorance disappears, then false ideas cease to arise.

The influence of the True Model is of two kinds, namely, from subjective influences of the True Model element itself, and from outward conditions.

True Reality is originally only one, but the natures of men differ in ignorance and characteristics.

Meet with the noble forces of the Buddhas as a means to call the True Model (of Man), the Buddha inside.

One is to cultivate a good character. When the good character is attained, one finds the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas teaching.

Outward influences also include loving influences of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, not only of relatives.

One aim of living a good life is increase in goodness and merit.

In a good life one is to benefit by what is seen and heard.

There are direct and indirect means. One is to improve by means of the power of faith that is natural, hence fit for Deep Reality.

Bring what is good or natural into correspondence with Deep Reality.

The influence of the pure state of Absolute Reality, of Buddhahood, has no end; it has an eternal future.

The unenlightened mind begins to think of the treasury or storehouse or womb of the Tathagata and the Divine Body that is called the divine state (alaya). And the unenlightened mind begins to think of the world around, and this we call ignorance. :)

It is the divine state that is the treasury or storehouse or womb of the Tathagata.

The chief thought is that very helpful ideas may be the work of the Deep Reality. So they are not ordinary ideas conceived in those who do not fully know.

What common men see, is only the rough outline, the physical shapes.

If common men progress till they have reached the utmost state, the inspired is seen to perfection.

When folks pass beyond the sense and faculties, there is no visible state, for the Divine [Land, Realm] of all the Buddhas has no outward form by which they are to be seen.

The inward, Divine Realm is the essence of all there is, and it may manifest itself in form.

Matter is in essence embodied wisdom.

Divine Essence per se is free from magnitude, but if it wills, it can show itself throughout all the universe in splendid ways.

There are glories.

The work of Absolute Reality cannot be comprehended in id.

The Absolute Mind has no need of thoughts like men have.

Men are to understand that space is nothing in the inner heart-land.

Inwardly, space has no separate reality.

The false ideas are phenomena that one should let disappear.

Your divine nature is deep inside. It has immeasurable possibilities.

Nirvana-land without end is what all the Buddhas obtain.

What is at bottom of all experience has no beginning and no end—it is Nirvana-land.

The best human thought of all things is only temporary and is not Absoluteness.

Religious growth or progress involves growth of perfect faith; growth in intelligent practice; and growth in attainments. Let them combine.

The sort of faith depends on the kind of man, the kind of character he has, and there is the Eternal Cause of things.

Those progressing for bad and defiled reasons, their progress is not wholly certain.

If men practice all kinds of goodness they will fall in with the eternal way.

One is to cultivate the root of things by looking on the true nature of all things as eternal, without beginning, independent of man's conceptions of them in temporary life; by looking on all things linked together somehow.

Adhere to what helps through fair deeds and their consequences; by nourishing virtue with joy; and cease from evil.

One is to grow in goodness.

Seek instructions of the Enlightened. Others may not help as well as them.

The influence of God is in his law too.

Try to remove hindrances to goodness and be firmly rooted in it.

One is to seek the Eternal's wish for oneself too.

Without distinction is the final rest.

The Eternal descends and becomes incarnate in the womb of obscurity, and often becomes well known. He sacrifices his home, devoted to the Eternal. He knows true religion. He preaches the law of the Eternal. He enters the true Nirvana. But this intelligent person (Bodhisattva) is not called the divine eternal embodiment.

There must be growth in intelligent practice.

The Eternal hosts divine selfishness and divine endurance, and divine wisdom.

The Eternal in itself is ever clear and without change.

There is nothing outward but the eternal wisdom called the Divine Body.

The Eternal (is without form, and hence) is without hindrances.

Bodhisattvas are able to reach Buddhas. The right enlightenment is sainthood. The attainment is the same.

No proper way differs from the Eternal.

All these points were put down for the good of all beings.

In all kinds of ways living beings are teasing ones.

Practice the truth as it is in the Eternal.

The Practice of the Mahayana Faith

For those who have entered the ranks. What faith helps best? What practice? Worthy faith is of four kinds.

  1. Belief in the root of all things: Deep Reality.
  2. Belief in the infinite merits of Buddhahood (Great God), and drawing near to it, growing in goodness, etc.
  3. Belief in the great benefit of the Law, aiming to practise its means of delicate growth.
  4. Belief in Buddha's words about good, decent doctrine, while trying it out and practising it in time.

The practice of the Buddhist faith consists of five stages:

  1. Doing well.
  2. Non-outré holiness.
  3. No monkey business.
  4. Right perseverance.
  5. Reducing vanity through proper practice of divine wisdom or judgements. [Modified here]

1. If one sees men in trouble, the trouble should be relieved according to one's means. relieved according to one's power. Also, one should explain the various means of growth and inner development according to one's ability. One should refrain from seeking fame and undue, unfit wealth. One should impart the same benefit to others as one has received himself, if that be possible.

2. One is also to observe great principles:

  1. Avoid killing.
  2. Avoid stealing.
  3. Avoid committing adultery.
  4. Avoid being doublefaced.
  5. Avoid cursing.
  6. Avoid lying.
  7. Avoid vain show and speech.
  8. Avoid coveting.
  9. Avoid insults, deception, flattery, or trickery.
  10. Shun anger and heresy. [All are rendered]

It helps to live in quietness, cultivating hearts, prohibiting evil.

3. How to endure troubles and wrongdoings of others is by being the same in trouble and in joy. Consistency for the growth of yourself is fit here.

4. In the scale of being, perseverance is to be without sadness. Speedily leave any sorrows by contemplation and goodness shown to somebody. Worship of God may fit some, showing sincere respect to worthy ones may suit others.

5. Check idle thought. Good contemplation teaches how. Whenever the mind wanders far away, bring it back as gently as you can to the proper track; that's the essence of it. Going on in this way in sound contemplation reaches the peace of the Eternal. But those who will not persevere, and bad people, can hardly obtain such peace from within. The root of this peace is in the Eternal. Continue in it, both in and outside contemplation sessions. those troubled by bad persons and spirits should draw strength from the One Eternal God by thinking of God. Gratitude for unfailing gifts of speech is good too -

A certain kind of peace may not be heaven-sent, but rather a product of outside religions and dominance from others. The peace of the Eternal is otherwise. Its true peace is not in the realms of the senses or in possessions. One is to cultivate this peace for the sake of the seed of Buddhahood deep inside, to let it blossom.

Clever people should at times wisely examine themselves, lest their minds should fall into the dragnets of wrong views and heresy.

Those who diligently set their minds on securing this peace, should, in the present generation, secure these advantages:

  1. Buddhaland protects them.
  2. They leave sorrow far behind in the minds of mortals, and are fearless.
  3. Their spirits become gentle and peaceable.

Added to contemplation it is well to cultivate reasoning or reflection. One should reflect that all thought rises and vanishes again like ocean waves.

Living beings, from eternity down the ages, being influenced by ignorance, live and die and endure much. If men's lives are so full of sorrow, they are greatly to be pitied.

In every good, check vain thoughts.

Lying down, . . . should go together.

Adhere to the nature of the Eternal working through us.

The practice of reflection is to deliver from narrow sins of slyness of dogmatism etc.

It is well to practise some form of goodness.

In this way the two methods of reflection and the checking of vain thoughts are Practice the perfect faith as well as you can and you may attain.

God is always in the method -

Advantages of the Practice of the Mahayana Faith

The very highest truth.
Deliverance into Essence, Eternal Nature, Eternal Selfhood.

From a Creed of Half of Asia

The Divine Seed (?) is the Eternal in all laws of the Universe.

The Illuminators have no fear and they are eventually immortals.

The best teachings can deliver you from all kinds of . . . falsehood. . . .

(Translated from the Buddhist Tripitaka, Nanjio's Catalogue, No 20)


Awakening of Faith by Asvaghosa, Ashvaghosha, Mahayana Buddhism, Literature  

Hakeda, Yoshito, trans. The Awakening of Faith. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.

Suzuki, Teitaro, tr. 1900. Açvaghosha's Discourse on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co.

Harvesting the hay

Symbols, brackets, signs and text icons explained: (1) Text markers(2) Digesting.

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