Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Awakening a Faith / Attributed to Asvagosha -- Yoshito S. Hakeda, tr. -- N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1967

The following review covers two translations of The Awakening of Faith. One by Timothy Richard and the other by Yoshido S. Hakeda.

I recently read two translations of The Awakening of Faith which is a concise presentation of the central ideas of Mahayana Buddhism. It is attributed to the Buddhist philosopher Asvagosha who is thought to have lived in the first to second century. It was thought to have been translated from Sanskrit into Chinese around the year 550; however, no Sanskrit version is extant. Consequently, many believe that it is in fact exclusively a Chinese work written in the 5th or 6th century.

The first of these two versions was translated by Timothy Richard in 1894. Richard describes how he first encountered The Awakening of Faith in 1884. He was struck by the fact that it was, in his words, "a Christian book." Perhaps motivated by the publication in 1900 of D.T. Suzuki's translation, Richard published his translation in 1907 (Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books). Richard consciously gave the work a notable Christian flavor. Richard wrote of Suzuki and his translation, "as he approaches the subject from a non-Christian point of view, the light which comes from a comparison between it and Christianity is denied him." Apparently, Suzuki's problem was that he interpreted a Buddhist text from a Buddhist point of view. For Richard, the preferred approach is to interpret it from a Christian point of view. This approach is, of course, problematic. It reverses the optimal order in which comparisons should be made between religious traditions and their texts.

There is no clear evidence that the author of The Awakening of Faith was significantly influenced by Christianity; hence, any parallels between the work and Christianity would suggest independent recognition of the same religious or spiritual ideas. Drawing parallels should only be done, however, after the comparable works are translated using the unique idioms of their separate traditions. To translate one into the idiom of the other essentially forces the parallels to the surface and hides any alternative interpretation of the relationships between the traditions. To translate key terms of one tradition into the vocabulary of another tradition creates a pseudo-translation that appropriates the source text to serve the purposes of an alien tradition. The proper method of translating and comparing texts from different traditions would be to retain the idiom of the source text as much as possible through translation and only then compare its content to the alien tradition.

A far better translation is available, however, from Yoshita S. Hakeda. Hakeda notes that his text is translated in light of traditional commentaries, particularly those by Hui-yuan (523-592), Wonhyo (617-686), and Fa-tsang (643-712). Hakeda's translation is notably more literal than Richards and the vocabulary into which the work is translated is more standard within the Buddhist tradition. For example, Hakeda translates "Chen Ju" as "Suchness," while Richard translates it as "True Model," meaning God. Richard also suggests that what has been translated by Hakeda as "Tathagata" might be sometimes best translated as "Messiah."

The text of The Awakening of Faith is divided into five unequal parts: (1) a brief explanation of the reasons for writing the work, (2) a concise outline of what is to be elaborated in the work, (3) an exposition of the main philosophical ideas of the book, (4) a guide to the practical application of the ideas in section (3), and (5) devotional practices recommended by the author. Section (3) constitutes 2/3 of the entire work and is clearly the most significant section. Here the central idea of "Suchness" or the all-inclusive reality or the unconditional absolute is developed. Suchness is first of all monistic; however, the author recognizes that it has two aspects: transcendental and phenomenal. Ontologically, they are one, but epistemologically they are two. Furthermore, it is fundamentally "mind" and so most of the section is an elaboration of the nature of mind in both nirvana and samsara. These, however, consistent with the general monism of the philosophy, are ultimately described as being one and the same.

The Awakening of Faith is of great importance to several Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Buddhist schools, particularly the Hua-yen, Ch'an, Zen, and Pure Land schools.

My reading of this work was something of a disappointment. My expectations were built out of my recollections from having read the Richard translation many years ago. At that time, I found it to be among the most enlightening books I had encountered. This may have been a consequence of my then fascination with mysticism. Richard's translation rightly emphasizes this aspect of the work and for anyone interested in the mystical currents in Buddhism, The Awakening of Faith is well worth reading.

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