Buddhism Awakening of Faith
Jason Clower
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0170


The Awakening of Faith (Ch. Dasheng qixin lun, Jpn. Daijō kishinron 大乘起信論) claims, in its colophon, to have been written by “Aśvaghoṣa” (presumably the 1st- or 2nd-century north Indian author), but its origin is uncertain. It exists only in Chinese, in two somewhat disparate versions, the first traditionally thought to have been translated by Paramārtha in 550, and the second being an alleged retranslation by Śikṣānanda between 695 and 700. In modern times, the Awakening of Faith has been surrounded by controversy regarding whether it is truly a translation from Sanskrit or a Chinese apocryphon, and also regarding whether its teachings are faithful to the Buddhist tradition that preceded it. Traditionalists have argued that the Awakening of Faith expresses doctrines already found in such Sanskrit texts as the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra and Śrīmālādevī Sūtra, and that the hypothesis of a Sanskrit original is supported by the existence of a second translation by Śikṣānanda. However, critics point to historical problems with the traditional account of the text’s translation and transmission, and argue instead for a Chinese origin based on points of diction and doctrine. Most modern scholars now believe that it is an indigenous Chinese composition, though debate continues. What is not debated, however, is that the Awakening of Faith provided the doctrinal foundation for many of the nativized forms of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Buddhism. It is a central influence on the Huayan, Chan, Shingon, Nichiren, and Pure Land traditions, and it indirectly helped to shaped Tiantai and even Neo-Confucian philosophy as well. Famously, the Awakening of Faith marries together doctrines of tathāgata-garbha (the “womb of buddhas”) with the Yogācāra model of consciousness. Mind is intrinsically enlightened but has been overcome by ignorance, wherefore it gives rise to dualistic thought and phenomena. However, the text teaches, the mind remains essentially unsullied, and its untainted nature can “perfume” or “permeate” (Ch. xun, Jpn. kun 薰) ignorance and purify mind of defilements. Accordingly, the text teaches that there are two kinds or levels of enlightenment: the “original” enlightenment (Ch. benjue, Jpn. hongaku 本覺), which is the underlying condition of mind, and the “incipient” enlightenment (Chs. shijue, Js.shigaku 始覺), which results from mind’s liberation from ignorance. Such doctrines shaped the distinctly East Asian conceptions of buddha-nature (though the term “buddha-nature” [Ch. foxing, Jpn. busshō 佛性] does not appear in the text), mind, suchness, and the dharma body. Alternate forms of the title for this article could read: Ta-sheng ch’i-hsin-lun; Dacheng qixin lun; Ta-ch’eng ch’i-hsin-lun; Qixin lun; Ch’i-hsin-lun; Daijōkishinron; Kishinron;Taesŭng kisillon; Tae-sŭng ki-shin-non; Kisillon; Ki-shin-non; or Mahāyāna-śraddhotpāda-śāstra.

General Overviews

Lusthaus 1998 and Gregory 1998 are a pair of short, clear encyclopedia articles, suitable for any audience, which together cover the distinctive contents of the Awakening of Faith and its place in Buddhist history. Goddard 1933 is an attempt to paraphrase the contents of the text for a general readership, and though now dated it is still of historical significance. Lai 1975 introduces the Awakening of Faith in narrative fashion as a moment in Chinese intellectual history. Gong 1995 covers both the text’s doctrines and its cultural import for Chinese intellectual history. Hirakawa 1990 and Inoue 2000 are both anthologies of articles for advanced students of the subject, written by leading experts on a wide variety of historical, philological, and philosophical topics.

  • Goddard, Dwight. The Principle and Practice of Mahayana Buddhism: An Interpretation of Professor Suzuki’s Translation of Ashvaghosha’s Awakening of Faith. Thetford, VT, 1933.

    Effort by early American popularizer of Buddhism to paraphrase and elaborate on the subject matter of the Awakening of Faith, as understood by Goddard from Suzuki 1900 (cited under Western-Language Translations).

  • Gong, Jun 龚隽. Dasheng qixinlun yu fojiao Zhongguohua (大乘起信論與佛教中國化). Taipei: Wenjin, 1995.

    Cultural and doctrinal study of the Awakening of Faith’s distinctive concepts as products of the larger indigenization of Buddhism in China, and of the influence of the text on later Chinese Buddhist and Confucian thought and modern Chinese thought, including New Confucianism. Reprint of author’s 1993 Wuhan University doctoral dissertation. No index.

  • Gregory, Peter. “Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 2. Edited by Edward Craig, 603–604. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

    Succinct introduction to the text that focuses on the Awakening of Faith’s ontology and its model of the structure of mind and enlightenment.

  • Hirakawa, Akira 平川彰. Nyoraizō to Daijō kishinron (如来蔵と大乗起信論). Tokyo: Shunjūsha, 1990.

    Voluminous anthology of articles by eminent scholars about the Awakening of Faith’s reception and influence among numerous major Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Buddhist figures and among modern scholars, doctrines of buddha-nature and tathāgata-garbha (womb of buddhas), textual borrowings, and its relationship to the Dilun school, from which many scholars believe it emerged.

  • Inoue, Katsuhito 井上克人, ed. Daijō kishinron no kenkyū (大乗起信論の研究). Suita-shi: Kansai Daigaku Shuppanbu, 2000.

    Anthology of articles covering such topics as the early history of the Awakening of Faith, the influence of its doctrine of original enlightenment on early Chan, Fazang’s commentary, the rhetoric of the text, and the concept of the “one vehicle” (ekayāna).

  • Lai, Whalen. “The Awakening of Faith in Mahayana (Ta-Ch’eng Ch’i-Hsin Lun): A Study of the Unfolding of Sinitic Mahayana Motifs.” PhD diss., Harvard University, 1975.

    Written from a partly traditional perspective, Lai reads Awakening of Faith explicitly through Fazang’s interpretation. The introduction, covering 6th-century Chinese religion, and first chapter, a summary of the Awakening of Faith, can stand alone as a medium-length (ninety pages) overview of the text. However, the dissertation is not easily obtained.

  • Lusthaus, Dan. “Buddhist Philosophy, Chinese.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 1. Edited by Edward Craig, 80–92. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

    Together with Gregory 1998, this chapter makes an ideal short introduction. Contains a dedicated section on the Awakening of Faith that provides an excellent short description of the special importance of the work within the context of the history of Buddhist thought as a whole.

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