Event — Buddhist Studies Lectures

Did 'The Awakening of Faith' Ignore the Psychodicy Problem?

If we are originally enlightened, how does ignorance arise? Influential commentaries led East Asian Buddhists to believe the Awakening of Faith, a source of that puzzle, never addressed that question. But its answer was the core project of its author, as this talk will demonstrate.

Lecture by Dr Dan Lusthaus (PhD Temple University, 1989)


The influential 6th century CE Chinese apocryphal text, Awakening of Mahāyāna Faith, contains a famous passage usually understood as: On the basis of Original Enlightenment, non-enlightenment arises. That raises the question: If we are originally enlightened, how and why does ignorance arise? Since the idea of original enlightenment shaped much East Asian Buddhist thinking, that puzzle also became a fundamental enigma for those traditions. It is the Buddhist version of the western problem of theodicy. Influential commentaries on the Awakening of Faith by Fazang and Wonhyŏ over a century later side-stepped the question, leading subsequent generations of East Asian Buddhists to conclude that the Awakening of Faith never addressed the question. But it did, and its response to that puzzle, long overlooked by the Buddhist tradition, was actually the core problematic its author wished to address.

The Awakening of Faith’s key models, along with twenty of its illustrative arguments, were precisely designed to explain how ignorance, or non-awakening happens. Looking at commentaries that preceded those later commentaries, such as those by Tanyan, Huiyuan, and an anonymous commentary preserved in Dunhuang identified today as Hane 333v, and especially the Awakening of Faith’s own models and arguments, we will attempt to recover the Awakening of Faith’s account of why, although we are originally awakened, we start out not yet enlightened.

Dan Lusthaus (PhD Temple University, 1989) is co-translator and co-editor of the recently published new translation of The Awakening of Mahāyāna Faith (Oxford Univ. Press, 2019). He has taught Asian Religion and Philosophy at several universities and colleges including UCLA, University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, and Boston University, and has been a Research Associate at Harvard University since 2005. His publications include Buddhist Phenomenology:  A Philosophical Investigation of Yogācāra Buddhism and the Ch’eng wei-shih lun (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002), A Comprehensive Commentary on the Heart Sutra (Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra) by K’uei-chi (tr. in collaboration with Heng-Ching Shih; Berkeley: Numata, 2001), as well as numerous articles on Buddhism, some available at https://harvard.academia.edu/DanLusthaus