AÇVAGHOSHA is the philosopher of Buddhism. His treatise on The Awakening of Faith is recognised by all Northern schools and sects as orthodox and used even to-day in Chinese translations as a text-book for the instruction of Buddhist priests.
The original Sanskrit text has not been found as yet, and if it should not be discovered somewhere in India or in one of the numerous libraries of the Buddhist vihâras, it would be a great loss; for then our knowledge of Açvaghosha's philosophy would remain limited to its Chinese translation.
Açvaghosha's treatise on The Awakening of Faith is a small booklet, a monograph of the usual size of Chinese fascicles, comprising in its Chinese dress no more than about 10,800 characters, and may be read through in a few hours. But the importance of this monograph stands in no relation to its brevity,
and it is very strange that no translation of it has appeared as yet in any European language. I was therefore exceedingly glad that Mr. Teitaro Suzuki, a Japanese Buddhist and a disciple of the Rev. Shaku Soyen, the distinguished Abbot of Kamakura, who was one of the delegates of the Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893, undertook the work of rendering Açvaghosha's monograph into English form. I watched the progress of his translation and my interest in the work increased the more I became familiar with the thoughts of the great philosopher of Buddhism. Not only is my own interpretation of Buddhism, as stated in the Gospel of Buddha and elsewhere, here fully justified, but there are striking similarities between the very terms of Açvaghosha's system and expressions which I have used in my own philosophical writings. The main coincidence is the idea of Suchness, which is pure form, or the purely formal aspect of things, determining their nature according to mathematical and mechanical laws. 1
Suchness, according to Açvaghosha, is the cosmic order or Gesetzmässigkeit of the world; it is the sum total of all those factors which shape the universe and determine the destinies of its creatures. It is the norm of existence and is compared to a womb in which all things take shape and from which they are born. It is Plato's realm of ideas and Goethe's "Mothers" of the second part of Faust.
Suchness which in its absolute sense means the total system of the abstractly formal laws, including the moral order of the universe, is contrasted with the realm of Birth and Death. This realm of Birth and Death, is the material world of concrete objects. While Suchness is the domain of the universal, the realm of Birth and Death is the domain of the particular; and it is characteristic of the Mahayana school that the bodily, the particular, the concrete is not rejected as a state of sin, but only characterised as impure or defiled, imperfect, and implicated with sorrow and pain, on account of its limitedness and the illusions which naturally attach to it.
Suchness and the realm of Birth and Death
are not two hostile empires but two names of the same thing. There is but one world with two aspects describing two opposed phases of one and the same existence. These two aspects form a contrast, not a contradiction. Suchness (or the good law, the normative factor) dominates the realm of Birth and Death, which latter therefore, in a certain sense, belongs to Suchness throughout in its entirety as well as in its details.
But sentient beings are apt to overlook the significance of the universal, for the senses depict only the particular. Thus to a superficial consideration of sensual beings, the world presents itself as a conglomeration of isolated objects and beings, and the unity that consists in the oneness of law which dominates all, is lost sight of. It is the mind (or spiritual insight into the nature of things) which traces the unity of being and learns to appreciate the significance of the universal.
Universals, i.e., those factors which constitute the suchness of things are not substances, not entities, but relations, pure forms, or determinants, i.e., general laws. Thus
they are not things, but ideas; and the most important one among them, the suchness of man or his soul, is not a concrete self, an âtman, but "name and form."
It is well known what an important role the denial of the existence of the âtman plays in the Abhidharma, and we need not repeat here that it is the least understood and most misrepresented doctrine of Buddhism.
Thus the essential feature of existence, of that which presents itself to the senses, is not the material, but the formal; not that which makes it concrete and particular, but that which constitutes its nature and applies generally; not that which happens to be here, so that it is this, but that which makes it to be thus; not its Thisness, but its Suchness.
Particularity is not denounced as evil, but it is set forth as limited; and we might add (an idea which is not expressed in the Mahâyâna, but implied) that the universal would be unmeaning if it were not realised in the particular. Absolute Suchness without reference to the world of concrete Particularity is like a Pratyekabuddha, and the Pratyekabuddha,
a sage whose wisdom does not go out into the world to seek and to save, is regarded an inferior to the Bodhisattvas, who with inferior knowledge combine a greater love and do practical work that is of help to their fellow beings.
How highly Particularity is considered appears from the Mahayana picture in which it stands contrasted to Universality on perfectly equal terms. 1
The world-process starts in ignorance, perhaps through ignorance or at least through some commotion void of enlightenment, but from the start it is enveloped by the good law of cosmic order. Suchness, the norm of being, guides its steps. It is shaped in the womb of the Tathâgata and is in the progress of evolution more and more tinged, or, as Açvaghosha says, perfumed, with the cognition of Suchness. Thus life will necessarily march onward to Buddhahood, actualising in the course of its development the eternal in the transient, the omnipresent in the special, the universal in the concrete and particular, and unchangeable
perfection in the imperfect haphazards of the kaleidoscopic world of changes, in which things originate by being compounded, and perish according to the law that all compounds are doomed to dissolution. Hence it becomes apparent that the realm of Birth and Death is the realisation only of that which in itself is immortal; it is the appearance in time and space, the actualisation, the materialisation, the incarnation, of that which is everlasting and permanent in the absolute sense. Says Goethe:
The reading of Açvaghosha's treatise may in some of its parts present difficulties, and Western thinkers would undoubtedly express themselves in other terms than this thinker of India who lived almost two thousand years ago; but the underlying ideas of his philosophy will be found simple enough, if the reader will take the trouble patiently to consider the significance of every sentence in its relation to the whole system.
iv:1 This coincidence of some salient points need of course not exclude disagreements in other important matters.
viii:1 See the inside front cover.