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.