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In Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism, the Tathāgatagarbha doctrine (often essentially the same as the Buddha nature concept) teaches that each sentient being contains the intrinsic, effulgent Buddhic element or indwelling potency for becoming a Buddha. There are conflicting interpretations of the idea in Mahayana thought. The idea may be traced to Abhidharmic thought, and ultimately to statements of the Buddha in the Nikayas. Buddha-nature and sugatagarbha are synonyms for tathagatagarbha.


Nomenclature and etymology

The Sanskrit term "tathāgatagarbha" may be parsed into tathāgata ("the one thus gone", referring to the Buddha) and garbha ("root/embryo").[1] where the latter has the meanings: "embryo", "essence";[2] whilst the former may be parsed into "tathā" ("[s]he who has there" and "āgata" (semantic field: "come", "arrived", "not-gone" ) and/or "gata" ("gone").[3]

Luminous mind in the Nikayas

There is a clear reference in the Anguttara Nikaya to a "luminous mind" present within all people, be they corrupt or pure, whether or not it itself is stained or pure.[4] When it is "unstained," it is supremely poised for arahantship, and so could be conceived as the "womb" of the arahant, for which a synonym is tathagata. The Lankavatara Sutra describes the tathagatagarbha ("arahant womb") as "by nature brightly shining and pure," and "originally pure," though "enveloped in the garments of the skhandhas, dhatus and ayatanas and soiled with the dirt of attachment, hatred, delusion and false imagining." It is said to be "naturally pure," but it appears impure as it is stained by adventitious defilements.[5] Thus the Lankavatara Sutra identifies the luminous mind of the Canon with the tathagatagarbha.[6] It also the equates the tathagatagarbha (and alaya-vijnana) with nirvana, though this is concerned with the actual attainment of nirvana as opposed to nirvana as a timeless phenomenon.[7][8] The Canon does not support the identification of the "luminous mind" with nirvanic consciousness, though it plays a role in the realization of nirvana.[9][10] Upon the destruction of the fetters, according to one scholar, "the shining nibbanic consciousness flashes out of the womb of arahantship, being without object or support, so transcending all limitations."[11]

Central Notions of Tathāgatagarbha

The Tathagatagarbha Sutra presents the Tathagatagarbha as a virtual Buddha-homunculus, a fully wisdom-endowed Buddha, "a most victorious body ... great and indestructible" (Buddhism in Practice, ed. by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Princeton University Press, 1995, pp. 100–101), inviolate, seated majestically in the lotus posture within the body of each being, clearly visible only to a perfect Buddha with his supernatural vision (ibid). This is the most "personalist" depiction of the Tathagatagarbha encountered in any of the chief Tathagatagarbha sutras and is imagistically reminiscent of Mahayana descriptions of the Buddha himself sitting in the lotus posture within his own mother's womb prior to birth: "luminous, glorious, gracious, beautiful to see, seated with his legs crossed" and shining "like pure gold ..." (Lalita Vistara Sutra, "Voice of Buddha", Dharma Publishing, 1983, p.109)).

Other Tathagatagarbha sutras (notably the Mahaparinirvana Sutra) view the Buddha-garbha in a more abstract, less explicitly personalist manner. But all are agreed that the Tathagatagarbha is an immortal, inherent transcendental essence or potency and that it resides in a concealed state (concealed by mental and behavioural negativities) in every single being (even the worst - the icchantika).

Although attempts are made in the Buddhist sutras to explain the Tathagatagarbha, it remains ultimately mysterious and allegedly unfathomable to the ordinary, unawakend person, being only fully knowable by perfect Buddhas themselves. As the Srimala Sutra states: "the Tathagatagarbha is the sphere of experience of the Tathagatas [Buddhas] ...". It cannot even be seen clearly by 10th-level (i.e. highest level) Bodhisattvas - although they vaguely perceive its presence. Yet once it is fully "seen and known", on that morning the Bodhisattva "attains the sovereign Self" (aishvarya-atman) and Buddhahood is achieved (The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra in 12 Volumes, tr. by Kosho Yamamoto, ed. by Dr. Tony Page, Nirvana Publications, London, 2000, Vol. 8, p. 42). The Nirvana Sutra, which presents itself as the final teachings of the Buddha on the Tathagatagarbha, makes clear that there are two kinds of self of which he speaks: one mundane and mutable, the other Buddhic and eternal. The first is denied as truly real, while the second is affirmed as the only true Reality (The Mahaparinirvana Sutra in 12 Volumes, tr. by Kosho Yamamoto, ed. by Dr. Tony Page, Nirvana Publications, London, 2000, Vol. 3, p. 1 and passim). In this same sutra the Buddha explains that he proclaims all beings to have Buddha-nature (which is used synonymously with tathagatagarbha in this sutra) in the sense that they will in the future become Buddhas.[12] In the later[13] Lankavatara Sutra it is said that the tathagatagarbha might be mistaken for a Self, which it is not.[14] In fact, it states that it is identical to the teaching of no-self.[15]

In some sutras the Tathagatagarbha is presented as being possessed of two elements, one essential, immutable, changeless and still, the other active and salvational. As Professor Robert E. Buswell Jr. writes in connection with the Vajrasamadhi-sutra: "This 'dharma of the one mind', which is the 'original tathagatagarbha', is said to be 'calm and motionless' ... The Vajrasamadhi's analysis of tathagatagarbha also recalls a distinction the Awakening of Faith makes between the calm, unchanging essence of the mind and its active, adaptable function ... the tathagatagarbha is equated with the 'original edge of reality' (bhutakoti) that is beyond all distinctions - the equivalent of original enlightenment, or the essence. But tathagatagarbha is also the active functioning of that original enlightenment - 'the inspirational power of that fundamental faculty' .... The tathagatagarbha is thus both the 'original edge of reality' that is beyond cultivation ( = essence) as well as the specific types of wisdom and mystical talents that are the byproducts of enlightenment ( = function). ...."[16] The Tathagatagarbha itself thus needs no cultivation, only uncovering or dis-covery, as it is already present and perfect within each being.

Professor of Tibetan Buddhism, Jeffrey Hopkins, also explicates this idea of the Tathagatagarbha by elucidating: 'An unknown treasure exists under the home of a poor person that must be uncovered through removing obstructive dirt, yielding the treasure that always was there. Just as the treasure already exists and thus requires no further fashioning, so the matrix-of-one-gone-thus [i.e. the Tathagatagarbha], endowed with ultimate buddha qualities, already dwells within each sentient being and needs only to be freed from defilements.'[17]

The Tathagatagarbha doctrine later became linked (in syncretic form - e.g. in the Lankavatara Sutra) with doctrines of Citta-matra ("just-the-mind") or Yogacara studies. Yogacarins aimed to account for the possibility of the attainment of Buddhahood by ignorant sentient beings (the "Tathagatagarbha" is the indwelling bodhi - Awakening - in the very heart of Samsara). There is also a tendency in the Tathagatagarbha sutras to support vegetarianism (see vegetarianism in Buddhism), as all persons and creatures are compassionately viewed as possessing one and the same essential nature - the Buddha-dhatu or Buddha-nature.

Some of the most important early texts for the introduction and elaboration of the Tathagatagarbha doctrine are the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Tathagatagarbha Sutra, the Śrīmālā-Sūtra, the Anunatva-Apurnatva-Nirdesa sutra, and the Angulimaliya Sutra; the later commentarial/exegetical-style texts, the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana scripture and the Ratna-gotra-vibhaga summation of the Tathagatagarbha idea had a significant influence on the understanding of "Tathagatagarbha" doctrine.

The concept of the Tathagatagarbha is closely related to that of the Buddha-nature; indeed, in the Angulimaliya Sutra and in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which latter is the lengthiest sutra dealing with the immanent and transcendent presence of the Tathagatagarbha within all beings, the terms "Buddha-nature" ("Buddha-dhatu") and "Tathagatagarbha" are employed as synonymous concepts.

Belief and faith in the true reality of the Tathagatagarbha is presented by the relevant scriptures as a positive mental act and is strongly urged; indeed, rejection of the Tathagatagarbha is linked with highly adverse karmic consequences. In the Angulimaliya Sutra, for instance, it is stated that teaching only non-Self and dismissing the reality of the Tathagatagarbha, karmically leads one into most unpleasant rebirths, whereas spreading the doctrine of the Tathagatagarbha will bring benefit both to oneself and to the world. We read:

"Those who were donkeys in previous lives and paid no attention to the Tathâgata-garbha are now poor and eat coarse food as donkeys do. In future lives, too, apart from being poor, they will be born into lowly kshatriya [military] families. These are none other than the people who have no faith in the Tathâgata-garbha and cultivate the notion of no-Self, for they will be like prostitutes, outcastes, birds and donkeys ...

"People who lack learning and have wrong views get angry with those who teach the Tathâgata-garbha to the world, and [those unlearned people] expound non-Self in place of the Self as their doctrine. He who teaches the Tathâgata-garbha, even at the expense of his own life, knowing that such people are inexperienced with words and lacking in balance, has true patience and teaches for the benefit of the world."

Caution is required when discussing the doctrine of the Tathagatagarbha (as presented in the primary tathagatagarbha-sutric texts), so that the Tathagatagarbha does not become inaccurately denigrated or reduced to a "mere" tactical device or become dismissed as just a metaphor with no actual ontological reality behind it in the here and now (it is incorrect from the perspective of the Tathagatagarbha sutras to view the Tathagatagarbha solely as some future as yet non-existent potential or as a vacuous Emptiness; the Tathagatagarbha is not constrained by time, not subsumed within the past-present-future confines of temporality, but is changeless and eternal); conversely, it is erroneous to construe the Tathagatagarbha as a tangible, worldly, mutating, passion-dominated, desire-driven "ego" on a grand scale, similar to the "ego-lie" comprised of the five mundane skandhas (impermanent mental and physical constituents of the unawakened being). The Tathagatagarbha is indicated by the relevant sutras to be one with the Buddha, just as the Buddha is the Tathagatagarbha at the core of his being. The Tathagatagarbha is the ultimate, pure, ungraspable, inconceivable, irreducible, unassailable, boundless, true and deathless Quintessence of the Buddha's emancipatory Reality, the very core of his sublime nature (Dharmakaya). The Tathagatagarbha is, according to the final sutric teaching of the Mahayana Nirvana Sutra, the hidden interior Buddhic Self (Atman), untouched by all impurity and grasping ego. Because of its concealment, it is extremely difficult to perceive. Even the "eye of prajna" (insight) is not adequate to the task of truly seeing this Tathagatagarbha (so the Nirvana Sutra): only the "eye of a Buddha" can discern it fully and clearly. For unawakened beings, there remains the springboard of faith in the Tathagatagarbha's mystical and liberative Reality.

It is possible to do a Madhyamaka interpretation of tathagatagarbha literature. [18]

Tathagatagarbha in Zen

The role of the tathagatagarbha in Zen can not be discussed or understood without an understanding of how tathagatagarbha is taught in the Lankavatara Sutra. It is through the Lankavatara Sutra that the tathagatagarbha has been part of Zen (i.e., Chan) teaching since its beginning in China. Bodhidharma, the traditional founder of Chan-Zen in China, is traditionally known for carrying the Lankavatara Sutra with him when he came from India to China. The early Zen/Chan teachers in the lineage of Bodhidharma's school were known as the "Lankavatara Masters"[19] The Lankavatara Sutra presents the Chan/Zen Buddhist view of the tathagatagarbha:

[The Buddha said,] Now, Mahāmati, what is perfect knowledge? It is realised when one casts aside the discriminating notions of form, name, reality, and character; it is the inner realisation by noble wisdom. This perfect knowledge, Mahāmati, is the essence of the Tathāgata-garbha.[20]

Because of the use of expedient means (upaya) by metaphors (e.g., the hidden jewel) in the way that the tathagatagarbha was taught in some sutras, two fundamentally mistaken notions arose. First that the tathagatagarba was a teaching different from the teaching of emptiness (sunyata) and that it was a teaching that was somehow more definitive than emptiness, and second that tathagatagarbha was believed to be a substance of reality, a creator, or a substitute for the ego-substance or fundamental self (atman) of the Brahmans.[21] Responding to these two mistaken notions, in Section XXVIII of the Lankavatara, Mahamati asks Buddha, "Is not this Tathagata-garbha taught by the Blessed One the same as the ego-substance (atman) taught by the philosophers?"

The Blessed One replied: No, Mahamati, my Tathagata-garbha is not the same as the ego taught by the philosophers; for what the Tathagatas teach is the Tathagata-garbha in the sense, Mahamati, that it is emptiness, reality-limit, Nirvana, being unborn, unqualified, and devoid of will-effort; the reason why the Tathagatas who are Arhats and Fully-Enlightened Ones, teach the doctrine pointing to the Tathagata-garbha is to make the ignorant cast aside their fear when they listen to the teaching of egolessness and to have them realise the state of non-discrimination and imagelessness. I also wish, Mahamati, that the Bodhisattva-Mahasattvas of the present and future would not attach themselves to the idea of an ego [imagining it to be a soul]. Mahamati, it is like a potter who manufactures various vessels out of a mass of clay of one sort by his own manual skill and labour combined with a rod, water, and thread, Mahamati, that the Tathagatas preach the egolessness of things which removes all the traces of discrimination by various skilful means issuing from their transcendental wisdom, that is, sometimes by the doctrine of the Tathagata-garbha, sometimes by that of egolessness, and, like a potter, by means of various terms, expressions, and synonyms. For this reason, Mahamati, the philosophers' doctrine of an ego-substance is not the same as the teaching of the Tathagata-garbha. Thus, Mahamati, the doctrine of the Tathagata-garbha is disclosed in order to awaken the philosophers from their clinging to the idea of the ego, so that those minds that have fallen into the views imagining the non-existent ego as real, and also into the notion that the triple emancipation is final, may rapidly be awakened to the state of supreme enlightenment. Accordingly, Mahamati, the Tathagatas who are Arhats and Fully-Enlightened Ones disclose the doctrine of the Tathagata-garbha which is thus not to be known as identical with the philosopher's notion of an ego-substance. Therefore. Mahamati, in order to abandon the misconception cherished by the philosophers, you must strive after the teaching of egolessness and the Tathagata-garbha.[22]

Also as described in the Lankavatara,[23] in Chan/Zen the tathagatagarba is identical to the alayavijnana known prior to awakening as the storehouse-consciousness or 8th consciousness. Chan/Zen masters from Huineng in 7th century China[24] to Hakuin in 18th century Japan[25] to Hsu Yun in 20th century China,[26] have all taught that the process of awakening begins with the light of the mind turning around within the 8th consciousness, so that the alayavijnana, also known as the tathagatagarbha, is transformed into the "Bright Mirror Wisdom". When this active transformation takes place to completion the other seven consciousnesses are also transformed. The 7th consciousness of delusive discrimination becomes transformed into the "Equality Wisdom". The 6th consciousness of thinking sense becomes transformed into the "Profound Observing Wisdom", and the 1st to 5th consciousnessses of the five sensory senses become transformed into the "All-performing Wisdom".

As D.T. Suzuki wrote in his introduction to his translation of the Lankavatara Sutra,

"Let there be, however, an intuitive penetration into the primitive purity (prakritiparisuddhi) of the Tathagata-garbha, and the whole system of the Vijnanas goes through a revolution."

This revolution in the system of consciousness (vijnana) is what Chan/Zen calls awakening or "kensho", seeing into one's own nature.

Therefore, in modern-Western manifestations of the Zen Buddhist tradition, it is considered insufficient simply to understand Buddha-nature intellectually. Rather tathagatagarbha must be experienced directly, in one's entire bodymind. Enlightenment in a certain sense consists of a direct experience (gata) of the essence or womb (garbha) of thusness (tatha) and this is the tathagatagarbha of one's own mind, which is traditionally described and designated as śūnyata (emptiness).

The Zen tradition often uses koan to evoke the revolution in consciousness of the turning of the light back to the tathagatagarbha or Buddha-nature. According to one of the most famous koans, a monk once approached the Zen master Chao-chou (Japanese: Jōshū) and asked him, "Does a dog possess Buddha-nature or not?" Chao-chou replied with the one-word answer "" (pronounced "mu" in Japanese), literally meaning "no" or "without." Through an inquiring contemplation of the question and response, one may come to detach from the phenomena of externals in which the six sense conscoiusnesses are usually enthralled and realize the turning around of the light of the mind to gain a direct insight into the tathagatagarba of Buddha-nature.


Buddha-nature (Awakened-nature) has been connected in recent decades with the developments of robotics and the possible eventual creation of artificial intelligence. In the 1970s, the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori popularized the idea that robots, under certain conditions, may possess Buddha-nature. Mori has since founded an institute to study the metaphysical implications of such technology.


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Key texts associated with this doctrine are the Tathagatagarbha Sutra, which contains a series of very striking, concrete images for what the Tathagatagarbha is, The Lion's Roar Discourse of Queen Srimala (Srimala Sutra), which states that this doctrine is ultimate (not provisional or "tactical"), and perhaps most importantly the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra", which likewise insists that the tathagatagarbha teaching is "uttarottara" - absolutely supreme - the "final culmination" and "all-fulfilling conclusion" of the entirety of Mahayana Dharma. The later Lankavatara Sutra presents the tathagatagarbha as being a teaching completely consistent with and identical to emptiness and synthesizes tathagatagarbha with the sunyata of the prajnaparamita sutras. And sunyata is the thought-transcending realm of non-duality and unconditionedness: complete freedom from all constriction and limitation.


  1. ^ The term "garbha" has multiple denotations. A denotation of note is the Garba (dance) of the Gujarati: where a spiritual circle dance is performed around a light or candle placed at the centre, bindu. This dance informs the Tathāgatagarbha Doctrine. Interestingly, the Dzogchenpa tertön Namkai Norbu teaches a similar dance upon a mandala as the 'Dance of the Six Lokas' as terma, where a candle or light is similarly placed.
  2. ^ Lopez, Donald S. (2001). The Story of Buddhism: a concise guide to its history & teaching. New York, NY, USA: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. ISBN 0-06-069976-0 (cloth). P.263
  3. ^ Brandon, G. S. F. (editor)(1972). A Dictionary of Buddhism. (NB: with an "Introduction" by T. O. Ling.) New York, NY, USA: Charles Scribner's Sons. [I]SBN 684-12763-6 (trade cloth) p.240.
  4. ^ Peter Harvey, Consciousness Mysticism in the Discourses of the Buddha. In Karel Werner, ed., The Yogi and the Mystic. Curzon Press 1989, page 94. The reference is at A I, 8-10.
  5. ^ Peter Harvey, Consciousness Mysticism in the Discourses of the Buddha. In Karel Werner, ed., The Yogi and the Mystic. Curzon Press 1989, pages 96-97.
  6. ^ Peter Harvey, Consciousness Mysticism in the Discourses of the Buddha. In Karel Werner, ed., The Yogi and the Mystic. Curzon Press 1989, page 97.
  7. ^ Peter Harvey, Consciousness Mysticism in the Discourses of the Buddha. In Karel Werner, ed., The Yogi and the Mystic. Curzon Press 1989, page 97.
  8. ^ See page 36 of [ this thesis], by a student of Peter Harvey.
  9. ^ Peter Harvey, Consciousness Mysticism in the Discourses of the Buddha. In Karel Werner, ed., The Yogi and the Mystic. Curzon Press 1989, pages 94, 97.
  10. ^ Thanissaro Bhikkhu, [1].
  11. ^ Harvey, page 99.
  12. ^ Heng-Ching Shih, "The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' – A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata.'" "Good son, there are three ways of having: first, to have in the future, Secondly, to have at present, and thirdly, to have in the past. All sentient beings will have in future ages the most perfect enlightenment, i.e., the Buddha nature. All sentient beings have at present bonds of defilements, and do not now possess the thirty-two marks and eighty noble characteristics of the Buddha. All sentient beings had in past ages deeds leading to the elimination of defilements and so can now perceive the Buddha nature as their future goal. For such reasons, I always proclaim that all sentient beings have the Buddha nature."
  13. ^ Florin Giripescu Sutton, "Existence and Enlightenment in the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra: A Study in the Ontology and Epistemology of the Yogācāra School of Mahāyāna Buddhism." SUNY Press, 1991, page 14.
  14. ^ Peter Harvey, Consciousness Mysticism in the Discourses of the Buddha. In Karel Werner, ed., The Yogi and the Mystic. Curzon Press 1989, page 98.
  15. ^ Youru Wang, Linguistic Strategies in Daoist Zhuangzi and Chan Buddhism: The Other Way of Speaking. Routledge, 2003, page 58.
  16. ^ Robert E. Buswell Jr., Cultivating Original Enlightenment, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2007, p. 10.
  17. ^ Professor Jeffrey Hopkins, Mountain Doctrine, Snow Lion Publications, New York, 2006, p. 9.
  18. ^ Newman Robert Glass, Working Emptiness: Toward a Third Reading of Emptiness in Buddhism and Postmodern Thought. Oxford University Press US, 1995 page 120, note 191.
  19. ^ See for example, Zen's Chinese Heritage by Andy Ferguson, p. 31. Widsom Publications, Boston. ISDN: 0-86171-163-7
  20. ^ The Lankavatara Sutra, Trans. by D.T. Suxuki. 1932. Routledge & Kegen Paul, Ltd., London. Page 60
  21. ^ Id in Suzuki's introduction at pages xxv-xxvi.
  22. ^ id p
  23. ^ Id at Section LXXXII, p. 191.
  24. ^ The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui Neng, translated by A.F. Price and Wong Mou-Lam, 1969 Shambhala Publications, LTD, Berkeley, CA. Book Two, The Sutra of Hui Neng, Chapter 7, Temperment and Circumstances, page 68.
  25. ^ The Keiso Dokuzi by Hakuin Ekaku. See online version at and other websites.
  26. ^ Ch'an and Zen Teaching First Serice by Lu K'uan Yu (Charles Luk). 1970, Shambala publications, Inc. Berkeley, CA. Part I: Master Hsu Yun's Discourses and Dharma Words, pages 63-64.


  • The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra in 12 volumes (Nirvana Publications, London, 1999 - 2000), tr. by Kosho Yamamoto, edited by Dr. Tony Page.
  • The Shrimaladevi Sutra (Longchen Foundation, Oxford, 1998), translated by Dr. Shenpen Hookham.

Further reading

See also

External links



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