Nine Similes for Tathāgatagarbha
Dalai Lama, 14th, and Thubten Chodron. "Nine Similes for Tathāgatagarbha." In Saṃsāra, Nirvāṇa, and Buddha Nature, 302–10. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2018.
By using nine similes, the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra gives us an inkling of the buddha nature that has always been and will continue to be within us. Maitreya's Sublime Continuum and its commentary by Asaṅga explain these similes that point to a hidden richness inside of us—a potential that we are usually unaware of. Contemplating the meaning of these similes generates great inspiration and confidence to practice the path.
All afflictive and cognitive obscurations are condensed into nine obscurations spoken of in the nine similes. By applying the appropriate antidotes, all of these can be removed and full awakening attained. From beginningless time, the basic nature of the mind has been immaculate and has never been mixed with stains or afflictions. But it has been covered by these nine obscurations. As we progress on the path, the transforming buddha nature develops, the mind becomes purer, and the obscurations are gradually eliminated. When all obscurations have been removed such that they can never return, the purified mind becomes the wisdom dharmakāya and its emptiness becomes the nature dharmakāya. Maitreya says (RGV 1:80-81):
This [tathāgatagarbha] abides within the shroud of the afflictions,
as should be understood through [the following nine] examples:
Just like a buddha in a decaying lotus, honey amidst bees,
a grain in its husk, gold in filth, a treasure underground,
a shoot and so on sprouting from a little fruit,
a statue of the Victorious One in a tattered rag,
a ruler of humankind in a destitute woman's womb,
and a precious image under clay,
this [buddha] element abides within all sentient beings,
obscured by the defilement of the adventitious poisons.
1. The buddha essence is like a beautiful buddha image in an old, ugly lotus. When the petals close around a buddha image, we see only the old lotus and not the beautiful buddha image. Not knowing the image is there, we never think to open the petals and take it out. Similarly, the seeds of attachment obscure our buddha essence. While all beings who are not arhats are obscured by the seeds of attachment, this simile applies particularly to ordinary sentient beings in the form and formless realms. Although they have temporarily suppressed the coarse manifest afflictions of the desire realm by entering into deep states of meditative absorption, the seeds of afflictions still remain in their mindstreams. Ordinary beings in the form and formless realms are specified because āryas may also take rebirth in these realms. However, they have already eliminated some portion of the seeds of afflictions.
We beings in the desire realm, too, have the seed of attachment. When it explodes and becomes full blown, we have no awareness of our buddha essence, which is the source of all hope and confidence. Instead we become totally engrossed in the objects of our attachment. Just as the beautiful and fragrant lotus withers and becomes decrepit after a few days, the people and things we cling to age and decay. While they initially bring us happiness, later we become bored and cast them aside, as we would a withered flower.
A person with clairvoyance can see the buddha image inside the lotus and will open the flower and remove the buddha image. Similarly, the Buddha sees the buddha essence in each sentient being, even those in the hells, and thinks, "Who will liberate these beings from their obscurations, especially their attachment?" Because the Buddha has great compassion and is free from all defilements, he will guide us to discover the beautiful buddha image—the wisdom dharmakāya—hidden by our attachment.
2. The buddha essence is like honey with a swarm of bees surrounding it. The honey is like the ultimate truth—the emptiness of inherent existence. Just as all honey has the same taste, the ultimate nature of all phenomena is the same. Bees not only conceal the honey but also angrily sting someone who tries to take it, harming themselves as well as their enemy. Similarly, we cannot see our honey-like buddha essence because it is obscured by the seeds of hatred, anger, resentment, and vengeance. This obscuration pertains specifically to ordinary beings in the form and formless realms who do not experience manifest anger, but still have the seeds of anger in their mental continuums. We beings in the desire realm have the seeds of anger as well as coarse manifest anger. These seeds not only prevent us from seeing our buddha essence but also enable the destructive emotions related to anger and animosity to manifest in our minds, mercilessly stinging ourselves and those around us.
An insightful person knows that despite the bees around it, the honey itself is pure and delicious. She devises a skillful way to separate the bees from the honey, and then enjoys the honey as she wishes. Tasting honey, like realizing the emptiness of the mind, always brings joy. Similarly, the Buddha sees the buddha essence in each sentient being and with skillful methods, such as the teachings of the three turnings of the Dharma wheel, frees it from defilements.
3. The buddha essence resembles a kernel of grain in its husk. The husk obscures the grain. For the grain to become edible food, the husk must be removed. In the same way, the seed of ignorance obscures our minds so that we cannot realize the ultimate truth. As above, this obscuration applies particularly to ordinary beings in the form and formless realms, but those of us in the desire realm have it as well. The seed of ignorance makes self-grasping ignorance and the ignorance of karma and its effects manifest in our minds. By means of the above three seeds of the three poisons, sentient beings create karma that brings rebirth in saṃsāra.
Just as the grain cannot be eaten when inside the husk, the deeds of a buddha cannot be displayed while the buddha essence is in the husk of defilements. A wise person knows how to remove the husk and prepare the grain so that it becomes nourishing food. In the same way, the Buddha guides sentient beings to remove their defilements, and the buddhas they will become will provide spiritual sustenance for others.
4. The buddha essence resembles gold buried in filth. If someone accidentally drops some gold in a pile of filthy refuse at the side of the road, we don't know it is there let alone think to take it out, clean it, and use it. Similarly, while our gold-like buddha essence is not mixed with defilements, the filth of the manifest coarse three poisons prevents us from seeing it. Manifest coarse afflictions are the chief obscuration hindering beings in the desire realm. They provide the condition through which we are reborn especially in the desire realm. Led here and there by powerful emotions that arise suddenly and dominate our minds and by strong wrong views that we stubbornly cling to, we do not even consider the buddha essence that has always been there. Like the filth, manifest coarse attachment, animosity, and ignorance are repugnant. We dislike ourselves when they rule our minds, and others are likewise repulsed by our behavior.
The gold is pure—it can never become impure—but we cannot see it or use it as long as it is sunk in the filth. Similarly, the emptiness of the mind can never be infiltrated by the afflictions, but it cannot shine forth when obscured by the troublesome manifest afflictions. A deva who possesses the clairvoyant power of the divine eye sees the gold, tells a person where to find it, and instructs him to make the gold into something worthy of being gold. Similarly, the Buddha sees the empty nature of our minds, teaches us how to purify it, and instructs us how to transform our minds into the minds of buddhas. These first four similes pertain specifically to ordinary beings who have not yet realized emptiness.
5. The buddha essence is like a treasure under the earth. Like a magnificent treasure buried under the earth in a poor person's yard, the buddha essence is obscured by the latencies of the afflictions. This obscuration pertains especially to śrāvaka and solitary realizer arhats, who have eliminated the coarse manifest afflictions and their seeds, but whose minds are still obscured by the latencies of afflictions, especially the latency of ignorance, that prevent them from becoming fully awakened buddhas. While these arhats have realized emptiness and overcome afflictions, the ground of the latencies of afflictions are the condition through which arhats obtain a mental body and abide in the pacification of samsara that is an arhats nirvāṇa. After these arhats generate bodhicitta, they follow the bodhisattva paths and grounds. In doing so, when the ground of these latencies is removed, they will attain the ultimate true cessation, nonabiding nirvāṇa.
A treasure buried under the house of a poor family can free them from poverty, but they do not know it is there, even though it is right under them. The treasure does not say, "I'm here. Come and get me." Our naturally abiding buddha essence is like a treasure that has existed in our minds beginninglessly. This emptiness of the mind does not decrease or increase, it does not call out to us saying, "I'm here." But when the Buddha tells us about it, we learn how to uncover it, freeing it from even the ground of the latencies of ignorance that prevent full awakening.
6. The buddha essence resembles a tiny sprout hidden within the peel of a fruit. Beans have tiny sprouts inside but we cannot see them until the fruit and its peel have been shed. Similarly, for the path of seeing to be actualized, the objects of abandonment by the path of seeing must be destroyed. This simile applies particularly to ordinary beings on the paths of learning as well as Fundamental Vehicle āryas who are not yet arhats. Until they attain the path of seeing, the acquired afflictions, which are the objects to be abandoned by that path, obscure their buddha essence. While on the path of seeing, these learners have overcome the acquired afflictions but still have the innate afflictions and their seeds.
The transforming buddha essence is like a sprout that has the potential to grow into a huge tree that will offer shade for many people on a hot day. Just as the sprout needs good conditions to grow, we rely on the conditions of the collections of merit and wisdom to nourish the transforming buddha essence. Great compassion, wisdom, reverence for the Mahāyāna teachings and their goal, a great collection of merit, and samadhi are nourishing conditions that assist the transforming buddha essence to become the wisdom dharmakāya.
7. The buddha essence is like a buddha statue covered by a tattered rag. The innate afflictions and their seeds—the objects to be abandoned on the path of meditation—resemble a buddha image wrapped in a tattered rag. The dismantling of the afflictions began on the path of seeing, and now, on the path of meditation, they are in tatters and ready to be discarded completely. Similarly, ordinary beings and āryas on the learning paths (āryas who are not yet arhats) are still obscured by the innate afflictions and their seeds, but they are weak and will soon be overcome. Nevertheless, while present, they obscure the buddha essence.
A deva sees a buddha statue under a dirty cloth and explains to a person who wants to have a buddha statue that it is there and she should retrieve it. In the same way, the Buddha sees that the ultimate nature of his own mind—emptiness—is the same as the emptiness of the minds of all sentient beings, even animals, hungry ghosts, and hell beings. This beautiful nature is covered by the remnants of the eighty-four thousand afflictions. To free it from these, the Buddha teaches the Dharma. The nature dharmakāya is like a precious statue. Just as the whole statue comes out at once when the rag is removed, the nature dharmakāya appears in its entirety when the mind is freed from all defilements.
8. The buddha essence resembles a baby who will become a great leader in the womb of a poor, miserable, forlorn woman. In her womb a woman bears a baby who will be a great leader and do much good in the world. Not knowing that her child will one day be able to protect her, she knows only her present suffering. Similarly, ārya bodhisattvas on the impure grounds—grounds one through seven—have amazing potential that they are as yet unaware of owing to the womb-like confines of the afflictive obscurations. When they emerge from these on the eighth ground, their pristine wisdom becomes even more powerful, like the baby who has grown into a great leader.
Cyclic existence is like the homeless shelter in which this poor, miserable woman lives. There she is reviled by others and sinks into despair because she has no refuge or protector. Her child, as a great ruler, will soon be able to care for her, but she does not know this. Similarly, we do not realize that our ultimate protector is inside of us. But when the emptiness of our minds is revealed and becomes the nature dharmakāya, our problems are forever pacified. When we later actualize the enjoyment body, we will be like a wealthy monarch who can protect all beings in the land.
9. The buddha essence is like a golden buddha statue covered by a fine layer of dust. The buddha essence of the pure-ground bodhisattvas—grounds eight through ten—is still covered by a thin layer of cognitive obscurations that impedes their full awakening—the latencies of the defilements that bring about the appearance of inherent existence and prevent directly seeing the two truths simultaneously. Like a magnificent, golden buddha statue that was cast in a mold and now is covered by only a layer of fine clay dust remaining from the mold, their buddha essence will soon be fully revealed when the vajra-like concentration at the end of the continuum of a sentient being removes the last remaining obscurations from the mindstream, allowing the buddha essence to be fully revealed.
An expert statue maker recognizes the preciousness of the gold statue covered by clay dust and cleanses it to reveal its pure beauty for everyone to enjoy. Similarly, the Buddha sees our buddha essence and guides us on the path to reveal it, so that we will be able to manifest emanation bodies. These emanation bodies will appear in various forms according to the karma of the sentient beings who can benefit from them. By these means, the buddha we will become will compassionately instruct and guide sentient beings according to their disposition.
1. Contemplate each simile one by one.
2. Consider how it applies to you, the people you know, and all beings around you.
3. Seeing that each sentient being is impeded by obscurations that limit happiness and cause misery, let compassion arise for each and every sentient being.
4. With strong compassion, cultivate bodhicitta and determine to become a buddha in order to lead all beings to actualize their buddha essence.