The Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra is a short but extremely influential Mahāyāna Buddhist text that was probably composed sometime around the middle of the third century C.E. It is the sūtra that introduced into the Mahāyāna tradition the notion of the tathāgatagarbha, the idea that all beings have latent within themselves all the virtues of a buddha (tathāgata), but that those virtues are hidden by a covering (garbha) of passion and anguish (the so-called kleśas of greed, anger, lust, confusion, and so on). The central message of the sūtra is that when those kleśas are removed, the buddhahood that is potential in all beings will be revealed.
The idea of the tathāgatagarbha was later to form the nucleus of the concept of buddha nature (buddhadhātu) in the Sino-Japanese Buddhist tradition. And concepts of both the tathāgatagarbha and the buddha nature underwent extensive doctrinal development in important Mahāyāna sūtras and influential commentaries. But whereas later treatises generally give a highly philosophical interpretation to the tathāgatagarbha, it is doubtful that any such sophisticated understanding was intended by the author(s) of the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra. In the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra, the concept of the tathāgatagarbha is promulgated primarily to inspire beings with the confidence to seek buddhahood, and to persuade them that despite their poverty, suffering, and bondage to passion, they still have the capacity to attain the ultimate goal of Mahāyāna Buddhism, the perfect enlightenment of the Tathāgata.
The term tathāgatagarbha has often been translated by Western scholars as "matrix of the tathāgata," but "matrix" does not exhaust the wide range of meanings of the Sanskrit term garbha. The author of the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra seems to have been well aware of this, since he employs many of these different meanings of garbha in the various similes with which he illustrates the meaning of the tathāgatagarbha. In its most common usage, garbha means "womb," and the eighth simile of the sūtra likens the tathāgatagarbha to an impoverished, vile, and ugly woman who bears a noble, world-conquering king in her womb. But garbha can also mean "fetus," so the garbha in the eighth simile may also refer to the son who is within her womb. Garbha can also refer to the calyx of a flower, the cuplike leafy structure that enfolds the blossom, and the image in the sūtra's opening scene of conjured buddha forms seated within lotus flowers seems to be predicated on this meaning. Garbha can also mean "inner room," or "hidden chamber," or "sanctuary" (as in the garbhagṛha of a Hindu temple, which houses the image of the deity, or the rounded dome [garbha] of a Buddhist stūpa, which houses the precious relics of the Buddha). It is probably this meaning of garbha that the author of the sūtra intends in the fifth simile of the sūtra, when he speaks of the tathāgatagarbha as being like a hidden chamber or a secret store of treasure hidden beneath the house of a poor man. (The Chinese may have had this simile in mind when they chose the term tsang, "secret store," to translate garbha). Garbha can also refer to the outer husk that covers a fruit or seed or, by extension, to the seed itself. The third and sixth similes of the sūtra, which compare the tathāgatagarbha to the useless husk surrounding an edible kernel of wheat and to the mango pit that can grow into the most regal of trees, make direct use of this sense. Finally, garbha can refer to the inside, middle, or interior of anything, and it is this widest meaning that the author of the sūtra is employing when he likens the tathāgatagarbha to gold hidden inside a pit of waste, to honey hidden inside a swarm of angry bees, or to a golden statue hidden inside a wrapping of dirty rags or within a blackened mold.
The majority of the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra's similes portray something extremely precious, valuable, or noble (such as buddhas, honey, kernels of wheat, gold, treasure, golden statues, or future princes), contained within something abhorrent and vile (such as rotting petals, angry bees, useless husks, excrement, poor hovels, dirty rags, soot-covered molds, and impoverished, ugly women). So the central meaning of the tathāgatagarbha concept is clear: within each and every person there exists something extremely valuable—the possibility of becoming a tathāgata—but that valuable potential for buddhahood is hidden by something vile—the sufferings and passions and vicissitudes of life. But to carry the interpretation further and to look for a deeper meaning to the tathāgatagarbha concept of this early text would probably be wrong, for when one looks more closely at the various similes used to illustrate the tathāgatagarbha, certain inconsistencies begin to emerge. For example, although most of the similes portray the precious reality within as something already complete in itself, two of the similes clearly indicate that the precious reality will only reach its perfected state in the future. The conjured buddhas within the lotus flowers are already fully enlightened, the honey and the wheat kernel are already edible, the gold in the waste pit is already pure and in no need of refinement, and the golden statues are already fully cast, whereas, by contrast, it will take many years for the embryo in the poor woman's womb to become a world conqueror, and more years still for the mango pit to become a full-grown tree. (Grosnick, "The Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra," 92–93)
Grosnick, William. "The Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra." In Buddhism in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., 92–106. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Grosnick, William. "The Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra." In Buddhism in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., 92–106. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.;The Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra;tathāgatagarbha;Tathāgatagarbhasūtra;William Grosnick