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The Tathāgatagarbhasūtra (TGS) is a relatively short text that represents the starting point of a number of works in Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism centering around the idea that all living beings have the buddha-nature. The genesis of the term tathāgatagarbha (in Tibetan de bzhin gshegs pa'i snying po, in Chinese rulai zang 如來藏, the key term of this strand of Buddhism and the title of the sūtra), can be observed in the textual history of the TGS. (Zimmermann, A Buddha Within: The Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, p. 7)
Relevance to Buddha-nature
An important sūtra source for the Ratnagotravibhāga, particularly for its discussion of the nine examples that illustrate how all sentient beings possess buddha-nature.
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- 1. the Dafangdeng rulaizang jing (大方等如來藏 經; T. 666), ascribed to Buddhabhadra (佛陀跋 陀羅; 359–429 ce);
- 2. the Dafangguang rulaizang jing (大方廣如來 藏經; T. 667), ascribed to Amoghavajra (不空; 705–774 ce);
- 3. the De bzhin gshegs pa’i snying po’i mdo (D 258/Q 924); and
- 4. a second Tibetan translation, ’Phags pa de bzhin gshegs pa’i snying po zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo, known so far only from the Bathang Kanjur kept in the Newark Museum (Zimmermann, 2002).
Two other Chinese translations that may have existed are no longer extant (Zimmermann, 2002, 69–75). Portions of the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra are cited in the above-mentioned Ratnagotravibhāg, the only known Sanskrit text to preserve such citations, and several key formulations in the Ratnagotravibhāga clearly derive from the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra. In particular, the nine similes at the core of the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra comprise the skeleton of portions of both the Ratnagotravibhāga and its commentary, the Ratnagotravibhāgavyākhyā (see below).
The Tathāgatagarbhasūtra has been translated into English, with extensive annotations, by M. Zimmermann (2002) and earlier (from Chinese) by W. Grosnick (1995). Important studies include those by Takasaki Jikidō (1974, 40–68), Matsumoto Shirō (1994, 411–543), and Nakamura Zuiryū (1963).
The Tathāgatagarbhasūtra has long been regarded as the first scripture to propound the tathāgatagarbha doctrine. However, it is striking that the actual term “tathāgatagarbha” is not central to the text but rather appears only in introductory sections, which M. Zimmermann argues were later additions (2002, 29–32, 39–40). Instead (or in addition), the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra refers to the hidden potential for buddhahood by means of a wide variety of terms, most prominent among which are *tathāgatatva, *buddhatva, *tathāgatakāya (and other terms denoting special Buddha bodies, in contrast to the ordinary bodies borne by unawakened sentient beings), and terms denoting types of jñāna (Zimmermann, 2002, 50–62).
The Tathāgatagarbhasūtra opens in Rājagṛha (present-day Rajgir) and describes a miraculous display by the Buddha of a myriad tathāgatas seated in the calyx of each of a copious array of gigantic lotuses floating in the sky, which then blacken and rot away. The body of the scripture follows, giving nine similes for the hidden potential of sentient beings to attain liberation. According to the similes, this hidden potential resembles the following:
- 1. brightly shining tathāgatas sitting inside withered, rotting lotus flowers;
- 2. honey inside a hive fiercely guarded by bees;
- 3. the kernel of a cereal grain, encased in the husk;
- 4. a gold nugget in a pile of excrement;
- 5. a hidden treasure buried beneath the house of a poor person;
- 6. the sprout inside a seed;
- 7. a statuary image of a tathāgata wrapped in rotten rags and dropped by the wayside in a dangerous wasteland;
- 8. the embryo of a cakravartin (universal monarch) carried in the womb of an unsuspecting and destitute mother; and
- 9. golden figures within the grubby clay molds that are used to cast them, before the mold is broken.
(Source: Radich, Michael. "Tathāgatagarbha Scriptures." In Vol. 1, Brill's Encyclopedia of Buddhism: Literature and Languages, edited by Jonathan A. Silk, Oskar von Hinüber, and Vincent Eltschinger, 261-62. Leiden: Brill, 2015.)
- The Tathāgatagarbhasūtra is preserved in one Tibetan (D258, fifteen folios) and two Chinese translations (Taishō 666 and 667). For a detailed study and translation of this sūtra, see Zimmermann 2002 (see also Takasaki 1974, Diana M. Paul 1980, Grosnick 1995, and Zimmermann 1998). Note that, due to the largely general nature of the sketches of the teachings on tathāgatagarbha in this and the following sūtras, I do not always provide page references.
- In the Chinese version, this is found in the section called Tathāgatotpattisaṃbhavanirdeśa.
|Other Titles||~ ārya-tathāgatagarbha-nāma-mahāyāna-sūtra|
~ Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra
|Text exists in||~ Tibetan|
|Canonical Genre||~ Kangyur · Sūtra · mdo sde · Sūtranta|
|Literary Genre||~ Sūtras - mdo|
|Commentaries on this text|
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About the text
Most scholars agree that the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra was one of the earliest buddha-nature scriptures. Michael Zimmermann explains in his A Buddha Within that there are two versions of the text, the first of which lacks much of the content of the second, later recension. Like the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra offers both ontological and soteriological definition of tathāgatagarbha, although “definition” is probably not the right word: the short text simply lists nine similes to describe the concept. These include a golden statue covered in mud and a seed that is destined to grow into a tree, suggesting both an already perfected nature and the potential to become something that one is presently not.
Zimmermann and others have noted that tathāgatagarbha theory may have initially been developed more for an ethical and soteriological purpose; the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra did not have to explain the idea with complicated philosophical arguments because it was intended to encourage and inspire, not convince. It is an appeal to emotion rather than the intellect. Madhyamaka and Yogācāra schools of doctrine were then in ascendance in Mahāyāna communities, and it is reasonable to hypothesize that practitioners were put off by the seeming nihilism of Madhyamaka; emptiness is too easily interpreted to mean that the ultimate is, terrifyingly, simply a void. Yogācāra, meanwhile, advocated a theory of “class” or “disposition” (gotra) in which only certain beings were said to be able to attain enlightenment. Such a doctrine might leave some of the faithful—not to mention potential converts—feeling left out. The early tathāgatagarbha literature countered both. It offered a positive description of the ultimate—buddha-nature, the true and real nature of both a person and reality—and it guaranteed complete and perfect enlightenment to all beings who were willing to strive for it (on the Mahāyāna path, of course). Yogācāra, it should be noted, also uses positive language to describe the ultimate—mind, at least in later Yogācāra scriptures, is said to be truly existent—and this has led some scholars to erroneously label tathāgatagarbha a Yogācāra doctrine.
The Tathāgatagarbhasūtra may have been translated into Chinese as early as the late third century by a man named Faju 法炬 who was active at least between 290 and 306. This information is based on a catalog called the Chu sanzang ji ji 出三藏記集 by Sengyou 僧祐 (445–518), but it is far from certain, and the assertion has been discounted by some scholars; it would certainly push back the date of the sūtra’s creation. The early surviving recension of the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra is the Dafangdeng rulaizang jing 大方等如來藏經 (Taishō 666), which was translated into Chinese in the early fifth century by Buddhabhadra. A second recension, Dafanghuang rulaizang jing 大方廣如來藏經 (T667), was translated by Amoghavajra around the middle of the eighth century.
The first Tibetan translation was made around the year 800 as ’Phags pa de bzhin gshegs pa’i snying po zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (D258). The Tibetan Yeshe De, who was later apotheosized into one of the twenty-five disciples of Padmasambhava (his mystical ability was said to be flight) is credited with the translation, alongside Śākyaprabha. One recension of the translation alternately credits the work to Jinamitra and Dānaśīla, prolific translators who are well represented in the Tibetan canon. There is reason, however, to doubt the association—Michael Zimmermann reasonably surmised that this was an attempt on the part of the scribe to connect the translation with more established figures. The Tibetan corresponds to the Chinese T667. The sūtra inspired at least one commentary, Golden Key (Gser gyi lde mig) by the great Butön Rinchen Drub.Nupchen Sangye Yeshe had earlier quoted the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, albeit without mentioning the term tathāgatagarbha, in his Lamp for the Eyes in Contemplation (Bsam gtan mig sgron).
- For example, the translations and studies of D. T. Suzuki.
- Paul, The Buddhist Feminine Ideal, 14: Fazhu also translated the Aṅgulimala (T119).
- Zimmermann (A Buddha Within, chapter 4) hesitates to abandon the possibility, while Radich (The Mahāparinirvāṇa-mahāsūtra, 196 n477), who strives to predate the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra to the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, does not.
- Zimmermann, A Buddha Within, 16; 210–12. Śākyaprabha was a disciple of Śāntarakṣīta and one of the main transmitters of the Vinaya in Tibet.
- Zimmermann, A Buddha Within, 211–12.
- See Ruegg, Le traité du tathâgatagarbha de Bu ston Rin chen grub, 1973.
- Wangchuk, “The rÑyingma Interpretations of the Tathāgatagarbha Theory,” 179