Tathāgatagarbhasūtra

From Buddha-Nature

LibrarySutrasTathāgatagarbhasūtra

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Description from When the Clouds Part

The earliest one among these sūtras is the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra,[1] which primarily consists of detailed descriptions of the nine examples for all sentient beings possessing the tathāgata heart that are also found in the Uttaratantra. The central and repeated message of the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra is that all beings bear a fully perfect buddha within themselves. However, these beings are not buddhas yet because they are not aware of the buddhahood that lies within them, which is obscured by the cocoons of afflictions and needs to be pointed out. Still, the true nature of all beings is not different from that of a buddha, and beings will manifest as buddhas once the obscuring afflictions have been removed. As Takasaki (1974) and Zimmermann (1998) point out, this topic is closely related to, and based on, the passage in the Buddhāvataṃsakasūtra about buddha wisdom being present in all beings[2] (which precedes the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra and is also quoted in RGVV).[3] Zimmermann (1998 and 2002) also points out some relationships and similarities between the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra and the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, the Mahābherīsūtra, the Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra, and the Laṅkāvatārasūtra. (p. 12)
  1. 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.
  2. In the Chinese version, this is found in the section called Tathāgatotpattisaṃbhavanirdeśa.
  3. J22–24.

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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.[1]

      The Tathāgatagarbhasūtra may have been translated into Chinese as early as the late third century by a man named Faju 法炬[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]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).[7]

      It is translated into English by Michael Zimmerman in A Buddha Within and by William Grosnick in Buddhism in Practice.

  1. For example, the translations and studies of D. T. Suzuki.
  2. Paul, The Buddhist Feminine Ideal, 14: Fazhu also translated the Aṅgulimala (T119).
  3. 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.
  4. Zimmermann, A Buddha Within, 16; 210–12. Śākyaprabha was a disciple of Śāntarakṣīta and one of the main transmitters of the Vinaya in Tibet.
  5. Zimmermann, A Buddha Within, 211–12.
  6. See Ruegg, Le traité du tathâgatagarbha de Bu ston Rin chen grub, 1973.
  7. Wangchuk, “The rÑyingma Interpretations of the Tathāgatagarbha Theory,” 179