TATHĀGATA . In pre-Buddhist India, the term tathāgata designated a liberated sage. Unlike other titles for Gotama Buddha common in Pali scriptures such as bhagavan (blessed one) and jina (victorious one), the Buddha often used the term tathāgata to refer to himself. As George Bond has noted, three etymologies for it are prominent in Theravāda texts: (1) tathā-gato, meaning "one who has gone thus," who has attained nirvāṇa like all prior buddhas, freed from the conditioned, distorted mentalities and sufferings of mundane existence; (2) tatha-āgato, meaning "one who has come thus," who has reached the attainment achieved by all buddhas of prior ages, propelling him to come as the universal teacher for this age; and (3) tatha-āgato, meaning one who has come to the final truth of things and shows the way to that truth.
To call Gotama Buddha tathāgata was to identify him as a type, the latest in the line of perfect buddhas from past ages, highlighting his attainment as supreme for this age. All tathāgatas are said to be one in their essential attainments, including four peerless types of fearlessness, ten powers of pervasive knowing (such as knowledge of the causal order, of the capacities, dispositions and destinies of living beings, and of the methods of spiritual development appropriate for each one), six types of perfected supernormal awareness, unconditional compassion, thirty-two exemplary marks of physical perfection, and other excellences.
In line with the first and third etymologies of tathāgata above, to call Gotama tathāgata was to designate him the personification of the dharma, of the truths and attainments that he had realized. Thus, what made him a tathāgata was his dharma-kāya (Pali, dhamma-kāya ), his body of dharma attainments, made manifest through the physical signs and charismatic powers of his material body, his rūpa-kāya.
In line with the second etymology of tathāgata, "one come thus as universal teacher," to call Gotama tathāgata was also to designate him the most worthy and karmically weighty object of reverence and offerings. The Buddha, his community and teaching, were generously supported by the offerings of devotees during his lifetime. After physical death, the physical embodiment and presence of the Buddha (rūpa-kāya ) was represented to the world in sacred reliquary mounds containing his relics (stupas), which became focal objects of offering and circumambulation, symbolically reenacting the ways that Gotama's devotees had offered reverence to him as reported in scriptures. By ritually affirming the Buddha's continuing presence in the world as symbolic container (rūpa-kāya ) of his all-knowing mind (dharma-kāya ), stupas, and later buddha images, symbolically affirmed the Buddha's continuing power for this world, enabling devotees through the centuries to establish their own relationship to the Buddha at those sacred sites. Stupas and images provide physical supports both for rituals of offering and blessing and for meditations that vividly bring to mind the Buddha's qualities and powers (buddhānusṃṛti ). Thus, in the early centuries after the Buddha's final nirvāṇa, connotations of tathāgata informed the emerging two kāya paradigm of buddhahood and religious practices centered upon it.
In several Abhidharma schools prior to the rise of Mahāyāna Buddhist movements, saṃsāra and nirvāṇa were framed as a fundamental dualism, nirvāṇa understood as an unconditioned reality totally beyond the dependent origination of conditioned life, attained by cutting off the inmost causes for the five aggregates of conditioned life, for all components of mind and body, through long practice of the path. The pre-Mahāyāna etymologies of tathāgata noted above express that dualism: "thus gone" to nirvāṇa beyond the conditioned arising of saṃsāra, "thus come" from that transcendent attainment to reveal the path of liberation before passing totally beyond the world at final nirvāṇa.
But in the centuries after Gotama Buddha's physical passing, within some Buddhist communities, the ritual and meditative practices mentioned above that symbolically affirmed the continuing presence and power of the Buddha's nirvāṇa in this world, together with further developments in practice and philosophy, gradually shifted doctrinal formulation of a Buddha's nirvāṇa toward non-dualism. A Buddha's nirvana was thus understood to be fundamentally undivided from this world in its pervasive awareness, spiritual power and liberating activity. This reformulating of a buddha's nirvāṇa began to take doctrinal expression in Mahāsāṃghika schools a few centuries after the Buddha's pari nirvāṇa, and was much further developed in Mahāyāna texts from the first century bce onward, where it became formalized as the doctrine of the "unrestricted" (all-active) nirvāṇa of the buddhas (apratiṣṭhiṭa-nirvāṇa ). In this formulation, a buddha's nirvāṇa was said to far exceed that of his arhat disciples, because it comprised not only freedom from bondage to conditioned causes of suffering, but also freedom to unleash vast and endless liberating activity for living beings.
Several factors contributing to this reformulation of nirvāṇa took expression in Mahāyāna scriptures of the early centuries ce, including the emergence of a new Mahāyāna cosmology; a nondual ontology of emptiness; and further development in practices and doctrines of devotion, compassion, and nondual awareness.
Influenced in part by the new meeting of cultures and cosmologies in the Kuṣāṇa Empire of Central Asia of the early centuries ce, and in part by a new emphasis upon many persons taking up the bodhisattva path (all of whom would generate their own realm of buddha activity as fruition of that path), Mahāyāna scriptures expressed a new Buddhist cosmology of numerous tathāgata s simultaneously inhabiting different universes in all directions, often in radiant pure realms attended by celestial bodhisattvas (not just appearing individually from age to age). In many Mahāyāna scriptures, the yogic powers of Buddha Gotama or advanced bodhisattvas opened devotees' perception to visions of cosmic tathāgata s such as Amitābha, Akṣobhya, and Vairocana, whom devotees ritually reverenced and praised, to whom they made manifold offerings, and from whom they received manifold radiant blessings. Scenes expressing this are prominent, for example, in the Avataṃsaka sūtra collection, several Prajñāpāramitā- sūtras, Vimalakīrti, Śuraṃgamasamādhi, Samādhirāja, and Saddharmapuṇḍarīka.
In such scriptures, visual or oral encounters with cosmic tathāgatas often precede or follow a bodhisattva's realization of transcendental wisdom (prajñāpāramita ), the nondual awareness of tathāgata s and advanced bodhisattvas that discern the emptiness of all phenomena (śūnyatā ), their lack of substantial, independent existence. The empty nature of phenomena, because known by the tathāgatas just thus, is frequently referred to as "thusness" (tathatā ). Although all conditioned phenomena continually change, their intrinsically empty nature never changes, is unconditioned and undivided, like space. Whereas pre-Mahāyāna Abhidharma schools taught penetrating insight (vipassana ) to cut off the dependent origination of conditioned phenomena and thus attain the unconditioned peace of nirvāṇa beyond them, Mahāyāna texts taught that the very nature of conditioned phenomena was unconditioned emptiness (śūnyatā ), thusness (tathatā ), intrinsic peace. Hence, these texts proclaimed, to realize ordinary phenomena as empty, intrinsically quiescent, is to realize nirvāṇa as undivided from saṃsāra.
One way to express this Mahāyāna metaphysic of nondualism was through playful reinterpretation of previous Buddhist etymologies for tathāgata. Thus, the Buddha declares in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā (eight-thousand-verse) Prajñāpāramitā sūtra, "Tathāgatas (literally ones who have 'thus gone' or 'thus come') certainly do not come from anywhere, nor do they go anywhere. For indeed thusness (tathatā ) is unmoving, and the Tathāgata is thusness" (Makransky, p. 32). Tathāgatas are those whose awareness has become nondual with thusness, who thereby abide in the ultimate, unmoving nature of all phenomenal comings and goings, the undivided, empty, nirvāṇic dimension of this world.
This implies that the awareness through which a buddha or bodhisattva transcends bondage to saṃsāra is also intimate with saṃsāra. To know all living beings nondually through undivided thusness is to sense all beings through boundless, unconditional compassion and love. The bodhisattva path to buddhahood is therefore described as a synergy of deepening wisdom of emptiness (prajñāpāramita ) and compassionate activity for beings (puṇya, spiritual merit). Bodhisattvas, by thereby accumulating vast wisdom and merit, under the guidance and protection of the tathāgatas, generate luminous pure realms from which to enact their own salvific activity as they become tathāgatas upon completion of their path. Thus, the tathāgatas, viewed from above as celestial powers and from below as the fruition of the bodhisattva path, spontaneously radiate blessings and salvific activities and manifestations throughout their domains, making the liberating power of saṃsāra nirvāṇa available to beings in saṃsāra as the compassionate outflow of their knowledge that nirvāṇa and saṃsāra are ultimately un-divided.
Because, Mahāyāna texts say, thusness (tatāhta ) as the empty nondual reality of all things is undivided, the term tathāgata now also connotes undividedness among the tathāgatas in their essential realization of it, referred to as dharmakāya. Likewise, in thusness, all living beings are undivided from the tathāgatas and possessed of a primordial purity of awareness that constitutes an innate potential for enlightenment, referred to as the tathāgata essence of beings (tathāgata-garbha ), their intrinsic buddha nature. The ontological oneness of buddhas in nondual thusness supports a communion of tathāgatas and celestial bodhisattvas in their visionary manifestations (witnessed in Mahāyāna scriptures by interactions among visionary tathāgatas ), which—when informed by the teaching of buddha nature—opens into a communion with all living beings. Reverent gestures of bowing and offering are given vivid ritual forms in liturgies such as the seven-part offering practice at the end of the Gaṇḍavyūha sūtra, which includes praise, offering, confession, ritual rejoicing, ritual requests, bodhisattva resolutions to attain enlightenment for beings, and dedication of merit to all, while receiving radiant blessings from all the holy beings. Such practices express deepening communion with and participation in the salvific activity of the tathāgatas and bodhisattvas in and through the luminous, empty ground of thusness in which all are ultimately undivided.
Elements of such liturgical materials were taken up by Buddhist practice communities of Central Asia, East Asia, and Tibet as means to collect merit and wisdom for the path, to receive blessings and inspiration from the tathāgatas and celestial bodhisattvas, and to mediate their power to surrounding communities for healing, protection, prosperity, auspiciousness, and well-being. In this way, practices mediating the power of tathāgatas and bodhisattvas became an important part of the activity of Mahāyāna monastic institutions of medieval India, East Asia, and Tibet, whose social, economic, and political support by local communities was motivated in part by communal desires for the application of such ritual power to meet social needs.
For a summary of key Theravāda sources on tathāgata, see George Bond, "Tathāgata," in Encyclopedia of Religion, volume 14 (New York, 1987). For examples of early Buddhist and Theravāda ritualization of the Buddha's nirvāṇa as presence and power within saṃsāra, see John Strong, The Legend of King Aśoka (Princeton, N.J., 1983), and Kevin Trainor, Relics, Ritual, and Representation in Buddhism (New York, 1997). For Asian Buddhist practices mediating the power of tathāgatas and bodhisattvas, see Alan Sponberg, "Meditation in Fa-hsiang Buddhism," Daniel Stevenson, "Four Kinds of Samadhi in Early T'ien-t'ai Buddhism," and David Chappel, "From Dispute to Dual Cultivation: Pure Land Responses to Ch'an Critics," in Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism, edited by Peter Gregory (Honolulu, 1986); Raoul Birnbaum, The Healing Buddha (Boston, 1989); Glenn Wallis, Mediating the Power of Buddhas (Albany, N.Y., 2002); David McMahan, Empty Vision (New York, 2002); and Richard Payne and Kenneth Tanaka, eds., Approaching the Land of Bliss (Honolulu, 2003). On this subject see also the Princeton University series: Buddhism in Practice (Princeton, N.J., 1995), Religions of India in Practice (Princeton, N.J., 1995), Religions of China in Practice (Princeton, N.J., 1996), edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., and Religions of Japan in Practice (Princeton, N.J., 1999), edited by George J. Tabane, Jr. For systematic perspectives on tathāgata, especially within Mahāyāna traditions, see Edward Conze, Buddhist Thought in India (Ann Arbor. Mich., 1973); Paul Griffiths, On Being Buddha (Albany, N.Y., 1994); John Makransky, Buddhahood Embodied (Albany, N.Y., 1997); and Paul Williams, Mahāyāna Buddhism (New York, 1989).
John Makransky (2005)
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