TATHĀGATA-GARBHA . Early monastic Buddhism emphasized the reality of "selflessness" (anātmatā) as the essential nature of all beings. The "ignorance" (avidyā) at the root of suffering in the samsaric life cycle was said to be the misperception of a fixed and independent "self" (ātman) within a selfless, wholly relative person. The overcoming of the delusion of self was called "wisdom" (prajñā), and it was commonly explained as the "wisdom of selflessness." However, the earliest sermons of the Buddha are replete with such expressions as "mastery of the self is the real mastery," "he who conquers his own self is the supreme warrior," and so forth. Self-control was a prime goal of the early Buddhist monk or nun. Thus, the term self had two distinct connotations. In one, it referred to a fixed, independent, self-substance, and in the other, it referred to the living, empirical, continuum of the person; the former was denied and the latter, clearly presupposed.
With the rise of the messianic Buddhism of the "universal vehicle" (Mahāyāna), both sides of this ambiguity were developed in various ways. The "self" that was thought not to exist was equated with "intrinsic reality" (svabhāva), "intrinsic identity" (svalakṣaṇa), and "intrinsic objectivity" (svarūpa). Its systematic denial was expanded beyond "subjective selflessness" (pudgala-nairatmya) to encompass "objective selflessness" (dharma nairātmyā), which was understood as equivalent to "emptiness" (śūnyatā). Notions concerning the other "self," the living, empirical personality that was acknowledged to exist, developed into two major concepts, "enlightenment-spirit" (bodhicitta), and "Buddha essence" (tathāgata- or sugata-garbha). The "spirit of enlightenment" concept dates from the earliest Mahāyāna scriptures (first century bce); its systematization was begun by the scholastic master Nāgārjuna (c. second century ce). The second dates from the second and third centuries ce), with the emergence of the later Mahāyāna scriptures such as the Laṇkāvatāra Sūtra, the Saṃdhi-nirmocana Sūtra, the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra, the Srī-māladevī Sūtra and the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra. It was systematized by the Yogācāra masters Maitreyanātha, Asaṅga, and Vasubandhu during the fourth and fifth centuries ce.
The enlightenment-spirit (bodhicitta) theory eventually began to reflect the original ambiguity of the Buddha's use of self, by employing the scheme of "two realities" (satya-dvaya), the absolute and the relative. The absolute spirit was equated with the wisdom of selflessness, and the relative spirit with the loving mind seeking the welfare of all beings. The perfection of the absolute spirit was thought to result in the achievement of the dharmakāya ("truth body") of Buddhahood, and the perfection of the relative spirit in the achievement of the rūpakāya ("form body") of Buddhahood, with its heavenly saṃbhoga ("beatific") and earthly nirmāṇa ("emanation") bodies. An important point is that the duality between the two spirits, as between the two realities, only obtains from the relative perspective. In the enlightened view, the two are ultimately the same: wisdom and compassion are one, the absolute is no different from the relative, and truth is equivalent to form. This is summarized in Nāgārjuna's famous statement, "Emptiness [is] the essence of compassion" ("Śūnyatā-karuṇā-garbham").
Against this background, we can understand the emergence of the Buddha-essence doctrine. The Absolute Truth Body (dharmakāya) of the Buddha is transcendent and eternal, yet omnipresent and immanent in every atom of infinity. Thus, from a Buddha's perspective, all beings are already immersed in the "truth-body realm" (dharmakāyadhātu) and persist in suffering only because they do not know their own actual situation. Each being's presence in the truth-realm is the essence of each; it is each one's essential participation in Buddhahood. Thus, each has an essence of Buddhahood, that is, a Buddha essence within him or her that is one's very selflessness or "natural ultimate freedom" (prakṛti-parinirvāṇa). One's critique, through prajñā, of the mis-knowledge of self and the resultant realization of selflessness amounts to the removal of the obscurations of the Buddha essence and the revelation of the natural luminosity of the Buddha realm.
To refer to the useful compendium of sources written by the Tibetan scholar Bu ston (1290–1364), the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra gives nine similes of the Buddha essence: like a Buddha in a closed lotus, like the honey in the comb, like the grain in the husk, like gold in ore, like treasure buried beneath a pauper's house, like a tree-seed in its sheath, like a Buddha-image wrapped in a filthy cloth, like a world monarch amid the impurities of the womb, and like a golden image contained within its clay mold. Of these nine similes, the first three are said to indicate the dharmakāya in its senses of "absolute" and "element" (dhātu), the simile of the golden image to indicate "suchness" (tathatā), and the remaining five to indicate the "spiritual gene" (gotra), an important equivalent concept in which one's inherent Buddhahood is conceived of as a genetic cause of the dharmakāya.
The Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra reveals the Buddha essence of all beings as permanent, happy, omnipresent, pure, and free, for this is how beings appear in a Buddha's vision. The Avataṃsaka Sūtra extends its visionary theme of the mutual interpenetration of all things to illustrate how the Buddha wisdom exists in the mind of every being as each one's jewel-like essential perfection. The Aṅgulimālīya Sūtra states that "the Buddha essence is the reality, the absolute body, the permanent body, the inconceivable body of the transcendent Lord.… It is the self." The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra mentions the Buddha essence and equates it with the "fundamental consciousness" (ālaya-vijñāna), the basic seat of ignorance underlying the six usual consciousnesses and the afflicted mentality (kliṣṭamanas) in the idealist psychology of that scripture. Finally, the Śrīmāladevī Sūtra mentions the Buddha essence as indispensable both to the process of enlightenment and to the afflicted world.
The apparent contradiction between these revelations and the earlier teachings that all beings are impermanent, miserable, selfless, and impure is addressed in the scriptures themselves by referring to the two realities and the two perspectives, using the hermeneutical concepts of "interpretable meaning" (neyārtha) and "definitive meaning" (nītārtha). The Buddha uses his "skill in liberative technique" (upāyakauśalya) to teach according to the abilities of his disciples. The notion of an "intention" (abhiprāya or abhisaṃdhi) underlying a teaching is introduced to explain the Buddha's various strategies. Buston extracts a number of such "intentions" from the texts. The tathāgata-garbha doctrine is taught in order to (1) eliminate despair and generate effort, giving the practitioner hope of attaining liberation; (2) eliminate pride and produce respect for others; (3) eliminate absolutistic reifications and nihilistic repudiations and produce wisdom.
In the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, Mahamati asks the Buddha how his Buddha-essence teaching differs from the "supreme-self" teaching of the brahmans. The Buddha replies:
The perfect Buddhas have taught the Buddha essence intending emptiness, reality-limit, nirvāṇa, non-creation, signlessness, and wishlessness. For the immature to be free of their terror of selflessness, they teach the realms of non-conceptuality and non-appearance by the gateway [i.e., teaching] of the Buddha essence.… They teach the essence to attract those heterodox persons who are too deeply attached to their "self" notions to awaken to the profound enlightenment. (Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, ed. P. L. Vaidya, Darbhanga, 1959, p. 33)
And in the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra the Buddha tells a story about his meeting with five hundred ascetics who admired his beauty and inner composure and wanted to follow his teaching, but were afraid because they thought he was a nihilist; he reassured them that he was not a spiritual nihilist by teaching them the Buddha-essence doctrine.
Among the great Indian treatises, Maitreyanātha's Ratnagotravibhāga is the locus classicus of the systematic exposition of the Buddha-essence doctrine. It is elucidated by Asaṅga and Vasubandhu in great detail, without departing from the basic principles given in the scriptures above. On the basis of this treatise, the Jonaṅ order of Tibetan Buddhism developed an elaborate theory of the Buddha essence, connecting it to various Tantric ideas. In Tantrism as well, the Esoteric concept of the "indestructible drop" (akṣayabindu) as the basis of transmigration and Buddhahood and the life essence of a living being is extremely similar to the Buddha-essence doctrine. Philosophically, the Tibetans tended to the explanation given in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra that the tathāgata-garbha theory referred to selflessness in a manner soothing to those still unprepared for the more radical denial of self.
In East Asia, the notion of the tathāgata-garbha enjoyed great popularity. In a treatise attributed to the Indian Aśvaghoṣa, known in East Asia by the translated title Dasheng qixin lun (Awakening of faith in the Mahāyāna), the idealistic idea of mind as world-creator is wedded to the tathāgata-garbha doctrine to elevate the tathāgata-garbha to the status of a divine mind responsible for the creation of the world of transmigration as well as the attainment of liberation and enlightenment. The Chinese master Jing ying Huiyuan (523–592 ce) developed an elaborate idealistic (vijñānavāda) Buddhology on this basis. His theories were critiqued by the Centrist (Mādhyamika) master Jizang (549–623), who sought to avoid the theistic implications of doctrines such as Huiyuan's. Later systematizers such as Zhiyi of the Tiantai school, Fazang of the Huayen school, and many of the greatest Chan masters used the Buddha-essence doctrine in various ways, sometimes with an Idealist (Yogācāra) twist, at other times with a Centrist (Mādhyamika) twist. In modern East Asian Buddhism, the doctrine is again serving Buddhist popularizers and dialogists as a strategy for reassuring cultures where "soul" theories are traditional.
It is noteworthy that the English popularization "Buddha nature" comes from the East Asian writers, for the Chinese hsing can be read as "nature," whereas the Sanskrit garbha, dhātu, or gotra cannot be stretched without considerable effort from the meanings "essence," "element," or "gene," respectively, to that of "nature."
See David S. Ruegg's La théorie du tathāgatagarbha et du gotra (Paris, 1969), Diana Y. Paul's Philosophy of Mind in Sixth Century China (Stanford, Calif., 1984), and Takasaki Jikidō's A Study on the Ratnagotravibhāga (Uttaratantra), Being a Treatise on the Tathāgatagarbha Theory of Mahāyāna Buddhism (Rome, 1966). Buston's compendium of sources on tathāgata-garbha has been translated by Ruegg as Le traité du tathāgatagarbha de Bu ston Rin Chen Grub, traduction du De bzin gsegs pa'i snin po gsal zin mdzes par byed pa'i rgyan (Paris, 1973).
Brown, B. E. The Buddha Nature: A Study of the Tathagatagarbha and Alayavijñana. Delhi, 1991.
Hookham, S. K. The Buddha Within: Tathagatagarbha Doctrine according to the Shentong Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhaga. Albany, N.Y., 1991.
King, Richard. "Is 'Buddha-Nature' Buddhist? Doctrinal Tensions in the Srimala Sutra—an Early Tathagatagarbha Text." Numen 42 (1995): 1–20.
Lopez, Donald S., Jr., ed. Buddhism in Practice. Princeton, 1995.
Takasaki, Jikido. "The Tathagatagarbha Theory Reconsidered: Reflections on Some Recent Issues in Japanese Buddhist Studies" Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 27, nos. 1–2 (2000): 73–83.
Robert A. F. Thurman (1987)