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TATHATĀ . According to the Dasheng qixin lun (The Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna), "suchness" (Skt., tathatā or bhūtatathatā; Chin., chen-ju; Tib., de bźin nyid) denotes the totality of reality in both its transcendental and phenomenal aspects. It establishes the oneness and unity of the absolute and relative spheres and expresses the totality of all things (dharmadhātu). Suchness is held to exist in all beings and thus to undergo no changes either in its perfect or defiled state: its nature remains uncreated and eternal. All events and things of sasāra (i.e., all dharma s) make their appearance in the form of individualizations or mental constructions as a consequence of the beginningless continuity of the subconscious memory (smti) of past experiences acquired during previous existences. It is through the elimination of all mental projections that the world construed in the mind (citta) ceases to make its appearances. When seen in this radically transformed way, all things in their essential nature escape and defy any explanation or description because they are free and beyond distinction, remain unchanged, and are characterized by their absolute sameness (samatā), which precludes any transformation, destruction, or distinction. Since they cannot be explained in any way, their verbal or conceptual descriptions must be regarded as mere representations; they do not denote realities. All things remain ever as they are; they are such (tathā) as they are, and it is their Suchness (tathatā), free of all attributes, that expresses the nature of their oneness and totality.

Suchness can only be understood through the inner realization that the true nature of existence does not manifest itself through dichotomous appearances: knower-known, subject-object, perceiver and perceived. The notion of Suchness embraces two aspects, the immutability, purity, and totality of all things, on the one hand, and the activities that evolve within sasāra, on the other. However, these two aspects of Suchness denote fundamentally one and the same reality. They cannot be considered as two separate entities; rather, they are simply representations of Suchness "operating," as it were, in its transcendental and phenomenal spheres. When equated with śūnyatā ("emptiness"), tathatā represents the absolute negation of all phenomena and their attributes. Thus, in its metaphysical aspect it has nothing in common with the conditioned and defiled world. It stands beyond and above the impurity and relativity of sasāra. Suchness remains free and undefiled; it cannot be comprehended precisely because it comprises within itself the totality of things and because its nature escapes conceptual categorization.

Sasāra, the sphere of defilement and imperfection, has no beginning but it can be brought to an end. Suchness, which is eternal, pure, and perfect by nature, is present in sasāra but it remains obscured by defilements. Yet while it is in the sphere of phenomenal existence that Suchness and sasāra coincide, they are neither identical nor distinct from one another. Sasāra makes its appearance as a chain of dependently originating phenomena issuing from the tathāgata-garbha ("womb of the Tathāgata"), which represents, as it were, the personified principle that stands between the absolute sphere, which is transcendent to human thought, and the relative sphere, which is pervaded by imperfections. When absolute reality becomes manifest in the relative world it projects itself as, or is called, the store-consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna), which contains within itself two opposite principles. One is the principle of nonenlightenment and the inclination to perpetuate the cycle of samsaric existences; the other is the principle of enlightenment, which represents the highest quality and state of mind, free of all subjectivity.

When it is devoid of all attributes and conceptual projections, the mind may be compared to space insofar as it is ubiquitous and constitutive of the unity of all things. This universally perfect mind, enlightenment itself, constitutes the dharmakāya ("Dharma body, Dharma essence") of all the Tathāgatas. The mind aware of its perfect and pure nature abides in the state of enlightenment, yet so long as it is restricted and obscured by ignorance it remains in the state of nonenlightenment. In other words, perfect enlightenment is embedded in phenomenal existence through the presence of prajñā ("transcendental wisdom") and through the law of retribution (karman). By perfecting and unveiling prajñā, and through the performance of meritorious acts, the element of enlightenment within the mind becomes purified and freed from karmic residues and wisdom becomes manifested in its fullness as the dharmakāya. The impurities and mental projections that obscure the mind in its nonenlightened state are produced under the influence of avidyā ("ignorance"). It is ignorance that induces the appearance of all mental constructs. When ignorance is subdued and eliminated it is merely the "reenlightened" wisdom that shines forth. Ignorance, although it is the cause of all mental states and projections that obscure the clarity of enlightenment, is nonetheless inherently present in enlightenment. Here again, the two are neither identical nor nonidentical. Just as waves are present on water stirred by the wind, so are mental projections stimulated by the "winds" of ignorance. Once ignorance is eliminated, the mental "waves" subside and the purity of the mind in its enlightenment-essence remains undisturbed.

The nature of perfect and timeless enlightenment is characterized as unattainable by any means within the relative sphere. When enlightenment is totally free of all hindrances (kleśāvaraa and jñeyāvaraa) and of the store-consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna), which becomes entangled in phenomenal events, it remains pure and immutable in its nature. Yet at the same time, this pure and unhindered enlightenment unfolds itself and becomes manifest as a tathāgata (i.e., a Buddha), or in some other form, in order to bring living beings to spiritual maturation. Pure and perfect enlightenment may be spoken of as being present and manifest in the phenomenal sphere precisely as nonenlightenment when, owing to the mind's ignorance, the true nature of Suchness is not fully perceived. In this sense, the state of non-enlightenment has no true existence of its own; it can only be considered in relation to perfect enlightenment, which, as nonenlightenment, is obscured by ignorance. Thus, perfect enlightenment, which remains unchanged and unimpeded at all times, is not really produced (it is ever present within all things) but rather becomes manifested through and within the defiled world that has evolved under the influence of ignorance. A full understanding of the Suchness of all things depends on the degree of the mind's purity and the mind's ability to perceive it. Ordinary people, overwhelmed by defilements and hindrances, do not perceive the nature and presence of Suchness. On the other hand, the Tathāgatas understand it perfectly.

All beings are innerly endowed with Suchness and with all the innate impulses necessary to eradicate imperfections and defilements and to pursue the path of moral activities. From the moment that beings give rise to the thought of enlightenment (bodhicitta) until the moment they attain Buddhahood they are protected and guided by the bodhisattva s and tathāgata s, who assume various manifestations in order to guide them along the path. Suchness, although variously described as the effulgence of wisdom, as true knowledge or pure mind, as tranquil, pure, eternal, and immutable, nevertheless remains free of all distinctions and attributes precisely because all things are of "a single taste," a single reality unaffected by any modes of particularization or dualism.

Sources of the tathatā theory include such canonical works as the Lakāvatāra, Srīmālādevīsihanāda, and Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra s, and several other Mahāyāna works including the Dasheng qixin lun. The theory of tathatā, although present within the writings of both the Mādhyamika and (especially) Vijñānavāda schools, has never been represented by a separate tradition. It has nonetheless exercised influence on philosophical and religious speculation and was particularly and predominantly present in the latest phases of Buddhist writings known as the Tantras.

See Also

Ālaya-vijñāna; Nirvāa; Prajñā; Soteriology; Śūnyam and Śūnyatā; Tathāgata-garbha.


The authorship of the Dasheng qixin lun (Mahāyānaśraddhotpāda Śāstra) is one of the most vexed questions in the textual history of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Although the work is traditionally attributed to Aśvaghoa, the Indian Buddhist writer and poet of the first or second century ce, many scholars have doubted this attribution, and some believe the work to be of Chinese origin. See especially Paul Demiéville's "Sur l'authenticité du Ta tch'eng k'i sin louen, " in Bulletin de la Maison Franco-Japonaise 2 (1929): 179, and Walter Liebenthal's "New Light on the Mahāyāna-Śraddhotpāda Śāstra, " T'oung pao 46 (1958): 155216. Regardless of this question, the text has exercised great influence on the development of Buddhism in China and continues to be studied to this day in Japan. Two translations of the work, which contains a full and readily comprehensible exposition of tathatā, are D. T. Suzuki's Aśvaghoa's Discourse on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna (Chicago, 1900) and Yoshito S. Hakeda's The Awakening of Faith, Attributed to Aśvaghoa (New York, 1967).

Two studies of the Ratnagotravibhāga mahāyana-uttaratantra, an important source for theories of tathāgata-garbha and tathatā, are Eugene Obermiller's The Sublime Science of the Great Vehicle to Salvation, Being a Manual of Buddhist Monism (Leiden, 1931) and Takasaki Jikidō's A Study on the Ratnagotravibhāga (Uttaratantra) (Rome, 1966). A highly technical discussion of these topics can be found in David Seyfort Ruegg's La théorie du tathāgatagarbha et du gotra (Paris, 1969). See also Alex and Hideko Wayman's translation of the Śrīmālā Sūtra, the Lion's Roar of Queen Śrīmālā: A Buddhist Scripture on the Tathāgatagarbha Theory (New York, 1974), which contains a concise doctrinal exposition in the introduction.

New Sources

Jñanasribhadra, Ye shes dpal bzang po, et al. Sei nyuryogakyo chu. Kyoto, 1993.

Sharf, R. H. Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism: A Reading of the Treasure Store Treatise. Honolulu, 2002.

Sutton, F. G. Existence and Enlightenment in the Lankavatara-Sutra: A Study in the Ontology and Epistemology of the Yogacara School of Mahayana Buddhism. Albany, N.Y., 1991.

Suzuki, D. T. Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra. New York, 2000.

Tanabe, G. J. Religions of Japan in Practice. Princeton, 1999.

Tadeusz Skorupski (1987)

Revised Bibliography