The tathāgatagarbha ("matrix," "seed," or "treasure-store of the Tathāgata") is a MahĀyĀna Buddhist doctrine expressing the conviction that all beings have within themselves the virtues and wisdom of the TathĀgata (buddha), but that these are hidden by a covering of defilements (kleśakośa). The third-century scripture, the Tathāgatagarbha-sūtra, introduced the doctrine and illustrated it with nine similes based on the different meanings of the word garbha, such as womb, store, calyx, husk, and seed. The tathāgatagarbha is likened to a buddha hidden in the calyx of a flower; to a noble son hidden in the womb of a vile, ugly woman; to a seed hidden in a useless husk; and to a store of treasure hidden beneath a poor man's house. The compound therefore permits a wide range of legitimate translations including matrix, womb, embryo, germ, and treasure-store of the Tathāgata. Originally, the term tathāgatagarbha seems to have referred to beings themselves, who are tathāgatagarbhas, or "harborers of the Tathāgata."
The concept was developed further in later writings like the Śrīmālādevī-sūtra (Discourse of Queen Śrīmālā), where the term refers to an inner potential that enables beings to become buddhas. Were it not for the tathāgatagarbha, this sūtra states, beings would be unable to feel aversion for suffering or to seek nirvĀṆa. The sūtra identifies the tathāgatagarbha as the dharmakāya of the buddha, which pervades all beings. The dharmakāya is said to have the four perfections (guṇapāramitās) of eternality, bliss, self, and purity, an assertion that has led some to question whether the tathāgatagarbha teaching might expound a form of Hindu monism, in which case it might contradict such fundamental Buddhist doctrines as anitya (impermanence), anĀtman/Ātman (noself/self), and duḤkha (suffering).
A closely related concept to the tathāgatagarbha is the buddhadhātu, usually translated as "buddha-nature," a term first used in the NirvĀṆa SŪtra with the famous phrase "all beings possess buddha-nature." Like the tathāgatagarbha, it expresses the Mahāyāna conviction that all beings have the potential for buddhahood.
The only Indian Buddhist treatise devoted to the tathāgatagarbha is the fifth-century Ratnagotravibhāga (Chinese, Baoxing fenbie dacheng jiujing yaoyi lun; Analysis of the Source of the [Buddha] Jewel). The Ratnagotravibhāga identified the tathāgatagarbha as "thusness mingled with pollution" (samalā tathatā), whereas the dharmakāya is identified as "thusness apart from pollution" (nirmalā tathatā). Thusness means supreme truth apprehended by nondiscriminating wisdom. The Madhyamaka school understood thusness to mean the emptiness of all dharmas, but the Ratnagotravibhāga insisted that while the tathagatagarbha is empty of kleśas, it is not empty of the virtues of the buddha, "which are more numerous than the sands of the Ganges." This assertion that something is ultimately "not empty" is also found in several YogĀcĀra school texts. Additionally, the Ratnagotravibhāga uses traditional Yogācāra categories for analysis, which further suggests possible ties to the Yogācāra school.
A central teaching of the Ratnagotravibhāga, derived from the Jñanālokālaṅkāra-sūtra (Discourse on the Ornamentation of Wisdom), is that nirvāṇa, the noble truth of the cessation of suffering, ought to be understood as the nonorigination, rather than the extinguishing, of suffering and illusion. The mind is pure by nature, and suffering arises only when irrational thought (ayoniśomanaskāra) originates illusions, attachments, and cravings. One who has reached the truth does not give rise to illusions. The expression "cessation of suffering" refers to the dharmakāya of the Tathāgata, which is unborn and unproduced. Because all beings have the dharmakāya within them, they have the capacity not to originate suffering.
The tathāgatagarbha teaching was far more popular in East Asia than in India or Tibet. In India no school was organized around the tathāgatagarbha teaching, and in Tibet, only the Jo nang pa centered itself on the tathāgatagarbha teaching. But the Ratnagotravibhāga and the sūtras expounding the tathāgatagarbha were translated into Chinese shortly after their composition, and heavily influenced important Chinese treatises like the Awakening of Faith (Dasheng qixin lun). An extensive debate over the buddha-nature of the icchantika (the worst of beings), provoked further interest in the doctrine. The tathāgatagarbha teaching was accorded the highest place in the doctrinal classification schemes of such notable Huayan school figures as Fazang and Zongmi (780–841), and became a focal point of both Tiantai and Chan school teachings.
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William H. Grosnick