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tathāgatagarbha (T. de bzhin gshegs pa'i snying po དེ་བཞིན་གཤེགས་པའི་སྙིང་པོ་; C. rulaizang 如来藏) is the seed or essence of enlightenment (bodhi) that is possessed by all sentient beings. It is one of several terms that is commonly translated as buddha-nature. This term is also translated more literally as as "womb/essence of the tathāgatas," etc.

The Tsadra Buddha-nature glossary states:

Tathāgata loosely translates as "one who has gone to a state of enlightenment," while garbha has the sense of "womb," "essence," and "embryo." Tathāgatagarbha thus suggests a potential or an innate buddhahood possessed by all sentient beings that is either developed or revealed when one attains enlightenment.[1]

The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism states:

In Sanskrit, variously translated as “womb of the tathāgatas,” “matrix of the tathāgatas,” “embryo of the tathāgatas,” “essence of the tathāgatas”; the term probably means “containing a tathāgatha.” It is more imprecisely interpreted as the “buddha-nature,” viz., the potential to achieve buddhahood that, according to some Mahāyāna schools, is inherent in all sentient beings.[2]

The Digital Dictionary of Buddhism states:

(Skt. tathāgata-garbha). The matrix of the thus come one(s). An embryo that should become a Buddha, or the 'womb' where the Buddha-to-be is carried. An expression that refers to sentient beings as the full embodiment of the Buddhaʼs capability for existence. At the same time, in concrete terms, it is in the condition of being temporarily defiled by non-inherent factors, thus it cannot be called an actualized 'Buddha.' Therefore the term refers to the capability for becoming a tathāgata that is present in the minds of unenlightened sentient beings.
The notion of tathāgatagarbha is usually described as first having been introduced in the Śrīmālā-sūtra 勝鬘經. It is true that the topic is broached in that text, but only at a late point, and it is not explained in any great detail. However, the tathāgatagarbha is taken up as a central theme in such texts as the Ratnagotravibhāga 寶性論, the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra 楞伽經, the Awakening of Mahāyāna Faith 大乘起信論, etc. The tradition of thought and practice that developed around these texts, as well as in the writings and commentaries of Paramārtha 眞諦, co-existed and interacted with the streams of Yogācāra that developed together in East Asia between the fifth and seventh centuries, and would end up becoming the predominant soteriological influence in East Asian schools such as Huayan, Tiantai, and Chan.
There are three meanings of the term tathāgatagarbha:
(a) the meaning that the absolute body of the Tathāgata (dharma-kāya) is existent within all living creatures;
(b) the meaning that the tathāgata as reality-nature (true thusness) is a whole without distinctions;
(c) the meaning that the tathāgata exists within every living creature in a seed, or embryonic form.
The Awakening of Mahāyāna Faith says: "tathāgata has the mind of sentient beings as matrix, the mind of sentient beings has the tathāgata as matrix, the mind of sentient beings has the multifarious virtues of the tathāgata as matrix. In addition to these three kinds of interpretation the tathāgatagarbha is called the 'mind of clear and pure reflection,' or the 'Dharma-body in a state of confusion.' " (起信論, T 1666.32.575c27).[1][3]

Further reading


  1. 1.0 1.1 Tathāgatagarbha, Tsadra Buddha-nature glossary
  2. Robert E. Buswell Jr., Donald S. Lopez Jr., The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton: 2014), s.v. tathāgatagarbha
  3. 如來藏, Digital Dictionary of Buddhism (login with username "guest"; no password)