Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra

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Statue of the Buddha at Bojjannakonda, Andhra Pradesh, India

The Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra (T. de bzhin gshegs pa'i snying po'i mdo དེ་བཞིན་གཤེགས་པའི་སྙིང་པོའི་མདོ་; C. dafangdeng rulaizang jing 大方等如來藏經) is an influential Mahāyāna sutra, and the earliest to set forth the doctrine of tathāgatagarbha.[1] According to this doctrine, all sentient beings are born with buddha-nature and have the potential to become a Buddha. Physical and mental defilements of evertday life acts as clouds over the this very nature and usually prevents this realization. This nature is no less than the indwelling Buddha himself.


Origins and development

Anthony Barber associates the development of the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra with the Mahāsāṃghika sect of Buddhism, and concludes that the Mahāsāṃghikas of the Āndhra region (i.e. the Caitika schools) were responsible for the inception of the Tathāgatagarbha doctrine.[2]

The Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra is considered "the earliest expression of this [the tathāgatagarbha doctrine] and the term tathāgatagarbha itself seems to have been coined in this very sutra."[3] The text is no longer extant in its language of origin, but is preserved in two Tibetan and two Chinese translations.


Michael Zimmermann discerns two recensions, the shorter recension, translated by Buddhabhadra in 420 CE, and the more extended and detailed recension, extant in the following translations:[4][5]

  • the Chinese translation of Amoghavajra (middle of 8th century);
  • an apocryphal Tibetan translation from Bathang;
  • the canonical Tibetan translation (around 800 CE).

Buddhabhadras version[6] was translated into English by Grosnick in 1995 and the Tibetan version was translated by Zimmermann in 2002.[7][8]

The nine similes

According to Zimmermann, the nine similes "embody the new and central message of the text, embedded in the more or less standard framework consisting of the setting, a passage expounding the merit of propagating the sutra and a story of the past."[9] The simile (1) in the first chapter describes a fantastic scene with many buddhas seated in lotus calyxes in the sky, who are not affected by the withering of the flowers. The following eight similes illustrate how the indwelling Buddha in sentient beings is hidden by the negative mental states (kleśas),

comparing it to (2) honey protected by bees, (3) kernels enclosed by their husks, (4) a gold nugget in excrement, (5) a hidden treasure beneath the house, (6) a sprout in the seed becoming a huge tree, (7) a tathāgata image wrapped in rotten rags, (8) a cakravartin in the womb of a despised, orphan woman and (9) a golden figure within a burned clay mold.[10]


In regard to the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra and the term Tathāgatagarbha, A. W. Barber writes:[11]

... as Alex Wayman, Michael Zimmermann, and I have noted, the original meaning of the term was that one is "already" or primordially awakened. For example, the Tathagatagarbha sutra illuminates the matter metaphorically this way: "inside a casting mold there is perfectly formed Buddha; the ignorant see the filth of the mold but the wise know that the Buddha is within."

The Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra constitutes one of a number of Tathāgatagarbha or Buddha-nature sutras (including the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra, the Śrīmālādevī Siṃhanāda Sūtra, the Angulimaliya Sutra, and the Anunatva-Apurnatva-Nirdesa) which unequivocally declare the reality of an Awakened Essence within each being.


  1. Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Tathāgatagarbhasūtra.
  2. Padma 2008, p. 155-156.
  3. Zimmermann 1999, p. 144.
  4. Zimmermann 1999, p. 145.
  5. Zimmermann 2002, p. 16.
  6. T16 no 666.
  7. Zimmermann 2002, pp. 93-162.
  8. Grosnick 1995, pp. 92-106.
  9. Zimmermann 1999, p. 149.
  10. Zimmermann 1999, p. 150.
  11. Padma 2008, p. 152.


Further reading

External links