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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 the earliest of the tathāgatagarbha sūtras, a group of Mahāyāna sutras that set forth the doctrine of tathāgatagarbha.[1][2][3]

Micheal Zimmerman states:

The Tathägatagarbhasütra (TGS) is a relatively short text that represents the starting point of a number of works in Indian Mahayana Buddhism centering around the idea that all living beings have the buddha-nature.[4]

Karl Brunnhölzl states:

The Tathāgatagarbhasūtra... primarily consists of detailed descriptions of the nine examples for all sentient beings possessing the tathāgata heart that are also found in the Uttaratantra. The central and repeated message of the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra is that all beings bear a fully perfect buddha within themselves. However, these beings are not buddhas yet because they are not aware of the buddhahood that lies within them, which is obscured by the cocoons of afflictions and needs to be pointed out. Still, the true nature of all beings is not different from that of a buddha, and beings will manifest as buddhas once the obscuring afflictions have been removed. As Takasaki (1974) and Zimmermann (1998) point out, this topic is closely related to, and based on, the passage in the Buddhāvataṃsakasūtra about buddha wisdom being present in all beings[5] (which precedes the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra and is also quoted in RGVV).[6] Zimmermann (1998 and 2002) also points out some relationships and similarities between the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra and the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, the Mahābherīsūtra, the Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra, and the Laṅkāvatārasūtra.[2]


Statue of the Buddha at Bojjannakonda, Andhra Pradesh, India

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.[7]

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."[8] The text is no longer extant in its language of origin, but is preserved in two Tibetan and two Chinese translations.

Chinese and Tibetan 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:[9][10]

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

English translations

Based the Chinese version by Buddhabhadras:

Based on Tibetan materials:

The nine similes

The Tathägatagarbhasütra lists nine examples or similies to describe the concept of tathägatagarbha. These nine examples are:

(1) a tathagata in a lotus
(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 old rags,
(8) a cakravartin in the womb of a destitute woman and
(9) a golden figure within a burned clay mold[11]

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."[12] The first simile (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 Buddha that dwells within all sentient beings is hidden by the negative mental states (kleśa).


The Tathägatagarbhasütra states:

[W]hen I regard all beings with my buddha eye, I see that hidden within the klesas of greed, desire, anger and stupidity there is seated augustly and unmovingly the tathāgata’s wisdom, the tathāgata’s vision, and the tathāgata’s body … All beings, though they find themselves with all sorts of klesas, have a tathagatagarbha that is eternally unsullied, and that is replete with virtues no different from my own.[13]


  1. Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Tathāgatagarbhasūtra.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Brunnhölzl 2014, p. 12.
  3. Harvey 2013, s.v. Chapter Five, section "Tathagata-garbha Thought".
  4. Zimmermann 2002, p. 7.
  5. In the Chinese version, this is found in the section called Tathāgatotpattisaṃbhavanirdeśa.
  6. J22–24
  7. Padma & Barber 2008, pp. 155-156.
  8. Zimmermann 1999, p. 144.
  9. Zimmermann 1999, p. 145.
  10. Zimmermann 2002, p. 16.
  11. Zimmermann 1999, p. 150.
  12. Zimmermann 1999, p. 149.
  13. Gethin 1998, s.v. Chapter 9, section "The Tathāgatagarbha".


Further reading

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