Tathāgataguhya Sūtra

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Statue of Vajrapani. Kashmir, 8th century.

The Tathāgataguhya Sūtra (The Sūtra on the Secrets of the Tathāgatas) is a Mahayana sutra that is part of the Ratnakuta section of the Tibetan and Chinese canons.[1]

David Fiordalis and the Dharmachakra Translation Committee state:

In this sūtra, the narrative largely revolves around the figures of Vajrapāṇi, the yakṣa lord and constant companion of the Buddha, and the Buddha himself. In the first half of the sūtra, Vajrapāṇi gives a series of teachings on the mysteries or secrets of the body, speech, and mind of bodhisattvas and the realized ones. In the second half of the sūtra, Vajrapāṇi describes several events in the Buddha’s life: his practice of severe asceticism, his approach to the seat of awakening, his defeat of Māra, his awakening, and his turning of the wheel of Dharma. Following this, the Buddha gives a prediction of Vajrapāṇi’s future awakening as a buddha and travels to Vajrapāṇi’s abode for a meal. Interspersed throughout the sūtra are sermons, dialogues, and marvelous tales exploring a large number of topics and featuring an extensive cast of characters, including several narratives about past lives of Vajrapāṇi, Brahmā Sahāṃpati, and the Buddha himself. The sūtra concludes with the performance of two long dhāraṇīs, one by Vajrapāṇi and one by the Buddha, for the protection and preservation of the Dharma.[2]

Title variants

According to Shaku Shingon, in Sanskrit, this text is most often referred to as the Tathāgataguhyasūtra, with a common variant being the Tathāgatācintyaguhyanirdeśa (The Instruction on the Inconceivable Secrets of the Tathāgata).[3]

The Chinese text which served as the basis for Shingon's translation "refers to it by many names in its entrustment section," such as:[3]

  • The Section on Vajrapāṇi
  • The Teaching of the Secrets of the Tathāgata
  • The Inconceivable Buddha-Dharma
  • The Heap of Immeasurable Merits.

The following names are used in Tibetan sources:

  • Tathāgataguhya (T. དེ་བཞིན་གཤེགས་པའི་གསང་བ།), The Secrets of the Realized Ones
  • Ārya-tathāgatācintyaguhya-nirdeśa-nāma-mahāyāna-sūtra (T. ’phags pa de bzhin gshegs pa’i gsang ba bsam gyis mi khyab pa bstan pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo), The Noble Mahāyāna Sūtra “The Teaching of the Mysteries and Secrets of the Realized Ones”

Péter-Dániel Szántó lists the following alternative names based on Sanskrit source texts:[4]

  • *Tathāgatācintyaguhyanirdeśasūtra
  • Āryatathāgataguhyasūtra,
  • Guhyakādhipatinirdeśa,
  • *Vajrapāṇiparivarta,
  • *Tathāgataguhyanirdeśaparivarta,
  • *Acintyabuddhadharmanirdeśa, and
  • *Apramāṇapuṇyodaya.

This Mahāyāna sutra is not to be confused with the Guhyasamāja-tantra, which also goes by the name Tathāgataguhyaka.[5][6]


Tibetan painting of Vajrapani, 19th-century

According to Tetsutaka Hamano's study, the sutra can be divided into three sections:[7][8]

  1. Chapters 1 to 10 focus on "the three secrets of the bodhisattvas and the three secrets of the Tathāgata."
  2. Chapters 11 to 14 focus on "the life of the Buddha from the perspective of Vajrapāṇi."
  3. Chapters 15 to 25, "on bodhisattva conduct and the deeds of Vajrapāṇi."

The nature of Buddhahood

The main teaching of the Tathāgataguhya is that the buddhas and bodhisattvas manifest in infinite ways (through their magical body, speech and mind). This buddha activity is completely automatic, unintentional and non-conceptual. These manifestations also arise due to the karma and mental inclinations of sentient beings and they match the needs of sentient beings.[9]

According to a translator of the sutra, Shaku Shingan, the Tathāgataguhyaka sees the nature of the Buddha as being like space (ākāśa) and so it is all-pervasive and spans the cosmos.[10] Thus the Buddha is seen as being within all beings. This means that any perception of the Buddha is just a reflection of our own minds and any knowledge of the Dharma that one can attain is only due to the Buddha wisdom which dwells in the bodies of all sentient beings.[11] The sutra states:

the superior wisdom possessed by all Tathāgatas dwells in the bodies of all sentient beings ... It would not be possible otherwise for all sentient beings abiding anywhere to accord with the secrets that the Tathāgata teaches if they did not contain the Tathāgata’s power of assistance and accord with the Tathāgata’s Dharma nature. Furthermore, if one hears, if one speaks, and if one has an understanding about the profound Dharma of the secrets taught by the Tathāgata, then that is all by virtue of the power of the Tathāgata’s assistance.[12]

Thus, according to this sutra, sentient beings do not gain knowledge of the Dharma due to their own efforts, but through the power of the Buddha.[9] The bodhisattva path therefore is cultivated by giving rise to bodhicitta and by understanding the true nature of a Buddha's Dharma body (which is empty, all pervasive and unlimited). This activates the entirety of the purity of the Buddha's body, speech and mind that is already within all beings and this gives rise to the Buddha.[13] Therefore, the result (Buddhahood) is not attain by creating it through causes, rather the result is merely accessed since it is already present in the aspirant. This means that the bodhisattva who has given rise to bodhicitta practices the path of the paramitas with the Buddha's power aiding them.[13]

The Tathāgataguhyaka also equates the Buddha's body, which is said to span all three times (past, present, future), with suchness. The Buddha's bodily appearance to sentient beings (as the figure of Śākyamuni Buddha) is just one manifestation of this cosmic body or Dharma body (Dharmakāya) for the good of sentient beings. It always appears in accord with their needs and nature.[14] The sutra compares this automatic Buddha activity to a mirror, which reflects whatever is in front of it effortlessly and without intending to.[15]

Regarding the Buddha's speech, the sutra states the Buddha never really spoke a word:

from the day and night that he attained the fruit of anuttara-samyak-saṃbodhi to the day and night that he will enter Mahāparinirvāṇa, within that period, the Tathāgata has never once uttered a single word, he has not expressed any meaning. Why? Because the Buddha Tathāgata permanently abides in samāhita [i.e., meditative equipoise].[16]

While the Buddha is said not to actually say anything, through the power of the Buddha's secret of speech, living beings hear various teachings in words that conform to their linguistic and regional needs. This is compared to a magical instrument without a player.[17]

The secret of the Buddha's mind is the fact that it is always in a transcendent state of samādhi, it does not think, intend or fluctuate. However, it can still manifest in endless ways to help sentient beings according to their needs.[18]

Other teachings

The later versions of this sutra also contain various vidyās, which in this case refers to mantras.[19] The sutra also teaches a dhāraṇī called “Dhāraṇī Door of the Entry into the Characteristics of Dharmas,” which is just the letter A.[17] This letter precedes all letters in the Sanskrit syllabary and is also a negating prefix, thus it symbolizes non-duality, ineffability and emptiness. The letter is important in other Mahāyāna texts, being the main teaching of the Perfection of Wisdom in One Letter (Ekākṣarī-prajñāpāramitā).[17]


The Tathāgataguhyaka is widely cited by Indian Buddhist authors, especially by Madhyamaka school authors like Candrakīrti, Shantideva and Kamalaśīla.[20][21] The Tathāgataguhyaka is also praised by the Vimalakirti Sutra.[1] The Tathāgataguhyaka sutra is also referenced in the Laṅkāvatārasūtra.[22][23] The sutra is also cited three times in the Dà zhìdù lùn translated by Kumārajīva (4th century).[24] According to Tetsutaka Hamano, this sutra was also an important source for the ideas of the Buddha found in the Mahāyānasūtrālaṅkāra of Sthiramati.[25]

Some scholars, like Hamano, also consider the Tathāgataguhyaka to be related or similar to the tathāgatagarbha sūtras, since its doctrine about the omnipresence of the Buddha and the presence of the Buddha's knowledge within sentient beings seems to prefigure the Buddha-nature ideas found in tathāgatagarbha texts (which are not mentioned in the Tathāgataguhyaka), including the Ratnagotravibhāga.[26]

The Tathāgataguhyaka was also influential in Newar Buddhism, where it was originally part of the nine sacred texts of this tradition.[27]


Canonical translations

While the Sanskrit text of the Tathāgataguhyaka exists only in fragmentary form, there is a full Tibetan translation (by Jinamitra, Dānaśīla, Munivarman, and Yeshe de) and two Chinese translations, one (Taisho 310) by Dharmarakṣa of Dunhuang (230–316 CE) and one by a later Song dynasty Dharmarakṣa (died 1058) in Taisho 312.[28][29] According to Shaku Shingan, the earlier Chinese translation contains various terms that are influenced by Daoist terminology.[30]

According to Japanese scholar Hiromitsu Ikuma, the surviving Sanskrit manuscript has numerous issues and is a later version of the text, similar to the Song dynasty version (and the Tibetan).[26]

English translations

From the Tibetan:

From the Chinese (Taisho number 312):


  1. 1.0 1.1 Fiordalis & Dharmachakra Translation Committee 2023, Introduction.
  2. Fiordalis & Dharmachakra Translation Committee 2023, Summary.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Shingan 2022, Preface.
  4. Szántó 2021, Title.
  5. Chandra & Ratnam 1977, pp. 114-115.
  6. Stede 1934, pp. 402–403.
  7. Shingan 2022, pp. 15-16.
  8. Hamano, “『如来秘密経』の仏陀観,” 42–4
  9. 9.0 9.1 Shingan 2022, p. 34.
  10. Shingan 2022, pp. 15, 21.
  11. Shingan 2022, p. 15.
  12. Shingan 2022, p. 31.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Shingan 2022, pp. 35-36, 39.
  14. Shingan 2022, pp. 21, 25.
  15. Shingan 2022, p. 36.
  16. Shingan 2022, p. 38.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Shingan 2022, pp. 32, 37.
  18. Shingan 2022, p. 39.
  19. Shingan 2022, p. 23.
  20. Ruegg 1981, p. 7.
  21. Shingan 2022, pp. 12-13.
  22. Shingan 2022, p. 11.
  23. D.T. Suzuki, trans., The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra: A Mahāyāna Text, Routledge: London, 1932, 142–4.
  24. Shingan 2022, p. 12.
  25. Shingan 2022, p. 16.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Shingan 2022, pp. 16,21.
  27. Shingan 2022, p. 14.
  28. O’Neill 2020
  29. Shingan 2022, pp. 9-10.
  30. Shingan 2022, p. 19.


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