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A buddha within a lotus is one of the nine similes for tathāgatagarbha.

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.[1] It is one of several terms that is commonly translated as buddha-nature. This term is also translated more literally as as "womb of the tathāgatas," "essence of the tathāgatas," "tathāgata heart," etc.

The Tsadra editors state:

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][2]

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.[3]

Nine similes for tathāgatagarbha

Nine similes for tathāgatagarbha are identified in the tathāgatagarbha literature. These are also commonly referred to as the "nine similes for buddha-nature." These similes were first presented in the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra, and then elaborated upon in the Ratnagotravibhāga and other commentaries.

In brief, these nine similes are:[4]

1) a buddha in a decaying lotus,
2) honey amid bees,
3) kernels in their husks,
4) gold in filth,
5) a treasure in the earth,
6) a sprout and so on from a small fruit,
7) an image of the victor in a tattered garment,
8) royalty in the womb of a destitute woman, and
9) a precious statue in clay.

For detailed explanations of these similes, see:

Different ways of explaining tathāgatagarbha

For a discussion of the etymology of tathāgatagarbha and the different ways this term is explained within different traditions, see:

In East Asian Buddhism

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).[5]

Qualities of tathāgatagarbha

The tathāgatagarbha sūtras and the Uttaratantra identify four pāramitās that "are the ultimate defining characteristics of the tathāgata heart."[6] These are four pāramitās of purity, self, permanence, and bliss on the final path of nonlearning.[6]

Karl Brunnholzl states:

...the qualities of the tathāgata heart (such as the four pāramitās of supreme purity, bliss, self, and permanence) exist only when the mode of appearance and the actual mode of being are in accord. Therefore, they are established only through "the valid cognition of the pure vision of the noble ones" ( ’phags pa dag gzigs gi tshad ma) but never through "the valid cognition of seeing just this life" (tshur mthong tshad ma). For more details, see Duckworth 2005 and Kapstein 1988.[6]

Tathāgatagarbha literature

Tathāgatagarbha sūtras

Alex Gardner states:

A handful of texts that are sometimes collectively labeled "tathāgatagarbha sūtras" are generally agreed upon as the initial group of literature that developed the concept of buddha-nature as we know it today. These stand distinct from the Yogācāra scriptures such as the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra, and from the prajñāpāramitā (perfection of wisdom) literature that provided the foundation for the Madhyamaka; so much so that some historians have posited the existence of a third Indian Mahāyāna school alongside them: the Tathāgatagarbha school.[7]

According to Gardner, the most important of these early texts include:[7]

Gardner states:

While later Mahāyāna scriptures such as the Laṅkāvatāra and the Lotus Sūtra also teach tathāgatagarbha, the above-named scriptures predate the popular Ratnagotravibhāga, a fourth- or early fifth-century Indian treatise that systematized tathāgatagarbha theory, and so are considered the first wave of the doctrine. The dates of their creation are unknown, and there is as yet little consensus concerning the sequence of their appearances.[7]

Other notable texts

The tathāgatagarbha doctrine is also discussed in the following sutras:


  • Ratnagotravibhāga - an Indian treatise that systematized tathāgatagarbha theory; this text is highly influential in Tibetan Buddhism
  • Dasheng qixin lun (Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana) - a highly influential East Asian treatise that posits the notion of “one mind” that has two aspects: the absolute, which is equivalent to tathāgatagarbha, and the phenomenal, which is ālayavijñāna.[9]

Twenty-four sutras associated with tathāgatagarbha

Karl Brunnhölzl, drawing on the Tibetan tradition, provides the following list of 24 sutras "explicitly or implicitly associated with tathagatagarbha":[10]

  1. Tathāgatagarbhasūtra
  2. Anūnatvāpūrṇatvanirdeśa
  3. Śrīmālādevī Siṃhanādasūtra
  4. Dhāraṇīśvararājasūtra
  5. Mahāyānamahāparinirvāṇasūtra
  6. Aṅgulimālīyasūtra
  7. Mahābherīsūtra
  8. Laṅkāvatārasūtra
  9. Tathāgatagunajñanacintyavisayavataranirdesasutra
  10. Sarvabuddhavisayavatarajñanalokalamkarasutra
  11. Ratnadārikāsūtra
  12. Mahāmeghasūtra
  13. Abhidharmamahāyānasūtra
  14. Sthirādhyāsayaparivartasūtra
  15. Avikalpapraveśadhāraṇī
  16. Śūnyatānāmamahāsūtra
  17. Buddhāvataṃsakasūtra
  18. Ratnakuta
  19. Suvarnaprabhasottamasutra
  20. Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra
  21. Gaganagañjaparipṛcchsūtra
  22. Sāgaramatiparipṛcchāsūtra
  23. Prasantaviniscayapratiharyanamasamadhisutra
  24. Candrapradipasutra

Further reading


  1. 1.0 1.1 Tsadra commons icon.jpg Tathāgatagarbha, Tsadra Foundation Commons
  2. Tathāgatagarbha, Tsadra Buddha-nature glossary
  3. Robert E. Buswell Jr., Donald S. Lopez Jr., The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton: 2014), s.v. tathāgatagarbha
  4. Tsadra commons icon.jpg The Nine Similes, Buddha Nature: A Tsadra Foundation Initiative
  5. 如來藏, Digital Dictionary of Buddhism (login with username "guest"; no password)
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 FromWhen the Clouds Part, as quoted in Tsadra commons icon.jpg Different Ways of Explaining the Meaning of Tathāgatagarbha, Buddha Nature: A Tsadra Foundation Initiative
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Tsadra commons icon.jpg Gardner, Alex (2019), A History of Buddha-Nature Theory: The Literature and Traditions, Buddha Nature: A Tsadra Foundation Initiative
  8. "The Ratnagotravibhāga and the Later Spread of Buddha-Nature Theory in India" in Tsadra commons icon.jpg Gardner, Alex (2019), A History of Buddha-Nature Theory: The Literature and Traditions, Buddha Nature: A Tsadra Foundation Initiative
  9. Tsadra commons icon.jpg Dasheng qixin lun, Buddha Nature: A Tsadra Foundation Initiative
  10. Brunnholzl, Karl (2014). When the Clouds Part, The Uttaratantra and Its Meditative Tradition as a Bridge between Sutra and Tantra, p. 11. Boston & London: Snow Lion.