Significance of ‘Tathagata-garbha’

“The well-known motto of Ch’an [J., Zen] Buddhism is that “perceiving the true self, one becomes a Buddha.” The “true self” signifies the Buddha nature inherent in all sentient beings. The discovering of the “true self” has become the single most important pursuit of the Buddhist, especially in Sino-Japanese Buddhism. On the contrary, early Buddhism teaches that ultimately no substantial self (i.e., ‘anatman’) can be found, since the self is nothing but the union of the five aggregates. Modern Buddhologists as well as the Buddhists have been intrigued by the inconsistency that one single tradition teaches both that there is no self on the one hand, and that the goal of religious life is to discover the true self, on the other hand.” Continue reading

Commentary: For the sake of simplicity we could say that Tathagata-garbha means spiritual essence or spiritual embryo or even seed. This essence is not found in the five aggregates which are never unconditioned. It points more to our potential to realize our Buddha-nature or the same our true self. This sudden realization of our true self is called in Zen, kenshō.

In our intercourse with Zen Buddhism we have not yet conceived the Tathagata embryo or seed (bija). So how can we give birth to a baby Buddha? When we conceive this embryo we know what the luminous Spirit means. No more guessing or coming up with bonehead ideas that are only mental formations all of which are not our true self.

Some Buddhists even in Zen openly declare that there is no real kenshō or no Buddha-nature. All that there is is just sitting or zazen. This is not Zen, this is quietism. We must reject it. As long as we are engaged in forming ideas and thoughts, locked into thinking about our true self or Buddha-nature, we will never arrive. Even just sitting is not fundamental enough. How can sitting a lump of 37.2 trillion cells on a zafu attain buddhatā (the state of being a Buddha)?

Having intercourse with a Zen is necessary and good but more importantly, we must conceive the Tathagata-garbha. Only then will the baby Buddha be born who will walk the path of the bodhisattva.

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The Zennist

Author of The Zennist blog since 2007.

One thought on “Significance of ‘Tathagata-garbha’

  • February 14, 2022 at 11:20 am

    The various comments on my Youtube Video by Zen Students and Zen Teachers indicate that there is a fundamental confusion and ignorance as to what exactly Mahayana Buddhism is about, and teaches. Many are afflicted and corrupted by the Theravada views on Buddhism and read Theravada Suttas in mistaking them as Mahayana teachings!

    Theravada rejects the Mahayan teachings, especially the Tathagatagarbha sutras, as heresy and actually encourages Buddhist to renounce the Bodhisattva vows if they have taken them. The Theravadan is focused on becoming the Arhat, a view that is rejected by the Mahayana as selfish and of conceit. In this, the Mahayana is called ‘The Greater Wheel’ because our vows is to save all sentient beings, not just ourselves.

    However, this is an old issue – even in China, there are discourses and debates between Northern (Mahayana) and Southern (Theravadan) Buddhism going back hundreds of years!

    Zen, specifically Zen Buddhism, is the school of the Mahayana and path to the Bodhisattva. Theravadans view Zen itself (in its secular form) as Madhyamika/Yogachara and reject it as incomplete and inferior teaching.

    Theravada bhikkhus see themselves as ‘Teachers of the Laymen’, meaning anyone outside of their Religious Order, and have taken an absolute authoritarian position on this, even though the Buddha in the Suttas never stated that or given the bhikkhus authority over the laymen.

    Many westerners have been Ordained a Theravadan bhikkhu in Thailand or Myanmar (formerly Burma) and come back to the West with this “Religious Authority” over anyone who claims to be “A Buddhist”. You see this in the Youtube Videos here and here in where Western men simply grab the Theravada Scepter of Authority and bonk the western laymen on the head!

    Unfortunately, the Zen Student gets caught up in this, in where the confusion is laid, and the corruption is initiated.

    Many Zen teachers also demonstrate a lack of faith and belief in the Mahayana that becomes evident in their talks and teachings. This issue has led to many Zen Dharma Centers abandoning the Bodhisattva path and taking up a psychological practice in which the Dharma center becomes a cult of personality around the teacher. Many novice Zen students fall victim to this, simply because they don’t know about the Bodhisattva path and what Zen is really about.

    It has been my aim to correct this, to inform the Zen Student of the Bodhisattva path for their own benefits and enlightenment.


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