412. The Tathagatagarbha Sutra

One of the distinctive features of Chinese Buddhism by the time the  Zen schools start to form, around the time of Mazu in the 8th century, is the universality of Buddha Nature.  One source of that is the Tathagatagarbha Sutra.

It was originally written in Sanskrit, but that version has been lost. We can only read it in translation back from the Chinese version. Tathagata is “ thus come”, a reference to Buddha. Garbha  has a wide range of meanings. 

We’ve come to think of the title as meaning that we’re figuratively carrying a Buddha in embryo inside us which is covered over by  our passions, our afflictions and so on. In due course, once we attend to these defilements, we can, as it were, give birth, manifest our Buddha. 

The Tathagatagarbha Sutra is 10 metaphors about Buddha Nature The one which gives us this idea about this Buddhist embryonic potentiality is the eighth example,  a vile and poor woman pregnant with a future World King.

This idea of something immensely valuable  covered over by something inherently unpleasant or nondescript  is the theme which dominates the metaphors. The metaphors exploit the surprising range of meanings of the word “Garbha”

Its dominant meaning, according to the English Sanskrit dictionaries, seems to be something like “interior or womb or embryo”. 

Then there are meanings derived from this, like “seed “.

But there are other meanings too. “Garbha” also means the “outer rim of a flower”, specifically the lotus flower. And that’s  the first and most revealing metaphor which is used in the Sutra. 

In this initial metaphor, the Buddha conjures up  Buddhas in the sky,  all of whom are seated  on lotus flowers. It’s a beautiful and magnificent sight. However, the Buddha then causes those Lotus flowers to become rotten and disgusting and to simultaneously conceal the Buddha inside.  The Buddha can still see the Buddhas inside these now rotting malodorous flowers, but ordinary people can’t. In the same way, a Buddha [ or ourselves through faith] can accept that within every person, no matter how ‘rotten’ is a Buddha. That’s not a developmental model; it’s not a future oriented model;  it’s a Here and Now model.

Most of the other metaphors which are used are like that. There’s a number of metaphors which are to do with something hidden. There’s valuable treasure hidden under a poor person’s house. There’s a gold statue of the Buddha wrapped up in shitty rags. There is another gold statue of Buddha hidden within its foundry blackness. There’s honey which is protected by an angry swarm of bees.  

The majority of metaphors are present focused. The only two which apparently aren’t are the eighth one, which we latch onto, as we think it matches the title, and another one which has to do with the mango seed, which has within it the capacity to give birth to a magnificent mango tree. I think that metaphor of the mango seed isn’t really future directed because, reading the text, the emphasis is on the indestructibility of the mango seed, not its potentiality.

I don’t think that these metaphors are pointing towards a future Buddha that we attain through faith or through effort but to a present Buddha, that somehow is hidden from us.

A number of things follow. On the face of it, it looks like the thing which is concealing the precious thing is either useless or disgusting.  

But it’s not useless. Without the shitty robes around the precious statue,  without the ground concealing the jewels and so on, in other words without the passions, the kleshas apparently obscuring Buddha Nature,  the thing that’s precious wouldn’t be there. So I think the Sutra is pointing to a more complex relationship between the kleshas and Buddha Nature.

Certainly from the point of view of an observer, the shitty robes are just disgusting and that’s that. We’re better off free of them.

But from the perspective of the robes it’s different. It seems to me one of the messages which is hidden within the sutra is that to become intimate with our Buddha Nature we require to become intimate with our kleshas. In other words we no longer regard our kleshas as something that we require to discard, get rid of, or transform.  

Rather we require to abandon our hate towards them. Abandoning that hate enables us to move from a vision of something which we find distasteful to becoming really acquainted with the kleshas in an intimate way.

What we understand then is that the kleshas do not have a fixed identity, and removed from the fixity of the self they aren’t what we think.  I think that that’s one of the themes buried within the Sutra.

Another interesting thing for us as practitioners is to reflect on the relationship between  the eighth metaphor, the  world King that is being carried within the body of a vile woman, and zazen.

If you look at our mudra during zazen, we’re holding our little fingers near the foot of our belly.  This  mudra  is representing the belief that we have this womb-like buddha space that the mudra manifests. At the mudra’s centre is this dynamic emptiness or potentiality of Buddha Nature. The hands are, as it were, the pelvic bowl and the thumbs are completing the shape.  The mudra is a statement of faith, a symbolic statement of faith about  Buddha Nature.

Yet we need to be careful what we mean by symbol. It’s not simply an encoded meaning: the mudra itself changes our state.  

If I am holding this mudra with an open heart in a position of faith towards the idea of the universality of Buddha Nature, then in a sense the mudra is within me now and manifesting this space of Buddha —this potentiality;  this ease and so on.

Right in my pelvic bowl. You can feel it.

There’s a temptation for us to think of metaphors as simply being encoded meaning rather than something broader, a way of seeing.  Those symbolic ways of seeing have inexhaustible meaning within them. Symbols are inherently both open in meaning and endlessly capable of new meaning.

But also, in themselves transformative, embodying and manifesting. We’ve lost our understanding of what a symbol is. But we can recover it. Not as a signifier, nor as a spell

as a door