Tathagatagarbha Sutra

Tathagatagarbha Sutra

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The Tathagatagarbha Sutra expresses the notion of an ultimate, uncreated and immortal core spiritual Reality in all living creatures – an indestructible, omniscient, eternal, infinite, pure, benevolent, nurturing and blissful Buddha Essence in each and every being (animals included), which empowers each being to become a Buddha.

In some Tathagatagarbha sutras (notably the Angulimaliya Sutra), this spiritual Essence is taught to inhere in, and form the foundation of, all phenomena without exception and to contain all good and true qualities.

Thus this teaching complements the doctrine of the “emptiness” of worldly phenomena: worldly things are empty of an eternally unchanging, individual identity of their own, but not of the perfect virtues of the everywhere-present Buddha.

The virtue-replete “Tathagatagarbha” is in fact no less than the Buddha-generating Potency itself – the state of spiritual Awake-ness or Knowing-ness (“Bodhi” or “Buddha-jnana”) concealed within the deeps of each person’s and each creature’s profoundest mind. A similar teaching can be found in the Tibetan Buddhist ‘Dzogchen’ scriptures.

It is vital to understand from the outset that the doctrine of the Buddha Nature is overwhelmingly presented by the Buddha in the core Tathagatagarbha sutras as definitive and absolute truth (not as an elementary, provisional or “relatively true” teaching).

The Tathagatagarbha is viewed by these sutras as supreme, virtue-filled, totally pure and immutable spiritual Reality. Contrary to a mass of disinformation circulating on the Internet and elsewhere on this subject, the Tathagatagarbha is NOT simply Emptiness (devoid of all positive qualities), or merely a more attractive way of speaking about Emptiness (again construed in a purely negative sense), or just conditioned chains of onward-flowing “dependent origination”.

The key Tathagatagarbha sutras make it abundantly clear that in its ultimate nature the Buddha Matrix is an unconditioned, changeless, virtuous, eternal, ineffable, spiritual Essence unshackled by the confines of time, place and process. And when it is termed “the Self” (as in the “Mahaparinirvana Sutra”), that does NOT refer to the mutable, conditioned, worldly ego (as some Tathagatagarbha commentators, who author essays on the “significance” of the Tathagatagarbha doctrine, misleadingly imply), but equates with the eternal, changeless Self of Buddha (found in all beings), which is one with Great Nirvana (according to the Buddha himself in the “Mahaparinirvana Sutra”).

The Tathagatagarbha is nowhere taught by the Buddha to be a mere ruse without genuine truth behind it, or to be merely some form of fictitious, purely metaphorical, concessionary phantasm or doctrinal crutch for spiritually retarded or immature students, or “for the masses at a given time” – as certain writers on Buddhism, out of whatever motive, are happy to have people erroneously believe. The very opposite of this is the case.

This Buddha-Garbha (Buddha Matrix or Essence) is revealed by the Buddha to his ADVANCED students as the unchanging and peaceful Buddhic Quintessence within each being (the “svabhava” or “atman” – the infinite, ego-less, unitary “Soul” of the Buddha), but which also actively functions as the seed of all positive spiritual qualities and underlies the thirst for Nirvana, and which indeed makes the obtention of Nirvana possible (since Nirvana, through the Tathagatagarbha, is already present within us).

Thus the Tathagatagarbha is dipolar, possessing both a quiescent, calm and motionless mode (as indicated by the “Vajrasamadhi Sutra”, for instance) and a dynamic, active mode of nurturing and liberating all suffering beings.

This richness of the combined ontic being and salvific function of the Tathagatagarbha seems to baffle some Western scholars, who cling to the mistaken view that the one precludes the other – yet that is the wonder of the Tathagatagarbha, that it is both quiescent in the nirvanic realm and salvationally active within the world of samsaric being.

The Tathagatagarbha is on occasion called by the Buddha the True Self (“satya-atman”) or the Buddha-Principle (“Buddha-dhatu”), and it is indestructible. It knows no death, only life eternal. Indeed, it is the “life-principle” (“jivaka”) itself, according to the Tibetan version of the “Mahaparinirvana Sutra”. This is in keeping with the definition of ‘soul’ found in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (2002): ‘the immaterial essence, animating principle of an individual life; the spiritual principle embodied in human beings, all rational and spiritual beings, or the universe.’

This Buddha-Soul is present everywhere, as the Buddha states in the full ‘Mahaparinirvana Sutra’: ‘I also teach, for the sake of all beings, that, in truth, there is the Soul / the Self (‘Atman’) in all things’. This is the unified Buddha-Self, all ‘of one taste’, which the Buddha teaches to his experienced, non-Self schooled monks – not just to ‘Hindu ascetics’ (as some commentators mendaciously like to pretent).

In the Faxian version of the ‘Nirvana Sutra’, the Buddha says: “The Tathagata-dhatu cannot be killed. Those who die are said to be short-lived, while the Tathagta-dhatu is stated to be the true life-principle.” Although present within samsara (the sphere of reincarnation), this Self or Tathagatagarbha yet essentially transcends all negative samsaric qualities and is replete with wondrous virtues.

When considering the Tathagatagarbha, one must at all times be mindful of the caveat that the Tathagatagarbha is ultimately incomprehensible and inexplicable to the un-Awakened mind – so to define it as mere “Emptiness” or as merely a function of Buddhist practice (rather than as a truly real, sustaining internal presence), as some commentators are pleased to claim, is to fail to do justice to this transcendental noumenon.

The fact is that whatever one says about the Tathagatagarbha cannot fully capture its plenitude of mystery and perfection, since words are ultimately inadequate to the task and there is nothing in the world that can truly be compared to it (this is explicitly stated in the “Angulimaliya Sutra”, as well as in the “Mahaparinirvana Sutra” – the lengthiest sutra dealing with the Tathagatagarbha).

The Tathagatagarbha constitutes the inconceivable realm or sphere (“visaya”) of the perfect, all-knowing Buddhas themselves and nurtures each person in whom it is found (i.e. every single being). Only when it is seen and truly known by profound inward introspection and purified spiritual vision can it be fully understood. And at that point – one has become a perfect Buddha!

Herein follows William H. Grosnick’s extremely important and excellent translation of this key “tathagatagarbha” sutra. It appears in the valuable book, “Buddhism in Practice”, edited by Donald S. Lopez . The idea of an actual hidden Buddha dwelling within the being of each person and each creature first found full expression in this influential scripture.

The Tathagatagarbha Sutra
Translated by William H. Grosnick

Thus have I heard.

At one time the Buddha was staying on the Vulture Peak near Rajagrha in the lecture hall of a many-tiered pavilion built of fragrant sandalwood. He had attained buddhahood ten years previously and was accompanied by an assembly of hundreds and thousands of great monks and a throng of bodhisattvas and great beings sixty times the number of sands in the Ganges River.

All had perfected their zeal and had formerly made offerings to hundreds of thousands of myriad legions of buddhas. All could turn the irreversible wheel of the dharma. If a being were to hear their names, he would become irreversible in the highest path.

Their names were Bodhisattva Dharma-Wisdom, Bodhisattva Lion-Wisdom, Bodhisattva Adamantine Wisdom (Vajra-mati), Bodhisattva Harmonious Wisdom, bodhisattva Wonderful Wisdom, Bodhisattva Moonlight, Bodhisattva Jeweled Moon, Bodhisattva Full Moon, Bodhisattva Courageous, Bodhisattva Measureless Courage, Bodhisattva Transcending the Triple World, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta, Bodhisattva Fragrant Elephant, Bodhisattva Fine Fragrance, Bodhisattva Finest Fragrance, Bodhisattva Main Treasury, Bodhisattva Sun Treasury, Bodhisattva Display of the Standard, Bodhisattva Display of the Great Standard, Bodhisattva Stainless Standard, Bodhisattva Boundless Light, Bodhisattva Bestower of Light, Bodhisattva Stainless Light, Bodhisattva King of Joy, Bodhisattva Eternal Joy, Bodhisattva Jeweled Hand, Bodhisattva Treasury of Space, Bodhisattva King of Light and Virtue, Bodhisattva Self-Abiding King of Dharanis, Bodhisattva Dharani, Bodhisattva Destroying All Ills, Bodhisattva Relieving All the Ills of Sentient Beings, Bodhisattva Joyous Thoughts, Bodhisattva Satisfied Will, Bodhisattva Eternally Satisfied, Bodhisattva Shining on All, Bodhisattva Moon Brightness, Bodhisattva Jewel Wisdom, Bodhisattva Transforming into a Woman’s Body, Bodhisattva Great Thunderclap, Bodhisattva Spiritual Guide, Bodhisattva Not Groundless Views, Bodhisattva Freedom in All Dharmas, Bodhisattva Maitreya, and Bodhisattva Manjusri.

There were also present bodhisattvas and great beings just like them from countless Buddha lands, whose number equalled sixty times the number of sands in the Ganges River. Together with an uncountable number of gods, nagas, yaksas, gandharvas, asuras, garudas, kinnaras, and mahoragas [all divine and quasi-divine beings], they all gathered to pay their respects and make offerings.

At that time, the Buddha sat up straight in meditation in the sandalwood pavilion and, with his supernatural powers, put on a miraculous display. There appeared in the sky a countless number of thousand-petaled lotus flowers as large as chariot wheels, filled with colors and fragrances that one could not begin to enumerate. In the center of each flower was a conjured image of a Buddha. The flowers rose and covered the heavens like a jewelled banner, each flower giving forth countless rays of light. The petals all simultaneously unfolded their splendor and then, through the Buddha’s miraculous powers, all withered in an instant.

Within the flowers all the Buddha images sat cross-legged in the lotus position, and each issued forth countless hundreds of thousands of rays of light. The adornment of the spot at the time was so extraordinary that the whole assembly rejoiced and danced ecstatically. In fact, it was so very strange and extraordinary that all began to wonder why all the countless wonderful flowers should suddenly be destroyed. As they withered and darkened, the smell they gave off was foul and loathsome.

But at that point the World-honored One realized why the bodhisattvas were perplexed, so he addressed Vajramati (“Adamantine Wisdom”), saying, “O good son. If there is anything in the Buddha’s teaching that perplexes you, feel free to ask about it.” Bodhisattva Vajramati knew that everyone in the whole assembly was perplexed, and so addressed the Buddha, saying, “O World-honored One, why are there conjured Buddha images in all of the innumerable flowers? And for what reason did they ascend into the heavens and cover the world? And why did the Buddha images each issue forth countless hundreds of thousands of rays of light?

Everyone in the assembly looked on and then joined his hands together in respect. At that point, Bodhisattva Vajramati spoke in verses, saying:

“Never ever have I witnessed
A miraculous display like today’s.
To see hundreds of thousands and millions of buddhas
Seated in the calyxes of lotus flowers,
Each emitting countless streams of light,
Filling all the fields,
Scattering the dirt of false teachers,
Adorning all the worlds!
The lotuses suddenly wilted;
There was not one which was not disgusting.
Now tell us,
Why did you display this conjured vision?
We see buddhas more numerous than
The sands of the Ganges,

At that time the World-honored One spoke to Vajramati and the other bodhisttvas, saying, “Good sons, there is a great vaipulya-sutra called the ‘Tathagatagarbha’. It was because I wanted to expound it to you that I showed you these signs. You should all listen attentively and ponder it well.

All said, “Excellent. We very much wish to hear it.

The Buddha said, “Good sons, there is a comparison that can be drawn between the countless flowers conjured up by the Buddha that suddenly withered and the innumerable conjured buddha images with their many adornments, seated in the lotus position within the flowers, who cast forth light so exceedingly rare that there was no one in the assembly who did not show reverence. In a similar fashion, good sons, when I regard all beings with my buddha eye, I see that hidden within the klesas [negative mental traits] of greed, desire, anger, and stupidity there is seated augustly and unmovingly the tathagata’s wisdom, the tathagata’s vision, and the tathagata’s body. Good sons, 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. Moreover, good sons, it is just like a person with supernatural vision who can see the bodies of tathagatas seated in the lotus position inside the flowers, even though the petals are not yet unfurled; whereas after the wilted petals have been removed, those tathagatas are manifested for all to see. In similar fashion, the Buddha can really see the tathagatagarbhas of sentient beings. And because he wants to disclose the tathagatagarbha to them, he expounds the sutras and the Dharma, in order to destroy klesas and reveal the buddha nature. Good sons, such is the Dharma of all the buddhas. Whether or not buddhas appear in the world, the tathagatagarbhas of all beings are eternal and unchanging. It is just that they are covered by sentient beings’ klesas. When the Tathagata appears in the world, he expounds the Dharma far and wide to remove their ignorance and tribulation and to purify their universal wisdom. Good sons, if there is a bodhisattva who has faith in this teaching and who practices it single-mindedly, he will attain liberation and true, universal enlightenment, and for the sake of the world he will perform buddha deeds far and wide.

At that point, the World-honored One expressed himself in verses, saying:

“It is like the wilted flowers;
Before their petals have opened,
One with supernatural vision can see
The unstained body of the Tathagata.
After the wilted flowers are removed,
One sees, without obstacle, the Teacher,
Who, in order to sever klesas,
Triumphantly appears in the world.
The Buddha sees that all kinds of beings
Universally possess the tathagatagarbha.
It is covered by countless klesas,
Just like a tangle of smelly, wilted petals.
So I, on behalf of all beings,
Everywhere expound the true Dharma,
In order to help them remove their klesas
And quickly reach the Buddha way.
I see with my Buddha eye
That in the bodies of all beings
There lies concealed the buddhagarbha,
So I expound the Dharma in order to reveal it.

Or good sons, it is like pure honey in a cave or a tree, surrounded and protected by a countless swarm of bees. It may happen that a person comes along who knows some clever techniques. He first gets rid of the bees and takes the honey, and then does as he will with it, eating it or giving it away far and wide. Similarly, good sons, all sentient beings have the tathagatagarbha. It is like pure honey in a cave or tree, but it is covered by klesas, which, like a swarm of bees, keep one from getting to it. With my Buddha eye I see it clearly, and with appropriate skilful techniques I expound the Dharma, in order to destroy klesas and reveal the Buddha vision. And everywhere I perform Buddha deeds for the benefit of the world.” Thereupon the World-honored One expressed himself in verses, saying:

“It is just like what happens when the honey in a cave or tree,
Though surrounded by countless bees,
Is taken by someone who knows a clever technique
To first get rid of the swarm.
The tathagatagarbha of sentient beings
Is like the honey in a cave or tree.
The entanglement of ignorance and tribulation
Is like the swarm of bees
That keep one from getting to it.
For the sake of all beings,
I expound the true Dharma with skilful means,
Removing the bees of klesas,
Revealing the tathagatagarbha.
Endowed with eloquence that knows no obstacle,
I preach the Dharma of sweet dew,
Compassionately relieving sentient beings,
Everywhere helping them to true enlightenment.

Or, good sons, it is like a kernel of wheat that has not yet had its husk removed. Someone who is impoverished might foolishly disdain it, and consider it to be something that should be discarded. But when it is cleaned, the kernel can always be used. In like fashion, good sons, when I observe sentient beings with my Buddha eye, I see that the husk of klesas covers their limitless Tathagata vision. So with appropriate skilful means I expound the Dharma, to enable them to remove those klesas, purify their universal wisdom, and to attain in all worlds the highest true enlightenment.” Thereupon, the World-honored One expressed this in verses, saying:

“It is just like what happens when all the kernels,
The husks of which have not yet been washed away,
Are disdained by someone who is impoverished,
And said to be something to be discarded.
But although the outside seems like something useless,
The inside is genuine and not to be destroyed.
After the husks are removed,
It becomes food fit for a king.
I see that all kinds of beings
Have a buddhagarbha hidden by klesas.
I preach the removal of those things
To enable them to attain universal wisdom.
Just as I have a Tathagata nature,
So do all beings.
When they develop it and purify it,
They quickly attain the highest path.

Or, good sons, it is like the genuine gold that has fallen into a pit of waste and been submerged and not seen for years. The pure gold does not decay, yet no one knows that it is there. But suppose there came along someone with supernatural vision, who told people, ‘Within the impure waste there is a genuine gold trinket. You should get it out and do with it as you please.’ Similarly, good sons, the impure waste is your innumerable klesas. The genuine gold trinket is your tathagatagarbha. For this reason, the Tathagata widely expounds the Dharma to enable all beings to destroy their klesas, attain true enlightenment, and perform Buddha deeds.

At that time the World-honored One expressed himself in verses, saying:

“It is just like what happens when gold is submerged
In impure waste, where no one can see it.
But someone with supernatural vision sees it
And tells people about it, saying
‘If you get it out and wash it clean,
You may do with it as you will,’
Which causes their relatives and family all to rejoice.
The Well-departed One’s vision is like this.
He sees that for all kinds of beings,
The Tathagata nature is not destroyed,
Though it is submerged in the muddy silt of klesas.
So he appropriately expounds the Dharma
And enables them to manage all things,
So that the klesas covering the Buddha nature
Are quickly removed and beings are purified.”

Or, good sons, it is like a store of treasure hidden beneath an impoverished household. The treasure cannot speak and say that it is there, since it isn’t conscious of itself and doesn’t have a voice. So no one can discover this treasure store. It is just the same with sentient beings. But there is nothing that the power of the Tathagata’s vision is afraid of. The treasure store of the great Dharma is within sentient beings’ bodies. It does not hear and it is not aware of the addictions and delusions of the five desires. The wheel of samsara turns and beings are subjected to countless sufferings. Therefore buddhas appear in the world and reveal to them the Dharma store of the tathagata in their bodies. And they believe in it and accept it and purify their universal wisdom. Everywhere on behalf of beings he reveals the tathagatagarbha. He employs an eloquence which knows no obstacle on behalf of the Buddhist faithful. In this way, good sons, with my buddha eye I see that all beings possess the tathagatagarbha. And so on behalf of bodhisattvas I expound this Dharma.

At that point, the Tathagta expressed himself in verses, saying:

“It is like a store of treasure
Inside the house of an impoverished man.
The owner is not aware of it,
Nor can the treasure speak.
For a very long time it is buried in darkness,
As there is no one who can tell of its presence.
When you have treasure but do not know of it,
This causes poverty and suffering.
When the buddha eye observes sentient beings,
It sees that, although they transmigrate
Through the five realms of reincarnation,
There is a great treasure in their bodies
That is eternal and unchanging.
When he sees this, the Buddha
Teaches on behalf of all beings,
Enabling them to attain the treasure-store of wisdom,
And the great wealth of widely caring for one another.
If you believe what I have taught you
About all having a treasure store,
And practice it faithfully and ardently,
Employing skillful means,
You will quickly attain the highest path.

Or, good sons, it is like the pit inside a mango [“amra”] fruit which does not decay. When you plant it in the ground, it grows into the largest and most regal of trees. In the same manner, good sons, when I look at sentient beings with my Buddha vision, I see that the tathagatagarbha is surrounded by a husk of ignorance, just as the seeds of a fruit are only found at its core. Good sons, that tathagatagarbha is cold and unripe. It is the profound quiescence of nirvana that is brought about by great wisdom. It is called the truly enlightened one, the Tathagata, the arhat, and so on. Good sons, after the Tathagata has observed sentient beings, he reveals this message in order to purify the wisdom of bodhisattvas and great beings.

At that point, the World-honored One expressed himself in verses, saying:

“It is just like the pit of a mango fruit
Which does not decay.
Plant it in the earth
And inevitably a great tree grows.
The Tathagata’s faultless vision
Sees that the tathagatagarbha
Within the bodies of sentient beings
Is just like the seed within a flower or fruit.
Though ignorance covers the buddhagarbha,
You ought to have faith and realize
That you are possessed of samadhi wisdom,
None of which can be destroyed.
For this reason I expound the Dharma
And reveal the tathagatagarbha,
That you may quickly attain the highest path,
Just as a fruit grows into the most regal of trees.

Or, good sons, it is like a man with a statue of pure gold, who was to travel through the narrow roads of another country and feared that he might be victimized and robbed. So he wrapped the statue in worn-out rags so that no one would know that he had it. On the way the man suddenly died, and the golden statue was discarded in an open field. Travelers trampled it and it became totally filthy. But a person with supernatural vision saw that within the worn-out rags there was a pure gold statue, so he unwrapped it and all paid homage to it. Similarly, good sons, I see the different sentient beings with their many klesas, transmigrating through the long night of endless samsara, and I perceive that within their bodies is the wondrous garbha of the Tathagata. They are august and pure and no different from myself. For this reason the Buddha expounds the Dharma for sentient beings, that they might sever those klesas and purify their Tathagata wisdom. I turn the wheel of the Dharma again and again in order to convert all worlds.

At that point, the World-honored One expressed himself in verses, saying:

“It is like a traveller to another country
Carrying a golden statue,
Who wraps it in dirty, worn-out rags
And discards it in an unused field.
One with supernatural vision sees it
And tells other people about it.
They remove the dirty rags and reveal the statue
And all rejoice greatly.
My supernatural vision is like this.
I see that beings of all sorts
Are entangled in klesas and evil actions
And are plagued with all the sufferings of samsara.
Yet I also see that within
The dust of ignorance of all beings,
The Tathagata nature sits motionless,
Great and indestructible.
After I have seen this,
I explain to bodhisattvas that
Klesas and evil actions
Cover the most victorious body.
You should endeavor to sever them,
And manifest the Tathagata wisdom.
It is the refuge of all –
Gods, men, nagas, and spirits.

Or, good sons, it is like a woman who is impoverished, vile, ugly, and hated by others, who bears a noble son in her womb. He will become a sage king, a ruler of all the four directions. But she does not know his future history, and constantly thinks of him as a base-born, impoverished child. In like fashion, good sons, the Tathagata sees that all sentient beings are carried around by the wheel of samsara, receiving suffering and poison, but their bodies possess the tathagata’s treasure store. Just like that woman, they do not realize this. This is why the Tathagata everywhere expounds the Dharma, saying, ‘Good sons, do not consider yourselves inferior or base. You all personally possess the Buddha nature.’ If you exert yourselves and destroy your past evils, then you will receive the title of bodhisattvas or world-honored ones, and convert and save countless sentient beings.

At that point, the World-honored One expressed himself in verses, saying:

“It is like an impoverished woman
Whose appearance is common and vile,
But who bears a son of noble degree
Who will become a universal monarch.
Replete with seven treasures and all virtues,
He will possess as king the four quarters of the earth.
But she is incapable of knowing this
And conceives only thoughts of inferiority.
I see that all beings
Are like infants in distress.
Within their bodies is the tathagatagarbha,
But they do not realize it.
So I tell bodhisattvas,
‘Be careful not to consider yourselves inferior.
Your bodies are tathagatagarbhas;
They always contain
The light of the world’s salvation.’
If you exert yourselves
And do not spend a lot of time
Sitting in the meditation hall,
You will attain the path of very highest realization
And save limitless beings.”

Or, good sons, it is like a master foundryman casting a statue of pure gold. After casting is complete, it is inverted and placed on the ground. Although the outside is scorched and blackened, the inside is unchanged. When it is opened and the statue taken out, the golden color is radiant and dazzling. Similarly, good sons, when the Tathagata observes all sentient beings, he sees that the buddhagarbha is inside their bodies replete with all its many virtues. After seeing this, he reveals far and wide that all beings will obtain relief. He removes klesas with his adamantine wisdom, and reveals the Buddha body like a person uncovering a golden statue.

At that point, the World-honored One expressed himself in verses, saying:

“It is like a great foundry
With countless golden statues.
Foolish people look at the outside
And see only the darkened earthen molds.
The master foundryman estimates that they have cooled,
And opens them to extract their contents.
All impurity is removed
And the features clearly revealed.
With my Buddha vision
I see that all sentient beings are like this.
Within the mud shell of passions,
All have the Tathagata-nature.
By means of adamantine wisdom,
We break the mold of the klesas
And reveal the tathagatagarbha,
Like pure, shining gold.
Just as I have seen this
And so instructed all the bodhisattvas,
So should you accept it,
And convert in turn all other beings.”

At that point, the World-honored One spoke to Vajramati and the other bodhisattvas and great beings, saying, “Whether you are monks or laypersons, goods sons and daughters, you should accept, recite, copy, revere, and widely expound this “Tathagatagarbha Sutra” for the benefit of others. The virtues that you will derive from it are inestimable. Vajramati, if there were a bodhisattva who, for the sake of the Buddha path, worked diligently and assiduously, or who cultivated spiritual powers, or who entered all of the samadhis, or who desired to plant the roots of virtue, or who worshiped the Buddhas of the present, more numerous than the sands of the Ganges River, or who erected more seven-jeweled stupas than there are sands in the Ganges River, of a height of ten yojanas [one yojana equals about nine miles] and a depth and breadth of one yojana, or who set up in those stupas seven-jeweled couches covered with divine paintings, or who daily erected for each Buddha more seven-jeweled stupas than there are sands in the Ganges River, and who presented them to each Tathagata and bodhisattva and sravaka in the assembly, or who did this sort of thing everywhere for all the present-day Buddhas, whose number is greater than the sands of the Ganges River, or who erected fifty times more jewelled stupas than there are sands in the Ganges River and who presented them to each Tathagata and bodhisattva and sravaka in the assembly, or who did this sort of thing everywhere for all the present-day Buddhas, whose number is greater than the sands of the Ganges River, or who erected fifty times more jewelled stupas than there are sands in the Ganges River and who presented them as an offering to fifty times more Buddhas and bodhisattvas and sravakas in the assembly than there are sands in the Ganges River, and who did this for countless hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of eons, O Vajramati, that bodhisattva would still not be the equal of the person who finds joy and enlightenment in the ‘Tathagatagarbha Sutra’, who accepts it, recites it, copies it, or even reveres but a single one of its metaphors. O Vajramati, even though the number of good roots and virtues planted by those good sons on behalf of the Buddhas is incalculable, it does not come to a hundredth or a thousandth or any possible calculable fraction of the number of virtues attained by the good sons and daughters who revere the ‘Tathagatagarbha Sutra’.

At that point, the World-honored One expressed himself in verses, saying:

“If there is a person seeking enlightenment
Who listens to and accepts this sutra,
And who copies and reveres
Even a single verse,
The subtle and profound garbha of the Tathagata
Will instantly come forth, accompanied with joy.
If you give yourself to this true teaching
Your virtues will be incalculable.
If there is a person seeking enlightenment
Who has attained great spiritual powers,
And who desires to make an offering
To the Buddhas of the ten directions
And to the bodhisattvas and sravakas of the assembly,
The number of which is greater
Than the sands of the Ganges,
A hundred million times incalculable;
If for each of the Buddhas
He constructed a marvellous jewelled stupa
Ten yojanas in height
And a breadth of forty li [one li equals about one-third of a mile],
Within which he would bestow a seven-jeweled seat,
With all the marvels
Appropriate for the august Teacher,
Covered with divine pictures and cushions,
Each one with its own unique designs;
If he offered to the Buddhas and the Sangha
An incalculable number of these,
More than the sands of the Ganges River,
And if he offered them
Without ceasing day or night
For hundreds and thousands
And tens of thousands of eons,
The virtues he would obtain in this manner
Could not be compared with
The far greater virtues of
The wise person who listens to this sutra,
Who accepts even a single metaphor from it
And who explains it for the benefit of others.
Beings who take refuge in it
Will quickly attain the highest path.
Bodhisattvas who devote their thought
To the profound tathagatagarbha,
Know that all beings possess it
And quickly attain the highest path.”

At that time the World-honored One again addressed Bodhisattva Vajramati, saying, “An incalculable time far back in the distant past, longer ago than many inconceivable countless eons, there was a buddha who was called the Eternally Light-Bestowing King, the Tathagata, the Arhat, the Truly Enlightened One, the One Possessed of Shining Actions, the One Who has Well Transcended the World, the Master Who Has Grasped the Highest, the Hero of Harmony, the Teacher of Men and Gods, the Buddha, the World-honored One. O Vajramati, why was he called the Eternally Light-Bestowing King? When that Buddha was originally practicing the bodhisattva path and descended as a spirit into his mother’s womb, he always gave off light which penetrated and illuminated in an instant even the tiniest atoms of all the thousands of Buddha worlds in the ten directions. Any being who saw this light was filled with joy. His klesas were destroyed; he became endowed with the power of form; his wisdom was perfected; and he attained an eloquence which knew no obstacle. If a denizen of hell, a hungry ghost, an animal, King Yama, Lord of the Dead, or an asura saw this light, all of his rebirths in evil realms were cut off and he was born as a god. If any god saw this light, he attained irreversibility in the highest path and was endowed with the five supernatural powers. If anyone who had attained irreversibility saw this light, he attained unborn dharma-patience and the fifty dharanis [incantations] of virtue. Vajramati, all the lands illuminated by that light became stately and pure, like translucent porcelain, with golden cords marking out the eightfold path, luxuriant with the fragrance of various kinds of jewelled trees, flowers, and fruits. Light breezes blew gently through them, producing soft, subtle sounds that expounded freely and unrestrainedly the three jewels, the bodhisattva virtues, the power of good roots, the study of the path, meditation, and liberation. Beings who heard it all attained joy in the Dharma. Their faith was made firm and they were forever freed from the realms of evil rebirth. Vajramati, because all the beings of the ten directions were instantly enveloped in light, at six o’clock every morning and evening they joined their palms together and offered worship. Vajramati, until the time he attained buddhahood and nirvana without a remainder, the place where that bodhisattva issued forth from the womb always shone with light. And after his final nirvana the stupa in which his ashes were kept also gleamed with light. Consequently, the inhabitants of the heavenly realms called him the Eternally Light-bestowing King. Vajramati, when the Eternally Light-bestowing King, the Tathagata, the Arhat, the Universally Enlightened One, first attained buddhahood, among his Dharma-disciples there was a bodhisattva named Boundless Light, as well as a group of two billion other bodhisattvas. The great being Bodhisattva Boundless Light turned toward the spot where the Buddha was and asked about the ‘Tathagatagarbha Sutra’, and the Buddha expounded it. He was in his seat for fifty long eons. And because he protected the thoughts of all the bodhisattvas, his voice reached everywhere in the ten Buddha worlds, even down to the smallest atoms, and it spread to hundreds of thousands of Buddha lands. Because of the numberless different backgrounds of the bodhisattvas, he presented hundreds of thousands of metaphors. He called it the ‘Mahayana Tathagatagarbha Sutra’. All thhe bodhisattvas who heard him preach this sutra accepted it, recited it, and practiced it just as it had been explained. All but four of the bodhisattvas attained buddhahood. Vajramati, you must not regard them as exceptional. How could Bodhisattva Boundless Light be different from you? You are identical with him. The four bodhisattvas who had not yet attained buddhahood were Manjusri, Avalokitesvara, Mahasthamaprapta, and you, Vajramati. Vajramati, the ‘Tathagatagarbha Sutra’ has an abundant capacity. Anyone who hears it can attain the Buddha path.

Then the Buddha again expressed himself in verse, saying:

“Countless eons ago
A Buddha named King of Light
Always shone forth great light
And illumined innumerable lands everywhere.
Bodhisattva Boundless Light
First attained the way under that Buddha,
And requested this sutra.
The Buddha accordingly preached it.
All those who encountered it were victorious,
And all those who heard it
Attained buddhahood,
Except for four bodhisattvas.
Manjusri, Avalokitesvara,
Mahasthamaprapta, and Vajramati –
These four bodhisattvas
All formerly heard this Dharma.
Of them, Vajramati
Was the most gifted disciple.
At the time he was called Boundless Light
And had already heard this sutra.
When I originally sought the way
At the lion standard marking the Buddha place,
I too once received this sutra
And practiced it as I had heard it.
Because of these good roots,
I quickly attained the Buddha path.
Therefore all bodhisattvas
Ought to uphold and preach this sutra.
After you have heard it
And practiced just as it has been explained,
You will become Buddhas just like I am now.
If a person upholds this sutra,
He will comport himself like the World-honored One.
If a person obtains this sutra,
He will be called ‘Lord of the Buddhadharma’,
And then, on behalf of the world, he will protect
What all the Buddhas proclaim.
If anyone upholds this sutra,
He will be called ‘The Dharma King’,
And in the eyes of the world
He will deserve to be praised
Like the World-honored One.”

Then, when the World-honored One had finished expounding this sutra, Vajramati, together with the four groups of bodhisattvas, the gods, the gandharvas, the asuras, and the rest, rejoiced at what they had heard the Buddha explain, and they practiced it as they had been told.

The End of the “Tathagatagarbha Sutra”

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