Nirvana Sutra

Appreciation of the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra"

Selected Extracts 1e


3. The Buddha-dhatu/ Tathagatagarbha


In a conversation with the great Bodhisattva, Mahakasyapa, the Buddha teaches that the Self is the "Tathagatagarbha" or "Tathagata-dhatu". All beings have this Buddha-dhatu ("Buddha-Principle", "Buddha Realm", "Buddha Sphere") inside them, but it is obscured by masses of mental and moral afflictions. These afflictions are called the kleshas and include sensuous desire, hatred, delusion, burning worry, jealousy, stinginess, cheating, flattery, not experiencing a sense of shame when wrong has been committed, pride, arrogance, lack of diligence, self-importance, quarrelsomeness, lack of respect, and association with bad friends (those whose life-styles are antipathetic to Dharma).


The Buddha-dhatu is truly present within the body-and-mind complex, the being (the kaya), of each individual -  regardless of whether that person be a god, human, animal, ghost, demon, or occupant of Hell. But it is covered over by masses of negative character traits such as those listed above. The Buddha-dhatu is like a cache of hidden gold buried beneath the house of a poverty-stricken person - awaiting discovery. The Buddha is the guide who points out where that treasure-trove is, and how we can reach it.


In a parable rich in symbolic suggestiveness, the Buddha also speaks of the Tathagatagarbha as being like a distinctive nectar or fragrance emanating from a special tree in the Himalayas. This is what he says:


"... for example, there is an elixir-producing [rasa-dhatu]  tree in the Himalayas called 'bees' nectar'. Even though it stands entangled with the dense thickets of the forest, it is apparent by its fragrance. Once, a chakravartin [supreme, righteous emperor of the world] inserted pipes [into the tree] from each side to get it, and then sour juice flowed out of the mouths of some of those pipes from that elixir tree; from some there flowed salty juice; from some there flowed sweet juice; from some there flowed pungent juice; from some there flowed bitter juice; and from some there flowed astringent juice. That elixir wafted to the sky in the forest. From the single taste of that elixir, many different tastes emerged, and each one of those tastes did not become mixed together. Moreover, like the disc of the moon, that elixir was ubiquitous. Even though it was present thus, other people went into that forest of dense thickets, but, though they dug with hoes, people with few blessings were unable to get any of it, while, by virtue of his merit, the chakravartin was able to do so.


"In the same way ... the Tathagatagarbha is like the elixir: it remains concealed by the various kleshas. Even though it has just a single taste - as the cause of becoming a Buddha - it is transformed into many different tastes by the maturation of the karmic actions of people, who then arise as men, women, or hermaphrodites. The Tathagata-dhatu is the intrinsic nature [svabhava/prakriti] of beings. Therefore, it cannot be killed by having its life severed. If it could be killed, then the life-force [jivaka] could be annihilated; but it is not possible for the life-force to be annihilated. In this instance, the life-force refers to the Tathagatagarbha. That Dhatu [Element, Principle] cannot be destroyed, killed or annihilated; but also it cannot be seen very clearly as long as Buddhahood has not been attained." (Tibetan version).



Before analysing the above parable, let us quote some analogous passages from Fa-xian’s version of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (translated here for the first time by Stephen Hodge). The advanced Bodhisattva, Kasyapa, comments to the Buddha that the Buddha himself possesses the Self or Soul [atman], but asks whether the 25 levels of samsaric existence (this includes the incarnational forms of humans, animal, ghosts, the various types of god …) also have the Self. The Buddha replies:


     “The True Self is the Tathagata-dhatu [emphasis added]. You should know that all beings do have it, but it is not apparent, since those beings are enveloped by immeasurable kleshas [mental afflictions]. It is, for example, like a cache of precious treasure that exists within an impoverished dwelling, though unknown. Then, somebody who is skilled in the characteristics of treasure said to the poor man, “Do some work for me, and I’ll give you wealth and treasure.” The poor man replied, “I can’t come. Why not? Because there is a cache of treasure within my old home, and I can’t abandon it.” The man said, “You are foolish, for you do not know the location of the treasure. Work for me and I’ll give you the precious treasure, which you will be able to use without its ever becoming exhausted.” After he had said this, that person then removed the precious treasure from that house and  gave it to him. The poor man was delighted and amazed, knowing that that person was truly reliable. All beings are also like that, for each one of them has the Tathagata-dhatu, but they are unaware of that because it is enveloped and submerged beneath immeasurable kleshas. The Tathagata skilfully encourages them and reveals it, causing them to know that the Tathagata-dhatu exists within their bodies and accept this with confidence."