Tathatā & Garbha

Wesak Talk UK National Order Weekend and West London Buddhist Centre, May 2004

It’s the full moon of May, or pretty close to that, so we’re close to the anniversary of the Buddha’s Enlightenment.  On Tuesday, when it is actually full, we have a total eclipse of the moon.  Well, I wonder what that symbolises.  Maybe this year Mara’s going to try to eclipse the Buddha.  But Mara is basically just a joker, a trickster, someone whose antics we can laugh at.  And who’d really be surprised to see Mara turn up?  In anyone’s dharma practice, whether it’s in our meditation or in our activity in the world, Mara’s always appearing and disappearing.  It is absolutely the norm.  And actually the Buddha is only our idea of the Buddha.  In our current unenlightened practice the light of the Buddha and the shadow of Mara are a duality.  So the shadow of Mara will always come back; and the light of the Buddha will always come back.  It is all conditioned by our views and mental states.  Whenever we can see that conditionedness, Mara isn’t any problem.  All that’s important is that we are keeping up our practice.  The greater the eclipse, the brighter the moonlight; the bigger the sinner, the bigger the Buddha when he or she finally breaks the mould. 

Anyway, never mind about all that for now… it’s the full moon… and it’s spring.  Spring is an intoxicating time, don't you think?  Especially for an aging anagarika like me, the full moon in springtime is a time of intensity and some real lunacy.  This week, as usual, I was doing my walking meditation in the street outside the West London centre.  I spend at least an hour doing this every morning, and sometimes it is quite a lot longer.  I just walk back and forth, and I experience what I experience.  I try to take that experience directly as it is, facing it directly, letting all ideas and interpretations come and go as they like without clinging.  It is a very good practice for me to do in the town, because it is not only a meditation on reality, and one that takes place in what we think of as ‘the real world’ - in the nitty gritty of dirty old London - but it also includes nature and other people.  Anyway I’ll say more about that practice a bit later – now I’m just reflecting on this time of year when the Buddha gained enlightenment. 

Westbourne Park Villas is a long straight avenue that follows the railway line.  It’s quite close to Paddington Station.  I do my walk along the railway side.  There are no houses there, just a very solid, buttressed, red brick wall.  It must be Edwardian or Victorian.  Every few yards there’s a big plane tree, and the trees are just coming into leaf.   The road has speed bumps every few yards, so the traffic’s quiet enough.  On the other side of the road there are flats and houses.  Thomas Hardy used to live in one of them.  Most people walk on that side, and there are more trees there, including quite a few cherry trees.  Right now the cherry trees are in full glorious blossom.  So there are blossoms everywhere, a few white and a lot of pink. 

The weather last weekend, if you can remember, was very sunny and even a little hot, it was real tee shirt weather.  There are several cafes and pubs round the centre, and people were spilling out all over the street.  Crowds of people were sitting on the pavements and standing in the road around the centre, eating and drinking and chatting and phoning.  It was a very lively time.  But on the Tuesday evening the weather broke.  There was a great thunderstorm  and the rain came down in sheets.  At the regular’s class people were hammering on the door to get in because they were getting soaked by the torrential rain outside.  And the next morning, when I went out for my walking practice, I walked on the other side of the avenue, along where all the pink blossomed cherry trees were.  Because it was like there had been pink snow.  For twenty or thirty yards, everything was pink: the overnight parked cars were completely covered; the pavement, the gutters, the walls and the gardens, the dustbins, even the tops of the iron railings and the window ledges – everything was covered in tiny pure pink petals.  And walking along just those few yards there was very tangibly that same peaceful atmosphere that you get when everything is carpeted with snow.  It was like Christmas, except it was pink.  It really was a powerful experience!  

At this peak time of the year everyone, including animals, is flooded with natural feeling.  And it’s at this very exuberant, joyful time that we celebrate Enlightenment.  We celebrate the nature of reality, reality as realised.  Reality as fully realised, and joyfully embodied, by the Buddha and all those who have practised his way of living.  So essentially, What we celebrate on Wesak or Buddha Day is the nature of Buddhahood itself. 

So I’m going to speak about this Buddha Nature which, in Buddhist tradition, is usually called Tathagatagarbha.  Tathagata is a common word for Buddha; Garbha means either womb, or the embryo which grows in the womb. 

We’ll go into this imagery in a while.   The way I’d like to start is briefly to sketch the history of this teaching.  Scholarship is a bit thin in this area, but from my reading I can recommend two really outstanding books.  One is Sallie King’s ‘Buddha Nature’ and the other is Shenpen Hookham’s ‘The Buddha Within’.  Hookham covers the Tibetan tradition, whereas King writes about East Asia, and especially China. 

Tathagatagarbha ideas exist germinally in the earliest Buddhist scriptures, but they appear explicitly in India around the year 200 with the Tathagatagarbha Sutra and the Srimaladevisimhanada Sutra,  the famous Lions Roar of Princess Srimala.  These are not late Sutras, they are among the earliest Mahayana Sutras.   Of the two, the Tathagatagarbha Sutra is probably slightly earlier.  It is very simple and direct; it communicates the Buddha Nature entirely in images.  It gives the most basic teaching of Tathagatagarbha.  All sentient beings have Buddha Nature.  The Buddha Nature is within us all.  That is the message. 

The sutra gives nine different metaphors that illustrate what this means.   I won’t go through all nine, but the first compares our Buddha Nature to a seed.  A precious seed is covered up by a husk that is all rough and coarse.  We don't actually see the seed; all we see is the husk.  But under that husk is the seed!   So it’s a very simple message.  People see themselves as rough and coarse, people see others as rough and coarse; in fact people tend to see people as rubbish.  But that is rubbish!  Our rubbishy appearance is just on the surface.  Our actual nature is totally different.  We are seeds of Buddhahood, that is what we are; we are not just the husks that superficially appear. 

So this is the teaching.  Human nature contains Buddha Nature.  All nine examples given by the Tathagatagarbha Sutra are pretty similar.  To give a couple of examples, the Sutra says Buddha Nature is like a treasure hidden under the ground – it’s there all the time if we only knew.  All we have to do is dig it up, and we’ll be rich.  And it tells us that Buddha Nature is like a priceless statue that’s wrapped up in a filthy, disgusting old rag.  If we can only bear to touch it, and pick the rag off, we’ll unwrap a wonderful bejewelled golden statue. 

You can see from these examples how amazingly positive this teaching is.  It is completely affirmative.  Instead of saying we are miserable sinners, it is saying we are Buddhas by nature.  We’re Buddhas at heart.  Even if at the moment we don't experience ourselves in that way, that is what we have always been by nature.  We just have to dig up the treasure, pick off the old rags, remove the husk and reveal the seed. 

That’s what the Tathagatagarbha Sutra says.  The Srimaladevisimhanadasutra, the Sutra of the Princess Srimala’s Lion’s Roar, might actually be earlier than the Tathagatagarbha Sutra.  It’s a lot more conceptually sophisticated; it’s a lot more philosophical.  And it is very critical of prevailing attitudes within the Buddhism of its time.  Remember by 200 AD, Buddhism had been going for six or seven hundred years.  What it criticises is negative interpretations of the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness, sunyata.  Princess Srimala - who is pretty hard boiled for a little eight year old girl – tells a huge assembly of seasoned dharma practitioners what reality is actually empty of.  She tells them reality is actually empty of problems.  They don’t really exist.  All obstacles and obscurations on the path are seen, when actually looked at, to be mere illusions.  Now that is radical enough, but then she tells them what reality is not empty of.  She says reality is not empty of the perfect Qualities of Buddhahood.  Reality is not empty of the intrinsically pure mind.  In other words, it’s full of those things.  It consists of those things.  What reality actually consists of is the intrinsically pure mind and the Qualities of Buddhahood.  The sutra wonders how we made the incredible mistake of thinking things were otherwise.  It says that is such an incredible mystery that only a Buddha can comprehend how it ever could have happened. 

Now, doesn’t this sound different from the Buddhist teaching we’re familiar with?  Doesn’t it sound rather different from, for example, the practice of developing shamatha and vipashyana, peace of mind and wisdom.  Isn’t it different from the idea of becoming more ethical, developing more skilful mental states, reflecting on the dharma, breaking through the hindrances to insight.  Isn’t it rather different from the idea of letting go the reactive mind, developing the creative mind.  Isn’t it rather different from seeing through the conditioned mind, seeing conditioned co-production, getting off the wheel of cyclic existence and getting onto the transcendental spiral… isn’t it different from developing insight and cutting through craving and hatred? 

Well, no, I don’t know that it is really. 

It’s true that superficially the Buddhist teachings we’re more familiar with seem different, because they talk in terms of development.  They tell you that you’re a deluded being and you need to develop into an enlightened being.  You aren’t peaceful, you aren’t insightful, you aren't ethical, your mental states are not skilful… so you need to develop all these things.  You haven’t developed the creative mind, you haven’t developed the Bodhicitta.  So yes, it’s true that this way of teaching can give a very definite impression that the Buddha is not already within us. 

But it’s not hard to read it the other way too.  Because all the Tathagatagarbha teaching is doing is telling us to look at our existing experience.  The focus is just on what’s already there, rather than what could potentially be there.  We just look right at our experience - and if we can really look, we’ll see its real nature.  Because it’s there.  The true nature of things is there all the time.  There isn’t anything else.  The treasure just needs digging up.  The seed’s right there, under the husk. 

So it’s simple.  We see the real nature of things, so our obstacles drop away and we gain insight.  And it’s eventually by that process that we’ll become fully enlightened.  So this is not a different dharma, it’s just explained in a more positive way.   It is never easy to explain, fully and properly, how the dharma works.  It isn’t possible to explain it; the process is mysterious.  But you need to say something, and you can.  You can say, for example, that we develop something, that we become insightful.  That’s one way you can put it. 

Alternatively, you can put it the Tathagatagarbha way, and say that something drops away and the truth that was always there is revealed.  That was what these early Tathagatagarbha texts said.  The Srimaladevi Sutra is very interesting.  I can’t say I know it intimately,  but in its critique of negatively understood sunyata it somehow seems to capture the whole story, the whole dialectic out of which the Tathagatagarbha eventually flowered into all the later Mahayana schools.  So I’d like to sketch that story very briefly before gong into things more experientially. 

The Buddha originally taught pratityasamutpada or dependent arising.  Everything arises from conditions; even the conditions themselves arise from conditions.  Delusion arises from certain conditions, such as attachment and aversion; Enlightenment arises from certain conditions, such as positive mental states and awareness of reality.  Let go the negative conditions, and enlightenment will arise; neglect the positive conditions, and delusion will arise.  That was the Buddha Sakyamuni’s teaching of pratityasamutpada, dependent arising. 

Later on, certain traditions started referring to dependent arising as the First Turning of the Dharma Wheel, or the First Dharmachakra.  This comes from a Pali Sutta called the the Dhammachakkapavatana Sutta; the turning of the Dharma Wheel.  But these traditions also said Sakyamuni turned the Dharma Wheel three times, not just once.  This didn’t mean literally that he only taught three times - it’s obvious from the scriptures that the Buddha taught many thousands of times.   The tradition of the three Dharmachakras means that at over the whole of his career, Sakyamuni taught using three principal, and radically different, approaches. 

It seems he needed to have a range of approaches.  I mean, as we know, people have very different minds.  Some people have very subtle minds; others have straightforward, not-so-subtle minds.  Some are young and unformed; others are old and sophisticated.  Some are thinkers, others are feelers.  If you only teach in a simple straightforward way, some people start thinking this is just too simple, and they can’t really listen any more.  But then, if you only teach in a very subtle way, some people just can’t understand.  The Buddha was compassionate; he was also very smart.  So he found ways to teach in different ways at different times. 

According to the Dhammachakkapavatana Sutta, the Buddha initially taught the Four Noble Truths.  He taught first that Life is unsatisfactory; second, that unsatisfactoriness arises due to conditions, that is due to dependent arising.  Then third, he taught that liberation and satisfaction is a real possibility.  Fourthly, he taught that liberation comes when you set up a load of other conditions called the Eightfold Path.  That, according to later Buddhism, was the first Dharmachakra. 

The second Dharmachakra was the teaching of sunyata.  In the records of the Pali Canon, the earliest Buddhist scriptures we have, Sakyamuni taught sunyata quite extensively.  There are lots of Pali Suttas about emptiness, so there’s a definite basis to the idea of a second Dharmachakra.   

I have been wondering recently if it isn’t time the second Dharmachakra was taught in the FWBO.  Our training derives almost entirely from the first, and I think nowadays we need the second, and for the same reason the Buddha originally taught it.  I mean, people in the FWBO have different minds, too.  We also need to learn – to train in and teach - a range of approaches. 

So what does it mean to train in the second Dharmachakra - in the teaching of emptiness or sunyata?  

I think that for us, ‘emptiness’ is not at all a good translation of sunyata - even though ‘emptiness’ is exactly what sunyata means.  The problem is that in English ‘emptiness’ is not in the least figurative, it just means literally what it says.  In English, emptiness means there’s nothing there: there’s just a vacancy.  But in Sanskrit, emptiness is highly metaphorical.  In the Sanskrit, ‘emptiness’ is an image, it’s hinting at something much bigger.  So to start taking in the second Dharmachakra, think image.  Allow meanings to associate.  Let go logic, be symbolic.  And if we sit for a while with the image of emptiness, I think we get a suggestion of space.  A space that’s vast, unlimited, boundless.  In that there’s a suggestion of freedom too, there’s a feeling of subtle expansion.  So emptiness symbolises space, expansion, freedom – perhaps, liberation.  

And that’s not all.  If we sit with the word again, we might also notice that ‘emptiness’ is something mysterious, something intangible.  There’s a strange feeling when we say that ‘things are empty’.   There’s some kind of contradiction in there.  We wonder how things can be empty.  There’s a sense that things may not be there, somehow, not there I mean in the usual sense – er, whatever the usual sense is that they exist in.  Yes, we start to wonder in what sense things are there; and from that point, we find ourselves questioning all kinds of safe, solid assumptions. 

So emptiness symbolises the mystery, the unknowable quality of our existence, if that’s what it is… and It’s when we open to that unknowableness that we enter into the real quality of sunyata. 

The main thing we need to understand about sunyata, apart from its being a metaphorical word, is what the ‘emptiness’ is referring to, anyway.  What are things empty OF?  They are empty of any real centre or core.  That is the primary teaching.  Because we always assume things have a core.  We always think there’s some kind of essential thing there.  There’s got to be some thing that gives a thing its thingness… somehow… we feel. 

But actually this feeling is always mistaken, even though it is so strong.  There is not actually any core to anything, anywhere.  We look at chairs and tables, walls and bodies, the sky, the rivers, and the earth, and we think there they all are, that is just what they are.  They are chairs, bodies and rivers.  But no.  That is just our concept, our idea. 

Our concepts are highly conditioned, highly subjective.  They are conditioned by the fact that we are human and that we have uses for those chairs and other things.   For beings who have another point of view on life, for example whales -  or what about snails - a chair will just be another example of the very alien artefacts which humans always seem to collect around them.  I’m not claiming some kind of equality here for animals and invertebrates, I’m just pointing out that every object in our world will be perceived very much according to its perceiver.  And that an object is a particular object only for its perceiver.  For another perceiver, it is another object.  It is different even for everyone in the human realm, for each of us is an individual with a unique history and a unique range of emotional reactions.   So chairs, bodies, rivers and the entire world of material forms will be at least a little different for each of us… and sometimes the difference will be huge. 

When you look at this fully, head on, really absorbed in the issues, you see what this means.  You see that there are no things in themselves.  You might argue with yourself and say that a chair is its material form, it’s the metal and plastic – and surely this is how it is in itself.  It’s this chair form that we can all pick up, put down and sit on.  But no.  That collection of sticks is only called a chair because we human beings have a particular skeletal structure that needs to sit down.  In itself, it is just stuck together sticks.  The concept ‘chair’ is highly conditioned.  Chairs do not, finally, exist as such.  What does exist, is not at all easy to express in words. 

And that is what you start to understand when you engage with the second Dharmachakra teachings.   You start becoming more precisely aware that the concepts that you have, even of ordinary things like chairs, are subtly different from that of others.  And you start noticing why – you start seeing that the difference is due it being your concept; that is, your concept is based on the idea of ‘you’.  It is based on your own concept of yourself.  

Because ‘me’ is only another concept.  ‘Me’ is only an idea.  When we look closely we see that ‘me’ does not, finally, exist.   It is not an objective, really existing thing.  We have a feeling of me – but that is a feeling, not an actual me.  ‘Me’ is no more than a useful expression.  We say I’m feeling happy… I’m feeling sick.  No one really feels sick – it’s just a useful expression because we don’t know how to explain it in any other way.  Who feels happy?  Me.  But where is this me?  Behind my eyes?  Is it my brain?  What are we talking about – body or mind?  Well, is mind me?  Or is body me?   Or is it both somehow?   We don’t know.  We never think about these things, and we are deeply confused about it all.  And whatever we say will be incoherent, because really and truly, ‘me’ is simply a concept that’s convenient to use, because we don’t know what else to do. 

The teaching of sunyata is rather devastating in this way.  There is no escape from its analysis. 

Now, some of you may be finding all this impossibly dry.  It is possible that the second Dharmachakra is not for you.  Maybe you’ll prefer to stick with the first Dharmachakra, or try the third Dharmachakra when it comes around.  But before you run away, let me say that the real teaching of sunyata is never, ever abstract.  Not at all.  It is the opposite of abstract.  What this is about is finding the sunyata that is always there in our experience.  It is pointing very directly to the reality we are all part of.   It is essential to remember this, otherwise it just looks like an intellectual mind game; dry, inessential, and boring.  So please don't run away.  It isn’t like that at all.  You really have to see it, have to find the emptiness in everything.  

I’d better say a bit about the practice right now, because it’s only in practice that sunyata starts to live.  There are so many ways into sunyata.  Yogi Chen, Bhante’s Chinese Buddhist teacher who especially taught meditation, trained in many kinds of sunyata meditation.  One I have found very useful is the teaching of the three mandalas or the Trimandala.    

A mandala as you probably know is a kind of self contained world, and there can be worlds within worlds, mandalas within mandalas.  The trimandala is a world which consist of three worlds.  It is the ongoing world of our everyday experience.  There is the mandala that is the subject, the mandala that is the object, and the mandala of their relationship.  The trimandala is there all the time so you can always look at it.  And you can look at it now.  You are taking in my words, at least some of the time.  For the purpose of this meditation it doesn't actually matter where your attention is, but you do need to experience the quality of that attention.  In these three mandalas there is you giving attention, there is something you’re attending to, and there’s something happening between the two.  Maybe there’s a feeling, an emotion, more thoughts, maybe there’s a whole world of things going on in that relationship. 

That’s the Trimandala.  Subject, object… relationship.  In itself, this is just an analysis.  But it gets interesting when you actually apply it.  When you and try to see that they are all actually empty, then it is very interesting.  It’s interesting because it is actually true.  You are empty, the object of your attention is empty, and their relationship is also empty.  Seeing this is pure magic!  It is magic because everything comes alive.  When in the moment you actually recall that you are not there in the sense you assume, that your existence is something you don't understand;  when in the moment you recall that the thing you are looking at or thinking about is of the same nature.  And then you have to wonder what kind of relationship such things could possibly have to one another…   and you realise that the whole trimandala is largely ideas in your head.   And you have in the end to accept that the whole world is largely ideas in your head.  Our whole world largely consists of preconceptions, prejudices, assumptions and fixed ideas. 

OK?  Does that help?!  Now you can run away screaming at this, or you can just relax and enjoy it because there isn’t really anything you can do about it, and everything seems to work on the whole, even if there is really no self and no world in the way we normally assume there is.  Whether we choose to run away from the empty nature of reality or stay and enjoy it, empty is the way things are.  You can have confidence in it…

And that, a bit briefly and crudely perhaps, is the teaching of the second Dharmachakra. 

Let me reiterate that this really is not about analysis.  Sunyata is all about letting go.  In the practice, we are continually letting go attachment to the ideas and assumptions we see that we have in our heads, and just letting things be actually as they are.  It is very difficult to do that, but the actual difficulty is not the things, but our attachment to them.  Our attachment, to the trimandala as something concrete and fixed, is there in every single moment - and therefore what’s also there in every moment is the possibility of our relaxing that attachment as we see the emptiness of everything. 

I do this when I meditate walking along Westbourne Park Villas.  I am learning how to do it, perhaps I should say.  It would be absurd to claim that one knew how to do it perfectly, as though dharma practice were some kind of expertise, like learning to drive.  It is more like letting something in than doing something external. 

I make sure I have plenty of time so that I can fully relax as I walk.  Only if I’m completely relaxed can I notice when I’m attaching to ideas of how things are, rather than experiencing things directly.   Unless I’m completely relaxed, I can hardly notice my thoughts and perceptions at all.  So I walk very unhurriedly.  I really do relax.  It was very strange learning to do that, because almost everyone else using that pavement is in a tearing hurry.  Most people walking in London are hurrying from A to B as quickly as possible.  I am not doing that at all.  I am not there to go anywhere, and the contrast is sometimes very marked.  Whenever in the past I’ve done walking on the street like this, it hasn’t really been much good.  To be honest I have found it too much just dealing with all the complexity – the cars passing, the rough city atmosphere, the tense people, and all my reactions and distractions.  But now I've discovered this kind of practice, that has all changed.  I feel that whatever arises provides material I can use in the practice.  In whatever happens, I can try to see my tendency to make my world very concrete and solid; I can see my tendency to relate on the basis of ‘me’.  And sometimes seeing that, I can actually let it go, let it be, and I do find some kind of insight in there about the nature of things. 

I don’t know if this sounds very esoteric, but its often very simple.  I might be walking and I just realise that I’m full of tension.  I am not experiencing the way I’m walking, I’m not experiencing my body.  So what I do is simply to let that tension into my field of attention.  That is really the main method I use – just turning towards whatever seems to be happening right now, and being open in that space.  And very often – this may have to do with my particular temperament - I notice what is happening only when I see that I’m all closed up.  I’m closed, so I give that my attention.  Very often it’s not very pleasant, it’s awkward somehow, indeed that’s exactly why I’m ignoring it.  And simply to turn towards that awkwardness is an example of recognising emptiness.   So that is what I mean.  There is some kind of subtle assumption there that I see it’s my habit to maintain.  I think ‘I’m that’ somehow, in some subtle way that I can’t put my finger on.  There is something fixed in there – my viewpoint is somehow fixed.  So if I turn to that, and just be open in that space of awareness, something relaxes and something fresh and new arises . What relaxes is my fixed self view, my fixed view that there is something substantial there.  What arises is some degree of vipassana or insight, probably nothing earth shattering, I’m not making any special claims, but definitely it’s in that area. 

Perhaps from what I’m saying here you can see how direct this level of teaching is, this level of the second Dharmachakra.  How simple it is. 

And you might be wondering how after this, there could be such a thing as a Third Dharmachakra.   Well, there is one, and it’s very important.  The Third Dharmachakra is of course the Tathagatagarbha teaching, the teaching that the reality of Enlightenment is already present, but hidden, like a buried treasure. 

The Tathagatagarbha teaching comes out of the teaching of emptiness.  Understanding it depends on understanding, and preferably realising, emptiness.  And I think it’s quite easy to see this now that we’ve just been, briefly, into the realm of emptiness.  We can see that emptiness is right there, all the time.  So realisation of emptiness is a possibility, all the time – it’s just a hair’s breadth away, all the time.  So it’s easy to see that Buddhahood is just there, waiting to be revealed.  That Buddhahood is just there, waiting to be revealed, is the teaching of Tathagatagarbha.  

The third Dharmachakra teachings are in many ways the positive aspect of emptiness.  It’s easy to understand emptiness in a negative way, as just nothing, just vacancy, or as just something abstract or philosophical or academic somehow.  This is all exactly what emptiness is not – but the very word somehow encourages us to discount it.  And we tend to be resistant to emptiness anyway, because – well, it is so devastating.  It blows the whole world away, it is quite something to adjust to.  Indeed you can’t adjust to it.  Yet there's nothing really to be afraid of, because the reality is anyway, there isn’t anything else… but still we resist reality quite passionately – we see emptiness as life denying, as negative… and so we tell ourselves that emptiness means nothing, it just means vacancy. 

The possibility of this kind of misunderstanding is why Buddhist scriptures warn against teaching the second Dharmachakra teaching of emptiness to those who aren't ready for it.  Even though it is such a direct route to Enlightenment, it can be misunderstood as something negative.    

So this is why the Buddha turned the Wheel of the Dharma once more, and started stressing the positive aspect of sunyata.  Instead of emptiness, he spoke about the precious Qualities of Enlightenment.  Instead of impermanence and suffering, he spoke about Permanence and Bliss. 

Tathagatagarbha is a very extensive approach to Dharma teaching and there isn't time to go into much depth here.  So I’ll go for breadth and leave it to your own reflections to take that deeper.   The Introduction to Sallie King’s book on Buddha Nature gives a very good overview.  She lists seven key aspects of the Tathagatagarbha teaching, the seven teachings which make it special. 

  1. Tathagatagarbha emphasises the positive nature of realisation, and especially it gives a positive revisioning of the teaching of emptiness.    
  2. it also has an optimistic concept of human nature, which is based on the idea of a universal, active Buddha Nature.  In other words there is a continuity between human nature and Buddha Nature.  They are inseparable, they are woven together; human nature is really all about potential buddhahood. 
  3. the way it conceives of being is nondual.  No subject, no object.  That is similar to the view of sunyata, but this nonduality is expressed in a new language – the language of Suchness rather than Emptiness.  I’ll say a little about this in a minute, it’s an important change. 
  4. Mind and world are seen as arising simultaneously with one another, whether in an enlightened way or an unenlightened way.  In other words self and world are always one reality, they always come together. 
  5. Tathagatagarbha has a positive view of the phenomenal world.  In this teaching, material reality is not other than the reality of Suchness. 
  6. it says that practitioners experience a conversion from delusion to Enlightenment.  There is a definite point at which one breaks through into realising Suchness. 
  7. Buddha Nature and Buddhist practice are essentially the same thing.  Buddha Nature is not a theory, it is an omnipresent reality, and Buddhist practice simply links us into that reality. 

I can’t comment on much of this in a very introductory talk, but it is all very neatly summed up in this word Suchness.  To understand what Suchness is, and why it is a more useful word than emptiness, we need briefly to look at the terminology of Buddha Nature. 

‘Tathagatagarbha’ sounds to us, I think, rather an outlandish word.  It’s in two parts: Tathagata and Garbha.  The Buddha is often called Tathagata in the Buddhist scriptures – it means The One who has Gone ‘Thus’.  Thus is the key to the whole teaching.   Thus is the ‘Tathā’ in Tathagata.  ‘Gate’, as you know from the Heart Sutra, means ‘gone’. 

So a Buddha’s ‘gone tathā’ – gone thus.  He’s gone ‘just so’. He’s gone ‘like that’.   So d'you get this idea?  Something is being pointed towards; but what exactly that is, is not specified.  It’s not specified because really, it can’t be.  The Buddha inhabits a reality that can’t be described.   In other scriptures the Buddha is called ‘the one who doesn’t leave a track,’ or his activity is described like ‘the track of birds in the sky’.  Again, it’s basically because the reality he lives in is beyond our understanding. 

And it’s this indescribableness that is addressed with this word Tathā, which means ‘Thus’ or ‘Such’.  We can’t really say what is happening here.  All we can say is that it’s ‘thus’, it’s suchlike.   

From Tatha we get a very useful word: Tatha-ta.  Tathata is the quality of thusness.   Just as with mitra and mitrata, friend and friendliness.   Here you have thus and thusness.  Or ‘such’ and suchness.  This English translation is often used and I like it very much, I think Suchness is the best word for the Quality of the way things really are.     

From Tatha-ta or Suchness, we get Tatha-gata, the One who sees Suchness.  It’s seeing Suchness that makes you a Buddha.  Recognising Suchness is at the centre of what the Buddhist life is about. 

So we have Tatha, Tatha-ta, and Tatha-gata.  So we just need to explain Garbha.  Garbha means a womb.  A womb is the secret safe place where something is started, where something is formed.  Tathagata-garbha is what forms a Tathagata.  It’s what brings forth a Buddha. 

But what really is that?   We’re obviously talking very figuratively here.  This isn’t literally to do with the Buddha’s mum.  We need to ask, What kind of womb is needed to bring forth the full realisation of Suchness?   Well, it has to be the dharma.  Dharma is the womb of enlightenment.  It’s also things like spiritual friendship, the friendship which brings forth the realisation of suchness.  Dharma is a womb in that way – it’s like a cooking vessel, a pressure cooker. It’s a situation which cooks up awareness of reality.  It is our heartfelt practice of dharma, which nurtures our realisation. 

So actually, Tathagatagarbha is something we are all very much involved in.  It isn't anything other than simply our practice.  Tathagatagarbha and practice are the same.  But we don’t always see that.  We aren't always in touch with practice.  On our own, it sometimes isn’t at all easy to see what realisation is about.  To help us do that, we need spiritual mentors.  Now and again we all need to come into contact with someone who demonstrates to us - perhaps just by their example, or it could be through personal communication – demonstrates what the dharma actually means in practice.  Words aren't enough.  Encouragement isn't enough. Friendship isn't enough.  Study isn't enough; meditation isn't enough.  Now and again, at least, we just need to see in someone else what it is we need to do.  And this is what kalyanamitrata, spiritual friendship, essentially means. 

Garbha is a sexual metaphor - it’s a reproductive metaphor - for spiritual development.  A very human, down-to-earth metaphor; and we can continue that metaphor, and say that kalyanamitrata is what produces the seed for the birth.  There’s always some kind of spiritual friendship producing the initial spark.  It’s like the lightning flash in the middle of the night sky.  The Garbha is that sky, it’s that simple space where enlightenment manifests.   The garbha is the boundless sky, it’s the dharma-niyama itself.  It’s Suchness, it’s the unobstructed Tathata, it’s that tendency to liberation, to nirvana, that is latent, always, and from the very beginning.  If it is awakened by spiritual contact, then it quickens, and then, eventually, it comes forth. 

So now we have a kind of definition.  In principle Tathagatagarbha, the Buddha Nature, is the latent condition which actually brings about enlightenment.  In personal practice, it’s the realisation of Suchness, of Tathata; and for each of us individually it’s the situation, the immediate conditions that bring forth realisation of Suchness. 

I think you can imagine how pervasive this teaching became over the years.  It brought the Buddha back into Buddhism, made the connection between nature and enlightened nature.  It was essential to all the later developments of Mahayana: to Ch’an and Zen, to Tien Tai, to Pure Land, to Avatamsaka, and finally from the Avatamsaka’s doctrine of total interpenetration, to the Vajrayana.  The second Dharmachakra revealed the emptiness of all form; the third Dharmachakra revealed the form of all emptiness.  All form, all perceptions, all thoughts, every conceivable kind of manifestation, is of a nature that cannot be fathomed by the ordinary mind.  It is empty; and it is what it is. 

The literature of the second Dharmachakra deconstructs all our concepts, leaving us with no concrete things, no space for them to be in anyway, and no time during which they could exist, even if they could.  Compared to this total bafflement of our assumptions, the literature of Tathagatagarbha is very often a positive rejoicing in the beauty of the natural world, the world of form which is empty.  It is full of references to the notion of interpenetration, which the Avatamsaka school and later the Vajrayana took so much to heart.  Dogen says that our Buddhism must manifest in every movement of the hand, every pace of the foot.  Not in great matters alone is there to be the great manifestation (he says); in the tiniest thing we must grasp the power that pervades the universe[1].

He also reflected that an old plum tree is boundless.  All at once, he said, its blossoms open and of itself the fruit is born.  It forms spring; it forms winter.  It arouses wind and wild rain.  It is the head of a patch-robed monk, it is the eyeball of an ancient Buddha.  It becomes grass and trees, it becomes pure fragrance.  Its whirling, miraculous transformation has no limit.  Furthermore, the treeness of the great earth, high sky, bright sun and clear moon derives from the treeness of the old plum tree.  They have always been entangled, vine with vine.  When the old plum tree suddenly opens, the world of blossoming flowers arises.  At the moment when the world of blossoming flowers arises, spring arrives.  There is a single blossom that opens five blossoms.  At this moment of a single blossom, there are three, four and five blossoms, hundreds, thousands, myriads, billions of blossoms - countless blossoms.  These blossomings are not-being-proud-of one, two, or  countless branches of the old plum tree.  An udumbara flower and blue lotus blossoms are also one or two branches of the old plum tree's blossoms.  Blossoming is the old plum tree's offering.  This old plum tree is within the human world and the heavenly world.  The old plum tree manifests both human and heavenly worlds in its treeness.  Therefore hundreds and thousands of blossoms are called both human and heavenly blossoms.  Myriads and billions of blossoms are buddha-ancestor blossoms.  In such a moment, "All the Buddhas have appeared in the world" is shouted; "The ancestor was originally in this land" is shouted. 

So when you walk, when you sit, even when you talk and eat and go to the toilet, you can realise this Buddha Nature.  It is simply a matter of relaxing into it.  To really relax, you need to be fully, totally aware.  To the extent that you are not fully open to reality, that you do not face reality, you will be afraid of it.  But if you are open, you can relax into reality with relief and joy, because it what is already there and always has been.  You can rely on reality; it’s a source of reassurance and confidence. 

Most of our problem with practice is about the way we think of making an effort, about the kind of effort we tend to make.  Because we do not appreciate the suchness of things, we think of everything as really, actually, concretely existing.  So we think there is something to do, something to achieve.  Metta, the precepts, concentration of mind, intellectual understanding and wisdom are in reality not things that anyone can achieve.  They are certainly worth cultivating, but they are empty, their nature is not fixed and concrete in the way we always assume.  We can speak in terms of achievement, of concrete people achieving something concrete… that is fine if we remember we are using provisional language.  But in fact, things are just not like that and we shouldn’t forget it.

The Diamond Sutra says that things are like stars and like dew.  They are like bubbles. They are like a dream.  They are like a lightning flash.  They are like clouds.   This is still provisional language, but it’s a lot more true than our normal perception.  And things being really like dreams and dew is why we can relax and relinquish all expectations and anxieties.  The more confidence we can have in the reality of Suchness, the more we can experience that reality, and the happier and more useful to others we shall be.  It is not easy to find the courage to plunge into suchness and really practice.  And this is where Tathagatagarbha is so beneficial.  When we reflect on the Buddha Nature that is inherent in all experience, we fill that emptiness with life.  We remember that though all form is empty, all emptiness is also form. 

[1] Instructions to the Tenzo