In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Tathāgatagarbha

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Buddhism Tathāgatagarbha
Matthew Kapstein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0160


The idea that living beings are imbued with the self-same nature as the enlightened buddha (and thus are potential buddhas) came to be widely expressed in the literature of early Mahayana Buddhism. Terms used to designate this concept included “buddha-nature” (Sanskrit buddhadhātu, lit. “buddha-element”; Chinese foxing) and tathāgata-garbha, which was translated into Chinese as “tathāgata storehouse” (rulai zang) and into Tibetan as “tathāgata essence” (de gshegs snying po). (The Sanskrit tathāgata-garbha more precisely means “having a tathāgata [= buddha] within.”) Despite the broad distribution of the idea of “buddha-nature” in Indian Mahayana canonical texts, few Indian Buddhist systematic thinkers seem to have concerned themselves with either its elaboration or criticism. This would change, however, with the transmission of Mahayana Buddhism to East Asia and Tibet, where “tathāgata-garbha thought” became an arena of doctrinal contestation and has so remained to the present day. East Asian Buddhisms often understood garbha in the sense of “womb” or “embryo,” which is reflected in current English translations including “womb/embryo/matrix of the tathāgata.” The metaphor of giving birth to a buddha that this seemed to imply also deeply influenced the conceptualization, and even iconography, of Buddhist contemplative practice. It may be noted, moreover, that the associated concept of “clan” or “family” (Sanskrit gotra)—one’s affinity with buddhahood—was much discussed in Indian doctrinal treatises. Though not a major focus in this bibliography, it is examined in some of the works cited (especially Ruegg 1969 cited under General Overviews).

General Overviews

Included here are both introductory texts (Williams 1989 and Takasaki 1987), suitable for those who have little or no prior familiarity with this subject matter, as well as some works (Griffiths and Keenan 1990, May 1971, Ruegg 1969, and Ruegg 1989) that deal with a range of materials representing different Buddhist cultural spheres in South, Central, and East Asia. Ruegg 1989 may be recommended in particular to those who wish to explore the philosophical problems raised by the concept of buddha-nature.

  • Griffiths, Paul J., and John P. Keenan, eds. Buddha Nature: A Festschrift in Honor of Minoru Kiyota. Tokyo: Buddhist Books International, 1990.

    The ten articles in this collection treat buddha-nature, or closely related topics, in relation to Buddhist doctrinal traditions in India, China, and Tibet.

  • May, Jacques. “La philosophie bouddhique idéaliste.” Asiatische Studien/Études Asiatiques 25 (1971): 265–323.

    An invaluable bibliographical essay, devoted to the study of the Yogācāra school of Buddhism. Includes remarks on the major tathāgata-garbha texts inter alia.

  • Ruegg, David S. La Théorie du Tathāgatagarbha et du Gotra: Études sur la Sotériologie et la Gnoséologie du Bouddhisme. Publications de l’École Française d’Extrême-Orient 70. Paris: École Française d’Extrême-Orient, 1969.

    A scholarly tour de force, treating diverse aspects of topics related to buddha-nature in India and Tibet, particularly the concepts of gotra and of the “single vehicle” (ekayāna) in the Yogācārabhūmi, Abhisamayālaṃkāraśāstra, Ratnagotravibhāga, and their allied literature. Difficult but required reading for those engaged in academic research in this area.

  • Ruegg, David S. Buddha Nature, Mind and the Problem of Gradualism in a Comparative Perspective: On the Transmission and Reception of Buddhism in India and Tibet Jordan Lectures in Comparative Religion 13. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1989.

    The volume as a whole is focused on the “Samyé Debate” in 8th-century Tibet, which centered on the issue of gradualism vs. immediate enlightenment. The first chapter, however, concerns primarily the interpretation of the tathāgata-garbha doctrine in its Indian contexts, particularly in its ramifications for Buddhist hermeneutics.

  • Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London: Routledge, 1989.

    Chapter 5, “The Tathāgatagarbha,” offers what is perhaps the finest general introduction available to buddha-nature in its Indian, Chinese, and Tibetan formulations. An ideal first reading on the topic.

  • Takasaki, Jikidō. An Introduction to Buddhism. Translated by Rolf W. Giebel. Tokyo: Tōhō Gakkai, 1987.

    Takasaki is among the leading contributors to the study of buddha-nature in canonical texts (see Takasaki 1966, cited under Ratnagotravibhāga-Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra). In this volume, intended for general readers, he summarizes his findings on pp. 215–223.

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