21.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

Tathagatagarbha (Sanskrit: “the womb of the one who has thus come (tathāgata)” or “the embryo of the one who has thus come”) was a creed that spoke of the presence of a Buddha in every living being.

The theory was formed in India in the 4th and 5th centuries and it is presumed that the philosophers Maitreya-Asanga, Vasubandhu and Saramati were at its origins. The doctrine of the Tathagatagarbha has not been fully shared by any major school of Buddhism outside of India. Also in the second half of the 5th century, its postulates dissolved into a new denomination—Vijnanavada.

Tathagatagarbha Theory

The concepts of religion are expressed in the Tathagatagarbha sutras, which are a group of sutras (laconic statements about philosophy and religion) of the Mahayana. The theory promoted by the proponents of the doctrine has two main interpretations:

  • The embryo of “buddha-nature” is inherently present in every living person. As in a seed, there is a tree, and in a honeycomb, there is honey. Anyone can “grow” his/her Soul to the state of Buddha, the individual just needs to reveal the inner potential. There is nothing in nature that would prevent a person (or any other living being) from becoming Enlightened. This interpretation of the Tathagatagarbha has spread in the Tibetan branch of Mahayana.
  • All living beings are already Buddhas by nature. And, to find the divine in oneself, a person needs to reveal the inner Self. Some supporters of the theory believed that the nature of the Buddha need not be realized – it already exists. The individual just needs to understand that he/she is the Enlightened. This interpretation of the Tathagatagarbha prevailed in Chinese Buddhism. Here the teachings smoothly flowed into the famous theory of “primordial awakening”, which asserts that the very nature of the Mind is Awakening.
Buddha statue

It is with the second interpretation of the theory, that the understanding of the Tathagatagarbha as an absolute reality (the One Mind), where the basis of Samsara and Nirvana are connected. A person who enters the wheel of Samsara (the cycle of birth and death “within” karma) does not have a permanent Self (this is shunya). But the Mind is not empty; it has good qualities, such as Permanence, Self, Purity and Bliss. It is within the Mind, that the Tathagatagarbha is a kind of vessel which is present in all living things as the “embryo” of the Buddha. This contradicts the basic characteristics of Samsara in early Buddhism, where the cycle of life and death is impermanence, suffering, non-property, selflessness and impurity.

Many religious scholars agree that the theory of Tathagatagarbha is based on the teachings of Yogachara since, in its original form, it does not explain some aspects of Samsaric existence.

Buddhist schools based on the teachings of tathagatagarbha

The teachings of the Tathagatagarbha have formed the basis of some Buddhist schools in Korea, Japan and China.


The theory of Tathagatagarbha sees the one “Self” of all things. Based on this doctrine, the entire doctrine of Huayan (Chinese: “flower garland”) was built, which became widespread in China during the Tang Empire (7th-10th centuries).

The beliefs are based on the work of the philosopher Xuanzang The Avatamsaka Sutra, which is a collection of several sutras. In these teachings, the “motives” of ancient Indian Buddhism have been traced. The monk Fazang was presumably the founder of the Huayan School. According to historians, he later became disillusioned with the teachings of Xuanzang, who categorically rejected the Yogacharin doctrine, declaring the principle of the Awakened Buddha-nature to be the main postulate of his beliefs. This was the reason for the departure of philosophy from the late Indian traditions. The Huayan School fell into decline in the second half of the 9th century. But its teachings became the basis of the philosophy of the Chan School. Here the principles of the Tathagatagarbha marked the beginning of contemplative practice. It is in this form that Huayan’s beliefs have survived to the present day.

Despite its Indian roots, the Huayan School uses exclusively Chinese terminology when describing its main postulates. There are no concepts of Nirvana and Samsara here. Li (absolute reality) and Shi (visible reality) replace them. Both of these, according to the teachings of Huayan, exist simultaneously. That is generally the same thing, only seen from different sides. Li is something eternal and unchanging, and Shi is flowing and changeable. In the philosophy of Huayan, in contrast to the ancient Indian teachings, the concept of Consciousness (xin) is also introduced. This is reality per se, and Li and Shi are its two main aspects.

The teachings of Huayan are built on the principles of harmony and inclusiveness. All postulates create a single harmonious system of truth. “All in one and one in all” is one of the basic elements of the philosophy. This means that in each element, the whole world is enclosed, and this element becomes encompassed in another element.


The teaching of the Dashabhumika school was built on the eponymous sutra, but it gathered very few followers. In the end, it was absorbed by the Huayan School. In this form, the doctrine developed further.


After the merger of the two Buddhist movements, the Dashabhumika Sutra (or Ten Stage Sutra) became a significant part of the central text of the Huayan. Consequently, the basic theory of the Tathagatagarbha, says that every person can become a Buddha, thus the teachings of Dashabhumika accurately indicate to their adherents the path to enlightenment. In the sutra, the ten stages of development of the bodhisattva (a being who decided to follow the path of truth) before becoming a Buddha are described.

The Dashabhumika Sutra outlines the following stages:

  • The first stage (Pramudita, “joyful”). The bodhisattva masters the immaterial generosity and rejoices the movement towards enlightenment.
  • The second stage (Vimala, “uncontaminated”). The bodhisattva learns the skills of morality and self-discipline.
  • The third stage (Prabhakari, “luminous”). The bodhisattva becomes the “lamp of teaching” capable of accepting sacred truths. Here the adept learns all the sides of patience, goodness, compassion and dispassion, and also becomes a master of the four classical meditation techniques.
  • The fourth stage (Archishmati, “fiery”). The bodhisattva masters the perfection of courage and contemplates the true nature of all beings in the world.
  • The fifth stage (Sudurjaya, “difficult to reach”). The bodhisattva begins to realize the ultimate “voidness” of all things.
  • The sixth stage (Abhimukhi, “in front of the face”). The bodhisattva turns to Nirvana and Samsara, becoming an expert in the perfection of knowledge.
  • Seventh stage (Durangama, “far-reaching”). The adept becomes a true Bodhisattva and can enter Paranirvana (final nirvana) but hesitates for the sake of “liberating” other beings.
  • Eighth stage (Akala, “immovable”). The bodhisattva is already unwavering in the determination to act for the “liberation” of other beings and can now take any appearance to help others.
  • Ninth stage (Sadhumati, “pious reflection”). The bodhisattva realizes the perfection of omnipotence and can comprehend magical formulas.
  • The tenth stage (Dharmamega, “cloud of teaching”). The bodhisattva sits on the heavenly great lotus and spreads rays to the earth, mitigating the sorrows and sufferings of earthly beings and waiting for the time to descend to Earth in the form of a new Buddha.


The Huayan teachings had limited distribution in Korea. Here, Uisang, a student of Fazang himself, founded the Hwaeom school in the year 671.

The beliefs of Uisang were built not merely on the ancient Indian philosophy. The works of the Buddhist thinker Won Hyo, as historians have summised, had a great influence on the formation of Hwaeom. Although he was not an official representative of the School.

Hwaeom remained the dominant Buddhist movement in Korea until the end of the Goryeo Dynasty (14th century). Later, the teaching merged with the Son school, which was a Korean variation of Zen Buddhism. Hwaeom’s beliefs within the framework of another religious movement continued to play an important role until the 21st century.


In Japan, the Kegon religious sect was based on the teachings of the Huayan School. It is believed that it did not come from China, but rather from Korea (through the beliefs of Hwaeom). The Kegon traditions were first adopted at the Todai-ji Temple in Nara after the construction of The Great Buddha was completed here. These traditions were promoted by bonza (chief monk) Robin.


The world in the teachings of Kegon appears as a single, inseparable whole with its various signs interpenetrating each other. It turns out that the absolute and phenomenal levels of being do not “compete” with each other, but create a “world of dharmas”. These ideas about the world and man in it are closely intertwined with the postulates of the Tathagatagarbha.

Later, in the 12th and 13th centuries, the teachings of Kegon in Japan were spread by Myoe. But he combined the early teachings with Vajrayana and Gyonen. In this form, the ancient traditions of Kegon have been preserved in the Temple of Todai-ji up to the present day. Now it is the only location in Japan where the beliefs of this movement are represented.

The Tathagatagarbha theory of the “embryo of the Buddha”, according to some researchers, was designed to eliminate despair and generate efforts in the improvement of one’s soul, to inspire hope and eliminate pride. The ideas of the teachings in many respects echo the basic principles of Buddhism.