The Attributes of the Tathāgatagarbha

The purpose of this section is to elaborate on the attributes of the fundamental root of Mahayana Buddhism (The Great Vehicle Bodhi), Tathāgatagarbha, to help readers gain an accurate knowledge and understanding of it. The matter of fact is that each of us possesses our own individual perfect and complete True Mind, the Tathāgatagarbha, also called the eighth consciousness or the ālaya consciousness.  Since the True Mind is the fundamental root of Mahayana Buddhism, finding and realizing it is inevitably the foundation to the practice of Mahayana Buddhism. Only after having realized the Tathāgatagarbha can one progress sequentially on the Path to Buddhahood.

What then is the Path to Buddhahood, also called the Bodhi of the Great Vehicle or the Great Bodhi? In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha uses the sheep cart, deer cart and the big white ox cart to allegorize the  Three-vehicle Bodhi. The word “vehicle” here stands for “carriage”, meaning that all the three vehicles can carry sentient beings to the shore of liberation. Since the Sound-hearer Bodhi and Solitary-realizer Bodhi in the Two-vehicle Bodhi can only carry a much smaller number of sentient beings, they are allegorized by the World-Honored One as the deer cart and sheep cart, respectively.  Since the Great-vehicle Bodhi is able to transport a much larger number of sentient beings, the World-Honored One allegorized it as the white ox cart. It is also called the Buddha Bodhi because it enables sentient beings to attain Buddhahood on the other shore.

Compared to the Buddha Bodhi, the practice and realization of the Two-vehicle Bodhi are very limited in scope. In fact, the practice and attainment of the Path to Buddhahood comprise both the liberation wisdom of the Two-vehicle Bodhi and the prajna wisdom of the Buddha Bodhi.  Therefore, the Bodhi of the Great Vehicle subsumes the Two-vehicle Bodhi. The practice and attainment of the Two-vehicle Bodhi are part of the content of realization of the Great-vehicle Bodhi.  The fruitions of both the Sound-hearer and Solitary-realizer pertain to the wisdom and the attainment of liberation: through observing and contemplating the mundane noble truth about the five aggregates, twelve sense-fields, and eighteen elements, followed by the actual realization that everything is only dependent arising without any intrinsic nature, no-self, impermanent, and illusory, practitioners can then eradicate their grasping and attachment to the aggregates, sense-fields, and elements and eventually attain the fruition of liberation.  At the end of their current lives, they no longer attach to or pursue the state of intermediate existence and hence transcend the cycle of birth and death and disappear from the three realms. They are no longer controlled by ignorance and karma and do not suffer from birth, aging processes, sickness and death.  Such is the practice of the Two-vehicle Bodhi—the Path to Liberation.

The levels of attainment in the Path to Liberation consist of five stages in total, which include the first to the fourth fruitions of the Sound-hearer Vehicle and the Solitary-Buddha fruition of the Solitary-realizer. Diligent practitioners of the Two Vehicles with sharp capacity are able to eradicate the determinative birth and death and achieve arhatship in  one lifetime.  Even the dullest and the most languid will take only seven cycles of rebirth between the human and heaven realms to reach the edge of all sufferings and become arhats.  However, their achievements and realization are by a long way insufficient to attaining Buddhahood.  They have to turn away from the two lesser vehicles to the Great Vehicle, complete the fifty-two stages of attainment in sequence, and perfect the knowledge-of-all-aspects before they can rip the supreme Bodhi fruit of the Buddha ground.

How does one practice and realize the Path to Buddhahood?  Let us start with the story about the birth of Sakyamuni Buddha in India about twenty-five hundred years ago. There were many auspicious signs at the birth of Sakyamuni Buddha: six kinds of shaking of the earth, brilliant light appeared all around, etc.  According to the sutra, immediately after birth, the new born Prince Siddhartha stood up on his own without the help of others, walked seven steps in each of the four cardinal directions of east, west, north, and south, pointed one hand to the heaven and the other to the earth, and firmly proclaimed: “In heaven above and on earth below, I am the most honored one.”  This “most honored one” refers to the Tathāgatagarbha that each and every one of us possesses!

Where is the evidence that every one of us possesses the Tathāgatagarbha?  Let us take the example of a couple who have given birth to multiple children.  One may reason that since the children all come from the same gene pool, they should all look identical, just like products coming out of a production line.  However, we can all see that it is not the case in reality.  Physical appearance, personality, habits, interests, health condition, fortune, intelligence, and views are all different from one another among the siblings. Why is that so?  That is because everyone’s Tathāgatagarbha contains and stores one’s own karmic seeds collected from countless lifetimes resulting in one’s unique appearance and characteristics in this lifetime. For example, some people are gentle and kind while some are irritable and mean; some live a long and healthy life while some are born sickly or even with disabilities.  Examples like these are so prevalent and innumerable.

People with wholesome root will reflect, “What is the true reason for all these differences?” Others will just moan and groan, “God is unfair to me,” and will always feel victimized while complaining cynically.  In reality, all these are the results of the karmic power of cause-and-effect due to the actions committed by these individuals over their innumerable past lifetimes.  For instance, those who were compassionate, refrained from killing, and cared for other sentient beings in past lives will be rewarded with health, longevity, love, and respect from others in the present life. Those who had good relationships with other people in past lives will receive helps from benefactors frequently in this life. Those who were generous in charitable giving in past lives will enjoy abundant material wealth in the present life. Those who were honest and did not utter false speech in past lives will be trustable and convincing in this life.

Where are the sources of these causes-and-effects stored?  They are all stored in the Tathāgatagarbha; it stores the seeds of all of our physical, verbal and mental actions from our countless past lives.  When the conditions are ripe in this lifetime, these seeds will manifest and enable us to receive the respective favorable and unfavorable retributions. This eighth consciousness—the Tathāgatagarbha—exists primordially in all sentient beings.  It does not come into being through practice.  Although its primordial nature is pure, it contains all sort of tainted seeds. These tainted seeds can be purified only through practice to eventually elicit prajna wisdom. The prajna wisdom here refers to the wisdom derived from having realized the eighth consciousness and experienced the numerous attributes of the eighth consciousness. Hence, proper knowledge and understanding of the various attributes of the Tathāgatagarbha is vital for Mahayana practitioners.

The Tathāgatagarbha has many different attributes.  The first is being “neither permanent nor impermanent”.  The Tathāgatagarbha has existed since countless past lifetimes and will continue to exist for countless future lifetimes. Its name will be changed and called “true suchness” when one attains Buddhahood.  This Tathāgatagarbha is inextinguishable so it is not impermanent.  However, within this Tathāgatagarbha, there is maturational nature that exists within the karmic seeds, which enables us to receive the fruits of various retributions based on our past wholesome or unwholesome deeds life after life.  Because of the maturation of the retributive fruits, there must be retributive formation that activates the flow of the seeds and thus results in the continuous working of the eight consciousnesses along with their mental factors.  Therefore, the Tathāgatagarbha is said to be not permanent; hence, being “neither permanent nor impermanent.”

The second attribute is being “neither empty nor existent”.   The Tathāgatagarbha has its real intrinsic nature; however, it is invisible to the sentient beings hindered by their ignorance. They are only aware of and live within the seeing, hearing, feeling, or knowing functions of the six consciousnesses and are totally oblivion to the meritorious functions and benevolence of the Tathāgatagarbha. Because it has real essence, it is said to be non-empty. However, it does not have concrete shape or form, just like the empty space and is, therefore, said to be not existent; hence, being “neither empty nor existent.”

The third attribute is being “neither arising nor ceasing.”  The essence of the Tathāgatagarbha has always existed, is inextinguishable, will never age or die, and is, therefore, not ceasing. Only something that is unborn can be inextinguishable and not ceasing; hence, the attribute of being “neither arising nor ceasing.” This is exactly the meaning of “neither arising nor ceasing, neither defiled nor immaculate” in the renowned Heart Sutra. It is because of this neither arising nor ceasing nature of the Tathāgatagarbha that we are able to be born incessantly from the Tathāgatagarbha life after life. When one dies, one’s Tathāgatagarbha will generate an intermediate body in the state of intermediate existence so as  to attach to the fertilized egg of one’s future parents, and thus begin the next round of rebirth.  It is because of the neither arising nor ceasing nature of the Tathāgatagarbha can there be sentient beings’ birth and death.

The forth attribute is being “neither identical nor different”.  Although our five aggregates are created by our Tathāgatagarbha, we cannot say that the five aggregates are the Tathāgatagarbha.  If the five aggregates were the Tathāgatagarbha, then when we die, this Tathāgatagarbha would also die. In reality, it will not and hence they are not identical.  Yet, apart from the five aggregates, the Tathāgatagarbha is nowhere to be found.  For instance, in Chan school, enlightenment is having found the Tathāgatagarbha through our own five aggregates.  Therefore, the Tathāgatagarbha and our five aggregates are like one. Therefore, they are neither identical nor different to each other.

The fifth attribute is being “neither changeable nor unchangeable”.  The essence of the Tathāgatagarbha will never ever change and its nature is forever pure. It is pure when we are reborn in the heavens; it is still pure when we fall into the three evil realms and experience the painful retributions.  Therefore, it is not changeable in its intrinsic nature.  However, within this unchangeable entity, there are wholesome and unwholesome, pure and tainted seeds that are constantly arising and ceasing, increasing and decreasing. Therefore, it is not unchangeable.  It is precisely because the Tathāgatagarbha is not unchangeable, we can and need to practice.  If the tainted seeds in our Tathāgatagarbha could never be purified despite our diligent practice, then any practice would be futile, and who would want to practice?  Hence, the attribute of being “neither changeable nor unchangeable.”

The sixth attribute is being “neither functional nor non-functional”.  The Tathāgatagarbha does not see, hear, feel, or discern any of the six sense objects—does not discriminate the six sense objects—hence, it is not functional. On the other hand, the Tathāgatagarbha continuously and tirelessly facilitates everything for us, whether we are awake or asleep. Therefore, it is not non-functional.

Due to its attributes of being neither permanent nor impermanent, neither empty nor existent, neither arising nor ceasing, neither identical nor different, neither changeable nor unchangeable, neither functional nor non-functional, and a slew of other attributes, the Tathāgatagarbha is called “the middle way”. In fact, all the enlightened Mahayana practitioners are able to elicit their prajna wisdoms and cultivate the Path to Buddhahood sequentially only after they have realized the eighth consciousness—the True Mind.  In the tripitaka teachings as recorded in the twelve traditional genre divisions of the Buddhist sutras, the World Honored One established various names for the eighth consciousness based on its different attributes.  Some of the names are as follows:

(1) Mind:        All the wholesome, unwholesome, tainted and untainted actions that we have performed will be used by the Tathāgatagarbha to foster the seeds that have been stored in it since immemorial time; it is hence called a mind. Because of this mind, there are sentient beings in the three realms and six paths of rebirth, and because of this mind, there are formation, dwelling, decaying, and vacating of the material world.  For instance, when one performs wholesome actions, one will be reborn into the desire heavens to enjoy happiness; on the other hand, when one performs unwholesome deeds, or defamed the Dharma or sangha, one will be reborn into the three evil paths to experience the retributions of sufferings. All these are appropriately established due to the presence of the Tathāgatagarbha.

(2) Basis of the Known:        Sentient beings’ six evolving consciousnesses that perform the functions of seeing, hearing, feeling and knowing, and the seventh consciousness manas which continuously examines, assesses, and makes decisions are possible  because of the eighth consciousness Tathāgatagarbha.  All the dharmas that are known to and perceived by the seven evolving consciousnesses also rely on the existence of the Tathāgatagarbha.  Without the Tathāgatagarbha, nothing can function, and a person would be as good as dead.  This is why the Tathāgatagarbha is also named the “basis of the known”, the basis for the knowing function of the seven evolving consciousnesses.

(3) The Seed Consciousness:             The essence of the Tathāgatagarbha does not discriminate or select.  It just automatically and universally stores the seeds of all of our defiled mundane and undefiled transmundane actions.  This is why it is called the seed consciousness.  If the eighth consciousness could discriminate and choose among the seeds, it would only want to keep the wholesome seeds and discard the unwholesome.  If this were the case, then there would only be the three good paths and not any of the three evil paths.  But the reality that we have seen is that there are the six paths of rebirth, each with its unique karmic retribution for its respective sentient beings. This is due to the non-discriminating, non-selecting, all-inclusive natures of the Tathāgatagarbha that stores all our karmic seeds from all of our past actions.  Hence, the Tathāgatagarbha is called the seed consciousness.

(4) Retributory Consciousness:        From the stage of an ordinary being to the stage of a Buddha, the Tathāgatagarbha upholds all the seeds of past actions of each individual and preserves one’s physical body so that they will not be scattered or destroyed. Hence, it is also called the ādāna Consciousness (retributory consciousness).

(5) Ālaya Consciousness:     In the causal ground, the Tathāgatagarbha has the attributes and functions to store, be the storage, and preserve the love for the self. It stores all the defiled dharmas seeds so they will not be lost.  These defiled dharma seeds induce the tainted dharma seeds of determinative birth and death, which causes sentient beings to continue to be reborn in the three realms.  From all unenlightened sentient beings to the noble of the three vehicles with the exception of the arhats, the eighth consciousness possesses the ālaya (receptacle) property, which upholds rebirths, and hence it is called the ālaya consciousness.

(6) Maturational Consciousness:    All unenlightened persons, arhats, Solitary-realizers, and bodhisattvas, whether they have already eliminated their determinative birth and death or not, there remain seeds of wholesome and unwholesome retributive fruits inside the essence of the Tathāgatagarbha.  These seeds will induce retributive fruits in future lives and, therefore the Tathāgatagarbha is also called the maturational consciousness.

(7) Immaculate Consciousness or True-suchness of the Buddha ground:         After having gone through the fifty-two stages of practice on the Path to Buddhahood, disciples of the Buddha will have transformed all the tainted dharma seeds in their Tathāgatagarbha to immaculate dharma seeds and eradicated determinative birth and death and transfigurational birth and death. These seeds will never change anymore, and hence the Tathāgatagarbha becomes the eight consciousness of the Buddha ground, which is also called the true-suchness or immaculate consciousness.

This eighth consciousness True Mind has always been with us and has never been separated from us starting at the causal ground and ending at the achievement of Buddhahood. Although the Buddha established various names for the True Mind according to the stages of our attainment and our degrees of elimination of the defilement, it is nevertheless the same True Mind—the eighth consciousness Tathāgatagarbha.  Similar to the situation of a person throughout his whole life from birth to old age to death, he can play different roles and be addressed differently. He is his parents’ son when he was young, becomes someone’s husband when he is married, becomes someone’s father when he has children, and eventually becomes someone’s grandfather.  Although he is addressed differently, he is nevertheless the same person.  Similarly, although the Tathāgatagarbha goes by various different names in the sutra, they do not refer to different minds. There is only one mind—the eighth consciousness Tathāgatagarbha True Mind.