The tathāgatagarbha Theory in the Śrīmālāsūtra

by Hao Sun (Author)
©2022 Thesis 242 Pages


In this thesis the author firstly investigates various terms related to tathāgatagarbha in the Śrīmālāsūtra. Secondly he focuses on the languages features of its Sanskrit fragments in the Schøyen Collection. It turns out that none of their noticeable language features can ultimately suggest the school-affiliation of the Śrīmālāsūtra. Thirdly he analyzes its paleographical features. Besides, the author conducts an initial study of textual history the Śrīmālāsūtra, and discusses the older recension(s) of the Śrīmālāsūtra based on the Sanskrit morphology, criteria of lectio difficilior and lectio facilior, ascertainment of later contents in the course of transmission, and the development of Buddhist doctrine. Finally he provides a careful textual collation, and makes an annotated translation.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter 1 Introduction
  • 1. Tathāgatagarbha as the refuge, the support, and the basis of both conditional and unconditional dharmas
  • 2. The association of tathāgatagarbha with dharmakāya
  • 3. The identification of tathāgatagarbha with prakṛtipariśuddhagarbha
  • 4. From lokottaragarbha and prakṛtipariśuddhagarbha to a comprehensive textual study
  • Chapter 2 Some essential terms related to tathāgatagarbha
  • 1. On mukta and jñāna/jña
  • 1.1 The polysemous term mukta
  • 1.1.1 Mukta in the Bhagavadgītā
  • 1.1.2 Mukta meaning “liberated”, “freed”, “released” in a formula in the AP
  • 1.1.3 Mukta in its literal and figurative meaning attested in the AŚ, Lal, SP and MSA
  • 1.1.4 Mukta in three other tathāgatagarbha-related Buddhist scriptures
  • 1.2 Multiple jñānas in the Śrīmālāsūtra
  • 1.2.1 The tathāgatagarbha knowledge and the knowledge of emptiness of tathāgatas
  • 1.2.2 The knowledge of emptiness and the knowledge of the omniscient one
  • 1.2.3 Some other forms of knowledge in the Śrīmālāsūtra
  • 1.2.4 Tathāgata/sugata/buddha-jñāna in the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra
  • 2. Dharmakāya in the Śrīmālāsūtra
  • 2.1 The fourfold attributes of dharmakāya
  • 2.2 Absolute exclusion of self (ātman) within the fourfold attributes
  • 2.3 Two synonyms of dharmakāya: nirvāṇadhātu and sarvajñajñānaviṣaya
  • 2.4 Dharmakāya and duḥkhanirodha
  • Chapter 3 Some philological observations on the Śrīmālāsūtra
  • 1. The language features of the Sanskrit Śrīmālāsūtra of the Schøyen Collection
  • 1.1 ho for khalu
  • 1.2 śakkra for śakra, and satva for sattva
  • 2.1 Imperative of 2nd person singular ending with āhi
  • 2.2 Aorist of 3rd person singular ending with si or ṣi
  • 2.3 Absolutive ending of verb with prefix as tvā
  • 2.4 Contraction of aya in form of e in the causative verbs
  • 2.5 Changing from n to ṃ
  • 2.6 An extra m to form ṃm
  • 3.1 Hyper-sanskritisation concerning ṛ
  • 3.2 Hyper-sanskritisation of dh for h
  • 2. A supplementary paleographical study of the Sansrkit Śrīmālāsūtra manuscripts
  • 1. A general remark
  • 2. The variant and unlisted akṣaras in the ŚSC comparing with the Gupta-scripts alphabet-k
  • 3. The script tables of the Sanskrit Śrīmālāsūtra
  • 3. The older recension(s) among the multiple Śrīmālāsūtra versions
  • 3.1 Passages of (a)muktajñ(ān)a
  • 3.2 Added sentences in Group II
  • 3.3 The diametrically opposed attitudes towards saṃskāra and nirvāṇa views
  • 4. Summary of this chapter
  • Chapter 4 Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese collation of the Śrīmālāsūtra
  • 1. Symbols used in my collation
  • 2. Editorial styles in this dissertation
  • 3. General information on the Tibetan materials
  • 3.1 Colophon, Notes and References of the Tibetan Śrīmālāsūtra
  • 3.2 Characteristics of the textual witness of the Tibetan materials
  • 3.2.1 Gondhla Collection
  • 3.2.2 Them spang ma Manuscript preserved in Ulaanbaatar
  • 3.2.3 sTog Palace Kanjur
  • 3.2.4 Peking Kanjur preserved in Ulaanbaatar
  • 4. Stemma of the Chinese materials
  • 4.1 Division of chapters
  • 4.2 Some philological observations
  • 5. Collation
  • 1. Dharmakāya vis-à-vis kleśakośa and buddhadharma
  • 2. Tathāgatagarbha vis-à-vis kleśakośa and buddhadharma
  • 3. Knowledge and views of non-Buddhists and Buddhists
  • 4. The merits and attributes of tathāgatagarbha
  • 5. The synonyms of tathāgatagarbha
  • 6. The nature of prakṛtipariśuddha citta
  • 7. The conservation between Queen Śrīmālā and the Buddha
  • 8. The manifestation of Buddha and its response
  • 9. Name of this sūtra
  • Chapter 5 Annotated translation
  • 1. Dharmakāya vis-à-vis kleśakośa and buddhadharma
  • 2. Tathāgatagarbha vis-à-vis kleśakośa and buddhadharma
  • 3. Knowledge and views of non-Buddhists and Buddhists
  • 4. The merits and attributes of tathāgatagarbha
  • 5. The synonyms of tathāgatagarbha
  • 6. The nature of prakṛtipariśuddha citta
  • 7. The conversation between Queen Śrīmālā and the Buddha
  • 8. The manifestation of the Buddha and its response
  • 9. Name of this sūtra
  • Primary Sources, with Abbreviations
  • Bibliography
  • Summary of results

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First of all, I would like to thank my Doktorvater, Prof. Michael Zimmermann. His comprehensive instruction, advice and support makes possible the completion of my current work. It has always been a great pleasure to learn from him. My second supervisor Prof. Harunaga Isaacson always gives inspiring suggestions during my study of Sanskrit. Moreover, Prof. Dorji Wangchuk has always been very considerate, nice and broad-minded. Prof. Steffen Döll has viewed my dissertation, kindly taken on the duty of the committee member, and made wise counsel. Furthermore, I am also grateful to Prof. Saerji, Prof. Ruixuan Chen, Prof. Ryuta Kikuya, Prof. Toshio Horiuchi, Prof. Martin Delhey, Dr. Oren Hanner, Dr. Jörg Heimbel, Dr. Daisy Cheung, Dr. Channa Li, Dr. Arihiro Kosaka, Dr. Yousuke Fujimoto, Dr. Mengyan Li, Dr. Bertram Dscho, Mr. Sebastian Nehrdich, Mr. Marco Hummel, Mr. Nicola Bajetta, Ven. Geumgang Han, Ven. Michael Zrenner, Miss Choden Sonam, Miss Junwei Song, and Mr. Daisung Han. Last but not least, I want to thank Mr. Rory Beaton and Ms. Sandra Ehnert for their thorough proofreading and kind feedbacks. Needless to say, all major and minor mistakes, misinterpretations, inaccuracies and shortcomings that bound in this work are my sole responsibility.

January, 2022, Hamburg Hao Sun

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Chapter 1 Introduction

The Śrīmālāsūtra, one of the triad of tathāgatagarbha works,1 is of primary importance in the formation and development of the tathāgatagarbha doctrine, originated in India and later has a major and longstanding influence in the history of East Asian Buddhism. One example of its popularity is its annotated commentary called the Shōmangyō-gisho 勝鬘経義疏, of which the authorship was normally ascribed to Japan’s Prince Shōtoku 聖徳太子 (574–622 A.D.). In China, numerous commentaries center on the Śrīmālāsūtra, among which one of the earliest extant commentaries was dated to the early fifth century A.D.2

The reason why the Śrīmālāsūtra created a terrific splash in East Asia, was mainly due to its advocacy of the tathāgatagarbha doctrine, which offers a theoretical underpinning for the inspiring and innovative thought that everyone has the possibility to become a buddha. In the culture area of East Asia, where historically Confucianism dominated, intellectuals were educated that “everyone can become a saint such as Emperor Yao, and Emperor Shun.”3 In this way the tathāgatagarbha theory truly resonates among countless East Asian intellectuals, not just Buddhists.

Nevertheless, in India the tathāgatagarbha doctrine in some respects does diverge from the cornerstone of the orthodox Buddhist teaching of the fifth century B.C., when the Buddha preached. At that time it was widely rooted in the hearts of Indian people that only Gautama Siddhārtha gained enlightenment or awakening, who subsequently attained buddhahood. All his disciples and other followers could at best attain arhatship, which is inferior to buddhahood. In the era of the Gautama Buddha, it would be ←11 | 12→quite odd if someone would have claimed buddhahood along with the Gautama Buddha. However, after the Buddha passed away, Buddhist societies gradually witnessed the twist of some Buddhist doctrines. One of the most striking shifts is perhaps the belief that multiple buddhas could co-exist at the same time in the world, proposed by a great number of the Mahāyāna Buddhists. The underlying cause would be the unrepressed admiration and memory towards the Gautama Buddha, which drove innumerable Buddhists to imagine that there could be buddhas everywhere in the world, considering that the Gautama Buddha already passed away. Since more and more people start to buy the innovative theory of multiple buddhas, the question arises: how to reach these buddhas, and even how to become a buddha. The tathāgatagarbha theory in the Buddhist history is actually directed towards such queries.

One of the if not the earliest Buddhist scriptures on the tathāgatagarbha theory is the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra.4 This sūtra initially proclaims that “all sentient beings contain at all times a Tathāgata5.”6 And tathāgatagarbha – Tathāgata containing in living beings – is already a “full-fledged Tathāgata”.7 This idea is later deeply embedded in other tathāgatagarbha literatures, and inspires their followers to believe that everyone has the possibility to become buddha. Intellectuals in the East Asian culture area can easily draw an analogy between what is advocated in the Book of Mengzi that “everyone can become a saint” and what is proposed in tathāgatagarbha literatures that “everyone has the possibility to become a buddha”. I postulate that’s why the tathāgatagarbha teaching enjoy great popularity in East Asia.

Back to the complicated and multiple illustrations of tathāgatagarbha, Zimmermann (2002: 42) suggests that “the embryo of a/the tathāgata(s)” ←12 | 13→shall be its most common rendering. He also summarizes that “in light of the upamāna, the grammatically adequate interpretation serving as the basic one of the compound tathāgatagarbha is that of a bahuvrīhi meaning ‘containing a tathāgata’. However, it would be wrong to assume that the term tathāgatagarbha, once the context of the first simile is left behind, would be restricted in the minds of readers to such a clear-cut definition… We may assume that the author of the simile of the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra chose that term because it covered the whole variety of illustrated themes.” (45)

Subsequent to the similes and theoretical basis of tathāgatagarbha in the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra,8 the Śrīmālāsūtra moves on to considerably enrich the philosophical dimensions of the concept of tathāgatagarbha, (1) by defining it as the refuge, the support, and the basis of both conditional and unconditional dharmas, (2) by associating it with the supreme dharmakāya (tathāgatagarbha is the dharmakāya [externally] not freed from the sheaths that are defilements). Consequently, tathāgatagarbha is equipped with the buddha qualities (buddhadharma). Further, a bright way to nirvāa through identifying dharmakāya with nirvāadhātu is warranted. As a result, the philosophical expositions in the Śrīmālāsūtra boost great confidence for sentient beings firmly relying on tathāgatagarbha for the purpose of pursuing buddha qualities as well as nirvāa.

1. Tathāgatagarbha as the refuge, the support, and the basis of both conditional and unconditional dharmas

The most crucial and innovative tathāgatagarbha theory of the Śrīmālāsūtra is in my book tathāgatagarbha as the refuge, the support, and the basis of both conditional and unconditional dharmas.9

In Buddhism, circuit of mundane existence (sasāra) is in most cases regarded as conditional dharmas. According to the Śrīmālāsūtra, the reliance of sasāra is tathāgatagarbha,10 as it is neither born nor ages or ←13 | 14→dies.11 Although tathāgatagarbha is encased within all sheaths that are defilements (sarvakleśakośakoigūha),12 in fact, tathāgatagarbha is empty of all divisible sheaths that are defilements.13 Moreover, tathāgatagarbha goes beyond the sphere of conditioned characteristics. It is permanent, stable, peaceful, and eternal.14 On this account, tathāgatagarbha is also the refuge, the support and the basis of the indivisible qualities [of the Buddha], which are unconditional.15 Matsumoto 1989 sums up the major points of tathāgatagarbha and concludes that it forms the locus in the Śrīmālāsūtra.

That tathāgatagarbha underpins both conditional and unconditional dharmas rings a bell with many Buddhist scholars on another key Buddhist term: ālayavijñāna. In the Lakāvatārasūtra 235.7 we can find the identification of tatāgatagarbha with ālayavijñāna: yad uta tatāgatagarbha ālayavijñānasaśabdito. Takasaki (1975: 362) notices the link between the tathāgatabarbha and ālayavijñāna theory. Jones (2021: 128) points out that the Śrīmālāsūtra sets in opposition to the regular operations of consciousness.16 Paul (1979: 198) states that the fusion between storehouse-consciousness (ālayavijñāna) and tathāgatabarbha did not occur until the Lakāvatārasūtra, as evidenced by the glosses in the Ratnagotravibhāga and Triśikā. It is better to say that the Śrīmālāsūtra serves as a prototype for ālayavijñāna, while the Śrīmālāsūtra remains silent with regard to the ālayavijñāna.←14 | 15→

2. The association of tathāgatagarbha with dharmakāya

While the Śrīmālāsūtra does not touch upon ālayavijñāna or its association with tathāgatagarbha, this sūtra does revolve around the identification of tathāgatagarbha with dharmakāya in its nature. In a nutshell, as long as dharmakāya is not freed from the sheaths that are defilements, it is called tathāgatagarbha.17 In a later Chinese commentary, it is simplified as “tathāgatagarbha is dharmakāya in bonds.”18

With regard to the Sanskrit text in the Footnote 17, some editions of the Tibetan Śrīmālāsūtra translation state: “dharmakāya of the Tathāgata freed from the sheaths that are defilements (*vinirmuktakleśakośa) is called tathāgatagarbha”, see also passage 2.1 of my collation and annotated translation. The variant Tibetan reading might have resulted from the missing of avagraha in ’vinirmuktakleśakośas in their Sanskrit manuscript, however we can find clearly the sign of avagraha in our extant Sanskrit manuscript: dharmakāyo ’vinirmuktakleśakośas tathāgatagarbha <ity ucyate>”. The variant Tibetan reading reveals that our extant Sanskrit manuscript may not be the basic text of some Tibetan editions. In Chapter 3, Section 3 I will enlarge on the older recension(s) of the Śrīmālāsūtra through substantial textual comparison of the Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese primary sources of the Śrīmālāsūtra. Furthermore, in Chapter 4 I will conduct a close study on the collation of multilingual (Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese) primary sources of the Śrīmālāsūtra, followed by Chapter 5: an annotated English translation on the basis of its Sanskrit version(s).

Now, back to the association of tathāgatagarbha with dharmakāya, there is a much less plausible way of interpretating the Sanskrit citation in Footnote 17 in the following manner: “this (aya) tathāgatagarbha is not freed ←15 | 16→from the sheaths that are defilements (avinirmuktakleśakośa), [it is] called (ucyate) tathāgatadharmakāya.” The reason of marginalizing such interpretation is simple, this interpretation is contradictory to the following passage found also in the Śrīmālāsūtra, which describes tathāgatadharmakāya freed from all sheaths that are defilements: yo bhagavan sarvakleśakośakoigūhe tathāgatagarbhe nika sarvakleśakośavinirmukt<e> tathāgatadharmakāye ’pi sa nika.19 “Oh, Exalted One, one who is free from doubt (nika) in the tathāgatagarbha encased within all sheaths that are defilements (sarvakleśakośakoigūha20), that one is also free from doubt in the tathāgatadharmakāya which is freed from all sheaths that are defilements (sarvakleśakośavinirmukta).”

According to the background of the Śrīmālāsūtra, prior to enlightenment/awakening one would perceive that on the one hand dharmakāya21 is freed from all sheaths that are defilements, on the other hand tathāgatagarbha is encased within all sheaths that are defilements. Nevertheless, as soon as one gains enlightenment or becomes awakened, that person would suddenly realize that tathāgatagarbha is empty of sheaths that are defilements. For that enlightened/awakened person, tathāgatagarbha is in nature identified with dharmakāya.22 Let’s now take a look at the subsequent table of the joint qualities of dharmakāya and tathāgatagarbha illustrated in the Śrīmālāsūtra.←16 | 17→

Qualities of dharmakāya

Qualities of tathāgatagarbha


’kto ’jāto ’nutpanno ’kaya kayāpagato… tathāgatadharmakāyo…

Tathāgatadharmakāya is not created, unborn, unarisen, inexhaustible, beyond exhaustible…”


na punar tathāgatagarbho jāyate vā jīryati vā mriyate


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (May)
buddha-nature theory Buddhist manuscripts Schøyen Collection Ratnagotravibhāga Sanskrit scripts dharmakāya prakṛtipariśuddha muktajñāna Prakrit Middle Indic
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 242 pp., 11 fig. b/w, 1 table.

Biographical notes

Hao Sun (Author)

Hao Sun is currently a research fellow at the Numata Center for Buddhist Studies, University of Hamburg, where he completed Ph.D. studies and defended his dissertation from the Department of Indian and Tibetan Studies.


Title: The tathāgatagarbha Theory in the Śrīmālāsūtra