The first word in the term Tathagata-garbha literally means ‘Thus-gone’ or ‘Thus-come’, a term for a Buddha as one who is attuned to reality, while the second basically means either an embryo, or a womb or other container.
Tibetan translations are based on the first meaning of garbha, while Chinese ones are based on the second.
Tathagata-garbha thus means something like ‘embryonic Buddha’ or ‘matrix of a Buddha’, though the earliest meaning may have been a reference to beings as ‘containing a Buddha’.
This ‘embryo’ is seen as existing within all living beings, indicating that, however deluded or defiled they are, they can mature into Buddhas. The Tathagata-garbha, then, represents the ‘Buddha-potential’ within all beings.
In the Tathagata-garbha Sutra, it is affirmed by the Buddha to be ‘complete with virtues and not different from myself’. It is an emptiness which is itself full of possibilities; it is resplendent with the qualities of Buddhahood, beginningless, unchanging and permanent (Ratnagotra-vibhaga [Rv] vv. 51, 84). It is beyond duality, having the nature of thought and the intrinsic purity of a jewel, space or water (Rv. 28, 30, 49). It is brightly shining with lucid clarity (Rv. v. 170) and is ‘by nature brightly shining and pure’ (Lanka. 77).
Beings are seen as ignorant of this great inner treasure, but the Buddha reveals it to them so as to encourage them in spiritual development. Moreover, it is the Tathagata-garbha which responds to spiritual teachings and aspires for Nirvana (Srim. ch. 13; EB. 4.3.5). In some ways, this approach can be seen as an echo of the early idea of seeing Nirvana as ‘the aim-free’ or ‘wishless’: if one already has the supreme, what more could one wish for?
Source: Taken, with minor edits, from Harvey, P. (2013) An introduction to Buddhism: teachings, history and practices. 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Page 139.)
For a PDF copy of the above, click TheTathagata-garbha-Overview.
Question: How is the Tathāgata-garbha/Buddha-nature different from the ‘Self’ which earlier Buddhism did not accept?
For a PDF table in response to this question, click Tathāgata-garbha and the Self.