Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 940,961 words

This page describes “why is the buddha called tathagata” as written by Nagarjuna in his Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra (lit. “the treatise on the great virtue of wisdom”) in the 2nd century. This book, written in five volumes, represents an encyclopedia on Buddhism as well as a commentary on the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita.

Part 2 - Why is the Buddha called Tathāgata

Why is he called To t’o a k’ie t’o (tathāgata)?

1. He preaches the natures of the dharmas (dharmalakṣaṇa) in the way (tathā) that he has understood (gata) them.

2. In the way that the [previous] Buddhas have gone by the path of safety (yogakṣemamārga), thus (tathā) the [actual] Buddha is going (gata) and will not go on to new existences (punarbhāva).[1]

Different opinions on the word Tathāgata:

Eight explanations in Buddhaghosa, Sumaṅgala, I, p. 59–67. Many attempts at interpretation by recent writers. E. W. Hopkins, Buddha as Tathāgata, J. Philol., 1911, p. 205–209, mentions the epic use of tathāgata, “in so (grievous) a condition”, “as good as dead”, “dead”.

– R. Chalmers, Tathāgata, JRAS, 1898, p.113–115, comments that this epithet is not applied solely to the Buddha.

– Rhys Davids, Dialogues, I, p. 73, II, p. 1, notes the confusion that exists between the two concepts, Buddha and Arhat.

– R. O. Franke, WZKM, IX, P. 347, n. 1; first translates “zur Wahrheit gelangt”; but in his study on the Tathāgata (Dīghanikāya in Auswahl, Gottingen, 1913, p. 287–301): “der so Gegangene”, “derjenige, der diesen Weg zurückgelegt hat”.

– C. Rhys Davids, Manual of Psychological Ethics, London, 1923, p. 270: “he who has won truth”. In her Manual of Buddhism for Advanced Students, London, 1932, p. 116, she remarks that at the beginning, Tathāgata does not designate Śākyamuni particularly, but any disciple whatsover.

– M. Walleser, Zur Herkunft des Wortes Tathāgata, Taisho Gakuho, Apr. 1930, p. 21–33: Tathāgata according to Buddhaghosa’s interpretation (which glosses sattva) means “Mensch” or “Lebewesen” in common language, and it is better translated by “Wiedergekerter” or “Vollendeter”.

– L. de La Vallée Poussin, Dogme et Philosophie, Paris, 1930, p. 169: In classical Buddhism, the Buddha is qualified as arhat, but the word arhat also designates the disciple who has acquired sainthood. On the other hand, the disciple, the arhat, is never qualified as Buddha.

– E. J. Thomas, Tathāgata and Tathāgaya, BSOS, VIII, p. 781–788: The words Tathāgata, arhat, are prior to Śākyamuni and Buddhism. Tathāgata is the Sanskritization of a Prâkrit form that has nothing to do with tathā and gata. Prior to the Singhalese etymologists, there was no thought of explaining, by way of Sanskrit or Pāli, these words which are perhaps aryan.

– The Chinese and Tibetan traditions of the epithet ‘Tathāgata” also merit attention. For the Chinese equivalents, U. Wogihara, Etymology and Meaning of the word Tathāgata (in Japanese), Taisho Daigaku Gakuho, Apr. 1930; for the Tibetan equivalents, F. O. Schrader, On some Tibetan Names of the Buddha, IHQ, IX, 1933, p.16–48.

Footnotes and references:


Cf. Sumaṅgala, I, p. 60–62 (second explanation).