Chalmers, Robert
The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society

p.103 THE precise meaning of this familiar title of the Buddha is still unsettled. As the word tathagata is not used either in the Upanishads or (so far as I am aware) in older Sanskrit writings, there exists no available evidence earlier than the Pali Pitakas; and there its use is so common as to merit special investigation. Before submitting my own interpretation to the judgment of scholars, I propose to state the views already advanced by others, including the great scholar Buddhaghosa, and next to examine Pitaka passages in which the title tathagata occurs. I. The following are the chief interpretations which have been advanced: -- (i) Professor Fausboll, doyen of Pali scholars, has the following note at p. 377 of his edition (1855) of the Dhammapada:- "Meo judicio primum intelligenda est vox hoc sensu: in tali conditione versans (cfr. supra p. 295 sugata) talis, deinde: praestans, consummatus, beatus." (ii) Childers, in his Pali Dictionary (l875), says (following the Abhidhanappadipika):-- "It is quite evident that the term tathagata was first applied to a sentient being generally and afterwards transferred to a Buddha. As a name for a Buddha it means the Being par excellence, the Great Being (comp. dipaduttamo narasiho). Gautama Buddha frequently in the Suttsts speaks of himself as the Tathagata, and the p.104 epithet is analogous to that of Son of Man applied to Himself by Jesus Christ. As a name for a sentient being it means 'one who goes in like manner,' i.e., one who goes the way of all flesh, one who is subject to death, a mortal. The native explanations of the term are purely fanciful." This follows Buddhaghosa's interpretation at Sum. Vil., i, 118: 'Hoti tathagato ti adisu satto tathagato ti adhippeto." In dealing with the phrase Hoti tathagato param marana in Part II of this paper, I will endeavour to show that Buddhaghosa's note is not to be construed baldly as a general definition. (iii) Rhys Davids(1) and Oldenberg have the following note at p. 82 of Part I of their translation of the Vinaya (vol. xiii of the Sacred Books of the East," translated by various Oriental scholars and edited by F. Max Muller"):-- "The term Tathagata is, in the Buddhistical literature, exclusively applied to Sammasambuddhas, and it is more especially used in the Pitakas when the Buddha is represented as speaking of himself in the third person as 'the Tathagata.' The meaning 'sentient being,' which is given to the word in the Abhidhanappadipika and in Childers's Dictionary, is not confirmed, as far as we know, by any passage of the Pitakas. This translation of the word is very possibly based merely on a misunderstanding of the phrase often repeated in the Sutta Pitaka, Hoti tathagato param marana, which means, of course,(2) 'does a Buddha exist after death?' "In the Jaina books we sometimes find the term tatthagaya (tatragata), 'he who has attained that world, i.e. emancipation, ' applied to Jinas as opposed to other beings who are called ihagaya (idhagata), 'living in this world.' See for example the Jinacaritra, # 16. ----------------------- 1 In a note to p. 147 of his " Buddhist Suttas " Rhys Davids does not appear to adopt for himself the view advanced in the Vinaya translation. 2 But see infra, pp. 108-9, where this passage is discussed. p.105 "Considering the close relationship in which most of the dogmatical terms of the Jainas stand to those of the Bauddhas, it is difficult to believe that tathagata and tatthagaya should not originally have conveyed very similar ideas. We think that on the long way from the original Magadhi to the Pali and Sanskrit, the term tathagata or tatthagata (tatra and agata), 'he who has arrived there, i.e. at emancipation,' may very easily have undergone the change into tathagatta, which would have made it unintelligible, were we not able to compare its unaltered form as preserved by the Jainas." (It is an obvious comment on the foregoing, even if we ignore the shortness of the antepenultimate a in the Jaina term, that the latter, so far from preserving the unaltered original, may itself be a corruption of the Pali tathagata, or again may be wholly distinct in origin. Before the above interpretation can be adopted, evidence would require to be forthcoming to support the use of tattha in Pali as meaning the emancipated state.) (iv) Buddhaghosa has a long discussion of tathagata at pp. 59-68 of Sumangala Vilasini, vol. i, a discussion which he repeats verbatim in commenting on the first Majjhima Sutta in his Papanca Sudani. According to Buddhaghosa the title tathagata is susceptible of eight interpretations:-- 1. Tatha agato, he who has arrived in such fashion, i.e. who has worked his way upwards to perfection for the world's good in the same fashion as all previous Buddhas. 2. Tatha gato, he who walked in such fashion, i.e. (a) he who at birth took the seven equal steps in the same fashion as all previous Buddhas (cf. Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta No. 123, in J.R.A.S. for October, 1895; and Rhys Davids, "Buddhist Birth Stories," p. 65); or (b) he who in the same way as all previous Buddhas went his way to Buddhahood through the four Jhanas and the Paths. p.106 3. Tatha and agato (tatha-lakkhanam agato), he who by the path of knowledge has come at the real essentials of things. 4. Tatha and agato (tathadhamme yathavato abhisambuddho), he who has won Truth. Buddhaghosa explains this rendering as follows:-- "Tathadhamma nama cattari ariyasaccani. Yath' aha: (1) Cattar' imani, bhikkhave, tathani avitathani anannathani. Katamani cattari? Idam dukkhan ti, bhikkhave, tatham etam avitatham etam anannatham etan ti. Vittharo. Tani ca Bhagava abhisambuddho. Tasma tathanam abhisambuddhatta [by his discovery of the Four Truths] Tathagato ti vuccati. Abhisambodhattho hi ettha gata-saddo." 5. Tatha and agato (where the paraphrase is tathadassitaya tathagato), he who has discerned Truth. Buddhaghosa cites Ang., ii, 23, in support of this rendering. 6. Tatha and agato (where agato = agado and the paraphrase is tathavaditaya tathagato), he who declares Truth. Buddhaghosa also suggests here that gata = gada (the compound being tathagado, 'one who speaks even as things are'), and cites Ang., ii, 24. 7. Tatha gato (tathakaritaya tathagato), he whose words and deeds accord (gate = pavatto). Buddhaghosa supports this derivation by a quotation from Anguttara, ii, 24:-- " Ten' aha: Yathavadi, bhikkhave, tathagato tathakari yathakari tathavadi,.... tasma tathagato ti vuccatiti. 8. Tatha and agata [where agata=agada 'physic'], the great physician whose physic is all-potent. Buddhaghosa paraphrases this by 'abhibhavanatthena tathagato,' and quotes in support the following from Anguttara. ii, 24:-- "Ten' aha: Sadevake, bhikkhave, loke .. pe.. manussaya tathagato abhibhu anabhibhuto annadatthudaso vasavatti, tasma tathagato ti vuccatiti." ----------------------- 1 So far as I know, these words are never used by Buddhaghosa except in quoting from a Pitaka utterance attributed to the Buddha; but I cannot trace the reference. p.107 Trenckner, in commenting on Majjhima, i, 140, cites as follows Buddhaghosa's note thereon in the Papanca Sudani: Ettha satto ti pi tathagato ti adhippeto uttamapuggalo khinasavo ti pi (here tathagata means both creature and arahat). Trenckner goes on to express his own view in the following words: "It here rather retains the original sense of 'such a one,' cf. Suttanip., 30, vv. 13-24; and the other significations of tathagata may have proceeded from texts like these." (In my opinion the passage in the Sutta Nipata above referred to, in no wise bears out Trenckner's interpretation. The meaning there is not 'such a one,' but an Arahat, not necessarliy a Buddha, and it will be seen that this meaning is supported by other passages, as well as by Buddhaghosa's paraphrase khinasavo here. I may add that, on looking out the above passage in the Royal Asiatic Society's manuscript of the Papanca Sudani, I find that the reading there given is not satto 'creature, as cited by Trenckner, but sattha 'master.' I shall recur to this point on page 110 in discussing Majjhima, i, 140.) It may be convenient here to summarize the etymologies recorded above. (i) As regards the latter part of the word tathagata, Buddhaghosa's fanciful gada, agada, and agada suggestions may safely be dismissed, so that the choice is limited to agata (which will suit all eases) and gata (which call only follow tatha). (ii) As regards the first part of the word, the rival theories are:-- (a) Tatha (adverb) . Fausboll, Childers, Trenckner, and Buddhaghosa in three out of his eight interpretations. (b) Tattha. (Rhys Davids and) Oldenberg. p.108 (C) Tatha (adjective). Buddhaghosa in five out of his eight interpretations. Leaving commentators and translators for the present, I now proceed to investigate Pitaka passages where the word tathagata occurs. II. In the present state of our knowledge concerning the Pali Pitakas, it is difficult to say which of these are original and which are merely derivative compilations. We know that some of the Pitaka texts are of the latter character, e.g., the Theragatha, the Itivuttaka, and the Dhammapada. It is probable, too, that, apart from the Abhidhamma, the Samyutta and Anguttara, Nikayas (and possibly also the Sutta Nipata, several Suttas of which occur in the Majjhima Nikaya) are little better than rearrangements of the Digha and Majjhima Nikayas. But, though certain Suttas occur word for word in both of the latter, it has not been suggested, nor is it in any way probable, that these two great Nikayas are other than original in their general character. It is, therefore, chiefly to the Digha and Majjhima that I have gone for the evidence of the Pitakas as to the use and meaning of tathagata. While availing myself of the assistance of the Vinaya, etc., I have been careful to eschew later Pali works like the Jataka Commentary all Buddhist texts in Sanskrit. 1. For beginning the study of the Pitaka use of tathagata, the best passage is that stock passage to which Rhys Davids and Oldenberg refer in the note previously quoted as having probably misled Childers. Let us take the passage as it occurs at Majjhima, i, p. 486. Here, as at Digha, i, p. 188, it is a non-Buddhist, a paribbajaka, who asks the Buddha the following question (among others): "Hoti tathagato param marana? Does a (or the) tathagata exist after p.109 death?"(1) The Buddha having declined to discuss the question, as being matter of useless speculation, the non- Buddhist questioner asks: "Atthi pana bhoto Gotamassa kinci ditthigatan ti? Well, has the reverend Gotama any speculation of his own, then? " To this the Buddha replies: " Ditthigatan ti kho apanitam etam tathagatassa. The tathagata has put from him what you call speculation." And he proceeds, by way of contrast, to say what the tathagata has discerned (dittham h' etam tathagatena), viz., the Five Khandhas or elements of being, with their respective origins and ends; and he concludes with the words: ''Tasma tathagato vimutto ti vadamiti. Therefore. is the tathagata emancipated, I say." Very instructive is the next question of the non-Buddhist: "Evam vimuttacitto pana, bho Gotama, bhikkhu kuhim uppajjatiti? But whither, Gotama, does such a mentally emancipated bhikkhu go for his future state?" This question shows beyond dispute that, on his side at any rate, the non-Buddhist questioner interpreted tathagata as a saintly religieux, with no special reference to Gotama in the sense of the Buddha. And it is important to observe that the Buddha does not controvert his questioner's interpretation. 2. The foregoing instance of vimuttacitto bhikkhu may serve to introduce the use of the same term (at Majjh., i, 140) by the Buddha himself. After describing the Arahat, he goes on to say:--"Evam vimuttacittam kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhum sa-Inda deva sa-Brahmaka sa-Pajapatika anvesam nadhigacchanti: Idam nissitam tathagatassa vinnanan ti. Tam kissa hetu? Ditthe vaham, bhikkhave, dhamme tathagatam ananuvejjo ti vadami. Evamhvadim kho mam, bhikkhave, evamakkhayim eke ----------------------- 1 As noted above in Part I (ii), Buddhaghosa at Sum. Vil., i, 118, says: "Satto tathagato ti adhippeto." If this be read in the light of Lines 3-9 of Majjh., i, 140, the meaning is clear. It is not affirmed that all creatures are tathagatas. Rather the position is that the tathagata is regarded, for the time being from the general point of view of a creature, which erery tathagata of course is--though he is also much more. Thus it is as though a Christian commentator, dealing with the words " Christ died upon the Cross,'' mere to say " Christ, i.e. the man (in Christ)." Cf. Part l, v, et infra. p.110 samanabrahmana asata tuccha musa abhutena abbhacikkhanti: Venayiko samano Gotamo, sato sattassa ucchedam vinasam vibhavam pannapetiti. Yatha vaham, bhikkhave, na, yatha caham na vadami, tatha mam te bhonto samanabrahmana.... abbhacikkhanti: Venayiko....vibhavam pannapetiti. Pubbe caham, bhikkhave, etarahi ca dukkhan c' eva pannapemi dukkhassa ca nirodham. Concerning such a mentally emancipated bhikkhu, Brethren, not even the highest of Angels can ascertain where resides the tathagata's mind. And why? Because even in this present life, here and now, the tathagata, as I affirm, is one who cannot be traced out. When I say this, and when I affirm this, certain persons falsely assert that I am a nihilist, and preach the extirpation, the destruction, and the annihilation of an existent creature. I am no nihilist; I do not preach such extirpation and annihilation. As in the past, so now too, all that I expound is Suffering and the Cessation of Suffering." In this, as in the foregoing passage, I submit that at first tathagata is equivalent simply to vimuttacitto bhikkhu; while it seems equally clear that towards the end of the passage tathagata is equivalent to aham, i.e. to the Buddha. And this appears to have been Buddhaghosa's interpretation of the passage. For, in the R.A.S. manuscript of the Papanca Sudani, his note is:--" Tathagatassati. Ettha sattha ti pi [not satto ti pi, as read by Trenckner at Majjh., i, 542] tathagato ti adhippeto, uttamapuggalo khinasavo ti pi.-- Here tathagata denotes both the Master and an Arahat." If satto be read (to the detriment of the sense), the ex- planation will be that given in the note on p. 109 to Hoti tathagato param marana. 3. In the former of the two passages discussed above, the term tathagata is used by a non-Buddhist, the question being the familiar non-Buddhist question "Hoti tathagato param marana? " Even more noteworthy--as showing non-Buddhist familiarity with the term--is the emphatic use of the title by Gotama himself, at the very outset of his career as a Buddha, in his very first words to his p.111 first converts, the five bhikkhus with whom (Majjh., i, 170) he had practised vain austerities. When Gotama comes back to his old companions, and when they addressed him in the old familiar style (Majjh., i, 171)--"Hereupon (says the Buddha in relating the incident) I said to those five Bhikkhus: 'Ma bhikkhave tathagatam namena ca avusovadena ca samudacarittha.' O bhikkhus, do not address a (or the) tathagata by his ordinary name or as reverend sir." To me it seems impossible to mistake the deliberate challenge involved in this initial sentence addressed by the new Buddha to his old companions and intended converts. He claims at the very outset a title which he knew to be so well known to them, and so tremendous in its accepted connotation, that they were constrained either to expose him as a charlatan or to follow him as their spiritual lord. At first the Buddha, as he states, "was unable to convince the five bhikkhus." It was only when he went on to deliver the discourse which is given at Vinaya, i, 10, and in the Samyutta Nikaya, that they were converted to Buddhism. By comparing Majjh., i, 167 and 173, it will be seen that the intellectual process was the same, and is described in the same words by the Buddha, alike for the attainment of Arahatship by the Five Bhikkhus and for the attainment of Buddhahood by himself. 4. In contrast with the two passages discussed in paragraphs 1 and 2 above, is Suttta I of the Majjhima Nikaya, where the tathagata is expressly differentiated from the Arahat or khinasavo bhikkhu. Here the title occurs in its familiar setting and amplificatory definition--tathagato arabam sammasambuddho, "the tathagata, the Arahat, the Very Buddha"--which recurs so often in the Buddha's stock passage (e.g. Digha, i, 62):-- "Idha tathagato loke uppajjati araham sammasambuddho. So imam lokam.... sayam abhinna sacchikatva pavedeti adikalyanam..., kevalaparipunnam parisuddham brahmacariyam pakaseti.-- A tathagata arises in the world: he explains the world, p.112 having of himself grasped and realized it. He preaches the Doctrine.... and proclaims the perfect way of holiness." 5. At Digha, i, 229, Anguttara, ii, 117, Vinaya, v, 121, and elsewhere the Buddha speaks of tathagatappaveditam dhammavinayam, "the Doctrine and the Rule preached by the tathagata"; and at Majjhima, i, 111, and Vinaya, iii, 42, the Buddha calls himself dhammasami tathagato, "the tathagata, lord of truth." In this connection I point out the frequent close connection between tathagata and dhamma (e.g., Majjh., i, 83, 85, 136, 331), or between tathagata and savaka (e.g. Ang., ii, 34; Majjh., i, 85, 136, 332, 371). This connection is shown clearly at Vinaya, i, 43:"Nayanti ve mahavira, saddhammena tathagata. --It is by means of true doctrine that the great conquerors, the tathagatas, lead men." 6. The passages just quoted are passages in which the Buddha uses the title of himself; and this is the general usage of the term. Unless--like Ananda at Digha, i, 206, or Assaji at Vinaya, i, 40--they are expounding Buddhism ex cathedra to non-believers, Buddhists rarely use the title tathagata in speaking of the Buddha; and even when so expounding, Buddhists use the title with a special significance: e.g., at Majjhima, i, 356, Ananda, in preaching to Mahanama the Sakyan, says (like the Buddha himself at Majjhima, ii, 128):--"Idha ariyasavako saddho hoti saddahati tathagatassa bodhim: Iti pi so bhagava araham sammasambuddho.... buddho bhagava ti. Here a disciple of the Noble One gets faith, and has faith in the tathagata's illumination, so that he believes: This Worshipful One is the Arahat, the Very Buddha... ." Here the disciple, as opposed to the expositor, uses the title "Bhagava." Similarly (e.g.) the Brahmin Pokkharasadi (Digha, i, 87) and the Licchavis (Digha, i, 151), in using the stock passage cited above, are careful to begin with the words "Iti pi so bhagava araham sammasambuddho,'' and not with the Buddha's own formula: Idha tathagato, etc. Another example occurs at Digha, i, 95, where the Buddha threatens p.113 a recalcitrant young Brahmin in the words: "To kho tathagatena yava tatiyakam sahadhammikam panham puttho na vyakaroti, etth' eva assa sattadha muddha phalissatiti." But the demon who appeared to split the young Brahmin's head accordingly, in repeating the words of the threat, is careful to substitute another title for tathagata, and says: "Sacayam Ambattho manavo bhagacata yava tatiyakam sahadhammi- kam panham puttho na vyakarissati, etth' eva sattadha muddham phalessamiti." Cf. Vinaya, iii, 2. 7. The most remarkable exceptions to the rule that in the Pitakas Buddhists avoid using the title tathagata, are two, viz.:-- (i) Ananda, "the beloved disciple," uses the term in speaking to the Buddha at (e.g.) Majjhima, ii, 45, and frequently in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta; and (ii) The second exception occurs also in the last-named Sutta, in the following passage: "Atha kho Bhagava bhikkhu amantesi: Handa dani, bhikkhave, amantayami vo: Vayadhamma: samkhara, appamadena sampadethati. Ayam tathagatassa pacchima vaca.--Then the Blessed One said to the Brethren: Behold now, Brethren, I exhort you, saying: 'Decay is inherent in all component things. Work out your salvation with diligence.' This was the last word of the tathagata." III. I am not aware of any passage in any Pitaka text which, in any material point, conflicts with the series of passages above quoted, in the light of which I now proceed to submit my own interpretation of the word. Tathagata, in my opinion, is derived from the adjective tatha and agata, and means "one who has come at the real truth." Hence, in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, Ajatasattu argues from the etymology when he says: "Na hi p.114 tathagata vitatham bhanantiti. --For no untrue word is spoken by (those who, as their name imports, are) truth- winners." In this sense tathagata was a title already familiar to Indian thinkers before Gotama's day, denoting one who had reached the goal of intellectual emancipation. In this sense, too, it was adopted by Gotama, who, while not denying the title to those who had won the supreme goal of Arahatship, specially appropriated it to himself as the Arahat par excellence, and so came to use the title (as his disciples used it of him) as a solemn claim to recognition as the pioneer of truth, the founder of true religion in theory and practice. The truth Gotama claimed to have won, and to have been the first to win, is formulated in the Four Truths relating to Suffering and the Cessation of Suffering: cattar' imani, bhikkhave, tathani avitathani anannathani.--"Four in number, Brethren, are these truths that can never be untrue, can never be other than they are." In the Buddha's mouth, therefore, the title tathagata assumes usually the specialized meaning of discoverer of the Four Truths, i.e. founder of Buddhism. I have said above that even the Buddha himself did not deny the title of tathagata to an Arahat. For this, I think, a good reason can be given, apart from pre-Buddhist use of the term to denote a saint who had won emancipation of mind. That reason is that Arahatship was the supreme goal of Gotama's Buddhium--tad anuttaram brahmacariyapariyosanam. This supreme goal every Arahat had to win by his own thought and effort (sayam abhinna sacchikatva upasampajja) in precisely the same manner as the Buddha. In the Ariyapariyesana Sutta, therefore, the Buddha describes the process of the conversion of the Five Bhikkhus in precisely the same words as those in which he describes the process of his own attainment of Buddhahood, the hour of triumph being marked in each case, alike by Buddha and by Arahat bhikkhu, with the jubilant words: " Akuppa me vimutti, ayam antima jati, na 'tthi dani punabbhavo. Sure is my emancipation; this is my last birth; I shall never be born again." p.115 Consequently, it is not without significance that the very first title assumed by the new Buddha was not sammasambuddha, but tathagata; nor is it, perhaps, a mere coincidence that in the Sutta of the Great Decease the now aged Buddha assumes the same title with markedly greater frequency than elsewhere, while the writer or editor of the Sutta, in recording the Buddha's dying word says: "Ayam tathagatassa pacchima vaca.--This was the last word (not of the Buddha but) of the tathagata, the truthwinner." It would almost seem as though, alike at the dawn and at the close of his Buddhahood, the Buddha, with a shrewd foreboding of Mahayana heresies to be, was sedulous to select a title which should exalt, not Buddhahood, but Arahatship. "Tumhehi kiccam atappam, akkhataro tathagata.--The struggle must be your own; those who have won the truth can but point the way."(1) ----------------------- 1 Dhammapada, p. 49.