Padma Samye Ling
Tathagatagarbha is the nature of our minds—in a way, we practice because of it. As Mipham Rinpoche states at the beginning of the Tongthun Senge Ngaro, “Tathagatagarbha is the essential meaning of both sutra and tantra.” The nature of mind is the union of emptiness and compassion, and this emptiness is pervasive to all subjects and objects. Emptiness encompasses everything. In contrast, compassion is very personal and individual, as it is unique to each and every living being. Yet, compassion is also connected with mind; the nature of compassion is emptiness, since emptiness is pervasive to all subjects and objects.Sometimes we hear the term ‘absolute bodhichitta,’ which is another name for tathagatagarbha. There is no real difference between the two. Absolute bodhichitta means compassion and emptiness are an inseparable unity, without discrimination. Realizing and maintaining this awareness is known as “absolute bodhichitta.”
And what is “relative bodhichitta?” Once more, it is the compassion aspect of buddha-nature. When we speak of “compassion,” we are emphasizing the relative quality of buddha-nature without focusing too much on the emptiness quality. The teachings often speak of compassion as the “clarity aspect of the nature of mind.” or the “outreaching aspect of the nature of the mind.” This is the kindness that radiates outward to others as well as ourselves.
Tathagatagarbha is known by many names. For example, in addition to “absolute bodhichitta,” it is also called the “Mother of All the Buddhas,” or “Prajnaparamita.” This indicates that the nature of tathagatagarbha is free from all complexities and categories. To bring forth this clear realization, it is called “prajnaparamita,” literally “wisdom that goes beyond.” Subject, object, and all categories are transcended in prajnaparamita. Therefore, it is inconceivable. Tathagatagarbha is free from existing and non-existing, as well as eternalism and nihilism. In order to clearly express this quality of freedom from extremes, it is also named Madhyamaka [dbu ma] or “Middle Way.” The Vajrayana teachings sometimes refer to this as Mahamudra [phyag rgya chen po], which is literally translated as “Great Seal,” or “Great Gesture.” This metaphor illustrates that everything is completely sealed by the nature of great emptiness. Great emptiness saturates and encompasses all subjects and objects, so nothing is beyond or outside this state. It is very important for individuals to practice on emptiness and compassion in union, because, again, tathagatagarbha is the inseparable state of great emptiness and great compassion.
The Dzogchen teachings and the Higher Tantras use slightly different terminology to explain buddha-nature. They call it the “inseparable union of pure from the beginning and spontaneously inherent qualities.” The Tibetan names for these qualities—pure from the beginning and spontaneously inherent richness—are Kadak Trekcho and Lhundrup Togal, respectively. But where do Kadak Trekcho and Lhundrup Togal meet? They meet in the single state of one’s own awareness, which is known as “rigpa.” Consequently, rigpa is another term for tathagatagarbha. Finally, Dzogchen speaks of the “self- luminosity of awareness,” or the “self-born luminosity of awareness.” All of these are different names for tathagatagarbha.
By whatever name, buddha-nature is inherent in all living beings without partiality or difference. Regardless of what forms we take and what challenges we undergo, all of us have inherent buddha-nature; at this level, there is not even the slightest difference between the buddhas, ourselves, and all other sentient beings. Everyone has the same buddha-nature. The reason why all of us can improve and develop through practice is because we all have this beautiful nature. Practice makes perfect, ushering forth the fully-perfected state according to the level of our practice and our circumstances.