Editor’s Note: In this excerpt from their new book Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions, the Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron explore the qualities of the Tathāgata. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines Tathāgata as “one of the titles of a buddha and the one most frequently employed by the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, when referring to himself. The exact meaning of the word is uncertain; Buddhist commentaries present as many as eight explanations. The most generally adopted interpretation is ‘one who has thus (tatha) gone (gata)’ or ‘one who has thus (tatha) arrived (agata),’ implying that the historical Buddha was only one of many who have in the past and will in the future experience enlightenment and teach others how to achieve it. In later Mahayana Buddhism, Tathagata came to convey the essential buddha nature hidden in everyone.”
Learning about the qualities of the Three Jewels and especially of the Buddha increases our confidence in his ability to guide us from the dangers of saṃsāra. Both the Pāli and the Sanskrit traditions extensively praise the Tathāgata’s qualities by expressing his four types of fearlessness, ten powers, and eighteen unshared qualities.
Candrakīrti quotes (Madhyamakāvatāra 6.210cd) a passage, also found in the Pāli canon (MN 12:22–26), describing the four kinds of self-confidence or fearlessness of the Tathāgata that enable him to “roar his lion’s roar in the assemblies.” The Buddha sees no ground on which any recluse, brahman, god, or anyone else could accuse him of (1) claiming to be fully awakened although he is not fully awakened to certain things, (2) claiming to have destroyed pollutants (āsava, āśrava) that he has not destroyed, (3) calling things obstructions that are not obstructions, and (4) teaching a Dharma that does not lead someone who practices it to complete destruction of duḥkha. These four enable the Tathāgata to teach the Dhamma with perfect self-confidence free from all self-doubt because he is fully awakened regarding all aspects, has destroyed all pollutants, correctly identifies obstructions on the path, and gives teachings that lead those who practice them to nirvāṇa.
The ten powers are a set of exceptional knowledges exclusive to the Tathāgata. They enable him to do a Buddha’s unique activities, establish his doctrine in the world, skillfully teach sentient beings, and lead them to awakening. Spoken of in both the Pāli (MN 12) and Sanskrit sūtras (Daśabhūmika Sūtra), these ten are exalted wisdoms that have abandoned all obscurations and know the infinite objects of knowledge. Unless otherwise noted, the explanations below are shared by both traditions.
With direct, unmistaken perception the Tathāgata knows the tenable and the untenable, the relations between actions and their results as well as the implications of actions done by āryas and ordinary beings.
Only the Tathāgata fully and accurately knows the intricacies of past, present, and future karma and their results, including subtle causes leading to a particular experience in the beginningless lives of each sentient being.
The Tathāgata knows the various destinations of ordinary beings—the saṃsāric realms—and the paths leading to rebirth there. He also knows the destination of the āryas of the three vehicles—nirvāṇa—and the paths leading to that.
He fully understands the world and the various elements (dhātu) that compose it—the eighteen constituents (dhātu), six elements, external and internal sources (āyatana), twelve links (nidāna) of dependent arising, twenty-two faculties (indriya), and so on—with wisdom seeing them as impermanent, conditioned, and dependent processes.
He knows the different inclinations of beings (adhimutti, adhimokṣa)—their spiritual aims and the vehicles they are attracted to. This enables him to teach them the Dharma according to their individual faculties, abilities, and aspirations.
He knows the strength of each being’s faculties (indriya) of faith (saddhā, śraddhā), effort (viriya, vīrya), mindfulness (sati, smṛti), concentration (samādhi), and wisdom (paññā, prajñā) and teaches each being accordingly.
Because the Buddha has mastered the jhānas, the eight meditative liberations (vimokkha, vimokṣa), and the nine meditative absorptions (samāpatti), he knows the defilements, cleansing, and emergence (Pāli: sankilesa, vodāna, vuṭṭhāna) regarding them. Defilements are impediments hindering a meditator from entering a meditative absorption or, having entered, make it deteriorate. Cleansing is the method for removing the impediment. Emergence is the way to come out of a state of meditative absorption after having entered it. He is able to guide others to attain these meditative states without their becoming attached to the bliss of concentration and urge them to continue practicing the path to nirvāṇa.
The Tathāgata recollects in detail his manifold past lives with their aspects and particulars. This and the next power are the last two of the five superknowledges (abhiññā, abhijñā). Thus he knows his previous relationships with each sentient being and what types of relationship would be most beneficial to have with them now and in the future.
With the divine eye, he sees beings dying and being born according to their karma. Knowing this, he does whatever is most beneficial to guide each being on the path to awakening.
Realizing with direct knowledge, the Tathāgata here and now enters upon and abides in the unpolluted deliverance of mind (cetovimutti, cittavimukti) and deliverance by wisdom (paññāvimutti, prajñāvimukti) and knows that all defilements have been eradicated. He also knows the level of realization and attainment of each being of the three vehicles. The last three powers are the three higher knowledges that the Buddha gained while meditating during the night prior to his awakening.
Both the Pāli tradition (in later commentaries) and the Sanskrit tradition (in the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras) describe eighteen qualities of a buddha not shared by other arhats (aṭṭhārasāveṇikabuddhadhammā, aṣṭādaśāveṇikabuddhadharma):
Six unshared behaviors
Due to mindfulness and conscientiousness, a buddha has no mistaken physical actions, whether he is walking, standing, sitting, or lying down. He acts in accordance with what he says, and his speech satisfies what each sentient being who is listening needs to understand in that moment.
Always speaking appropriately, truthfully, and kindly, he is free from mistaken speech and idle chatter. A buddha does not dispute with the world, nor does he complain about what others have done.
He is free from any kind of forgetfulness interfering with the jhānas and exalted wisdom, or with viewing all sentient beings and teaching them appropriately.
His mind always abides in meditative equipoise on emptiness, and simultaneously he teaches sentient beings the Dharma.
He does not perceive any discordant appearances of inherent existence and thus recognizes all phenomena as sharing the one taste of emptiness. He also does not treat sentient beings with bias.
He abides in perfect equanimity, knowing the individual characteristics of each phenomenon.
Six unshared realizations
Due to his all-encompassing love and compassion, a buddha never experiences any decline of his aspiration and intention to benefit all sentient beings and to increase their virtuous qualities.
He never loses joyous effort to lead others to awakening. A buddha experiences no physical, verbal, or mental fatigue and continuously cares for the welfare of sentient beings without getting tired, lazy, or despondent.
A buddha’s mindfulness effortlessly remains constant and uninterrupted. He is mindful also of the situations each sentient being encounters in the past, present, and future and the methods to subdue and help them.
He continuously remains in samādhi free from all obscurations and focused on the ultimate reality.
His wisdom is inexhaustible and never declines. He perfectly knows the 84,000 Dharma teachings and the doctrines of the three vehicles, as well as how and when to express them to sentient beings.
It is impossible for him to lose the state of full awakening free from all obscurations. He knows the mind to be naturally luminous, and he lacks any dualistic appearance or grasping at duality.
Three unshared awakening activities
Imbued with exalted wisdom, a buddha’s physical actions are always done for the benefit of others. He emanates many bodies that appear wherever sentient beings have the karma to be led on the path to awakening. Whatever a buddha does has a positive effect on sentient beings, subduing their minds.
Knowing the dispositions and interests of each sentient being, he teaches the Dharma in a manner appropriate for that person. His speech flows smoothly, is accurate and lovely to listen to. It does not deceive or lead others astray but is clear, knowledgeable, and kind.
Filled with undeclining love and compassion, his mind encompasses all beings with the intention to do only what is of the highest benefit. He is effortlessly and continuously cognizant of all phenomena.
Three unshared exalted wisdoms
A buddha’s exalted wisdom knows everything in the three times—(1) past, (2) present, and (3) future—without any obscuration or error. His knowledge of the future does not mean that things are predetermined. Rather, a buddha knows that if a sentient being does a particular action, this particular result will follow, and if another course of action is taken, a different result will come. He knows all buddhafields and realms of sentient beings as well as all the beings and their activities there.
Reading such passages from the sūtras gives us an idea of a buddha’s exceptional qualities. Contemplating them brings joy and expands our mental horizons. These passages also give us an idea of the qualities we will attain if we practice the Dharma as the Buddha instructed.
While the descriptions of the four fearlessnesses and ten powers in the Pāli and Sanskrit traditions do not differ considerably, the Sanskrit tradition emphasizes how these abilities benefit sentient beings.