The Blessed One replied, “No, Mahamati, my tathagatagarbha is not the same as the ego taught by the philosophers, for what the Tathagatas teach, Mahamati, is the tathagatagarbha that is emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness.”
Excerpts from An Exposition on the Lankavatara Sutra
Venerable Xiao Pingshi
In the sutra, the Buddha stated that the tathagatagarbha He expounded is distinctly different from the non-Buddhists’ notion of “self.” The tathagatagarbha is sometimes called emptiness, signlessness, or wishlessness, which are terms used to describe its intrinsic nature and dharma characteristics. The notion of emptiness, signlessness, or wishlessness denotes the liberation samadhi, which can also be divided into two aspects: the samadhi of emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness pertaining to the dharmas based on the aggregates, sense fields, and elements, and the samadhi of emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness based on the tathagatagarbha.
The dharmas of the five aggregates, twelve sense fields, and eighteen elements are the objects observed by the sound-hearer practitioners. Such practitioners observe the impermanence of the five aggregates, which will eventually vanish and become empty. The same observation applies to the eighteen elements and the six entrances. As all the observed objects are impermanent and will eventually become empty and devoid of existence, they denote signlessness. As they are signless, they will lead to wishlessness and to the cessation of the mind. Due to the ceasing mind, they will become selfless and will not give rise to rebirth after death as there will be no self to be reborn. This denotes liberation, the samadhi liberation attributed to the Hearer Vehicle.
On the other hand, to observe and practice the samadhi liberation, the Mahayana bodhisattvas rely on the eighth consciousness, the tathagatagarbha, that which denotes emptiness nature, devoid of any form or characteristics of the three realms, thus called emptiness. As it denotes emptiness, it has no appearance. When our perceptive mind realizes and acknowledges the existence of this emptiness nature, our mind will affirm that the mental consciousness is impermanent and will finally become empty, along with all the generated conditioned dharmas that are dependent arising without an intrinsic nature. We (the conscious mind) can thus affirm that the emptiness nature of the tathagatagarbha, that which is intrinsically devoid of attainment (hence, the mental faculty), will be free from wishing. Therefore, the mind will attain its liberation, which is attributed to the Mahayana aspect of samadhi liberation.
Having understood the aforementioned aspects of the three samadhis pertaining to the Mahayana and the three samadhis pertaining to the Hinayana, practitioners can realize that the latter is rather sketchy as it must rely on the three Mahayana samadhis, the tathagatagarbha, as its fundamental base. That is, on the basis of the tathagatagarbha’s unique nature, possessing the emptiness nature and the existing nature, can the three samadhis be said to exist. Owing to the notion of the tathagatagarbha’s permanent and existing nature, without cessation or extinction, coexisting with the dharma realm, it is expedient to say that the tathagatagarbha denotes the “Self.” Then can we acknowledge that such principles denote the Ultimate Truth of the Buddha Dharma.