Tathāgata is a Pali and Sanskrit word that the Buddha of the Pali Canon uses when referring to himself. The term is often thought to mean either "one who has thus gone" (tathā-gata) or "one who has thus come" (tathā-āgata). This is interpreted as signifying that the Tathagata is beyond all coming and going – beyond all transitory phenomena. However there are other interpretations and the precise original meaning of the word is not certain.
The Buddha is quoted on numerous occasions in the Pali Canon as referring to himself as the Tathagata instead of using the pronouns me, I or myself. This may be meant to emphasize by implication that the teaching is uttered by one who has transcended the human condition, one beyond the otherwise endless cycle of rebirth and death, i.e. beyond suffering.
The term also occurs as a synonym for arahant, identifying one who has attained the ultimate in the holy life. There is even a sense in which such a one is no longer human... "a tathāgata,a superior state of being (uttama-puriso)".
The word's original significance is not known and there has been speculation about it since at least the time of Buddhaghosa, who gives eight interpretations of the word, each with different etymological support, in his commentary on the Digha Nikaya, the Sumangalailasini:
- 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.
"Monks, in the world with its devas, Mara and Brahma, in this generation with its ascetics and brahmins, devas and humans, whatever is seen, heard, sensed and cognized, attained, searched into, pondered over by the mind—all that is fully understood by the Tathagata. That is why he is called the Tathagata."
- 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 or (b) he who in the same way as all previous Buddhas went his way to Buddhahood through the four Jhanas and the Paths.
- He who by the path of knowledge has come at the real essentials of things.
- He who has won Truth.
- He who has discerned Truth.
- He who declares Truth.
- He whose words and deeds accord.
- The great physician whose medicine is all-potent.
Modern scholarly opinion generally opines that Sanskrit grammar offers at least two possibilities for breaking up the compound word: either tathā and āgata or tathā and gata. Tathā means thus in Sanskrit and Pali, and Buddhist thought takes this to refer to what is called reality as-it-is (yathā-bhūta). This reality is also referred to as thusness or suchness (tathatā) indicating simply that it (reality) is what it is.
A Buddha or an arahant is defined as someone who "knows and sees reality as-it-is" (yathā bhūta ñāna dassana). Gata "gone" is the past passive participle of the verbal root gam "go, travel". Āgata "come" is the past passive participle of the verb meaning "come, arrive".
Another interpretation, proposed by the scholar Richard Gombrich, is based on the fact that that, when used as a suffix in compounds, -gata often loses its literal meaning and signifies instead "being". Tathāgata would thus mean "one like that", with no motion in either direction.
A number of passages affirm that a tathāgata, or arahant, is "immeasurable", "inscrutable", "hard to fathom", and "not apprehended". A tathāgata has abandoned that clinging to the skandhas (personality factors) that render citta (the mind) a bounded, measurable entity, and is instead "freed from being reckoned by" all or any of them, even in life. The aggregates of form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and cognizance that comprise personal identity have been seen to be dukkha (a burden), and an enlightened individual is one with "burden dropped".The Buddha explains "that for which a monk has a latent tendency, by that is he reckoned, what he does not have a latent tendency for, by that is he not reckoned. These tendencies are ways in which the mind becomes involved in and clings to conditioned phenomena. Without them, an enlightened person cannot be "reckoned" or "named"; he or she is beyond the range of other beings, and cannot be "found" by them, even by gods, or Mara. In one passage, Sariputta states that the mind of the Buddha cannot be "encompassed" even by him.
The Buddha and Sariputta, in similar passages, when confronted with speculation as to the status of an arahant after death, bring their interlocutors to admit that they cannot even apprehend an arahant that is alive As Sariputta puts it, his questioner Yamaka "can't pin down the Tathagata as a truth or reality even in the present life." These passages imply that condition of the arahant, both before and after parinirvana, lies beyond the domain where the descriptive powers of ordinary language are at home; that is, the world of the skandhas and the greed, hatred, and delusion that are "blown out" with nirvana.
In the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta, an ascetic named Vaccha questions the Buddha on a variety of metaphysical issues. When Vaccha asks about the status of a tathagata after death, the Buddha asks him in which direction a fire goes when it has gone out. Vaccha replies that the question "does not fit the case ... For the fire that depended on fuel ... when that fuel has all gone, and it can get no other, being thus without nutriment, it is said to be extinct." The Buddha then explains: "In exactly the same way ..., all form by which one could predicate the existence of the saint, all that form has been abandoned, uprooted, pulled out of the ground like a palmyra-tree, and become non-existent and not liable to spring up again in the future. The saint ... who has been released from what is styled form is deep, immeasurable, unfathomable, like the mighty ocean." The same is then said of the other aggregates. A variety of similar passages make it clear that the metaphor "gone out, he cannot be defined" (atthangato so na pamanam eti) refers equally to liberation in life. In the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta itself, it is clear that the Buddha is the subject of the metaphor, and the Buddha has already "uprooted" or "annihilated" the five aggregates. In Sn 1074, it is stated that the sage cannot be "reckoned" because he is freed from the category "name" or, more generally, concepts. The absence of this precludes the possibility of reckoning or articulating a state of affairs; "name" here refers to the concepts or apperceptions that make propositions possible.
A similar response citing immeasurability occurs in another sutta, when the Buddha is asked to pick between two alternatives regarding the arahant after death: annihilation or eternal freedom from illness. The Buddha responds: "There is no measure of him who had achieved the goal. That by which one could define him, that is not for him. When all phenomena (dhamma) are removed, then all means of description are also removed."
Nagarjuna expressed this understanding in the nirvana chapter of his Mulamadhyamakakarika: "It is not assumed that the Blessed One exists after death. Neither is it assumed that he does not exist, or both, or neither. It is not assumed that even a living Blessed One exists. Neither is it assumed that he does not exist, or both, or neither."