“Tathāgata Tathāgata”

Many years ago a Taiwanese Bhikshunī (female monk) who taught at the Foguangshan Buddhist highschool in Kaohsiung but lived outside, in her own little temple together with her mother who had equally become a bhiksunī, handed me a version of the Lotus Sūtra. At that time I travelled around, no longer satisfied with the Srilankan-inspired theravāda teachings, but yet insecure about which road to take instead. The text of the Lotus Sūtra struck me like a hammer’s blow though after a short while this hammer turned out to be the thunderbolt that awakened me to the teachings of the Mahāyana.
I never became a true or staunch Lotus Sūtra adept. Nevertheless I wish to think of this bhiksunī, whose name I forgot, as a bodhisattva who wholly fulfilled her bodhisattva vows.

One of these days this memory arose after reading a short sentence in today’s Hindi that runs: “Hindu Hindu ek rahen“. Translated it means: “All Hindus ought to be united”.

Hindu Hindu …” reminded me of a passage in the second chapter of the Lotus Sūtra that to this day constitutes a puzzle to all Sanscrit scholars who study the Buddhist lore.

Bhikshu Kongmu gives us the Chinese redering of the Sūtra’s passage. It reads: “wéi fó yú fó năi néng jiù jìn zhū fă shí xiàng“.
His translation reads: “Only a Buddha together with a Buddha can fully understand the true character of all things.” “Fó yú fó” being the Chinese rendering of “Tathāgata Tathāgata” in the original Sanscritic text that underpins todays translations.

Over the years a number of Lotus Sūtra have been discovered, but the version most used is the complete text once hidden in one of the Mogao-caves in Dunhuang, now Western China.

Long before Bhikshu Kongmu’s solution of the enigma Indologist Kern, who is remembered as the first to translate the Lotus Sūtra into English (and who did not hesitate to incorporate an “amen” into the second chapter) rendered the text as “None but a Tathāgatha can impart to a Tathāgata those laws which the Tathāgata knows.”

Today, given the “Hindu Hindu ek rahen” we might translate the sentence “Tathāgata Tathāgata … etc” with: “Only Buddhas can understand those things“, or “only Buddhas (i.e. only Tathāgata [plural]) can impart Buddha-knowledge.”

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