Tathata, or Suchness

Just What Is

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Tathata, which means "suchness" or "thusness," is a word sometimes used primarily in Mahayana Buddhism to mean "reality," or the way things really are. It's understood that the true nature of reality is ineffable, beyond description and conceptualization. "Suchness," then, is deliberately vague to keep us from conceptualizing it.

You might recognize that tathata is the root of Tathagata, which is an alternate term for "Buddha." Tathagata was the term the historical Buddha used most often to refer to himself.

Tathagata can mean either "one who has thus come" or "one who has thus gone." It is sometimes translated "one who is such."

It is sometimes understood that tathata underlies reality, and the appearance of things in the phenomenal world are manifestations of tathata. The word tathata is sometimes used interchangeably with sunyata, or emptiness. While all phenomena are empty (sunyata) of self-essence, they are also full (tathata). They are "full" of reality itself, of everything.

Origins of Tathata

Although the term is associated with Mahayana, tathata is not unknown in Theravada Buddhism. "Suchness" turns up occasionally in the Pali Canon.

In early Mahayana, tathata became a term for dharmas. In this context, a dharma is a manifestation of reality, which is a way of saying "being." The Heart Sutra tells us that all dharmas, all beings, are forms of emptiness (sunyata). This is the same thing as saying all dharmas are forms of suchness.

As such, all dharmas, all beings, are the same. Yet at the same time dharmas are not just identical to suchness, because in manifested form their appearances and functions differ.

This is an expression of Madhyamika philosophy, very much a cornerstone of Mahayana. The philosopher Nagarjuna explained Madhyamika as a middle way between affirmation and negation; between saying things exist and saying they don't exist.

And the myriad things, he said, are neither one nor many. See also "The Two Truths."

Suchness in Zen

Dongshan Liangjie (807-869; in Japanese, Tozan Ryokai) was a founder of the Caodong school of China that would be called Soto Zen in Japan. There is a poem attributed to Dongshan called "Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi" that is still memorized and chanted by Soto Zen practitioners. It begins:

The teaching of thusness has been intimately communicated by buddhas and ancestors.
Now you have it, so keep it well.
Filling a silver bowl with snow,
hiding a heron in the moonlight --
Taken as similar they're not the same;
when you mix them, you know where they are. [San Francisco Zen Center translation]

"Now you have it, so keep it well" tells us the thusness, or suchness, is already present. "Intimately communicated" refers to the Zen tradition of conveying the dharma directly,outside the sutras, from student to teacher. "Taken as similar they're not the same" -- dharmas both are and are not the same as suchness. "When you mix them, you know where they are." They are known through function and position.

Later in the poem, Dongshan said, "You are not it, in truth it is you." In Zen Masters, edited by Steven Heine and Dale Wright (Oxford University Press, 2010), Zen teacher Taigen Dan Leighton writes that "it" is "a totally inclusive experience, incorporating everything." "It" is the totality of being, yet as individuals, we cannot personally claim to encompass all of it.

  "This depicts the relationship of the limited 'I', including its egoistic self-clinging, to the all-encompassing universal nature, of which any 'I' is simply a particular partial expression," Taigen Leighton said.

Dongshan is known for a more advanced teaching called the Five Ranks, which explains the ways absolute and relative reality interrelate, and is considered an important teaching on suchness.