An excerpt from the Queen Srimala Sutra (section 13):
Intrinsic Purity of the Mind
"Lord, samsara is based on the Tathagatagarbha. It was with reference to the Tathagatagarbha that the Lord pointed out and explained, '[It is] without limit in the past.'
Since there is the Tathagatagarbha, there is reason for speaking of 'cyclical flow' (samasra). Lord, as to 'cyclical flow,' no sooner do the sense organs for perception pass away than it [the Tathagatagarbha] takes hold of sense organs for perception, and that is 'cyclical flow.' Lord, the two natures, 'passing away' and 'rebirth' are conventional terminology for the Tathagatagarbha.
Lord, 'perished' and 'born' are conventional terminology for the world (loka). 'Perished' is the loss of the senses. 'Born' is the renewal of the senses. But, Lord, the Tathagatagarbha is not born, does not die, does not pass away to become reborn. The Tathagatagarbha excludes the realm with the characteristic of the constructed.
The Tathagatagarbha is permanent, steadfast, eternal. Therefore the Tathagatagarbha is the support, the holder, the base of constructed [Buddha natures] that are nondiscrete, not dissociated, and knowing as liberated from the stores [of defilement]; and furthermore is the support, the holder, the base of external constructed natures that are discrete, dissociated, a nd knowing as not liberated.
"Lord, if there were no Tathagatagarbha, there would be neither aversion towards suffering nor longing,
eagerness, and aspiration towards Nirvana. What is the reason?
Whatever be these six perceptions, and whatever be this [other] perception, these seven natures are unfixed, momentary, and lack experience of suffering; hence these natures are unfit for aversion towards suffering or for longing, eagerness, and aspiration towards Nirvana.
Lord, the Tathagatagarbha has ultimate existence without beginning or end, has an unborn and undying nature, and experiences suffering; hence it is worthy of the Tathagatagarbha to have aversion towards suffering as well as longing, eagerness, and aspiration towards Nirvana.
"Lord, the Tathagatagarbha is neither self nor sentient being, nor soul, nor personality.
The Tathagatagarbha is not the domain of beings who fall into the belief in a real personality, who adhere to wayward views, whose thoughts are distracted by voidness.
Lord, this Tathagatagarbha is the embryo of the Illustrious Dharmadhatu, the embryo of the Dharmakaya, the embryo of supramundane dharma, the embryo of the intrinsically pure dharma.
"Lord, this intrinsic purity of the Tathagatagarbha stained by adventitious secondary defilements is the domain of the Tathagata, who is the inconceivable master. Why so?
The virtuous consciousness, being momentary, is not defiled by defilements; and also the unvirtuous consciousness, being momentary, is not defiled by defilements.
Lord, since neither do defilements touch that consciousness nor does that consciousness touch defilements, in that case, how does consciousness, having a noncontacting nature, get defiled?
Lord, there is both the defilement and the defiled consciousness. Therefore, the meaning of the defilement on the intrinsically pure consciousness is difficult to understand. The Lord alone has the Eye, the Knowledge for it. The Lord is the root of all Doctrines. The Lord is the omnipotent being. The Lord is the resort."
The Lord, having heard Queen Srimala explain matters difficult to understand, sympathetically rejoiced and said, "Queen, exactly so! It is difficult to understand the meaning of the intrinsically pure consciousness in a condition of defilement.
Queen, these two Doctrines are difficult to understand: the consciousness intrinsically pure is difficult to understand; and the defilement of consciousness is difficult to understand. Queen, you as well as the Bodhisattvas possessed of the great Doctrine are able to hear these two Doctrines.
Queen, the rest, the Disciples, accept the two Doctrines only through faith in the Tathagata.
Please note that Tathagatagarbha is not a "self nor sentient being, nor soul, nor personality".
So then, what does it describe? What is meant by "Buddha Nature"?
Is there some tiny Buddha inside of each being, trying to get out? No.
All beings strive. They strive for contentment, to get what they want and to avoid getting what they don't want.
Ultimately, they strive for what the Buddha achieved, which is the perfect cessation of the cycle of endless craving.
Beings either follow paths that lead them to this perfect cessation (the Buddha's teachings) or they follow other paths which do not lead to this (a shopping spree at the mall, for example).
Tathagatagarbha describes the true nature of mind. It does not infer a separate being or separate mind essence.
And that true nature of mind is without any notion of permanent self. It is "permanent" only in the sense that it is the unchanging, original nature of Mind. Other than that, it is unconstructed. It isn't a "thing".
Relatively speaking, it is the permanent goal to which all actions...confused, and enlightened, are aimed at reaching, which is free from any sort of constructs (atman) whatsoever.
In some ways, "Tathagatagarbha" is sort of like an adjective...and adjective without a noun. It's like the "clear" in "clear water", which describes water's original, pure nature. "Clear" by itself isn't a thing. There is no permanent "essence of clear" that pervades water, yet we can say that "clear" is always, or permanently water's original, true nature. It's not as though some water is originally a certain color, some cloudy. All water is originally, permanently clear. So, the sentence above, "...The Tathagatagarbha is permanent, steadfast, eternal." should be understood this way, as "...the support, the holder, the base..." and not as some kind of "self".
Profile Picture: "The Foaming Monk"
The Chinese characters are Fo (buddha) and Ming (bright). The image is of a student of Buddhism, who, imagining himself to be a monk, and not understanding the true meaning of the words takes the sound of the words literally. Likewise, People on web forums sometime seem to be foaming at the mouth. Original painting by P.Volker /used by permission.