Tathagatagarbha means the womb or embryo of Tathata (thusness) and is the innate potential for Buddhahood which is said to lie within all beings and which in its purified state is not different from the pure transcendent nature of the Buddhas. Although individuals perceive the world around them in the wrong way, all have the potential to become fully enlightened Buddhas by realising that Buddhahood is within and only needs to be uncovered, like a Buddha statue covered over with dirty rags which needs to be uncovered to be seen for what it really is. Later interpretations of the Tathagatagarbha doctrine interpreted it not just as a potential for enlightenment but as a really existing `substance' already fully complete within and which is already not different from the transcendent quality of Buddhas (dharmakaya). The important Buddhist doctrine of sunyata(emptiness) is given a further interpretation within the Srimaladevi-simhanada Sutra, one of the earliest Tathagatagarbha sutras, which is that the Tathagatagarbha is `empty' of defilements.
Tathagatagarbha doctrine does not represent a fully developed philosophical school in the same sense as Madhyamaka and Yogacara and was probably not intended as such. The earliest Tathagatagarbha sutras were written in the third century CE just predating the Yogacara school. Later texts from between 200 and 400 CE incorporate the teachings of the Yogacara school, particularly those of the school's founder Asanga. In these texts the Tathagatagarbha is sometimes equated with the alaya-vijnana, the storehouse consciousness of the Yogacarins.
There is no inscriptional or textual evidence to suggest that the school had a distinct symbol system. However, the Tathagatagharbha Sutra does present a series of nine similies to give visual expression to the doctrine of the innate potential for Buddhahood in all beings. These similies are: a Buddha in a closed lotus, the honey in the comb, the grain in the husk, gold in ore, a Buddha image wrapped in a filthy cloth, a world monarch amid the impurities of the womb, and a golden image contained within a clay mould.
There are no adherents of the Tathagatagarbha school as such although the doctrine remains important in schools of both Tibetan and Far Eastern Buddhism which tend to emphasise the positive qualities of enlightenment. Within contemporary Tibetan Buddhism it is particularly important within the non-sectarian Rismed movement which tends to diminish the different approaches of the various philosophical schools through emphasising an Absolute Reality which goes beyond doctrinal variation.
There is no headquarters or main centre associated with the school.