The meanings of the name ‘Tathagata’
Legend has it that when Gautama, recently fully awakened (i.e. by attaining samma-sambuddho), arrived at Sarnath he asked that he no longer be addressed as ‘friend’. For, as he proclaimed, he was now a tathāgata.
In the past two centuries, as the tathāgata’s dhamma was being recovered and translated, well meaning Christian amateur translators with Sanskrit backgrounds tried, in vain, to resolve the mystery surrounding the meaning of that name.
The Sanskrit variant of the term tathâgata was rendered in English as: ‘faring or behaving thus’, ‘so conditioned’, ‘such’. The Pali variant, spelt tathāgata, was interpreted to mean: ‘thus gone’, ‘thus come’, the good missus of Rhys Davids translating it (no doubt to suit her and hubby’s Anglican need) as: ‘He who has won through to the truth’, and which is sheer awful nonsense.
By all accounts, the Tathāgata was a very intelligent man. So, being smart, he expressed the essence of his expedient means in his name (and which is why makers of shoes tended to be called Shoemaker, or Schumacher), as he would do later on with his robe (Pali: civara). The Tathāgata did not call himself Buddha; nor did he call his dhamma Buddhism.
It is generally agreed, even by non-buddhists, that tatha (possibly an adverb) means: ‘that’, possibly ‘thus’. In Pali, gata means gone. So, if the two are put together it means ‘that or thus gone’.
Obviously, what the name meant when the Tathāgata first used it was obvious to everyone. The Tathāgata didn’t define its meaning; nor did anyone every question its meaning. 19th century etymological reconstruction of the name led to an impasse, namely the question, ‘Gone where?’
There has, however, never been uncertainty about the meaning of Tathāgata for those who have truly understood the dhamma. Tathāgata did not mean ‘thus or that gone’ but ‘gone thus or that’. In other words, ‘thus or that is gone, become extinct, ceased, annihilated.’
In short, the name Tathāgata expresses Gautama’s essential insight, achieved during ‘awakening’, and which would serve as modus operandi of his expedient means, namely that the notion (and reality) of ‘thus’ or ‘that’ had been eliminated (that is to say, because ‘thus’ or ‘that’, and which included ‘this’, were an’atta).
In other words, Tathāgata means: gone (extinct, ceased) is ‘thus’ or ‘that’ (to wit, ‘thus’ or that’ are ‘neti, neti’).
When Gautama took the name Tathāgata he became the Zero Man, i.e. of ‘no fixed abode’, never again expressing a fixed position (or opinion) on any ‘thing’.