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The Trikaya or Three (or Four) "Bodies"
(Dimensions of Existence)
of the Buddha-State

The Mahayana or the "Northern" or "Greater"  School of Buddhism, which includes Tibetan Buddhism, is distinguished from the drier and more conservative Theravada or "Southern" School by - among other things - its incorporation  of an elaborate esoteric theology.  This elevated the Buddha - previously (in Hinayana) only a great historical teacher who has since entered into nirvana and hence cannot be of any help to anyone - to the position of a Divine figure and source of Grace.  Of course, this is a common phenomenon in the history of religions - look at Krishna who in the pre-Vaishvanite Upanishads is still referred to as a (human) sage, the Christian attitude to Jesus, the Coptic Gnostic's divinisation of various human Biblical figures (Adam, Seth, etc), or the Shi'ite Sufi doctrine of Mohammed as a "Universal (i.e. Cosmic) Man", to cite just a few examples.  And the fact that this phenomenon is so widespread indicates that, phenomenologically, there must be some reason for it; i.e. the pious individual genuinely contacts a Divine principle, but then interprets that principles in terms of his own religious or sociological understanding.

In Mahayana this idea reached its full development further in the doctrine of the "three bodies of the Buddha", or Trikaya, a formulation of the Yogachara or  Vijnanavada school, and later taken up and developed by the other Mahayanist sects.  According to this, the Enlightened  Being or Buddha (of which the historical Shakyamunni Buddha is just one of innumerable examples throughout the cosmos) possesses three "bodies" -  Sanskrit kaya, by which is meant not so much the  physical body as "body" as a form or mode or dimension of existence - three levels of being.  These are:

It has been suggested that there is a parallel here with the several centuries earlier doctrine of the Three Hypostases of Plotinus [J. Przyluski, "Les Trois Hypostases dans l'Inde et a Alexandrie, Ann. de Inst. de Philo. Orientale, IV, 1936; cited in Richard T. Wallis, "Phraseology and Imagery in Plotinus and Indian Thought", in Amazon com Neoplatonism and Indian Thought, ed. by R. Baine Harris, p.104], but although the Dharmakaya and the Sambhogakaya certainly do bear some resemblance to The One and the Nous, the Nirmanakaya is hardly comprable to the World Soul, except for the fact that both exist within time rather than beyond it.

The highest development of the Trikaya teaching is to be found in Vajrayana, or Tibetan or Tantric, Buddhism.  Here, the Trikaya doctrine is an important thesis that can be understood on many levels and applied to many different realities.  For example, there is the cosmological teaching of the Adibuddha and the Tathagata Buddhas.  According to this, the original Dharmakaya, which is beyond all ideas and concepts, all images and forms, is represented symbolically by, or alternatively its first emanation or manifestation is, the Adibuddha; the First or Original Buddha, the perfect Buddha or  Primordial image of all buddhas [Detlef Ingo Lauf Amazon com Secret Doctrines of the Tibetan Books of the Dead, p.24 (Shambhala, Boulder & London, 1977)].  In Tibetan Buddhism, the Adibuddha is variously referred to as Vajradhara or Samantabhadra-Samantabhadri (these being male-female pairs).

Samantabhadra, the primordial Buddha, is the symbol of the state of Dharmakaya.  Although the Dharmakaya in itself is inexpressable in words and beyond any intellectual conception, he is symbolically represented - in order to give the human mind some con-crete sense of his profound meaning - as being naked and without ornaments (because the essental mind (sems nyid) in itself is free of all disursive thoughts and conceptions), and azure blue in colour (because that mind is empty, clear and open like the sky) [John Reynolds, Introduction, in Namkhai Norbu, Amazon com The Cycle of Day and Night, pp.23-24; and Namkhai Norbu, Amazon com Dzogchen, The Self-Perfected State, p.87 n.1]. However, the Dharmakaya is not the same as the clear light, the clear light (tibetan 'od gsal or sanskrit prabhasvara) and the dharmakaya (tib. chos sku) are really two distinct concepts, though there are certain similarities between the two.

From the Adibuddha, which like all the other Tibetan deities is actually a male-female, or yab-yum, pair, all the other deities emanate in similiar pairs.  The first emanation is Vajrasattva, or "ardamantine nature", and his Prajna or female polarity Vajrasattvatmika.  Vajrasattva is described as the quintessence of adamantine-nature or self-nature (swabhava), and appears in radiance and emptiness from the centre of ones own being [Ibid].

From Vajrasattva emanate the five Tathagata Buddhas of the Sambhogakaya.  These are the primordial archetypal deities, transcendent, and eternal.  As the Tibetan writer Detlef Ingo Lauf explains, the Tathagata Buddhas are "the emanations from the absoluteness of the dharmakaya and represent certain basic forms of wisdom, of psychological and cosmological relation-ships, which are represented in Buddhist mandalas" [Detlef Ingo Lauf, Secret Doctrines of the Tibetan Books of the Dead, p.25 (Shambhala, Boulder & London, 1977)] and serve as the object of Tantric Buddhist yoga, hence their other name (which was to find its way into Theosophy, even though it is very rarely used in Tibetan Buddhism), meditation-buddhas (dhyani-buddhas).

In addition to the Five Tathagata Buddhas there are in Tibetan Buddhism the eight Bodhisattvas, which together with their Bodhisattva-Dakinis (female spirits) form a group of sixteen deities who generally appear in mandalas with the five Tathagata-Buddhas.  Each Bodhisattva and Dakini is associated with a particular colour, instruments, mantra, cardinal direction, and sense-perception or state of consciousness [Ibid, pp.115-7].   The Bodhisattvas rule over the eight kinds of awareness, and the Dakinis over the eight realms of operation associated with each of these [Ibid, p.114].

Sometimes the Tantric Buddhists added a fourth, even more transcendent body, before the Dharmakaya; the Swabhavakaya - or Absolute Reality Self-Nature Body, and transformed the Trikaya from a theological to a more practical, yogic, idea.  Identified with the four chakras, these four kayas formed the basis of an elaborate but not always consistent (e.g. the associateion of the highest or Swabhavakaya body with the lowest or waking state of consciousness in the head) system of correspondences. The three, four, or even more bodies then become various aspects of enlightenment, inclkuding higher esoteric states of attainment. Hence:

The Three Kayas:

The Four Kayas:

This includes the first three, plus the:

The Five Kayas:

The most highly esoteric version of the kayas, this includes the first three kayas, plus:

the Dharmakaya
the Sambhogakaya
the Nirmanakaya

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page by M.Alan Kazlev with additional material (on the Three, Four, and Five Kayas) by Eric Metoskie
page uploaded 1 March 1999, last modified 10 August 2006