Buddha Bodies (Trikaya)



“Conceptions about the body, or bodies, of the Buddha articulate the ways in which Buddhist communities envision an enlightened presence among sentient beings. In all branches of the tradition, conceptions about the Buddha’s spiritual and physical body have profoundly influenced doctrines about the person of the Buddha and about the nature of Buddha-hood, ideas about his presence or absence from the world of impermanence, and ritual practices validating such ideals. These notions differ across the Buddhist tradition in ways that are specific to each community. Ideas about the bodies of the Buddha are expressed in the doctrines, histories, and cosmologies of Theravāda, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna communities, profoundly shaping their social character and development.” (EoBDKJSC)


“The Theravādins view the Buddha as having lived and transcended the life of conditioned human existence. While his physical body turned into relics, his spiritual body became synonymous with the scriptural tradition, the higher stages of the path, and with enlightenment itself, according to Buddhaghosa’s Path of Purification (1960 edition: 443–5). One finds many references to the Buddha’s bodies in canonical texts, commentaries, and chronicles composed in the Theravāda tradition. Similar ideas referring to his physical remains, i.e. his relics (rūpakāya) and the body of his spiritual teachings, dhammakāya, are expressed in the Saṃyutta Nikāya and Dīgha Nikāya. Together, they constitute the Buddha’s legacy he entrusted to the laity and to the sangha respectively. The conception of the Buddha’s two bodies was foundational to the identity and cultural organization of many Theravāda Buddhist communities. In 1977 Frank Reynolds observed that “dhammkāya and rūpakāya embody two basic Buddhological realities on which Theravāda religion has historically grounded itself,” profoundly shaping the social formation of Theravāda Buddhist communities. Popular veneration of his relics engendered stūpa cults and image veneration, whereas support for his teachings motivated monastic learning and scholarship. This understanding of the Buddha developed early in the history of the tradition. By the time the Pāli Canon assumed its classic form in Sri Lanka during the fifth century CE, the conception of the two bodies was firmly established in the Theravāda tradition. In light of its profound impact on the organization of Theravāda societies, it stands to reason that the doctrine of the two bodies should also structure the end of the Buddha’s dispensation (sāsana). Various myths claim that his relics reconstituting his body to deliver a final sermon will mark the end of this Buddha’s era. On that occasion, multitudes throughout the cosmic realms will be enlightened.” (EoBDKJSC)


“The Mahāparinibbāna Sutta tells the story of his final departure from the world of rebirth (saṃsāra) and the funerary rites of a universal monarch (cakkavatti) he received from the early Buddhist community. The doctrinal development of the Buddha’s bodies is linked closely to this account. Accordingly, the Buddha’s body was ritually washed, venerated and finally cremated. Among the physical remains found in his funeral pyre were bone fragments and teeth that were subsequently distributed and enshrined in stūpas (reliquary mounts or cetiya, Pāli) at sites throughout all cardinal directions. Stūpas containing the Buddha’s relics have been constructed at sites associated with his life, including his birthplace at Lumbinī, the place of his enlightenment at Bodhgayā – the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in India – the site of his first sermon at Banares, the modern city of Mumbai, and the site of his death at Kuśinagara. The cultic veneration of the Buddha’s rūpakāya became central to Aśoka’s (c. 265–238 BCE) state cult of 84,000 stūpas. He ordered the original sites of the Buddha’s relics to be opened and their contents to be relocated and enshrined in stūpas he commissioned throughout his empire. Stūpas became pilgrimage sites under lay sponsorship that functioned initially independently from monasteries, receiving both alms and veneration from the general population.” (EoBDKJSC)

“The Theravāda tradition recognizes three classes of objects that make up the Buddha’s rūpakāya: namely, his physical relics (sarīradhātu), objects he used (paribhogadhātu) and reminders of him (uddesikadhātu), such as footprints of the Buddha atop Sri Lanka’s Adam’s Peak. Consecrated Buddha images were eventually included among the class of items designated as rūpakāya. The sponsorship of images and the construction of stūpas also developed into important ways to celebrate the Buddha’s rūpakāya. While such sacred objects were considered inherently powerful, their containment at certain sites was seen as an indication of a layperson’s righteous power to grant protection to them. Such cultic practice not only created a ritual presence for a Buddha who is absent from the world, they also defined and organized hierarchically the Buddhist communities that engaged in this popular practice. Donald Swearer describes the Buddha’s physical remains as structuring Buddhist cosmography and defining Buddhist communities. The Buddha’s physical presence, in the form of relics or consecrated images, therefore defines a Buddhist landscape and identifies a cosmic center, or axis mundi, within it. It is around such defining cosmic centers that Buddhist kings mobilize and organize merit-making communities. Lay sponsors derive great merit and rewards in future lives from their support of the Buddha’s rūpakāya.” (EoBDKJSC)


“The Buddha’s dhammakāya (born of the Dhamma) constitutes his mind-made or spiritual body that comprises all his good qualities. The Buddha’s Dhamma also comprises his teachings, his message, his scriptural legacy and the universal law. The Buddha uses this body when he accomplishes miraculous acts like visiting his mother in Tāvatiṃsa heaven to teach to her the Abhidhamma. His teachings were initially compiled, systematized, and memorized at the first Buddhist council, which his disciples convened shortly after his death (pārinirvāṇa). The Theravāda tradition believes that its canonical texts preserve the original and complete teachings of the Buddha and defines its mission as safeguarding its orthodoxy. Subsequent Buddhist councils compiled new renditions of the tipiṭaka that were stripped of perceived accretions.” (EoBDKJSC)

“In the Theravāda cultures of Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia, it is the primary responsibility of the sangha to teach, practice, and preserve the dhammakāya. Hence, memorization of all three canonical baskets (tipiṭaka) constitutes an achievement few monks are able to attain through study and monastic examinations over the course of a lifetime. Those monks who achieve this distinction are considered enlightened arhats, as knowing the Buddha’s Dhamma completely is tantamount to that Spiritual attainment. Efforts to missionize the dhamma, donations of books containing the Dhamma, and supporting its preservation in other ways are acts that bestow great merit and future rewards upon individuals who support monks in these activities.” (EoBDKJSC)

Mahāyāna and the Buddha’s three bodies

“The doctrine of the three bodies of the Buddha (trikāya) reflects this broader range of Mahāyāna innovations that included cosmological worldviews, doctrinal developments, and devotional practices. While there is already some evidence of a third, supra-natural body mentioned in the Pāli scriptures, it was the development of the Mahāyāna literatures that brought about extensive rethinking of the Buddha’s bodies. These new conceptions were more diverse than their Theravādin counterparts and allowed for the Buddhist imagination to envision other times, other places and other Buddhas.” (EoBDKJSC)

“The classic Mahāyāna conception of the Buddha’s bodies developed during the first century CE and envisioned him to possess three bodies (trikāya). His dharmakāya was the collection of the Buddha’s dharmas and perfected qualities such as his compassion, wisdom, etc. The Buddha’s dharmakāya was understood as the eternal principle of Ultimate Truth, the Universal Law, the supreme state of absolute knowledge, his unchanging essence, and the source of his emanations in the human realm. Nirmāṇakāya was the emanation body, a magical body the Buddha created to teach the Dharma among sentient beings at select moments in time. The notion of the Buddha as possessing a magical and temporary body discounted any earlier understanding of Siddhartha Gautama Śākyamuni, or of earlier Buddhas, as historical human beings. By contrast, the appearance of a Buddha in time and place was merely a magical transformation of his unchanging and eternal dharmakāya. This innovation opened the Mahāyāna imagination to the notion of the simultaneous existence of multiple Buddhas, each within his or her own universe or Buddha-field. His third body was the glorified or enjoyment body (samboghakāya). It is the Buddha in his heavenly contemplation and he appears in this form to bodhisattvas in pure lands. The reward the bodhisattva receives for his devotional practice is his own transfiguration into the samboghakāya.” (EoBDKJSC)

“The new Mahāyāna sūtras professed to be the authentic, revealed word of the Buddha that contained teachings appropriate to a dispensation in decline. Beginning with the Lotus Sūtra, they presented the founding figure of the Theravāda tradition as conditional truth the Buddha created intentionally through skillful means (upāya) for the benefit and eventual enlightenment of lesser minds. While stressing the eternal and all-pervading presence of the Buddha in countless cosmic worlds, this vision of the Buddha’s bodies authorized devotional developments within the Mahāyāna tradition as well as the notion of teachings appropriate to the times of a dispensation in decline.” (EoBDKJSC)

“However, the new devotionalism was not the only development engendered by these innovations. The Yogācāra school in the fourth century in India proposed that enlightenment constitutes the realization of emptiness (śūnyatā), i.e. that all existence is ultimately empty. Mahāyāna thinkers engaged in doctrines concerning the Discernment of Wisdom (prajñāpāramitā) added to this idea of emptiness that the attainment of enlightenment rests on developing bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment, through discernment of wisdom and the non-arising of dharmas.” (EoBDKJSC)

Vajrayāna and the incarnate Buddha

“Other developments envisioned the nature of Buddhahood and enlightenment altogether differently. Esoteric Vajrayāna, known as the Diamond Vehicle, considers the human body the site for divine and enlightened beings to become manifest. It sees the human body as the womb of potential Buddhahood in the future. Tathāgatagarbha, the embryonic qualities of “one who has thus come,” are believed to be eternally present in all sentient beings. It constitutes the kernel of pure Buddha nature, a hidden treasure of enlightenment yet to be realized. Among Tibetan Buddhist, lamas like the Dalai Lama are considered Buddhas who, free from karmic constraints, choose the emanation body (nirmāṇakāya) of their next incarnation. Enlightened beings choose to become manifest in different human beings. Donald Lopez notes that “The institution of the incarnate lama has been central to the organization of Tibetan society and … [the primary] means by which authority and charisma, in all of their symbolic and material forms, are passed from one generation to another.”” (EoBDKJSC)

See also: Famous Buddhists and ideal types; India, Buddhism in; Mahāyāna Buddhism.


Fair Use Source: EoBDK


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