Someone posted on an online Buddhist forum, and said that they did not understand the three bodies teaching (the “Triakaya”).
Wikipedia describes this teaching as follows:
“The doctrine says that a Buddha has three kayas or bodies:
- The Dharmakaya, or Truth body, which embodies the very principle of enlightenment and knows no limits or boundaries;
- The Sambhogakaya or body of mutual enjoyment, which is a body of bliss or clear light manifestation;
- The Nirmanakaya or created body, which manifests in time and space.”
So, what does that all mean? It is perhaps understandable that it is difficult for people who are not Buddhist scholars to make heads or tails of this teaching.
But “The Three Bodies” is one those old-tyme-y religious-y Buddhist teachings that seem dry and inaccessible when we first hear about them, but are so juicy and informative when we finally do get it. So, I responded online and said that my understanding of the kayas is as follows:
Originally, the Three Bodies were considered three different spiritual forms that the historical Buddha, the guy that we call “The Buddha”, could take. Manifesting as three different types of bodies – one composed of Pure Truth, one of blissful light, and one as a physical body – was considered to be one of his mythical miraculous powers, like his “all seeing wisdom eye” or some such. As Buddhism got more religious, around the time of the Christ and the rise of the Mahayana school of Buddhist, however, mythical God-like Buddhas of past, future, and other realms became part of the worship, and they were also seen as being able to take on those three bodies.
Eventually, though, the three bodies became something different than simply just three different bodily forms that a Buddha could take. They grew to have a wider meaning, a metaphysical description of different levels of reality:
• The “Nirmanakaya” is manifest reality: our bodies, the food we eat and the air we breathe, other people, trees, mountains, june bugs, computers, Toyotas, hamburgers, clouds, paper clips, oceans, chicken mcnuggets, sprained ankles, bills to pay, Tom Hanks movies, half off dinner specials, nuclear reactors, MC Hammer CDs, galaxies, etc. It’s everything that we see, feel, hear, smell, and touch.
In the mystical branch of Hinduism (Advaita Vedanta), this is known as “jagrata”, or the state of “waking” – it is the world that we encounter when we are awake. In Christianity, the symbol for this realm is “Jesus the Christ” – Divinity in human form, able to be seen, heard, and touched.
• The “Sambodakaya” is the level of psychic experiences: dreams, visions, psychic powers, visionary journeys, gods and goddesses, angels, and demons. It is the realm where everything is fluid and trippy, swirling and vibrating.
In Advaita, this is known as “svapna”, or “dreaming”. In Christianity, it is “The Holy Spirit” – the subtle, uncapturable Divine energy bubbling and flowing through all things.
• The “Dharmakaya” is The Absolute.
Part of the aspect of the Dharmakaya is what in Christianity is called “God”, and what in Advaita is called “Turiya” – Pure Absolute Consciousness and Pure Absolute Love, the cosmic-Meta Mind, the mysterious Source of All That Is, the Dreamer of the World-Dream.
Another way of talking about the Dharmakaya is what is called in Buddhism “Shunyata“, or Zero, nothingness, and The Cosmic Void. In Advaita, this is called “susupti”, or dreamless sleep. What is real to us when we are in dreamless sleep? What is a dream made out of, and where does a dream happen? If “God” does not exist, then what is “God” made out of? Nothing, a void.
So, that’s an … interesting way of looking at things.
How do the three fit together? Well, to (over)simplify things, my understanding is:
• Many of us grow bored just living in the Nirmanakaya, everyday life. So, we take drugs, have sex, get “runner’s high”, and alter consciousness in other ways trying to have an experience of the trippy realm of the Sambodakaya. This is also the path of many traditional Shamanistic religons.
• In the path of the arahant in Theravada (“Vipassana”) Buddhism, as with Western Monotheism, the goal is to leave the Nirmanakaya, drill through the Sambhogakaya as quickly and with as few detours as possible, and manifest the deepest level of the Dharmakaya as rapidly as possible, and then to never come back.
• The path of the Bodhisattva in Zen Buddhism, and the path of the gnani in Advaita, is to do the same as the adhant in Theravada Buddhism, except to not just stay in the Dharamkaya once arrived. The ideal in Zen or Advaita is to travel back and forth between Nirmanakaya, the Sambodakaya, and the Dharmakaya, without any preference, clinging, viscosity, or friction, so as to help other beings to also wake up from the dream of just being caught in the Nirmanakaya.
This is illustrated in the famous Zen series ox herding picture series, where the seeker practices on a more and more deep and subtle level until he disappears into the Cosmic Void of the Dharmakaya. The wise man then comes back into the world, however, as a jolly friendly fellow full of kindness and wisdom.
• The Vajrayana Tibetan Buddhist bodhisattva path is similar to that of Zen, except that it involves a lot of time spent gaining familiarity with and skills in the Sambhogakaya levels of reality. That is why the Tibetan Buddhists have so many trippy colorful visual images of various celestial deities of their temples – they love hanging out in the Sambohogakaya.
For me, I find that I feel the most free, open, and spiritual when I try to tune into all three bodies at the same time – (1) the normal, every-day reality around and inside of me, (2) the subtle, undulating, flowing, dream-like energetic nature of that reality, and (3) the voidlike, empty transparency of it all.