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Three buddha statues symbolizing the Three Bodies. Dharma Flower Temple, Huzhou, Zhejiang province, China

The Trikāya doctrine (Sanskrit, literally "Three bodies"; 三身 Chinese: Sānshēn Vietnamese: Tam thân, Japanese: Sanjin or Sanshin, Tibetan: སྐུ་གསུམWylie: sku gsum) is a Mahayana Buddhist teaching on both the nature of reality and the nature of the Buddha.


The doctrine says that a Buddha has three kāyas or bodies:

  1. The Dharmakāya or Truth body which embodies the very principle of enlightenment and knows no limits or boundaries;
  2. The Sambhogakāya or body of mutual enjoyment which is a body of bliss or clear light manifestation;
  3. The Nirmāṇakāya or created body which manifests in time and space.[1]


Pāli Canon

Even before the Buddha's Parinirvāṇa the term Dhammakāya was current. Dhammakāya literally means Truth body.

In the Pāli Canon the Buddha tells Vasettha that the Tathāgata (the Buddha) was Dhammakāya, the 'Truth-body' or the 'Embodiment of Truth', as well as Dhammabhuta, 'Truth-become', 'One who has become Truth' [2][3]

The Buddha is equated with the Dhamma:

... and the Buddha comforts him, "Enough, Vakkali. Why do you want to see this filthy body? Whoever sees the Dhamma sees me; whoever sees me sees the Dhamma."[4]

In the Aggañña Sutta the Buddha advises Vasettha that whoever has strong, deep rooted, and established belief in the Tathagatha, he can declare that he is the child of Bhagavan, born from the mouth of Dhamma, created from Dhamma, and the heir of Dhamma. Because the titles of the Tathagatha are: The Body of Dhamma, The Body of Brahma, the Manifestation of Dhamma, and the Manifestation of Brahma.


The Dharmakāya-doctrine was possibly first expounded in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā prajñā-pāramitā (The Perfection of Insight In Eight Thousand Verses), composed in the 1st century BCE.

Mahayan Buddhism introduced the Sambhogakāya, which conceptually fits between the Nirmāṇakāya (the manifestations of enlightenment in the physical world).[note 1] and the Dharmakaya. The Sambhogakaya is that aspect of the Buddha, or the Dharma, that one meets in visions and in deep meditation. It could be considered an interface with the Dharmakaya.

The Trikaya-doctrine and the Tathagatagarbha bring the transcendental within reach, by placing the transcendental within the plane of immanence.

Around 300 CE, the Yogacara school systematized the prevalent ideas on the nature of the Buddha in the Trikaya or three-body doctrine.[5]

Interpretation in Buddhist traditions

Schools have different ideas about what the three bodies are.[6][7]

Chinese Mahayana

Pure Land

The Three Bodies of the Buddha from the point of view of Pure Land Buddhist thought can be broken down like so:[8]

  • The Nirmaṇakāya is a physical/manifest body of a Buddha. An example would be Gautama Buddha's body.
  • The Sambhogakāya is the reward/enjoyment body, whereby a bodhisattva completes his vows and becomes a Buddha. Amitābha, Vajrasattva and Manjushri are examples of Buddhas with the Sambhogakaya body.
  • The Dharmakāya is the embodiment of the truth itself, and it is commonly seen as transcending the forms of physical and spiritual bodies. Vairocana Buddha is often depicted as the Dharmakāya, particularly in esoteric Buddhist schools such as Shingon, Tendai and Kegon in Japan.

As with earlier Buddhist thought, all three forms of the Buddha teach the same Dharma, but take on different forms to expound the truth.


According to Schloeg, in the Lin-ji yu-lu ("Zen teachings of Rinzai") the Three Bodies of the Buddha are not taken as absolute. They would be "mental configurations" that "are merely names or props" and would only perform a role of light and shadow of the mind.[9][note 2]

The Lin-ji yu-lu advises:

Do you wish to be not different from the Buddhas and patriarchs? Then just do not look for anything outside. The pure light of your own heart [i.e., 心, mind] at this instant is the Dharmakaya Buddha in your own house. The non-differentiating light of your heart at this instant is the Sambhogakaya Buddha in your own house. The non-discriminating light of your own heart at this instant is the Nirmanakaya Buddha in your own house. This trinity of the Buddha's body is none other than he here before your eyes, listening to my expounding the Dharma.[11]

Tibetan Buddhism

Four kayas

Tibetan Buddhism identifies a fourth kaya, Svabhavikakaya, which is described as the unity or non-separateness of the three kayas.[12]

Fifth kaya

Vajrayana sometimes refers to a fifth body, called the Mahasukhakaya (Wylie: bde ba chen po'i sku, THDL: de wa chen po'i ku), meaning "great bliss body."[13]


In dzogchen teachings, "dharmakaya" means the buddha-nature's absence of self-nature, that is, its emptiness of a conceptualizable essence, its cognizance or clarity is the sambhogakaya, and the fact that its capacity is 'suffused with self-existing awareness' is the nirmanakaya.[14]


The interpretation in Mahamudra is similar: When the mahamudra practices come to fruition, one sees that the mind and all phenomena are fundamentally empty of any identity; this emptiness is called dharmakāya. One perceives that the essence of mind is empty, but that it also has a potentiality that takes the form of luminosity.[clarification needed] In Mahamudra thought, Sambhogakāya is understood to be this luminosity. Nirmanakāya is understood to be the powerful force with which the potentiality affects living beings.[15]


In the view of Anuyoga, the 'Mindstream' (Sanskrit: citta santana) is the 'continuity' (Sanskrit: santana; Wylie: rgyud) that links the Trikaya.[1] The Trikāya, as a triune, is symbolised by the Gankyil.


A dakini (Sanskrit: डाकिनी ḍākinī; Standard Tibetan: མཁའ་འགྲོ་མ་ khandroma, Wylie: mkha' 'gro ma, TP: kanzhoima; Chinese: 空行母) is a tantric deity described as a female embodiment of enlightened energy. In the Tibetan language, dakini is rendered khandroma which means 'she who traverses the sky' or 'she who moves in space'. Sometimes the term is translated poetically as 'sky dancer' or 'sky walker'.

Dakinis can also be classified according to the Trikaya, or three bodies of a Buddha. The dharmakāya dakini, which is Samantabhadrī, represents the dharmadhatu where all phenomena appear. The sambhogakāya dakinis are the yidams used as meditational deities for tantric practice. The nirmanakaya dakinis are human women born with special potentialities, these are realized yogini, the consorts of the gurus, or even all women in general as they may be classified into the five Buddha-families.[16]

Western Buddhism


In the 19th century Theosophy took an interest in Buddhism. It regarded Buddhism to contain esoteric teachings. In those supposed esoteric teachings of Buddhism, "exoteric Buddhism" believes that Nirmanakaya simple means the physical body of Buddha. According to the esoteric interpretation, when the Buddha dies he assumes the Nirmanakaya, instead of going into Nirvana. He remains in that glorious body he has woven for himself, invisible to uninitiated mankind, to watch over and protect it.[17]

See also


  1. Formerly called Rupakaya
  2. Lin-ji yu-lu: "The scholars of the Sutras and Treatises take the Three Bodies as absolute. As I see it, this is not so. These Three Bodies are merely names, or props. An old master said: "The (Buddha's) Bodies are set up with reference to meaning; the (Buddha) Fields are distinguished with reference to substance." However, understood clearly, the Dharma Nature Bodies and the Dharma Nature Fields are only mental configurations."[10]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Welwood, John (2000). The Play of the Mind: Form, Emptiness, and Beyond, accessed January 13, 2007
  2. Dīgha Nikāya 27.9
  3. See Walsh, Maurice. 1995. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, “Aggañña Sutta: On Knowledge of Beginnings,” p. 409.
  4. Samyutta Nikaya (SN 22.87) See footnote #3
  5. Snelling 1987, p. 126.
  6. 佛三身觀之研究-以漢譯經論為主要研究對象
  7. 佛陀的三身觀
  8. Hattori, Sho-on (2001). A Raft from the Other Shore : Honen and the Way of Pure Land Buddhism. Jodo Shu Press. pp. 25–27. ISBN 4-88363-329-2. 
  9. Schloegl 1976, p. 19.
  10. Schloegl 1976, p. 21.
  11. Schloegl 1976, p. 18.
  12. khandro.net citing H.E. Tai Situpa
  13. The Life of Marpa the Translator, Shambhala Publications, p. 229
  14. Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, page 315.
  15. Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, pages 284-285.
  16. Cf. Capriles, Elías (2003/2007). Buddhism and Dzogchen'[1]', and Capriles, Elías (2006/2007). Beyond Being, Beyond Mind, Beyond History, vol. I, Beyond Being[2]
  17. Helena Blavatsky, The Voice of the Silence Theosophical Publishing Co., pages 75-77.


  • John J. Makransky: (August 1997) Buddhahood Embodied: Sources of Controversy in India and Tibet, Publisher: State University of New York Press, ISBN 0-7914-3432-X (10), ISBN 978-0-7914-3432-1 (13), [3]
  • Schloegl, Irmgard (1976), The Zen Teaching of Rinzai (PDF), Shambhala Publications, Inc., ISBN 0-87773-087-3 
  • Snellgrove, David (1987). Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, Vol. 1. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, Inc. ISBN 0-87773-311-2. 
  • Snellgrove, David (1987). Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, Vol. 2. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, Inc. ISBN 0-87773-379-1. 
  • Snelling, John (1987), The Buddhist handbook. A Complete Guide to Buddhist Teaching and Practice, London: Century Paperbacks 
  • Walsh, Maurice (1995). The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-103-3. 

External links

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