Dharma demystified: Trikaya – The three bodies of a Buddha

Stupas are representations of the Buddha’s mind – the Dharmakaya

By: Steve Lee

According to the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, a fully enlightened Buddha is able to manifest in three forms. These three forms are called Trikaya or the three bodies of a fully enlightened Buddha, and are respectively called the Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya manifestation of a fully enlightened Buddha.

When a being achieves full enlightenment, it means that the being has realized Bodhicitta as well as achieving a direct perception of emptiness. Therefore, the primary manifestation of a fully enlightened Buddha is beyond the perception of the five senses and is of the nature of all the Buddhas – Absolute Reality or Emptiness. This primary manifestation of the Buddha is called the Dharmakaya.

The Dharmakaya is literally the Truth Body of a fully enlightened Buddha. This is basically the mind of a fully enlightened being and is therefore beyond physical appearance and sensory perception.

In order to benefit sentient beings, a Buddha emanates from the Dharmakaya into the Sambhogakaya form or the Enjoyment Body of a Buddha. In this form, the enlightened mind takes on physical attributes and usually appears beautifully; with a youthful body and limbs that display the spiritual qualities of the enlightened mind. In other words, the enlightened being would be ‘enjoying’ the spiritual accomplishments by manifesting it through a ‘celestial’ body.

Lord Manjushri in resplendent Sambhogakaya form

Meditational deities or yidams like Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, Vajrapani and so forth manifest in this form. It would take a highly evolved master to be able to perceive enlightened beings at this level. In the scriptures, it says that only a third level Bodhisattva and above can perceive the Sambhogakaya form of the Buddha. Lama Tsongkhapa is well known to have been able to perceive Manjushri directly and obtain teachings and profound advice from him.

Since most sentient beings are unable to perceive such a high level manifestation of an enlightened being, the Sambhogakaya form emanates into the Nirmanakaya form or Emanation Body. In this form, the Buddha actually appears in a gross physical body like a worldly god or a human being, which is in samsaric form. The purpose of this form is so that we, who are still in samsara, are able to connect with the enlightened Beings more easily.

There is actually no limit to the number of emanations that an enlightened being can manifest in. Examples of Nirmanakaya are Dorje Shugden and the Dalai Lama. Dorje Shugden appears as an emanation of Manjushri in worldly or mundane form, and the Dalai Lama is the emanation of Avalokiteshvara in human form.

Dorje Shugden is the nirmanakaya manifestation of Lord Manjushri

Due to their enlightened nature, these emanations can keep on incarnating in a successive line of incarnations like the Dalai Lama, who is considered to be one of the highest lamas with 14 recognized incarnations. In the Tibetan tradition, the incarnation of high lamas are recognized and are given a Rinpoche title, which means ‘precious one’. ‘Tulku’ is literally Tibetan for Nirmanakaya and High Tulku incarnations like Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche and Kyabje Zong Rinpoche are customarily enthroned and bestowed the same respect and veneration as their previous lives. They are brought to the monastery from a very young age to be given a monastic education.

Therefore, Dorje Shugden and the Dalai Lama are both manifestations of enlightened beings. However, from the standpoint of practice, our lama is more important than a Dharma Protector by virtue of the lama’s kindness and his Dharma teachings. Even the very fact that we are propitiating Dorje Shugden is due to the kindness of our lama who introduced and taught us the practice along with the lineage lamas who carefully transmitted the teachings and practices.

Trikaya or the three bodies of a Buddha are just different ways in which a Buddha may appear to another being. Therefore, the Buddha would manifest according to the karma, affinity and spiritual-level of that particular being. In order to cater to the diverse tendencies of beings, the Buddha is able to emanate to as numerous forms as there are grains of sand by the River Ganges.

It is important to understand the different forms of the Buddhas so that we are able to discern how Dorje Shugden can be an enlightened Being yet manifest in a worldly form. Dorje Shugden is one of the main emanations of Manjushri and his appearance is due to the powerful aspiration of Tulku Drakpa Gyeltsen, combined with the affinity of the beings of this time. Dorje Shugden in his Kangsol is said to have the strength of a million Dharma Protectors, and when we propitiate him, we are also invoking the essence of Manjushri himself.

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  1. Hey Steve, great job on explaining the different ways a Buddha appears to us. Can you maybe elaborate on why we cant perceive certain bodies? You mentioned karma, affinity and spiritual level? Like Dorje Shugden is nirmanakaya, like the Dalai Lama… but how comes I can perceive His Holiness, and not Dorje Shugden when their both in nirmanakaya form?

  2. It is interesting to read about the different forms of a Budddha. In other faith such as Christianity, what i find interesting also is that the Trinity is taught as well and in Buddhism, we have the Trikaya.

    The Dharmakaya – Truth Body of a fully enlightened Buddha, the mind of a fully enlightened being, beyond physical appearance and sensory perception.

    Sambhogakaya form – enlightened mind takes on physical attributes and usually appears beautiful, ‘celestial’

    Nirmanakaya form or Emanation Body – appears in a gross physical body like a worldly god or a human being

    One of the topics which got me thinking quite a bit and fascinates me is exactly this topic emanations, incarnations, stem from an already enlightened Buddha. As mentioned in the article, there can be successive line of incarnations. I have also read stories of their great feats such as Lama Tsongkhapa, Atisha, H.H. Trijang Rinpoche, and even Prince Siddharta was not ordinary when he was born.

    We as samsaric and unenlightened beings comes from the other tangent, seemingly having to work our way out/up..while the above mentioned beings come from a different tangent, enlightened mind coming again in just a different form to display unique qualities and carry out compassionate acts. It is wonderful to read about the great feats of these beings however, often times, it seems so impossible and to work our way out of samsara seems far away…similar to a black sheep trying to become a white sheep!Keeping in mind and having faith that the white sheep gene or rather Buddha nature in each and everyone of us is absolutely necessary and may Dorje Shugden help to keep us on the path.

  3. Is it true dorje shugden’s power a million Dharma Protectors? who know it ?
    what is the worldly god form of Avalokiteshvara ?
    what is Kangsol ? please kindly someone give me answer .

  4. Thank you Steve Lee for this insightful article. You are a good writer as you are able to explain abstract concepts with ease.

    The true nature of all things is emptiness. Emptiness does not mean nothingness. It only means that all things do not have independent origination. Such as we do not understand what is heat unless we have the sensory experience of what is cold. Thus Dharmakaya is a body that goes beyond sensory perceptions and therefore not bound by the rule of duality. It is the true cognition of emptiness. From this body a Buddha can emanate to respond to the call to of sentient beings who are playing the samsaric game. And so from this body, there is no separation, all is one as we can study from the Lankavatara Sutra, which forms the basic teaching of Zen Buddhism. And this is our ultimate realization, our true Buddha Nature and it is our duty to remember and to return to the Dharmakaya body. What interests and motivates me to study further would be the teachings in other religion that talks about going back to God or going Home or returning to the Divine. Is it the same as realizing Dharmakaya?

    The Sambhokaya body is state where the Buddhas emanate in forms that are extremely pleasing to the senses. At this juncture, I would like to bring up my favourite sutra, which is the Heart Sutra. When Sariputra asked Avalokiteshvara on what is the perfection of wisdom? We can see that in this state of Sambhokaya, the Buddhas emanate to teach through their golden speech to ignite our initial awakening. Based on the doctrine of reincarnation having the affinity to to meet a particular Bodhisattva is a seed that is planted eons ago. The question is do humans and other lower realm beings still have the stability of mind, clarity and wisdom to recognize these precious jewels? Do we still have the karma to receive and be near the Dharma?

    I believe we have degenerated and this is also the view of the Hindus that describe our current age as the Kali Yuga. And as such, we no longer can perceive Buddhas in the Sambhokaya body. We will doubt and question the reality of Buddhas and Bodhisatvas and many will utilize man-made socio-economy systems to clam our spiritual sight. What we are left with are the sutras and tantras. Even these, many are derailing and have lapsed into long slumber.

    Out of deep, deep compassion, the Buddhas emanate in forms of Nirmakaya taking on wrathful and shocking iconography, getting involved in political dramas to kick us out of our samsaric complacency.

    Thus we have a human emanation of Avalokiteshvara like the Dalai Lama to facilitate us on a mundane and human level. Being born into a country embroiled in controversies and wars, the Dalai Lama leads by example to remind us of our true Buddha nature. This in my most humble opinion is needed as we are all regressing in a visually-stimulated, Candy Crush and Gangam Style world. The Buddhas utilizing skilful means will take on any form to benefit us.

    Then why is Dorje Shugden not perceivable although he is supposedly from the Nirmakaya body? This is strictly my opinion. It is because any type of spirituality requires a leap of faith so that we jump into the unknown and break our own barriers. We are guided to transcend the physical and go beyond. Remember, DS’s ultimate role is to awaken the Buddha within all of us. Somehow, an invisible Dharma Protector fits the role.

    Thank you.

  5. Steve Lee has made this topic easier to understand. Thank you.
    Now I understand that there are three forms of Buddha. Buddha is so compassionate that he emanates into various forms to help all beings. I believe that my guru is an emanation of Buddha in Nirmanakaya form as he is here to help so many people. I have also always thought that Dorje Shugden is in the form of Sambhogakaya but in actual fact, he is in the form Nirmanakaya. Maybe that’s why we humans can access him through an oracle. How compassionate Dorje Shugden.

    Dorje Shugden also appeared from the strong aspirations of Tulku Drakpa Gyeltsen (TDG), so at that time, TDG is already in Nirmanakaya form as he incarnates back until he becomes Dorje Shugden.

  6. The dharmakaya “body of dharma” signifies the essential body of the Buddha, the all-encompassing nature of enlightenment, free of dualities, free of forms, thoughts and assertions. The sambogakaya “body of bliss” is the enjoyment body, one of the 2 aspects of the form body (rupakaya) of a Buddha, which is revealed to the Bodhisattvas and arya beings with knowledge of emptiness. Nirmanakaya “body of form” is the only Buddha aspect that can be seen by ordinary beings. It is the physical body of the Buddha that appears in the human realm in order to benefit sentient beings. Buddha Shakyamuni is a good example of all three kayas.

  7. Thank you for sharing. This article gave a clear explanation on the Trikaya. Buddha is very compassionate and He emanates in many form to benefit sentients beings.

    From this information, our spiritual guide is in the form of Nirmanakaya form as due to his compassion, he emanates in this form so that he can reach out to benefit all sentient beings.

    Due to the strong aspiration of the previous incarnation of Tulku Drapka Gyelsten, Dorje Shugden is also an emanations of Dorje Shugden and we are fortunate to be connected through our Holy Protector through the oracle.

  8. We visualise our Guru as one with Yidam and Protector, then it will be also be perceiving our Protector in the Nirmanakaya form.

    We are able to make our connection with the Protector through this kindness of the Oracle who is our “go-between” communicating our requests and giving us further instructions/replies.

  9. i won,t more lorean of buddhist dharma

  10. The Buddha is extremely kind to create so many methods and paths to bless us with the Dharma so that we remain close to the opportunity to liberation.

    The strongest impression the article leaves me is the kindness of my Guru. To me, he has descended from the Dharmakaya state to the nirmanakaya body to protect us, bless us and teach us the dharma. Sacrificing the constant bliss of being in the dharmakaya, our teachers come down to our level. Understanding this, the least we can do learn and practice the teachings of our Guru. Following our Guru’s kind advise will also create the cause for ours and other Gurus to return and turn the wheel of Dharma.

    This is why precious occasions like the turning of the Dharma wheel by Trijang Rinpoche in Mongolia (http://www.dorjeshugden.com/all-articles/news/trijang-rinpoche-in-mongolia-2014/) are benchmarks that we must celebrate and work towards re-creating in our parts of the world.

  11. All the Buddhas with great compassion has manifested in different forms, time and place benefiting countless of beings. Manjushri with great wisdom and compassion, manifested as Tulku Drakpa Gyeltsen then later as Dorje Shugden carrying out his aspiration in lifting the sufferings of all beings. For Dorje Shugden, he has emanated in Nirmanakaya form, so to have a closer affinity with us, and will able to help us more effectively, life after life, until we too become enlighten.

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.…Instead of turning away people who practise Dorje Shugden, we should be kind to them. Give them logic and wisdom without fear, then in time they give up the ‘wrong’ practice. Actually Shugden practitioners are not doing anything wrong. But hypothetically, if they are, wouldn’t it be more Buddhistic to be accepting? So those who have views against Dorje Shugden should contemplate this. Those practicing Dorje Shugden should forbear with extreme patience, fortitude and keep your commitments. The time will come as predicted that Dorje Shugden’s practice and it’s terrific quick benefits will be embraced by the world and it will be a practice of many beings.

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