Dharmakaya

Truth Body of the Buddha

Earth Atmosphere
Koji Kitagawa / Getty Images

According to the Mahayana Buddhist teaching of the trikaya, "three bodies," a Buddha is one with the Absolute but manifests in the relative world of form and appearances in order to work for the liberation of all beings. To accomplish this, it is said a buddha has three bodies, called dharmakaya, sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya.

The dharmakaya is the Absolute; the essence of the universe; the unity of all things and beings, unmanifested.

The dharmakaya is beyond existence or nonexistence, and beyond concepts. The late Chogyam Trungpa called the dharmakaya "the basis of the original unbornness."

It may be easier to understand dharmakaya in relation to the other bodies. The dharmakaya is the absolute basis of reality, from which all phenomena emanate. The nirmanakaya is the flesh-and-blood physical body. The sambhogakaya is intermediary; it is the bliss or reward body that experiences the totality of enlightenment.

Put another way, the dharmakaya is sometimes compared to aether or atmosphere; the samghogakaya is compared to clouds, and the nirmanakaya is the rain.

In his book Wonders of the Natural Mind: The Essence of Dzogchen in the Native Bon Tradition of Tibet (Snow Lion, 2000), Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche wrote, "The Dharmakaya is the emptiness of the natural state of reality; the Sambhogakaya is the clarity of the natural state; the Nirmanakaya is the movement of energy that arises from the inseparability of emptiness and clarity."

It is important to understand that the dharmakaya is not like heaven, or somewhere we go when we die or "get enlightened." It is the basis of all existence, including you. It is also the spiritual body or "truth body" of all buddhas.

It is also important to understand that the dharmakaya is always present and pervades everywhere.

It cannot manifest as itself, yet all beings and phenomena manifest from it. It is in many ways synonymous with Buddha Nature and with sunyata, or emptiness.

Origins of the Dharmakaya Doctrine

The term dharmakaya, or dharma-body, can be found in early scriptures, including the Pali Sutta-pitaka and the Agamas of the Chinese Canon.  However, it originally meant something like "the body of teachings of the Buddha." (For an explanation of the several meanings of dharma, see "What Is Dharma in Buddhism?") The term dharmakaya also sometimes was used to express the idea that a buddha's body is the embodiment of the dharma.

The earliest use of dharmakaya in Mahayana Buddhism occurs in one of the Prajnaparamita sutras, the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra, also called The Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines. A partial manuscript of the Astasahasrika was radiocarbon dated to 75 CE.

In the 4th century, Yogacara philosophers developed the Trikaya doctrine, introducing the concept of sambhogakaya  to tie together dharmkakaya and nirmanakaya.