Buddhahood and Buddha Bodies
The term Buddhahood (Buddhatva) refers to the unique attainment of Buddhas that distinguishes them from all other kinds of holy being.
Buddhahood constitutes the fullest possible realization of ultimate reality and total freedom from all that obscures it, together with all qualities that flow from such a realization.
Buddhahood is described in 2 closely related ways:
1) in terms of its distinctive characteristics, and
2) in terms of Buddha “bodies.”
Early Buddhist texts ascribe qualities to Śākyamuni Buddha that distinguish him from other Arhats (those who have realized Nirvāṇa) and that render him the Supreme Teacher of the world.
He was said to possess
- 10 unmatched powers of penetrating awareness,
- 4 peerless forms of fearlessness, and
- supreme compassion for all beings.
His body was endowed with 32 marks of a great person (mahā-puruṣa), the fruit of immeasurable virtue from previous lives.
As the outflow of his Enlightenment he also possessed supernormal powers (ṛddhi) superior to those of others; these included
- the power to project multiple physical forms of diverse kinds (nirmāṇas),
- to control physical phenomena, to know others’ minds and capacities,
- to perceive directly over great distances and time, and
- to know and skilfully communicate the freedom of Nirvāṇa.
Śākyamuni’s Enlightened qualities exemplify those possessed by all prior Buddhas and by all Buddhas to come, qualities that enable each Buddha to reintroduce the dharma to the world in each age.
The Indic term kāya refers to the physical body of a living being. It therefore carries the secondary meaning of a collection or aggregate of parts.
In Buddhist texts over time, kāya came to include a third meaning— base or substratum, since one’s body is the base of many qualities.
The term also came to connote the embodiment of ultimate truth in Enlightened knowledge and activity.
For early Buddhist traditions, Śākyamuni’s body with 32 special marks constituted his primary physical expression of Enlightenment.
But his power to manifest himself to others extended beyond the confines of his physical body,
since he created a “mind-made” body (manomaya-kāya) to teach his deceased mother in a heaven, and occasionally projected copies of his body, or created diverse forms, to carry out en-lightened activities (nirmāṇa).
All such manifest forms were referred to as rūpakāya,
the embodiment (kāya) of the Buddha in forms (rūpa).
Of special importance was the dharma, the truths that the Buddha had realized and taught, encapsulated in the Four Noble Truths, the very source of the charismatic power expressed through his physical body and teaching.
Metaphorically, the dharma itself was understood as his essential being, his very body.
So the Dīgha-nikāya (Group of Long Discourses) says that the Buddha instructed his disciples, when asked their family lineage, to reply,
“I am a true son of the Buddha, born of his mouth,
born of dharma, created by the dharma, an heir of the dharma.
Because Buddhas are those whose body is dharma (dharmakāya)!”
After the Buddha’s physical death, the distinction between his dharma body (dharmakāya) and his form body (rūpakāya) grounded 2 legacies of communal practice.
“Body of dharma” (dharmakāya) referred especially to the corpus of teachings the Buddha bequeathed to his monastic Saṅgha, whose institutional life centred on the recitation, study, and practice of them.
On the other hand, the relics from the cremation of the Buddha’s physical body (rūpakāya) were placed in reliquary mounds (Stūpas) at which laity (and monks and nuns as well) practiced ritual forms of reverence for the Buddha modelled on forms of devotion shown to him during his lifetime.
In Theravāda and Sarvāstivāda traditions, dharmakāya also referred to the Buddha’s supra-mundane realizations, his powers of awareness, fearlessness, compassion, and skilful means, as noted above:
Here dharmakāya refers to the Buddha’s “body of dharma(s),” where dharmas are pure qualities of Enlightened mind.
Scholastics of those schools maintained that the Buddha’s final Nirvāṇa at his physical death was an unconditioned attainment, a total passing away from the conditioned world of beings.
Yet many practices of Buddhist communities seem to have functioned to mediate the power of the Buddha’s Nirvāṇa to the world long after he was physically gone:
Stūpas containing relics of the Buddha, when ritually consecrated, “came alive” for devotees with the presence of the Buddha, representing the Buddha not only as the field of merit for offerings, but as a continuing source of salvific power for the world.
Thus, many stories tell of Buddhist devotees who witnessed miraculous events or had spontaneous visions of the Buddha at Stūpas.
The distribution of the Buddha’s relics among many Stūpas over time cosmologized the Buddha, ritually rendering the power of his dharmakāya (his attainment of Nirvāṇa) pervasively present to the world through his rūpakāya (physical embodiment) in many Stūpas.
Statues and paintings of the Buddha had similar ritual functions,
while also serving as support for meditative practices that vividly brought to mind the qualities of the Buddha while visualizing his physical form (Buddhānusmṛiti).
Accomplished meditators were said to have visions and dreams of the Buddha, and to experience the Buddha’s qualities and powers as vividly present in their world.
All such ritual and yogic practices functioned to render the salvific power of his Nirvāṇa, even after he was physically gone, a continuing presence in the Saṁsāra world.
Several schools deriving from Mahāsaṁghika tradition appear to have given doctrinal expression to these patterns of understanding:
They asserted that the Buddha was wholly supra-mundane, that his salvific power was all-pervasive, and that his body that had perished at the age of 80 was just a mind-made (manomaya) or illusory creation (nirmāṇa), not his real body.
Rather, his real body was pure and limitless, its life endless.
Theravada and Sarvāstivāda scholastics had claimed that the Buddha’s final Nirvāṇa had destroyed the sole creative cause of his Saṁsāra experience (defiled karma), resulting in a final Nirvāṇa beyond creation or conditionality.
But the Mahāsaṁghikas, by asserting that the Buddha’s rūpa-kāya was pure and limitless, seemed to be saying that his long Bodhisattva practice of prior lives
had not only destroyed the impure causes of his Saṁsāra, but functioned as pure creative cause for his Nirvāṇa attainment to embody itself limitlessly for beings.
Along similar lines, the Lotus Sūtra (Saddharma-Puṇḍarīka-Sūtra), an early Mahāyāna scripture, declared the Buddha’s life and salvific activity to span innumerable eons, beyond his apparent physical death.
This understanding of a Buddha’s Nirvāṇa as not just the cessation of defilement but also the manifestation of vast salvific power was developed in a wide range of Mahāyāna scriptures of early centuries C.E.
The centrality of Bodhisattvas in Mahāyāna sūtras, each of whom vows to become a Buddha, supported a new Buddhist cosmology of multiple Buddhas simultaneously active throughout the universe.
Each such Buddha wields Enlightened power within his own field of salvific activity for the beings karmically connected to him.
On the path to Buddhahood, therefore, Bodhisattvas Vow to “purify” their fields, by collecting immeasurable amounts of merit and wisdom (as pure creative causes for their Buddha fields),
- by training other Bodhisattvas in similar practices, and by transferring their merit to other beings so they may be reborn in such fields.
The purest such fields are heavenly domains of Buddhas of infinite radiance, power, and incalculable life span, such as Amitābha or Akṣobhya,
- Buddhas whose pure fields (or Pure Lands) consist of jewelled palaces and radiant natural scenes, where all conditions are perfect for communicating and realizing Enlightenment.
Those born near such a celestial Buddha, either by the power of their own practice or by faith in the power of such a Buddha, make quick progress to Enlightenment.
Late 4thcentury C.E. Mahāyāna treatises, such as the Mahāyāna-sūtra-alaṁkāra (Ornament of Mahāyāna Scriptures) and Abhisamaya-alaṁkāra (Ornament of Realization),
created a new vocabulary for such celestial Buddhas, referring to them as Saṁbhogakāya, the perfect embodiment (kāya) of Buddhahood for supreme communal enjoyment (Saṁbhoga) of dharma.
These Mahāyāna understandings developed within a nexus of other developing doctrines:
Prajñā Pāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom) sūtras and early Madhyamaka treatises declared all phenomena to be empty of substantial independent existence (svabhāva-śūnya), hence illusory.
When Bodhisattvas attain direct knowledge of that truth, they realize that all things in their intrinsic emptiness have always been in Nirvāṇa peace, that Saṁsāra is undivided from Nirvāṇa.
Through such wisdom, the Bodhisattva learns to embody the freedom and power of Nirvāṇa while continuing to act skilfully within Saṁsāra for the sake of others.
When this Bodhisattva path of wisdom and skilful means is fully accomplished, its simultaneous participation in Saṁsāra and Nirvāṇa becomes the essential realization of Buddhahood.
This is referred to in Yogācāra and later Madhyamaka treatises as a Buddha’s “unrestricted Nirvāṇa” (apratiṣṭhita nirvāṇa):
it is unrestricted because it is bound neither to Saṁsāra nor to a merely quiescent Nirvāṇa, but possessed of limitless and spontaneous activity, all-pervasive and eternal, radiating its power to beings throughout all existence, drawing them toward Enlightenment.
In the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtras, the term dharmatā (literally “thing-hood”) refers to the real nature of things, undivided in their emptiness yet diverse in their appearance.
In treatises that formalized the concept of the Buddhas’ Unrestricted Nirvāṇa,
the dharmatā of all things as the limitless field of the Buddhas’ Enlightened knowledge and power came to be referred to as dharmakāya, now meaning the Buddhas’ “embodiment of dharmatā!” (of ultimate reality).
Dharmakāya, as the non-dual awareness of the emptiness of all things, is undifferentiated among Buddhas, yet serves as the basis for diverse manifestations:
It is therefore also etymologized as the undivided basis (kāya) of all the Buddha qualities (dharmas).
A synonym for it in such treatises was svabhāvika-kāya, meaning the Buddhas’ embodiment (kāya) of the intrinsic nature (svabhāva) of things.
The celestial Saṁbhogakāya Buddhas, then, represent the primary manifestation of dharmakāya, perfectly embodying the non-duality of appearance (rūpa) and emptiness (dharma).
For this reason, the sensory phenomena of Saṁbhogakāya pure fields—gentle breezes, flowing rivers, even the birds—continually disclose the Nirvāṇa nature of things to the Bodhisattva assemblies arrayed there.
But formulators of the Buddhas’ Unrestricted Nirvāṇa, as noted above, understood the dharmakāya’s salvific activity to radiate to beings of all realms, not just to those in pure Buddha fields:
Such all-pervasive Buddha activity is carried out by innumerable manifestations within the empty, illusory worlds of beings.
In Yogācāra and later Madhyamaka treatises, the limitlessly diverse ways that Buddhahood was said to manifest in Mahāyāna scriptures came to be classified under the term nirmāṇa-kāya, meaning Buddhahood embodied in diverse, illusory manifestations (nirmāṇa).
As such, nirmāṇa-kāya encompasses 3 broad categories:
1) First, since the world itself in its empty, illusory nature is undivided from Nirvāṇa, any aspect of the world has the potential to disclose the essence of Buddhahood (to function as nirmāṇa-kāya) when a person’s mind becomes pure enough to notice.
2) Second, Buddhas and advanced Bodhisattvas have great power to project illusory replicas and visionary forms to beings (nirmāṇas) to help guide them toward Enlightenment.
Such illusory projections further support the disclosure of all things as illusory appearances of empty reality.
3) Third, all sorts of beings who serve to communicate the Buddhas’ truths function as agents of Buddha activity, hence as nirmāṇa-kāya,
from supreme human paradigms like Śākyamuni to the innumerable Bodhisattvas of Mahāyāna scriptures who carry out much of the Buddha’s teaching and salvific activity, and who appear in all walks of life and as all types of beings.
Thus developed the basic Mahāyāna doctrine of 3 Buddha kāyas—Dharmakāya, Saṁbhogakāya, and Nirmāṇa-kāya –
which informed the Buddhalogies that developed throughout Asia, contributing to the Huayan, Tiantai, Zhenyan, Chan, and Jingtu traditions of China, thence Korea and Japan, and to all Tibetan Buddhist traditions.
Some scholars, seeking to analyse the relationship between transcendental and phenomenal aspects of Buddhahood, divided the 3 kāyas into 4.
So Hsüan-tsang in 7th century China distinguished 2 aspects of Saṁbhogakāya, while Haribhadra in 8th century India divided dharmakāya in 2 by reference to conditioned and unconditioned aspects.
In Indian Yogācāra and later Madhyamaka treatises, the 3 kāya doctrine was associated with a developmental model of path:
Buddhahood is to be attained by the radical transformation of all aspects of a person’s defiled consciousness into Buddha kāyas and wisdoms.
Mahāyāna texts whose central teaching was Buddha nature (Tathāgata-garbha), on the other hand, emphasized a discovery model of path:
Buddha kāyas manifest automatically as the mind is purified, for the very essence of mind (Buddha nature) is already replete with their qualities.
Tantric Buddhist traditions of India, East Asia, and Tibet drew upon both such models:
The teaching of Buddha nature undergirds the “3 mysteries” uncovered by tantric praxis, through which the practitioner discovers that his or her body, speech, and mind are undivided from those of the Buddhas, which are one with the 3 kāyas.
Tantric traditions have also drawn upon Yogācāra and Madhyamaka models of transformation to construct homologies expressed in Maṇḍalas.
Indian and Tibetan praxis of highest yoga tantras engages 4 energy centres in the body, which frame correspondences between the 4-fold aspects of the unenlightened person, the 4-fold aspects of path that ultimately transforms them, and 4 resultant Buddha kāyas, all of which take visual expression in the four directions of the Maṇḍala.
Within such a system, a 4th kāya representing highest tantric attainment is added to the prior 3 kāyas,
and is designated by terms such as sahaja-kāya, “embodiment of co-presence (of Nirvāṇa and Saṁsāra),” or mahā-sukha-kāya, “embodiment of great bliss” (the tantrically embodied bliss of non-dual wisdom and means).
Japanese Pure Land Buddhism (Jodo Shinshū) has emphasized the transcendental power of Buddhahood embodied in the Saṁbhogakāya Amitābha:
Because this is the period of the Decline Of The Dharma (mappo),
it is argued, people are no longer able to accomplish the path through their own power but must rely upon the Buddha Amitābha, whose power to take the devotee into his pure field at death is received in faith through recitation of his name (Nenbutsu [Chinese, Nianfo; Korean, Yombul]).
Zen traditions, on the other hand, based upon the doctrine of Buddha Nature, have emphasized the immanence and immediacy of Enlightenment:
Through Zen practice, it is said, Buddhahood complete with all kāyas is to be discovered intimately within one’s present mind, body, and world.
So the Japanese 18th century Zen teacher Hakuin Ekaku (1686 - 1768) wrote,
“This very place, the pure lotus land;
this very body, the Buddha body.”