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The Three Bodies of Buddha

It is natural for human beings to want to personify qualities like love, freedom, and understanding. It was in this spirit that the Buddha came to be represented as having "three bodies": Dharmakaya, the source of enlightenment and happiness; Sambhogakaya, the body of bliss or enjoyment; and Nirmanakaya, the historical embodiment of the Buddha viewed as one of the many transformation bodies sent forth by the Dharmakaya. Kaya means "body." 

When he was about to pass away, the Buddha told his disciples, "Dear friends, my physical body will not be here tomorrow, but my teaching body (Dharmakaya) will always be with you. Consider it to be the teacher who never leaves you. Be islands unto yourselves, and take refuge in the Dharma. Use the Dharma as your lamp, your island." The Buddha meant that in order to have nirvana available to us in every moment, we have to practice the Dharma, the Way of Understanding and Love. That is the birth of Dharmakaya, the body of the teaching, the body of the Way, the source of enlightenment and happiness. The original meaning of Dharmakaya was quite simple — the way to realize understanding and love. 

The Dharmakaya is the embodiment of the Dharma, always shining, always enlightening everything. Anything that can help us wake up is part of the Dharmakaya — trees, grass, birds, human beings, and so on. When I hear a bird sing, if I return deeply to myself and breathe and smile, that bird reveals the Buddha's Dharma body. People who are awake can hear the Dharma being preached in a pebble, a bamboo, or the cry of a baby. Anything can be the voice of the Dharma if you are awake. Every morning, when you open the window and see the light streaming in, know that it, too, is part of the Dharmakaya. 

Opening the window, 
I look out onto the Dharmakaya. 
How wondrous is life! 
Attentive to each moment, 
my mind is clear like a calm river.
 Thich Nhat Hanh, Present Moment Wonderful Moment, p. 4. 

The living Dharma is not just a library of sutra books or audio or video cassettes of inspiring Dharma talks. It is mindfulness manifesting in your daily life. When I see you walking mindfully in peace and joy, a deep presence is also awakened in me. When you walk like this, the sun of the Dharmakaya in both of us shines brightly. When you take good care of yourself, your brothers, and your sisters, I recognize the living Dharma. When you are really there, the Dharmakaya is easy to touch. 

Dharmakaya is expressed not only through words and actions, but also through non-action. Look at the tree in the garden. An oak tree is an oak tree, and that is all it has to do. Every time we look at it, we feel stable and confident. It offers us air to breathe and shade to protect us during the summertime. If an oak tree is less than an oak tree, we will all be in trouble. We can learn the Dharma from an oak tree, so we can say that it is part of the Dharmakaya. Each pebble, each leaf, and each flower is preaching the Saddharmapundarika Sutra. The Buddha has his Dharma body, and we Buddhas-to-be must express the Dharma through our own Dharma bodies. When someone says something challenging, if we can smile and return to our breathing, our Dharma will be a living Dharma, and others will be able to touch it. Sometimes, through non-action, we can help more than if we do a lot. Like a calm person on a small boat during a storm, just by being there, we can change the situation. 

The Dharma body is the Buddha that is everlasting. Mahayana Buddhists later began to call the Dharmakaya Vairochana, the ontological Buddha, the soul of the Buddha, the spirit of the Buddha, the true Buddha, the ground of all being, the ground of enlightenment. Finally, Dharmakaya became equivalent to suchness, nirvana, and Tathagatagarbha ("the womb of the tathagata"). 3 This is a natural development. But if we spend too much time talking about these things, it will be less valuable than learning how to touch our own Dharma body through dwelling in peace and mindfulness. When you touch the Dharmakaya, you touch the Buddha. The Buddha said very clearly that his Dharma body is even more important than his physical body. For his Dharmakaya to continue, the Buddha relies on us, on our practice.

Tathagata is a title of the Buddha meaning "he or she who has come from the world of suchness (ultimate reality)." 

The Sambhogakaya is the Buddha's body of bliss, enjoyment, celebration, results, or rewards. Because the Buddha practices deeply, he experiences boundless peace, joy, and happiness; and Sambhogakaya is the fruit of his practice. When we practice mindfulness, we, too, can enjoy this fruit. Breathing in and looking at the blue sky, drinking our tea in mindfulness, we can feel happy just being alive. This is our body of enjoyment, Sambhogakaya. 

I once read a story about a Christian man whose faith in God was not firm. He was hunting in the jungles of Africa when he lost his way. After some time, still lost, he decided to pray for help, but because his faith was weak, he prayed weakly. "God, if you exist, please come and save me now." As soon as he finished speaking, an African man appeared. The man showed him the way to a village, and he was saved. But then he wrote in his diary, "I called upon God, but only a Negro appeared." In fact, the man who saved him was God himself, but because he was ignorant, he failed to see that. We can say that the man who saved him was the Sambhogakaya Buddha. Buddha and God appear in many forms. The Buddha is not only in the cloud. He is in our hearts, and in the hearts of many others. 

Every time we touch something beautiful, in harmony and peace, we touch the Sambhogakaya Buddha. This is called "self-enjoyment." When we feel happy and peaceful, our happiness and peace radiate around us, and others can enjoy it as well. This is called "the enjoyment of others of our body of bliss." When we do this, many Sambhogakayas are born into the world. Each of us has the capacity to bring joy to others and to help relieve them of their suffering, if we know how to cultivate the seeds of awakening within ourselves. Like the Dharmakaya, the Sambhogakaya body of the Buddha is available, if we know how to touch it. 

Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, is the Nirmanakaya, a beam of light sent into the world by the sun of the Dharmakaya to help relieve the suffering of living beings. Shakyamuni Buddha was a real human being, and the Dharmakaya was embodied by his presence. The living Buddha is still available to us as an embodiment, as a ray of the sun of the Dharmakaya. If that ray is not apparent to you, don't worry. There are many other rays, or transformation bodies, expounding the Dharma — the trees, the birds, the violet bamboo, and the yellow chrysanthemum. Shakyamuni is just one of these transformation bodies. You can be in touch with the Nirmanakaya through him or through any of these others. 

Each of us has three bodies — a Dharma body, an enjoyment body, and a physical body. Please discover your own Dharma body, your own body of bliss, and your own body of transformation. These bodies are deep within you; it is only a matter of discovery. When you practice walking meditation and release some of your sorrow and your anger, when you look deeply into things and shed some of your misperceptions, cravings, and attachments, you discover the body of the Dharma, the body of bliss, and the body of transformation within you. When you touch these three bodies of yourself and of the Buddha, you will suffer less. The Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya are available. Allow yourself to be struck by the beams of light emanated by the Buddha and to be transformed. When we know how to discover the seeds of enlightenment within ourselves, we realize our capacity to transform many others as well. The Buddha depends on us to live mindfully, to enjoy the practice, and to transform ourselves, so we can share the body of the Dharma with many other living beings.

From "Heart of the Buddha's Teachings"
by Thich Nhat Hanh