The Buddha is commonly mentioned in many different contexts. The word “Buddha” can describe the awakened being who lived in India over 2,500 year ago, as well as the Buddha within each one of us. We may begin to wonder, who is the Buddha?
The Buddha was both an ordinary person and an extraordinary person. In one sense he was a sentient being, no different from you or me, who simply did the necessary practice to become a Buddha. In another sense he is a great being who transcends time and space, and pervades all of existence.
One way to understand the Buddha is to learn about the “three bodies,” or aspects, of the Buddha. Each of the “three bodies” examines the Buddha from a different perspective. The first body is the Buddha as seen from the perspective of an ordinary person, this is called the “manifested body,” or Nirmanakaya in Sanskrit. The second body is the Buddha as seen by awakened beings, this is called the “reward body,” or Samboghakaya in Sanskrit. The third body is the Buddha as part of the universe itself, this is called the “Dharma body,” or Dharmakaya in Sanskrit. All Buddhas possess these three bodies, for they are three aspects of a unified whole.
The Buddha of our world, Sakyamuni Buddha, appeared as a human being to most people. This was his “manifested body,” and through it he taught the Dharma to people on earth. It is called a “manifested body” because it is a physical form that is manifested by the Buddha so that he may appear in the world.
The Buddha’s “reward body” is the body which experiences the joy of awakening. Only Buddhas and very advanced bodhisattvas are able to perceive the reward body. The Buddha’s “Dharma body” pervades all phenomena of the universe.
The Dharma Body
The Dharma body of the Buddha is one with everything. This is the highest level of truth. Though there are many Buddhas, at this level all Buddhas are the same. The Dharma body is not a “body” in the sense that it is a fixed existence like the reward body or manifested body, for it pervades all of the universe.
The Dharma body is the ultimate truth of all things. It is awakening itself, the supreme reality, the cosmic consciousness that subsumes and includes everything in the universe. The Dharma body is completely pure. It is the union of reason and wisdom. It is omnipresent. To attain awakening and the Dharma body is the ultimate goal of all Buddhist practice. The Dharma body is beyond all duality. The Flower Adornment Sutra says, “Dharma nature is fundamentally empty. It cannot be grasped or seen. In its emptiness it is one with the Buddha realm. It cannot be comprehended by mere thought.”
Though the true nature of the Dharma body cannot be described in words, it has certain qualities that can be roughly described. Thinking about these qualities can help us reach a deeper understanding of what is meant by the term “Dharma body.”
The Dharma body is the unification of reason and principle. It is universal and equally present everywhere. It is the one principle that underlies everything. Within the Dharma body, all distinctions cease.
The Dharma body is the unification of principle and event. All laws and all occurrences of them are unified in the Dharma body. All duality is unified in the Dharma body. The phenomenal universe and its fundamental emptiness are unified in the Dharma body.
The characteristics of the Dharma body are the same as the characteristics of all phenomena. All things in the universe are interconnected. The Dharma body resides in each and every one of them and yet it is not the same as any of them. The Dharma body exists in all times and places without being defined or contained by any of them.
The Dharma body is the same as the intrinsic, pure Buddha nature that resides in all things everywhere. The deluded self can find peace when it understands that it inherently possesses Buddha nature, that this nature pervades all things. Our wish to find what is real and permanent can only be resolved by attaining the Dharma body.
The Reward Body
The Buddha’s reward body is the body which enjoys the rewards of awakening. This body clearly shows what are called the “thirty-two marks of excellence” and the “eighty notable characteristics,” physical features of the Buddha which are manifestations of his many lifetimes cultivating positive karma, and include such features as golden skin, long slender fingers, and dark blue eyes.
The reward body is both the body that enjoys the delight of awakening and the body that is capable of transmitting the truth of awakening to others. When the Buddhist sutras mention the countless Buddhas that reside in the infinite Buddha realms throughout the universe, they speak of the reward bodies of Buddhas.
Only Buddhas and very advanced bodhisattvas are capable of seeing a Buddha’s reward body. Amitabha Buddha or the Medicine Buddha are examples of reward bodies that are frequently portrayed in Buddhist art. Sakyamuni Buddha has a reward body that exists in this world, but very few people are pure enough to see it.
The Manifested Body
A Buddha’s manifested body is the body he uses to teach the Dharma within the world. This body is a compassionate projection of his reward body. When Sakymuni Buddha arose in this world, he was already an awakened Buddha. He arose as a manifested body for the purpose of leading sentient beings toward the truth. Buddhas do not appear within the six realms of existence in the full splendor of their reward bodies because, if they did, no one would feel they are able to accomplish the practice necessary to attain awakening for the Buddha’s achievements would seem so far beyond what ordinary people are capable of.
The manifested body of the Buddha is a skillful means to show us that it is essential to persevere towards awakening. Sakyamuni Buddha used his manifested body to reside in Tusita Heaven, enter his mother’s womb, be born in the world, renounce the home life, defeat Mara, attain awakening, teach the Dharma, and enter final nirvana, each to lead us closer to the truth.
Many people wish that they could see and learn from the Buddha right now, and wonder why the manifested body of the Buddha cannot have the incredible longevity of the reward body. There are several reasons for this. First, the manifested body appears on earth for the sole purpose of leading sentient beings toward awakening. It appears only when conditions are right. As soon as the Buddha has brought those who are ready to awakening and planted the proper seeds in those who are not yet ready, then the conditions which brought him to the world have dissipated and he departs.
Second, the Buddha does not remain to show us the truth that all things are impermanent. His manifested body comes to an end so that we may learn to look beyond our reverence for it to the even greater perfection of the Dharma body.
Third, by not remaining on earth, the Buddha emphasizes that awakening depends on our own effort, not on his. When we understand this we will be inspired to redouble our efforts to learn the Dharma.
Fourth, the Buddha does not remain on earth so that we gain a sense of how precious and valuable his teachings are and how easy it is to miss the chance to hear them. This should show us just how compassionate the Buddha is, and how the Dharma is taught solely to liberate sentient beings from suffering.
How the Three Bodies are Interrelated
A Buddha’s manifested body and his reward body are both dependent on the Dharma body, which underlies everything in the universe. To say this, however, does not mean that we should allow ourselves to oversimplify and blur these three aspects of the Buddha into one. The distinctions between the three bodies of the Buddha point us towards distinctions within our own minds.
There are three basic distinctions between a Buddha’s reward body and the Dharma body. First, the reward body has form and can be perceived by highly advanced bodhisattvas. In contrast, the Dharma body has no particular form, for it both includes and transcends all things everywhere.
Second, though a Buddha’s reward body can be perceived by some bodhisattvas, it is not perceived in the same way by each of them. In contrast, the Dharma body is immutable: it is beyond change, beyond transformation, and beyond all signs and appearance. One cannot have an individual perception of the Dharma body, because the Dharma body transcends all individuality.
Third, a Buddha’s reward body is so special it creates a field around it. This field is the Pure Land of that Buddha. Pure Lands can be perceived and experienced by the many different kinds of sentient beings that are drawn to them. In contrast, the Pure Land of the Dharma body is something that only a Buddha can know.
Just as there are three basic distinctions between a Buddha’s reward body and the Dharma body, so there are three important distinctions between a Buddha’s reward body and his manifested body. A Buddha’s reward body creates its own Pure Land around it and draws sentient beings toward it. In contrast, a Buddha’s manifested body appears in a world according to the collective karma of the sentient beings living there. The Lotus Sutra says that a Buddha “teaches the Dharma and manifests in the form that will be most effective for liberating” the people who will see it. The body referred to in this quotation is the Buddha’s manifested body.
Wherever that body appears, it will be seen according to the customs and expectations of the beings in that realm. If a Buddha appears in heaven, he will be seen as a heavenly being. If he appears in the human realm, he will be seen to have a human body. If he appears in the animal realm, he will be seen as an animal. And if he appears in the hell realm, he will be seen to have a body suitable to that realm.
Second, a Buddha’s manifested body cannot experience the fullness of awakening in the same way that his reward body can. A Buddha’s manifested body is a particular fulfillment of the karma of the beings in a certain realm. For this reason, it is also limited by the conditions of the realm in which it appears. For example, Sakyamuni Buddha had to endure headaches, back pain, insults, bad food, physical assaults, and death.
Third, a Buddha’s manifested body is limited by the comprehension of the beings of the realm in which it appears. For example, the manifested body of Sakyamuni Buddha as he appeared to people in our world did not have all of the sublime features of his reward body.
When we take refuge in the Triple Gem, at the most profound level we are taking refuge in nothing more than our own intrinsic nature. The truth lies within us already. The Dharma is a teaching designed to help us discover our intrinsic nature. The manifested body of Sakyamuni Buddha provides us with an example of how to live and how to achieve liberation from suffering in this world. As we follow that example, we will learn how to draw on the strength and wisdom of the Dharma body.
The Dharma body lies within us like the clear blue sky, or like the sun or the moon. In and of itself, it is always pure and undefiled. We lose sight of it only when the clouds of our own greed, anger, and ignorance obscure our view. We can discover the pure Dharma body that dwells within us by always turning our attention to our own best impulses. Whenever we are virtuous and compassionate, we interact with the Dharma body. Whenever we are inspired by the example of Sakyamuni Buddha, we are inspired by the Dharma body.
The great Chan Master Linji summed up our relationship to the three bodies of the Buddha in this way: “We enter upon the Dharma body of the Buddha the moment our minds are filled with the light of perfect purity. We enter upon the reward body of the Buddha the moment our minds are filled with the light that transcends all distinctions. We enter upon the manifested body of the Buddha the moment our minds are filled with the light of pure discernment.”