The Trikāya doctrine (Sanskrit, literally "three bodies"; Chinese: 三身; pinyin: sānshēn; Japanese pronunciation: sanjin, sanshin; Korean pronunciation: samsin; Vietnamese: tam thân, Tibetan: སྐུ་གསུམ, Wylie: sku gsum) is a Mahayana Buddhist teaching on both the nature of reality and the nature of Buddhahood. The doctrine says that Buddha has three kāyas or bodies, the Dharmakāya (ultimate reality), the Saṃbhogakāya (divine incarnation of Buddha), and the Nirmāṇakāya (physical incarnation of Buddha).[1][web 1]

The Trikāya Buddha (三身) in the main hall of Shanyuan Temple (善缘寺), Liaoning Province, China.


The doctrine says that a Buddha has three kāyas or bodies:

  1. The Dharmakāya, "Dharma body,"[1] ultimate reality,[web 1] "pure being itself,"[web 1] Buddha nature,[2] emptiness,[2] akin to Nirguna Brahman;[2]
  2. The Saṃbhogakāya, "Enjoyment (or Bliss) body,"[1] the divine Buddhas of the Buddha realms,[1] akin to Saguna Brahman;[2]
  3. The Nirmāṇakāya, "Transformation (or Appearance) Body,"[1] his physical appearance in the world,[1] akin to an avatar.


The Dharmakāya doctrine was possibly first expounded in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā "The Perfection of Wisdom In Eight Thousand Verses", composed in the 1st century BCE.[3]. Mahayana Buddhism introduced the Sambhogakāya, which conceptually fits between the Nirmāṇakāya (the manifestations of enlightenment in the physical world)[note 1] and the Dharmakaya. Around 300 CE, the Yogacara school systematized the prevalent ideas on the nature of the Buddha in the Trikaya or three-body doctrine.[4]

Interpretation in Buddhist traditionsEdit

Various Buddhist schools have different ideas about what the three bodies are.[web 2][web 3]

Chinese MahayanaEdit

Pure LandEdit

The Three Bodies of the Buddha from the point of view of Pure Land Buddhist thought can be broken down like so:[5]

  • The Nirmaṇakāya is a physical/manifest body of a Buddha. An example would be Gautama Buddha's body.
  • The Sambhogakāya is the reward/enjoyment body, whereby a bodhisattva completes his vows and becomes a Buddha. Amitābha, Vajrasattva and Manjushri are examples of Buddhas with the Sambhogakaya body.
  • The Dharmakāya is the embodiment of the truth itself, and it is commonly seen as transcending the forms of physical and spiritual bodies. Vairocana Buddha is often depicted as the Dharmakāya, particularly in esoteric Buddhist schools such as Shingon Buddhism, Tendai and Kegon in Japan.

As with earlier Buddhist thought, all three forms of the Buddha teach the same Dharma, but take on different forms to expound the truth.

Chan BuddhismEdit

According to Schloegl, in the Zhenzhou Linji Huizhao Chansi Yulu, the Three Bodies of the Buddha are not taken as absolute. They would be "mental configurations" that "are merely names or props" and would only perform a role of light and shadow of the mind.[6][note 2]

The Zhenzhou Linji Huizhao Chansi Yulu advises:

Do you wish to be not different from the Buddhas and patriarchs? Then just do not look for anything outside. The pure light of your own heart [i.e., 心, mind] at this instant is the Dharmakaya Buddha in your own house. The non-differentiating light of your heart at this instant is the Sambhogakaya Buddha in your own house. The non-discriminating light of your own heart at this instant is the Nirmanakaya Buddha in your own house. This trinity of the Buddha's body is none other than here before your eyes, listening to my expounding the Dharma.[8]

Tibetan BuddhismEdit


Vajrayana sometimes refers to a fourth body called the svābhāvikakāya (Tibetan: ངོ་བོ་ཉིད་ཀྱི་སྐུ, Wylie: ngo bo nyid kyi sku) "essential body",[web 4][9][web 5] and to a fifth body, called the mahāsūkhakāya (Wylie: bde ba chen po'i sku, "great bliss body").[10] The svābhāvikakāya is simply the unity or non-separateness of the three kayas.[web 6] The term is also known in Gelug teachings, where it is one of the assumed two aspects of the dharmakāya: svābhāvikakāya "essence body" and jñānakāya "body of wisdom".[11] Haribhadra claims that the Abhisamayalankara describes Buddhahood through four kāyas in chapter 8: svābhāvikakāya, [jñāna]dharmakāya, sambhogakāya and nirmāṇakāya.[12]

In dzogchen teachings, "dharmakaya" means the buddha-nature's absence of self-nature, that is, its emptiness of a conceptualizable essence, its cognizance or clarity is the sambhogakaya, and the fact that its capacity is 'suffused with self-existing awareness' is the nirmanakaya.[13]

The interpretation in Mahamudra is similar: When the mahamudra practices come to fruition, one sees that the mind and all phenomena are fundamentally empty of any identity; this emptiness is called dharmakāya. One perceives that the essence of mind is empty, but that it also has a potentiality that takes the form of luminosity.[clarification needed] In Mahamudra thought, Sambhogakāya is understood to be this luminosity. Nirmanakāya is understood to be the powerful force with which the potentiality affects living beings.[14]

In the view of Anuyoga, the Mind Stream (Sanskrit: citta santana) is the 'continuity' (Sanskrit: santana; Wylie: rgyud) that links the Trikaya.[web 1] The Trikāya, as a triune, is symbolised by the Gankyil.


A ḍākinī (Tibetan: མཁའ་འགྲོ་[མ་], Wylie: mkha' 'gro [ma] khandro[ma]) is a tantric deity described as a female embodiment of enlightened energy. The Sanskrit term is likely related to the term for drumming, while the Tibetan term means "sky goer" and may have originated in the Sanskrit khecara, a term from the Cakrasaṃvara Tantra.[3]

Ḍākinīs can also be classified according to the trikāya theory. The dharmakāya ḍākinī, which is Samantabhadrī, represents the dharmadhatu where all phenomena appear. The sambhogakāya ḍākinī are the yidams used as meditational deities for tantric practice. The nirmanakaya ḍākinīs are human women born with special potentialities; these are realized yogini, the consorts of the gurus, or even all women in general as they may be classified into the families of the Five Tathagatas.[web 7]

Non-Buddhist InterpretationsEdit

Theosophy, a Western esoteric school founded in the 19th century, regards Buddhism as containing esoteric teachings. In those supposed esoteric teachings of Buddhism, "exoteric Buddhism" believes that Nirmanakaya simply means the physical body of Buddha. According to the esoteric interpretation, when the Buddha dies, he assumes the Nirmanakaya instead of going into Nirvana. He remains in that glorious body he has woven for himself, invisible to uninitiated mankind, to watch over and protect it.[15]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Formerly called Rupakaya
  2. ^ Lin-ji yu-lu: "The scholars of the Sutras and Treatises take the Three Bodies as absolute. As I see it, this is not so. These Three Bodies are merely names, or props. An old master said: "The (Buddha's) Bodies are set up with reference to meaning; the (Buddha) Fields are distinguished with reference to substance." However, understood clearly, the Dharma Nature Bodies and the Dharma Nature Fields are only mental configurations."[7]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Snelling 1987, p. 100.
  2. ^ a b c d Griffin 2018, p. 278.
  3. ^ a b Buswell, Robert Jr; Lopez, Donald S. Jr., eds. (2013). Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691157863.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  4. ^ Snelling 1987, p. 126.
  5. ^ Hattori, Sho-on (2001). A Raft from the Other Shore : Honen and the Way of Pure Land Buddhism. Jodo Shu Press. pp. 25–27. ISBN 4-88363-329-2.
  6. ^ Schloegl 1976, p. 19.
  7. ^ Schloegl 1976, p. 21.
  8. ^ Schloegl 1976, p. 18.
  9. ^ In the book Embodiment of Buddhahood Chapter 4 the subject is: Embodiment of Buddhahood in its Own Realization: Yogacara Svabhavikakaya as Projection of Praxis and Gnoseology.
  10. ^ Tsangnyön Heruka (1995). The life of Marpa the translator : seeing accomplishes all. Boston: Shambhala. p. 229. ISBN 978-1570620874.
  11. ^ Williams, Paul (1993). Mahayana Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations (Reprinted ed.). London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-02537-9.
  12. ^ Makransky, John J. (1997). Buddhahood embodied : sources of controversy in India and Tibet. Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press. p. 115. ISBN 978-0791434314.
  13. ^ Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, page 315.
  14. ^ Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, pages 284-285.
  15. ^ Helena Blavatsky, The Voice of the Silence Theosophical Publishing Co., pages 75-77.


Printed sources
Web sources
  1. ^ a b c d Welwood, John (2000). The Play of the Mind: Form, Emptiness, and Beyond, accessed January 13, 2007
  2. ^ 佛三身觀之研究-以漢譯經論為主要研究對象[dead link]
  3. ^ 佛陀的三身觀
  4. ^ remarks on Svabhavikakaya by
  5. ^ explanation of meaning
  6. ^ citing H.E. Tai Situpa
  7. ^ Cf. Capriles, Elías (2003/2007). Buddhism and Dzogchen [1]', and Capriles, Elías (2006/2007). Beyond Being, Beyond Mind, Beyond History, vol. I, Beyond Being[2]

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit