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The Trikaya Buddha (San Shen ) in the main hall of Shanyuan Temple (Shan Yuan Si ), Liaoning Province, China. Shan Yuan Si -2.jpg
The Trikāya Buddha (三身) in the main hall of Shanyuan Temple (善缘寺), Liaoning Province, China.

The Trikāya doctrine (Sanskrit : त्रिकाय, lit. "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 fundamental doctrine within Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism that delineates the multidimensional nature of a Buddha's existence. This concept posits that a Buddha has three distinct bodies or aspects, each representing a different facet of enlightenment. [1] [web 1] The first body is the Dharmakaya, often referred to as the "Dharma body" or ultimate reality. This embodies the essence of enlightenment itself, encompassing concepts like emptiness, Buddha nature, and pure existence beyond material and spiritual forms.


The second body, known as the Sambhogakaya, is the "Enjoyment body." This aspect represents the divine Buddhas of the Buddha realms and is associated with the blissful and rewarding aspect of Buddhahood. It is considered a manifestation that arises as a result of fulfilling vows and commitments on the spiritual journey. The Sambhogakaya embodies the idea of reaping the benefits of spiritual practice and dwelling in sublime states of realization.

The third body, the Nirmanakaya, is referred to as the "Transformation body." This represents the physical appearance of a Buddha in the world. Historical Buddhas like Gautama Buddha are manifestations of the Nirmanakaya, allowing them to interact with and guide sentient beings on their path to enlightenment. This earthly embodiment serves as a bridge between the divine and the human, making the teachings and compassion of a Buddha accessible to those seeking guidance and wisdom.

In essence, the Trikaya doctrine offers a profound framework for understanding the diverse dimensions of Buddhahood. It demonstrates how a Buddha can simultaneously exist in multiple realms and embody a spectrum of qualities, guiding practitioners toward liberation and awakening through various aspects of their being. While the doctrine's interpretations may vary across different Buddhist traditions, the core essence of the Trikaya remains a cornerstone of Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings, providing a comprehensive perspective on the nature of enlightenment.


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, it is usually associated with Vairocana; [2]
  2. The Saṃbhogakāya , "Enjoyment (or Bliss) body," [1] the divine Buddhas of the Buddha realms, [1] akin to Saguna Brahman, it is usually associated with Amitabha; [2]
  3. The Nirmāṇakāya , "Transformation (or Appearance) Body," [1] physical appearance in the world, it is usually associated with Gautama. [1]


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 physical manifestation of enlightenment) 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 traditions

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

Chinese Buddhism

The Three Bodies of the Buddha consists of: [5] [6]

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

According to Schloegl, in the Zhenzhou Linji Huizhao Chansi Yulu (which is a Chan Buddhist compilation), 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. [7] [note 1]

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. [9]

Japanese Buddhism

In Tendai and Shingon of Japan, they are known as the Three Mysteries (三密, sanmitsu).

Tibetan Buddhism

According to W.Y. Evans-Wentz, the trikaya represents the esoteric trinity (three bodies) of the Northern School of Buddhism (Mahayana). It consists of:

It is through these three divine bodies that One-Wisdom, the One-Mind manifests itself. [10] [ page needed ] [11] [ page needed ]

Three Vajras

The Three Vajras, namely "body, speech and mind", are a formulation within Vajrayana Buddhism and Bon that hold the full experience of the śūnyatā "emptiness" of Buddha-nature, void of all qualities (Wylie : yon tan) and marks [12] (Wylie : mtshan dpe) and establish a sound experiential key upon the continuum of the path to enlightenment. The Three Vajras correspond to the trikaya and therefore also have correspondences to the Three Roots and other refuge formulas of Tibetan Buddhism. The Three Vajras are viewed in twilight language as a form of the Three Jewels, which imply purity of action, speech and thought.

The Three Vajras are often mentioned in Vajrayana discourse, particularly in relation to samaya, the vows undertaken between a practitioner and their guru during empowerment. The term is also used during Anuttarayoga Tantra practice.

The Three Vajras are often employed in tantric sādhanā at various stages during the visualization of the generation stage, refuge tree, guru yoga and iṣṭadevatā processes. The concept of the Three Vajras serves in the twilight language to convey polysemic meanings,[ citation needed ] aiding the practitioner to conflate and unify the mindstream of the iṣṭadevatā, the guru and the sādhaka in order for the practitioner to experience their own Buddha-nature.

Speaking for the Nyingma tradition, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche perceives an identity and relationship between Buddha-nature, dharmadhatu, dharmakāya, rigpa and the Three Vajras:

Dharmadhātu is adorned with Dharmakāya, which is endowed with Dharmadhātu Wisdom. This is a brief but very profound statement, because "Dharmadhātu" also refers to Sugatagarbha or Buddha-Nature. Buddha- Nature is all-encompassing... This Buddha-Nature is present just as the shining sun is present in the sky. It is indivisible from the Three Vajras [i.e. the Buddha's Body, Speech and Mind] of the awakened state, which do not perish or change. [13]

Robert Beer (2003: p. 186) states:

The trinity of body, speech, and mind are known as the three gates, three receptacles or three vajras, and correspond to the western religious concept of righteous thought (mind), word (speech), and deed (body). The three vajras also correspond to the three kayas, with the aspect of body located at the crown (nirmanakaya), the aspect of speech at the throat (sambhogakaya), and the aspect of mind at the heart (dharmakaya)." [14]

The bīja corresponding to the Three Vajras are: a white om (enlightened body), a red ah (enlightened speech) and a blue hum (enlightened mind). [15]

Simmer-Brown (2001: p. 334) asserts that:

When informed by tantric views of embodiment, the physical body is understood as a sacred maṇḍala (Wylie: lus kyi dkyil). [16]

This explicates the semiotic rationale for the nomenclature of the somatic discipline called trul khor.

The triple continua of body-voice-mind are intimately related to the Dzogchen doctrine of "sound, light and rays" (Wylie : sgra 'od zer gsum) as a passage of the rgyud bu chung bcu gnyis kyi don bstan pa ('The Teaching on the Meaning of the Twelve Child Tantras') rendered into English by Rossi (1999: p. 65) states (Tibetan provided for probity):

From the Basis (of) all, empty (and) without cause,
sound, the dynamic potential of the Dimension, arises.
From the Awareness, empty (and) without cause,
light, the dynamic potential (of) Primordial Wisdom, appears.
From the inseparability, empty (and) without cause,
rays, the dynamic potential of the Essence, appear.
When sound, light and rays are taken (as) instrumental causes
(that) ignorance (turns into) the delusion of body, speech (and) mind;
the result (is) wandering in the circle (of) the three spheres. [17]
བྲས་བུ་ཁམས་གསུམ་འཁོར་བར་འཁྱམས༎ [17]

Barron et al. (1994, 2002: p. 159), renders from Tibetan into English, a terma "pure vision" (Wylie : dag snang) of Sri Singha by Dudjom Lingpa that describes the Dzogchen state of 'formal meditative equipoise' (Tibetan: nyam-par zhag-pa) which is the indivisible fulfillment of vipaśyanā and śamatha, Sri Singha states:

Just as water, which exists in a naturally free-flowing state, freezes into ice under the influence of a cold wind, so the ground of being exists in a naturally free state, with the entire spectrum of samsara established solely by the influence of perceiving in terms of identity.
Understanding this fundamental nature, you give up the three kinds of physical activity--good, bad, and neutral--and sit like a corpse in a charnal ground, with nothing needing to be done. You likewise give up the three kinds of verbal activity, remaining like a mute, as well as the three kinds of mental activity, resting without contrivance like the autumn sky free of the three polluting conditions. [18]


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] [19] [web 5] and to a fifth body, called the mahāsūkhakāya (Wylie : bde ba chen po'i sku, "great bliss body"). [20] 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". [21] Haribhadra claims that the Abhisamayalankara describes Buddhahood through four kāyas in chapter 8: svābhāvikakāya, [jñāna]dharmakāya, sambhogakāya and nirmāṇakāya. [22]

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. [23]

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. [24]

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]

See also


  1. 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." [8]

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Snelling 1987, p. 100.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Griffin 2018, p. 278.
  3. 1 2 Buswell, Robert Jr; Lopez, Donald S. Jr., eds. (2013). Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN   9780691157863.
  4. Snelling 1987, p. 126.
  5. Xing, Guang (2004-11-10). The Concept of the Buddha: Its Evolution from Early Buddhism to the Trikaya Theory. London: Routledge. doi:10.4324/9780203413104. ISBN   978-0-203-41310-4.
  6. Habito, Ruben L. F. (1986). "The Trikāya Doctrine in Buddhism". Buddhist-Christian Studies. 6: 53–62. doi:10.2307/1390131. ISSN   0882-0945. JSTOR   1390131.
  7. Schloegl 1976, p. 19.
  8. Schloegl 1976, p. 21.
  9. Schloegl 1976, p. 18.
  10. W.Y. Evans-Wentz, Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, Oxford University Press, London: Humphrey Milford, 1935; pp 39-40, 46
  11. W.Y. Evans-Wentz, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Oxford University Press, London: Humphrey Milford, 1927; pp 10-15
  12. '32 major marks' (Sanskrit: dvātriṃśanmahāpuruṣalakṣaṇa), and the '80 minor marks' (Sanskrit: aśītyanuvyañjana) of a superior being, refer: Physical characteristics of the Buddha.
  13. As It Is, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, Rangjung Yeshe Books, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 32
  14. Beer, Robert (2003). The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols. Serindia Publications. ISBN   1-932476-03-2 Source: (accessed: December 7, 2007)
  15. Rinpoche, Pabongka (1997). Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand: A Concise Discourse on the Path to Enlightenment. Wisdom Books. p. 196.
  16. Simmer-Brown, Judith (2001). Dakini's Warm Breath: the Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism. Boston, USA: Shambhala. ISBN   1-57062-720-7 (alk. paper). p.334
  17. 1 2 Rossi, Donatella (1999). The philosophical view of the great perfection in the Tibetan Bon religion. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications. p. 65. ISBN   1-55939-129-4.
  18. Lingpa, Dudjom; Tulku, Chagdud; Norbu, Padma Drimed; Barron, Richard (Lama Chökyi Nyima, translator); Fairclough, Susanne (translator) (1994, 2002 revised). Buddhahood without meditation: a visionary account known as 'Refining one's perception' (Nang-jang) (English; Tibetan: ran bźin rdzogs pa chen po'i ranźal mnon du byed pa'i gdams pa zab gsan sñin po). Revised Edition. Junction City, CA, USA: Padma Publishing. ISBN   1-881847-33-0, p.159
  19. 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.
  20. Tsangnyön Heruka (1995). The life of Marpa the translator : seeing accomplishes all. Boston: Shambhala. p. 229. ISBN   978-1570620874.
  21. Williams, Paul (1993). Mahayana Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations (Reprinted ed.). London: Routledge. ISBN   978-0-415-02537-9.
  22. 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.
  23. Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, page 315.
  24. Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, pages 284-285.


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