Buddhism 101 Series #4 The Three Kayas Trinity – One and Many

Sambhogakaya Buddha

The Buddhist equivalent of the Trinity is what is known as the Three Kayas, sometimes translated as the ‘three bodies of the Buddha.’ Before describing what they are, it might be helpful to point out an assumption that might not be immediately apparent to the typical modern person reading this. That assumption is that we live in a fundamentally spiritual world in that reality is comprised principally of spirit from which matter emerges. Today this seems somewhat outlandish or fantastical, but in fact it has been how most humans have thought throughout history. Take the Genesis story for example: here it quite simply posits that God created the world and then created Man in that world – and all in only seven days. God is not defined exactly but He is some sort of intelligent being who essentially used Mind to create Matter and in the beginning was ‘Word’ or ‘Logos.’

Many pagan deities dwell in realms above this material plane from where they lord it over us. Such notions as Thor God of Thunder and Zeus God of all Gods may seem quaint and rather silly today but quite likely they are more vivid in the context in which they were originally treated, namely family or tribal stories around the fire in which the attention of children as well as adults needed to be held. Be that as it may, they clearly involved deeply powerful ideas and energetic qualities.

In any case, an assumption being made in the Three Kaya postulate is that we live in a spiritual world, a world where mind trumps matter not the other way around as most modern people now believe. Moreover a spiritual world is one experienced during the course of our actual lives not an abstraction suitable only for philosophers to discuss in classrooms, libraries and conferences.

So what are the Three Kayas?
The word kaya means body and the three bodies under discussion are the three bodies we encounter throughout all our experienced reality. The Sanskrit terms are:
Dharmakaya
Sambhogakaya
Nirmanakaya.

Dharmakaya means ‘body of dharma’ which latter in this case means truth or reality; more experientially we could say ‘isness’ or ‘beingness.’
Sambhogakaya means ‘body of perfect enjoyment’ which in this case means various qualitative aspects that come up in relation to the other two. There is no end to the variety of energetic display making our reality fundamentally creative and playful – not to mention marvelous and beautiful.
Nirmanakaya means ‘body of manifest form’ which in this case includes organisms, objects and so on – our physically manifest phenomenal world.

All three can be explained with a simple ocean analogy. Dharmakaya is the ocean itself in its entirety. The millions of different particularities on the surface such as ripples, waves, spray and so forth – infinite in number and with each particularity entirely unique and never to be repeated – all of this is Nirmanakaya. The energetic qualities of those particulars is the Sambhogakaya – some waves are huge, some tiny ripples, some rushing, some placid, some breaking apart, some massing together, some playful, some life threatening, some blue, some green and so forth. In other words, the physical forms are expressive, communicative, dynamic or what can be called qualitative. These qualities are neither the ocean or the form per se, rather something intermediate in the middle created by both.

These three kayas, though distinct, are inseparable; no single one happens without the other two being present so basically they are just three aspects of one overall reality. And again, reality is not some dead thing outside in a non-living world; reality is an experiential realm whose fundamental property is that of being awake and knowing, one technical term for which is ‘Buddha.’ That’s why these are often referred to as ‘the three bodies of Buddha’ for they are the three aspects of what we call Reality, so Buddha here is not so much the historical person who first presented all this rather the self-existing wakeful quality that permeates all levels of our existence and which he both discovered and managed to communicate as something all others could also experience. They are also the three bodies which comprise each of us as beings living in this realm, so they are descriptions of our own fundamental Buddha nature which all living beings possess naturally.

Primordial wakefulness is the main quality of the Ocean and one which pervades all the other kayas, i.e. all and everything. It is beyond birth and death because it dwells forever and only in the present and thus is primordial, beyond time. Put more simply: it’s always there no matter what, just like the ocean is always there no matter what is happening on its surface, moreover the surface is not separate from the ocean even though it has many more particular displays – waves, ripples, currents, foam etc.

The main quality of all waves is that they are the many particularities within the domain of the ocean’s One. We live in a world of limitless particulars each of which in its own particular place. If you look around you can probably see thousands of different particulars. Out of my windows as I type, for example, I can see thousands of different leaves, millions of blades of grass, occasionally dozens of birds feeding on fallen oranges, whilst many more are cackling or singing in the trees all around; there is blue sky, sun shining on some things, others being in shade, a squirrel or two come leaping by, no end of things in the garden like trees, bushes, flowers, walls, tools, a shed, a path, bricks lining the path. If I look inside on the table there are dozens of particulars in various compartments, shelves, drawers. On my hand there are wrinkles, lines, spots, areas of light and shade, different fingers, movements of fingers and so on. It is endless. This is the world of the surface, the world of endless waves and movement and particularities, of Nirmanakaya. Every spot in our world is filled with this infinite array of particulars – the many or what the Dao Te Ching calls ‘the ten thousand things.’

Again Sambhogakaya is the energetic interplay of the fathomless ocean of primordially awake knowing and that from which it is inseparable, namely each and every particular event and phenomena all of which are in some sort of constant dance or play, arising and then dwelling for a while doing whatever dance any particular wave does, and then dissolving back into the oceanic continuum from whence they came and from which they never truly separated but in the meantime got to express some sort of drama, some sort of beauty, some sort of dynamic, some sort of display, some sort of life, some sort of something. (Hopefully the picture at the beginning of this article now makes more sense.)

So that is what is going on each and every minute of each and every day with each and every being in each and every place anywhere and everywhere. And this, if you will, is the traditional Buddhist view of Reality, these are the ‘Three Bodies of Buddha,’ the Three Kayas,or what I think of as the inseparability of One and Many.

Now (perhaps!) you are ready to make a little sense of a traditional explanation such as found here in an online Tibetan Buddhist dictionary:
http://www.tibetanbuddhistencyclopedia.com/en/index.php?title=Three_Kayas

Hopefully now after reading this Article’s everyday language you can penetrate into what is being discussed in typically opaque specialist vocabulary. It’s not that the explanations are wrong or poorly worded but too often any simple experiential meaning gets lost under the huge pile of verbiage.

Photo © Darren Seamark / Stocksy United

Liturgy References:

All beings in this self-dreaming universe present aspects of Body, Mind and Speech.
Flowers in their flowering communicate the lovely enlightened language of Flowering Being
With manifold qualities of form, texture, colour, temperature, scent, beauty, sensitivity.
All forms embody living languages of meaningful qualities – which some call ‘gods’ –
Continuously broadcast and received throughout this dreamlike continuum.

Body Speech and Mind are shorthand terms for the Three Kayas. The text emphasizes the speech aspect in order to highlight how all the forms about to be listed include an intelligence aspect, that the qualities they express are built into the form in the first place, which is why a flower ‘communicates … flowering being…… all such forms together weaving karmic spells of interdependent being, living languages of meaningful qualities.’

Here is the full text from the Long Daily Liturgy:

All beings in this alive and awake self-dreaming universe present aspects of:
Body – some sort of shape or form manifest in location and terrain
Mind – some sort of consciousness, awareness or intention
Speech – some sort of communicative expression of meaningful information singing a
Living symphony of ever forming and reforming clouds and waves of Primordial Intelligence
A marvellous holographic self-mothering Song making itself up as it goes along
Saturated in interconnected living presence pervading all and everything
Manifesting no end of self-organizing life forms, living creatures imagined into sentient being
With all their co-emergent elemental and inanimate phenomena
Comprising luminous intelligence inseparably part of the universal background field continuum
Containing, including and pervading all and everything, micro and macro.

Flowers in their flowering communicate the lovely enlightened language of flowering being
With manifold qualities of form, texture, colour, temperature, scent, beauty, sensitivity;
As with flowers so with all, from microscopic universes to macrocosmic spiralling galaxies
Multifarious microbes permeating soil and all life forms, primordially awake plants
Majestic trees, incredible insects, fabulous fishes, beautiful birds, marvellous
Animals, minerals, metals, crystals, silver, gold, jewels
Rainbows, sky, stars, ocean, wind, clouds, rain, sunlight, moonlight, thunder, lightning
Mountains, valleys, jungles, deserts, farms, steppes, rural, urban, stormy, placid
Earth, water, fire, air, red, green, blue, yellow, purple, indigo
Visibles, touchables, smellables, tastables, audibles, edibles
Perfumes, spices, herbs, meats, fats, oils, vegetables, fruits, sweets, sours, fermented
Wools, cottons, furs, silks, costumes, uniforms, males, females, dressed, naked:
All such forms together weaving karmic spells of interdependent being
Living languages of meaningful qualities – which some call ‘gods’
Continuously broadcast and received throughout this dreamlike experiential continuum
All basically empty, basically luminous, basically workable, basically good.

Hopefully these lines now make more sense in the light of the Three Kayas description and vice versa.


As part of the limitless cornucopia of particularities in the phenomenal world we are born into and help create as we go moment by moment we also have inner feelings, our emotions, reactions and so forth, which in turn have languages of their own which manifest, for example, as different tribal and national cultures and languages. Moreover all creatures express no end of feeling and emotion albeit in different ways in accordance with their various makeups. This is why the Long Form text continues next with:

When we pay close attention and relax into any unfolding inner feeling like
Courage, love, wonder, joy, disgust, fear, anger, sadness, grief, peace

fetid cesspool, putrid sewer, whispered moan of pain or pleasure

chronic fatigue, exhaustion, ache or anguish, a simple touch, taste, sound or smell

– blue jungle butterfly fluttering aslant golden sunbeam

– white daisies of detail in willowing green meadow of awareness
Through the portal of any such particular we plunge into an ocean of experiential infinity

Where one is many, all are one, where we are all each others’ undying and unborn ancestors
All we think, say and do echoing throughout eternity, an ever-present lineage of
Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, lovers, teachers, allies, enemies, leaders, followers
Friends, rivals, predator, prey, masters, slaves, warriors, cowards, saints and sinners
So many shapes and colours, large and small, coarse and fine, fangs, teeth, claws and fingernails
All inseparable from innate wisdom, all fellow poet dreamers.

(forgive formatting problems – there are some things very hard to control in the WordPress editorial interface)

Basically, we live in a universe filled with feeling and communication that features the multifarious many on the surface all of which reflect the underlying knowing presence of the ocean beneath of which they are an inseparable part no matter how much materialist scientists and cultural influencers attempt to persuade us otherwise!

The topic of spirituality versus materialism in the light of this Three Kaya world view will be the subject of a forthcoming article….

Published by The Baron

Retired non-profit administrator.

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