The Three Kayas

The Perpetual Bliss Models   |  The Immortality Models

Contrary to what some Tibetan Buddhists would tell you, arahants have a deep understanding of what is meant by their teaching of the three kayas or “bodies”. For me, the three kayas are very close in meaning and implication to the scopes of the three trainings. 

Arahants understand the fullness of the implications of having been born and of there still being a body and mind (called the nirmanakaya or “manifestation body”), relating to training in morality. All teachings of dependent arising, interconnection, and interdependence fall into the realm of the nirmanakaya.

I realize that this presentation is likely to seem forced and unsatisfying to those with deep, formal Vajrayana training, given its fusion of concepts and terms across traditions that are a bit of a rough philosophical fit. However, I put it here to try to counter the tendency towards gross or subtle aversion in those practitioners—from whatever tradition—who wish to reject their ordinary body and life if they are in favor of the dream of being able to escape into more rarified realms. A good tantric practitioner can work with whatever ordinary sensations arise, whereas a deluded, aversive practitioner may seek to find ways out of this ordinary world without embracing it properly or at all. “A good Vajrayana practitioner will learn to see the ‘ordinary’ as nothing other than deeply sacred and extraordinary,” so said a very helpful Tibetan nun to me one day.

Arahants and those with similar levels of realization know intimately the fullness of the ordinary realities of the human condition: sickness (physical and mental), health, sorrow, joy, conflict, harmony, pleasure, pain, clarity, confusion, stupidity, and brilliance. These manifest according to the same natural laws that have always been in effect, contrary to popular belief. A body was born and it will get sick and die. The eight worldly winds of being happy or unhappy respectively in relation to praise and blame, fame and ill repute, pleasure and pain, and gain and loss still blow impersonally as always. The laws of biochemistry, physics, and physiology still hold. We still must pay taxes. From a cynic’s point of view, the nirmanakaya is the most disappointing aspect of awakening. Did you really imagine that somehow it would be otherwise? Don’t believe the hype! Another of the great Bill Hamilton one-liners was, “Suffering less, noticing it more.” The more we wake up, the more we notice exactly what it means to have been born.

The nirmanakaya points to what is meant by this passage pertaining to the arahant: “The disturbances resulting from the taint of being can no longer be found here, the disturbances related to the taint of attraction can no longer be found here, the disturbances related to the taint of aversion can no longer be found here, and yet there remain the disturbances inherent in these six sense doors that are dependent on a body and conditioned by life,” from sutta 121, “The Shorter Discourse on Voidness”, in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (MN 121). Notice that this says, “six sense doors”. Arahants still think, contrary to occasional myths about “stopping thought”, as noted before. While the content of thoughts is still inherently dual, the true nature of the way thoughts manifest is non-dual. Arahants know both aspects of thought directly, a bit like being able to see waves on the ocean and yet also that the whole thing is made of water and intimately connected. No wave would ever be fooled into thinking that one wave was watching, controlling, or isolated from another.

The nirmanakaya teachings point to the aspect of integrated manifestation to do with personality, habits, and issues of character. Don’t imagine that just by understanding the full ultimate truth of phenomena that these things will somehow lose their considerable causal inertia. To paraphrase Chinul, the great Korean Chan monk, just because the sun is shining brightly doesn’t mean that all the snow will instantly melt.

On a related theme, the nirmanakaya also relates to the facts of the physiological inertia and biological conditioning of the bodily aspects of emotional life. The mind of an arahant is extremely resilient, but the flesh of mammals such as humans works according to the same laws that were in place before. The spacious mental resilience of an arahant has some positive consequences for physical life, but this reliance does not completely transform it. Thus, physical sensations associated with hunger, pain, tiredness, sexual arousal, nervousness, fear, and all the rest are still intimate realities for the living, mammalian arahant when they arise, and are not inconsequential, though the points made above in the karma model about seeing things arise and vanish still apply. The nirmanakaya includes issues of biochemistry and neurochemistry, and all the issues of mental pathology that may go along with these.

Another aspect of the perpetual bliss models we just mentioned, and directly related to the nirmanakaya, are the “no pain” models, which generally state that fully awakened beings must not feel any pain at all, as how could there be no suffering while there was still pain? Or, they state that fully enlightened beings might feel pain but it would not be pain to them, or that there would be no possible mental or physiological reaction to that pain. I have had plenty of exposure to some very advanced practitioners and do I know any that feel no pain? No. Do I know any who would seem to be able to handle any amount of pain and not have any physiological stress reactions to that? No.

Is it true that meditative practices can reduce the amount of additional suffering in relation to the pain we experience? Yes, as plenty of even relatively novice practitioners with diseases like cancer have found this to be the case over the years; suffering can be reduced with deep insights. Is it true that as the field wakes up to the localized nature of perception and the proportion of the painful part of the field gets smaller and smaller, that this can really help put pain into perspective and make for optimal responses to it? Definitely.

Do I believe that this can be made limitless such that any amount of pain for any period would be totally blissful and cause no problems? Not at all. Thus, realism regarding what it means to have been born a mammal is called for, as well as hope that we can make things better by practicing well, but in a grounded way. I call to the stand the case of Channa, the arahant in the suttas (MN 144) who committed suicide as the pain at the end of his life was too much to bear, and, for those interested in reading up on the complexity and controversy of these things, try an internet search for Channa as well as Godhika and Vakkali. Further, the Buddha himself suffered from back pain and bad headaches as mentioned already, and his death from some abdominal malady due possibly to food poisoning (or maybe bowel ischemia?) was a very painful one. Nanavira Thera is another relatively recent example.

The nirmanakaya bears out the truth so well articulated by Lao Tzu when he talked about dark and light containing one another and difficulty and ease complementing one another. No level of awakening will allow us to pick just our favorite half of physical reality or humanity and eradicate the rest. This simply never happens and is not possible.

I think that everyone on the spiritual path should occasionally sit down with a piece of paper and list our favorite half of reality that we imagine or wish would be left if we got fully enlightened, and then list all the aspects of reality that we wish or believe would vanish forever. We should then list the things that we imagine would show up due to realization that are not here now. The differences between these lists often point directly to what blocks the development of wisdom from clear acceptance and understanding of reality.

Even arahants and Buddhas have a favorite half of reality as well as dreams about how things could be, so these dreams are not the problem. The difference is that highly realized beings understand directly that both the “good” and the “bad” aspects are of the nature of ultimate truth, including all thoughts about them, and this makes all the difference. These sensations flicker effortlessly and vanish, getting no more or less consideration than they are due. The point I am trying to make here is to include the sensations that make up your world in your practice, and not to retreat into idealized fantasies of what realization will be like, though notice such sensations when they occur.

Arahants also have a wondrous understanding of all of this that is unique to them and to Buddhas (though there may be hints of it at third path) called the sambhogakaya. They know that the full range of phenomenal reality and even the full range of the emotional life can be deeply appreciated for what it is. They see that the world of concepts, language, symbols, visions, magickal experiences, thoughts, and dreams is fundamentally the same as the world of materiality, that they both share the same essential nature from an experiential point of view. The first line of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning there was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God,” is a nice way to put it. For those who find this phrase too cryptic, I paraphrase it as: “From the beginning, concepts, words, dreams, visions, and the realm of thought have always been an aspect of ultimate reality.”

Further, in some strange way even the worst of the world has a wondrous richness of texture that can be deeply enjoyed, and a mysterious and sometimes awe-inspiring glory mixed into it. What we were looking for was permeating all the sensations without exception that had made up our world all along! What a staggering irony this is, and what a silent joy it is to discover this at last. This is what is meant by “the bliss of nirvana”. It is a subtler understanding than that of the nirmanakaya and in some largely mysterious way does not contradict it. When everything is just happening naturally, something about that feels great. When thoughts and unpleasant sensations are perceived naturally in their proper proportion, this is a real improvement. As the Tibetans often say, “Amazing! It all happens by itself!”

Beyond even this, arahants also understand in real time what is meant by the dharmakaya, that somehow none of this is them. The dharmakaya seems to pervade all of this simultaneously, not be all of this, and be utterly beyond all of this. It seems to be permanent and yet unfindable, empty and yet aware. The dharmakaya might be called the “simultaneous mind”, in that sensate phenomena and awareness are known to arise immediately as part of each other. [See Pointing Out the Great Way, a remarkable book on mahamudra, by Daniel P. Brown, footnote 47.]

However, for many practitioners, describing the dharmakaya can lead to attempts to solidify some transcendent and stable super-space that can’t ever be found, creating a wild goose chase for those who grasp onto the sense that somehow the dharmakaya must be an eternally abiding thing or something other than what is going on right now. It can also lead those who wish to escape entirely to try to find a safe space that is totally outside this world into which to vanish.

The dharmakaya is often described using very paradoxical language, though an arahant would know directly what it is pointing to. This is what is sometimes being referred to by extremely confusing phrases such as “going beyond birth and death”, “samsara is nirvana”, “the arahant is traceless here and now”, “true self”, and “no-self”. Interestingly, the nirmanakaya also relates directly to both what is sometimes meant by “true self” and “no-self”. There is something beautiful and yet tragic in this—a “dark comedy” as a friend of mine put it.

To even say that the dharmakaya is a very subtle understanding makes no sense, as the understanding of dharmakaya arises more from what is absent (dualistic fixation and misperception) rather than a sense of the presence of something. On the other hand, the presence of everything bears witness to it, as it is intrinsic to all phenomena and not some separate thing. Should someone (and you know who you are, Tom) read this and think, “Ah, this deluded X-bastard is articulating the vile heresy of Atman Buddhism, implying some absolute true self, some truly permanent something,” know truly in the depths of your not-self that I am not, so be at ease.

All three realizations (nirmanakaya, sambhogakaya, and dharmakaya) are accessible to the arahant at any time by the mere inclination towards them, which is to say these perspectives arise dependent on causes in their own time. They are three complementary perspectives on the same thing. It is like being able to see the validity of the perspective of all three people in the classic Taoist painting called “The Vinegar Tasters”, with Confucius and his laws for living in the world relating to the nirmanakaya, Lao Tzu and his deep appreciation of life relating to the sambhogakaya, and the Buddha and his emphasis on nirvana and going beyond suffering, birth and death relating to the dharmakaya. Most people think of this painting as a Taoist slam on the other two traditions, but I think that the deeper meaning here is much more useful.

The teaching of the three ultimate dharmas of materiality, mentality, and nibbana that I articulated earlier is closely related to the Indian Buddhist concepts of the three kayas or aspects of the fully enlightened condition. The nirmanakaya relates to form, the sambhogakaya relates to the enjoyable, quiet, and spacious peace of the fully enlightened mind that unifies the mental and physical into the same field of experience, and the dharmakaya relates to nibbana.

Were only the nirmanakaya true, we might be tempted to say unitive experiences are the answer and that we are the whole field of experience. Were only the dharmakaya true, we might be tempted to say crazy things, such as that transcendent “experiences” are the answer, that we create and know the whole field of experience, that we do not exist, and that we are the deathless or God. None of these frameworks can clearly explain the experience of realization on their own.

Presenting the three kayas also allows me to continue to hammer relentlessly on the point about people wanting to find some spiritual reality other than this one. The huge temptation when walking the spiritual path is to try desperately to find a way to get the magical and wondrous ease of the sambhogakaya and the seemingly transcendent luminosity of the dharmakaya while secretly hoping that the down-to-earth, mundane, intimate, visceral, vulnerable, and often embarrassing nirmanakaya will just crawl away and die or at least radically reform itself. The nirmanakaya is often treated as though it were the bastard stepchild of the fully enlightened condition, but you can’t have one without the others. Intimacy with reality is bought at the price of attaining transcendence. Transcendence is bought at the price of attaining intimacy with reality. These inescapable facts should not be forgotten.

The all too common temptation of those who advertise and sell spirituality is to sing the praises of the sambhogakaya and dharmakaya while trying to gloss over the profound yet down-to-earth implications of the nirmanakaya. Buyer beware! If awakened beings didn’t feel the fullness of their humanity and the ordinary world, compassion for themselves and others would be completely impossible. From a Tibetan point of view, it is because awakened beings progressively lose their artificial defenses against this realm that they have no choice but to become bodhisattvas, bringing awakening to this material realm, which brings us nicely to our next model …

The Perpetual Bliss Models   |  The Immortality Models