From New World Encyclopedia

The Dharmakāya (lit. Truth Body or Reality Body) is a central concept in Mahayana Buddhism forming part of the Trikaya doctrine that was first expounded in the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra (The Lotus Sutra), composed in the first century B.C.E. It constitutes the unmanifested, inconceivable aspect of a Buddha according to which all 'phenomena' (Sanskrit: dharmas) arise and to which they return after their dissolution. Unlike ordinary unenlightened persons, Buddhas (and arhats) are said not to die (though their physical bodies undergo the cessation of biological functions and subsequent disintegration).

In the Lotus Sutra, Buddha explains that he has always and will always exist to lead beings to their salvation. This aspect of Buddha is the Dharmakaya. The Dharmakaya may be considered the most sublime or truest reality in the Universe corresponding closely to the post-Vedic conception of Brahman.


Buddhism has always recognized the existence of more than one Buddha throughout time. The early Buddhist scriptures known as the Pali Canon mention twenty-eight previous Buddhas stating that Gautama Buddha (the historical Buddha), is simply the one who has appeared in our world age.

During the Buddha's life great reverence and veneration was shown towards him by persons from the highest to the lowest social classes. The Buddha understood that this veneration was sometimes misguided based on superficialities and appearances and he warned people against turning to him as an object of worship. Thus he forbade sculptures that represented his physical form. Nonetheless, a mythology developed concerning the physical characteristics of Universal Buddhas. In the Pali scriptures, it is claimed that all Buddhas have the 32 major marks, and the 80 minor marks of a superior being. These marks are not necessarily physical, but are talked about as bodily features. They include the 'ushinisha' or a bump on the top of the head; hair tightly curled; a white tuft of hair between the eyes, long arms that reach to their knees, long fingers and toes that are webbed; his penis is completely covered by his foreskin; images of an eight-spoke wheel on the soles of their feet, forty teeth, etc. Yet since not everyone was able to discern these marks on him, we can assume that they were either metaphorical, or a psychic phenomenon.

The antecedents of the Trikaya doctrine appear in the Pali Canon when Gautama Buddha tells Vasettha that the Tathagata (the Buddha) was Dharmakaya, the 'Truth-body' or the 'Embodiment of Truth', as well as Dharmabhuta, 'Truth-become', that is, 'One who has become Truth' (Digha Nikaya). Thus even before the Buddha's Parinirvana the term Dharmakaya was current. Dharmakaya literally means Truth body, or Reality body. On another occasion, Ven. Vakkali, who was ill, wanted to see the Buddha before he passed away from old age. The text from the Samyutta Nikaya (SN 22.87) is as follows:

"...and the Buddha comforts him, ‘Enough, Vakkali. Why do you want to see this filthy body? Whoever sees the Dhamma sees me; whoever sees me sees the Dhamma.’"[1]

In the Pali Canon, the Buddha tells Vasettha that the Tathagata (the Buddha) is Dhamma-kaya, the 'Truth-body' or the 'Embodiment of Truth', as well as Dharmabhuta, 'Truth-become', that is, 'One who has become Truth' (Digha Nikaya). On another occasion, the Buddha told Vakkali: ‘He who sees the Dhamma (Truth) sees the Tathagata, he who sees the Tathagata sees the Dhamma (Samyutta Nikaya). That is to say, the Buddha is equal to Truth, and all Buddhas are one and the same, being no different from one another in the Dharma-kaya, because Truth is one.'

This distinction between the Buddha's physical body (rupakaya) and his Dharmakaya aspect continued after his death. Since the Buddha told Vakkali that he was a living example of the 'Truth' of the Dharma, without a physical form to relate to, the Buddha's followers could only relate to the Dharmakaya aspect of him. Eventually, the Trikaya doctrine was first expounded in the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra (The Lotus Sutra), composed in the first century B.C.E. It was posited that if the Dharma is transcendental, totally beyond space and time, then so is the Dharmakaya. One response to this was the development of the Tathagatagarbha doctrine. Another was the introduction of the Sambhogakaya, which conceptually fits between the Nirmanakaya (which is what the Rupakaya came to be called according in the Buddhist Canon) and the Dharmakaya. The Sambhogakaya is that aspect of the Buddha, or the Dharma, that one meets in visions and in deep meditation. It could be considered an interface with the Dharmakaya. What it does, and what the Tathagatagarbha doctrine also does, is bring the transcendental within reach, it makes it immanent.

Trikaya doctrine

The Trikaya doctrine (Sanskrit, meaning "Three Bodies" of the Buddha) refers to an important Mahayana teaching about the nature of the Buddha. According to this doctrine, the Buddha has three kayas, or bodies, which are said to be manifested in different ways: 1) the nirmanakaya (created body), which appears in time and space; 2) the sambhogakaya (mutual enjoyment body), which is an archetypal manifestation; and, 3) the Dharmakaya (reality body), which represents the very principle of enlightenment knowing no limits or boundaries.

The Trikaya doctrine became a mechanism to reconcile the various and potentially conflicting teachings about the Buddha found in Buddhist texts. As with earlier Buddhist thought, all three forms of the Buddha are said to teach the same Dharma, but take on different forms to expound the truth.

By the fourth century C.E., the Trikaya Doctrine had assumed the form that we now know. Briefly the doctrine says that a Buddha has three 'bodies': the nirmana-kaya or created body which manifests in time and space; the sambhoga-kaya or body of mutual enjoyment which is an archetypal manifestation; and the Dharma-kaya or 'Reality body' which 'embodies' the very principle of enlightenment and is omnipresent and boundless.

Types of Buddhas

In the mainstream Buddhist tradition (the various Buddhist schools), two types of Buddha are generally recognized.

  • Samyaksambuddha (Pāli: Sammāsambuddha), often simply referred to as Buddha.
  • Pratyekabuddha (Pāli: Paccekabuddha),

These two types of Buddha both achieve Nirvana through their own efforts, without a teacher to point out the Dharma.

In the Theravadin commentarial tradition, and the Tibetan tradition,[2] the lesser-known term Savakabuddha is found referring to an enlightened disciple.


Samyaksambuddhas (Pali: Sammasambuddha) gain Nirvana by their own efforts, and discover the Dhamma without having a teacher to point it out. They then lead others to enlightenment by teaching the Dhamma in a time or world where it has been forgotten or has not been taught before, because a Samyaksambuddha does not depend upon a tradition that stretches back to a previous Samyaksambuddha, but instead discovers the path anew. The historical Buddha, Gautama Buddha, is considered a Samyaksambuddha. (See also the list of 28 sammasambuddhas, who were all sammasambuddhas.)

Three variations can be distinguished in the way of achieving Samyaksambuddha-hood. With more wisdom (prajñādhika), with more effort (vīryādhika) or with more faith (śraddhādhika). Śākyamuni was a Prajñādhika (through more wisdom) Buddha. The next Buddha of this world, Maitreya (Pāli: Metteyya) will be a Vīryādhika (through more effort) Buddha.


Pratyekabuddhas (Pali: Pacceka Buddha) are similar to Samyaksambuddhas in that they attain Nirvāṇa without having a teacher. Unlike the Samyaksambuddha however, they do not teach the Dhamma that they have discovered. Thus, they also do not form a Saṅgha of disciples to carry on the teaching, since they do not teach in the first place.

In some works they are referred to as "silent Buddhas." Several comparatively new Buddhist scriptures (of later origin; after the Buddha's demise, like the Jātakas), show Pratyekabuddhas giving teachings. A Paccekabuddha can sometimes teach and admonish people, but these admonitions are only in reference to good and proper conduct (abhisamācārikasikkhā), not concerning Nirvana.

In some texts, they are described as 'one who understands the Dharma by his own efforts, but does not obtain omniscience nor mastery over the Fruits' (phalesu vasībhāvam).


Śrāvaka (Skt.; Pali: sāvaka; means "hearer" or "follower") is a disciple of a Sammasambuddha. An enlightened disciple is generally called an arahant (Noble One) or ariya-sāvaka (Noble Disciple). (These terms have slightly varied meanings but can both be used to describe the enlightened disciple.) The Theravadin commentaries use the term sāvaka-buddha (Pali; Skt. śrāvakabuddha) to describe the enlightened disciple; thus, according to this tradition there are three types of Buddhas.[3] These three types are also acknowledged in Tibetan Buddhism.[2]

Enlightened disciples attain Nirvana as do the two aforementioned types of Buddhas. After attaining enlightenment, disciples may also lead others to enlightenment, but cannot teach the Dharma in a time or world where it has been forgotten or has not been taught before, because their enlightenment is dependent on a tradition that stretches back to a Samyaksambuddha.

A rarely used word, anubuddha, was a term used by the Buddha in the Khuddakapatha[4] for those who become buddhas after being given instruction.

The types of Buddha do not correspond to a different Dharma or truth; the truth discovered by them is one and the same. The distinctions are based solely on issues concerning studying and teaching. If one has a teacher who points out the Dharma and one realizes this Dharma for oneself also, one is an Arahant (Śrāvaka). If one discovers the Dharma without a teacher, and subsequently chooses to teach, one is a Sammasambuddha. If one discovers the Dharma without a teacher and chooses not to teach one is a Paccekabuddha.

Also in Theravada Buddhism one is warned against striving for the purpose of attaining some status, and it is further taught that the same Dharma (truth or teaching) both attracts, guides and saves living beings. No distinction in truths or teachings is being made (as is sometimes common in Mahayana), although not everyone is taught in the same way (people have different characters and inclinations).

Recent Buddhist Group

Recently, Dharmakaya has also become the name for an organization founded by H. E. the 4th Trungram Gyaltrul Rinpoche, and is affiliated with his global organization the United Trungram Buddhist Fellowship (UTBF). Gyaltrul Rinpoche's Dharmakaya organization was founded for the specific purpose of bringing the teachings and meditation practices from the Trungram Tradition of the Karma Kagyu lineage to North America.


  1. Digha Nikaya 16: Maha-parinibbana Sutta The Great Discourse on the Total Unbinding, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu Retrieved July 7, 2008.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Nonconceptual Cognition of Voidness by Shravaka, Pratyekabuddha, and Bodhisattva Aryas According to the Four Tibetan Traditions, by Alexander Berzin Retrieved July 7, 2008.
  3. Peter Masefield, Udana Commentary (Pali Text Society, 1995), 94.
  4. Ratanasutta, 56. Also see Anguttara Nikaya 4.1, entitled "Anubuddha Sutta" (Thanissaro, 1997) Retrieved July 7, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Makransky, John J. Buddhahood Embodied: Sources of Controversy in India and Tibet. Publisher: State University of New York Press, 1997. ISBN 978-0791434321
  • Masefield, Peter (trans.). Udana Commentary. Pali Text Society, 1995. ISBN 978-0860133162
  • McLeod, Ken. The Great Path of Awakening - A commentary on the Mahayana teaching of the seven points of mind training. Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2000. ISBN 1570625875
  • Snellgrove, David. Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, (Vol.1). Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1987. ISBN 0877733112
  • ———. Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, (Vol.2). Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1987. ISBN 0877733791
  • Xin, Guang. The Concept of the Buddha; Its evolution from early Buddhism to the trikaya theory. Taylor & Francis, 2007. ISBN 978-0415333443

External Links

All links retrieved January 29, 2024.


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