Three in One: A Buddhist Trinity #1
Three in One: A Buddhist Trinity
The “three bodies of the Buddha” may seem like a remote construct, says Reginald Ray, but they are the ground of existence and present in every moment of our experience.
It is said that the Buddha is defined by three bodies of enlightenment, the so-called trikaya of classical Mahayana theory. These include the dharmakaya, the body of ultimate reality; the sambhogakaya, the body of joy; and the nirmanakaya, the Buddha’s conditioned, human body of flesh and blood. The trikaya theory often seems rather abstract and remote, far removed from our ordinary lives and daily meditation practice. In this column I want to suggest, however, that the trikaya actually forms part of our most intimate experience and is the very basis of our present human existence.
According to the abhidharma, there are three major kinds of ground that all humans experience in the course of their lives. The first, the ground of “existence,” is the experience of ourselves as having a relatively solid and continuous identity, grounded in the practical, conventional world. This ground is affirmed through all the activities of body, speech and mind by which we seek to define, maintain and enhance our familiar sense of “self.” This ground corresponds to the conventional idea of human life and is what most people view as the essence of their identity.
The second kind of ground is “death/birth.” There are the times when we find ourselves unable to maintain the identity we have thought of as “me.” We feel weak and shaky, our very body and mind seem to be dissolving, and we feel like we are falling apart. In the midst of this fear we may feel as if we are dying. We can call this ground “death/birth,” because whatever dissolution and death we may experience—whether psychological, social or even physical—is at the very same time a birth into another identity or mode of being.
The third kind of ground is emptiness, or the “groundless ground.” Here, sometimes abruptly, we come face to face with our own nonexistence. We look to the solid and desirable ground of our familiar “existence,” and even to the typically undesirable ground of “death/birth,” and can find neither. We are able to discover nothing but space that is open, clear and empty. People report discovering this third kind of ground in the midst of a serious automobile accident, or when they have suddenly been humiliated, or while making love. It can also occur when we are stunned by traumatic news, overwhelmed by sadness or surprised by something extraordinarily beautiful.
These three grounds are nothing other than the three bodies of enlightenment manifesting in our experience. The apparent solidity and continuity of “existence” is the practical, helpful nirmanakaya; the perpetual change and transformation of “death/birth” is the unceasing sambhogakaya; and the unbounded openness of “emptiness” is nothing other than the immutable dharmakaya.
But, we may ask, how can these three bodies possibly manifest in the experience of confused, unenlightened people such as ourselves? Buddhism teaches that within each of us is buddhanature—the immaculate, peerless state of enlightenment embodied in a perfected way by the Buddha. What is this buddhanature? It is nothing other than the three bodies of a fully awakened one. Buddhism affirms, in other words, that the three kayas, in their integral, pure and mature form, are within us at this very moment.
Yet obviously we do not experience the three kayas in their full and perfected form. Rather, when they arise as the background of every moment of our lives, we instantly overlay and obscure them with the habitual, distorting tendencies of our ego.
Each of us, based on our particular karmic proclivities, tends to focus on one or another of the three kayas. We try to create from it a solid, secure ground for our samsaric “self.” For most of us, the nirmanakaya, in its solidified form as “existence,” is the ground we most prefer, with “death/birth” and “emptiness” being undesirable or even deeply feared grounds. Others, however, seek their primary security in the constant turmoil of “death/birth,” and find the continuity and stability of “existence” or the ground of emptiness extremely threatening. Such individuals feel compelled to create constant chaos in their own lives and in the lives of others. For still other people—and these are usually spiritual practitioners—the desired ground of ego is emptiness: they find themselves most comfortable with empty space and quite reluctant to credit either “existence” or “death/birth” as legitimate modes of being.