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The Dharmakāya (lit. Truth Body or Reality Body) is a central idea in Mahayana Buddhism forming part of the Trikaya doctrine that was possibly first expounded in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā prajñā-pāramitā (The Perfection of Insight In Eight Thousand Verses), composed in the first century BCE. It constitutes the unmanifested, 'inconceivable' (Sanskrit: acintya) aspect of a Buddha out of which Buddhas and indeed all 'phenomena' (Sanskrit: dharmas) arise and to which they return after their dissolution. Critical Buddhism argues that this concept is dhatu-vada and hence not Buddhist, because all things arise and return to an all encompassing one. Buddhas are manifestations of the Dharmakaya called Nirmanakayas. Unlike ordinary unenlightened persons, Buddhas (and arhats) do not die (though their physical bodies undergo the cessation of biological functions and subsequent disintegration). In the Lotus Sutra (sixth fascicle) Buddha explains that he has always and will always exist to lead beings to their salvation. This eternal 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.


Tibetan: chos sku[1] "Chos" (Tibetan) can be glossed as "dharma" (Sanskrit). "Sku" (Tibetan) has the meanings: "body, form, image, bodily form, figure".[2] Thondup & Talbott (1996, 2002: p.48) render it as the "ultimate body".[3] In a key scholarly collaborative Nyingmapa translation work published in 2005, furthermore notable as the first complete rendering of the Bardo Thodol into the English language from the Tibetan, this technical term was configured into English as "Buddha-body of Reality".[4]


Padmasambhava, Karma Lingpa, Gyurme Dorje, Graham Coleman and Thupten Jinpa (2005: p.452) define 'Buddha-body of Reality' which is a rendering of the Tibetan Wylie 'chos-sku' and the Sanskrit 'dharmakāya' as:

...the ultimate nature or essence of the enlightened mind [byang-chub sems], which is uncreated (skye-med), free from the limits of conceptual elaboration (spros-pa'i mtha'-bral), empty of inherent existence (rang-bzhin-gyis stong-pa), naturally radiant, beyond duality and spacious like the sky. The intermediate state of the time of death ('chi-kha'i bar-do) is considered to be an optimum time for the realisation of the Buddha-body of Reality.[4][5]


Though attributeless and unattributable, Dharmakaya is held to possesses three great qualities: 'great purity' (Wylie: sPang Pa Chen Po), 'great realization' (Wylie: rTogs Pa Chen Po) and 'great mind' (Wylie: Sems Pa Chen Po).[6]


Thondup & Talbott (1996, 2002: p.48) identify 'Dharmakaya' with the 'naked' ("sky-clad"; Sanskrit: Digāmbara), unornamented, sky-blue 'Samantabhadra':

In Nyingma icons, Dharmakāya is symbolized by a naked, sky-coloured (light blue) male and female Buddha in union [Kāmamudrā], called Samantabhadra [and Samantabhadri]. [3][7]
Unlike the 'form bodies' (Sanskrit: rūpakāya) of Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya, the Dharmakaya does not possess any 'divine attributes' nor 'ornamentation' (Wylie: phyag mtshan) as it is not only 'without form' or 'formless' (Sanskrit: arūpa) but beyond any concept, form, ornament, attribute or quality of the 'three realms' (Wylie: khams-gsum; Sanskrit: tridhatu). In the early traditions of what has been given the nomenclature Buddhism, depictions of the Shakyamuni Buddha were neither iconic nor aniconic but depictions of empty space and absence: petrosomatoglyphs and footprints, for example.[8] This is a worthy visual device to draw attention to the 'absence' and 'emptiness' of "thus gone" (Sanskrit: Tathāgata) and the doctrine of Śūnyatā and represent whilst not representing. Later representations of the buddha were introduced as "skillful means" (Sanskrit: upāya).[9] In the Dzogchen tradition, the Five Pure Lights which are the uncreated origin of the Five Wisdoms (the Five Wisdoms are the fabric of that which constitutes the Sambhogakaya[10], and this is common to both the Dzogchen traditions of the Nyingmapa and Bonpo), the colour blue is an iconographic polysemic rendering of the Mahābhūta (Sanskrit) element, the "pure light" of 'space' (Sanskrit: Ākāśa).[11] Fremantle (2001: p.85) states:
Space is simultaneously the first and the last of the great elements. It is the origin and precondition of the other four, and it is also their culmination...The Sanskrit word for space is the same as for the sky: akasha, which means "shining and clear." What is it that we call the sky? It marks the boundary of our vision, the limit our sight can reach. If we could see more clearly, the sky would extend infinitely into outer space. The sky is an imaginary boundary set by the limitations of our senses, and also by the limitations of our mind, since we find it almost impossible to imagine a totally limitless [U]niverse. Space is the dimension in which everything exists. It is all-encompassing, all-pervading, and boundless. It is synonymous with emptiness: that emptiness which is simultaneously fullness.[12]
The conceptually bridging and building poetic device of analogy, as an exemplar where Dharmakaya is evocatively likened to 'sky' and 'space', is a persistent and pervasive visual metaphor throughout the early Dzogchen and Nyingma literature and functions as a linkage and conduit between the 'conceptual' and 'conceivable' and the 'ineffable' and 'inconceivable' (Sanskrit: acintya). In particular refer the Gongpa Zangtal (Wylie: kun tu bzang po'i dgongs pa zang thal du bstan pa; English: Direct Revelation of Samantabhadra's Mind), a terma cycle revealed by Rigdzin Gödem (1337-1408) and part of the 'Northern Treasures' or 'Jangter' (chang ter; Wylie: byang gter).[13]

Sawyer (1998: unpaginated) in an essay to accompany curatorial notes for an exhibition, conveys the importance of 'mirror' iconography to Dharmakaya:

The looking glass/mirror (T. me-long, Skt. adarsa), which represents the dharmakaya or Truth Body, having the aspects of purity (a mirror is clear of pollution) and wisdom (a mirror reflects all phenomena without distinction). [14]


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.'

During the Buddha's life great veneration was shown to him by persons from the highest to the lowest social classes. The Buddha understood that this reverence was sometimes misguided, as it was based on superficial appearances. He advised people against turning him into an object of worship through the use of carvings and 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 Ushnisha—a protuberance on the crown 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-spoked wheel on the soles of their feet, forty teeth, etc. If these were physical marks, the Buddha would have been a strange looking individual. However, since not everyone was able to discern these marks, we can assume that they were either metaphorical, or a psychic phenomenon.

After the Buddha's Parinirvana a distinction was made between the Buddhas physical body, rupakaya; and his Dharmakaya aspect. This was an understandable and necessary development. As the Buddha told Vakkali, he was a living example of the 'Truth' of the Dharma. Without that form to relate to, the Buddha's followers could only relate to the Dharmakaya aspect of him. Despite the growth of the stupa cult in which the remains, or relics, of enlightened beings were worshipped, Buddhism sees such things as symbols of the Truth, rather than the Truth itself.

Trikaya doctrine

Later Mahayana Buddhists were concerned with the transcendent aspect of the Dharma. So therefore 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, wherein the Tathagatagarbha or Buddha Nature is on occasion equated with the Dharmakaya. 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 Trikaya doctrine (Sanskrit, literally "Three bodies or personalities"; 三身 Chinese: Sānshén, Japanese: sanjin) is an important Buddhist teaching both on the nature of reality, and what a Buddha is. By the 4th century CE the Trikaya Doctrine had assumed the form that we now know. Briefly the doctrine says that a Buddha has three 'bodies': the nirmaṇa-kāya or created body which manifests in time and space; the sambhoga-kāya or body of mutual enjoyment which is an archetypal manifestation; and the Dharma-kāya or 'Reality body' which 'embodies' the very principle of enlightenment and is omnipresent and boundless.

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 this doctrine does, as well as that of the Tathagatagarbha, is to bring the transcendental within reach—it places the transcendental within the plane of immanence.

Tibetan Mahayana teachings

According to Jamgon Kongtrul's 19th century commentary to the Lojong slogan, "To see confusion as the four kayas, the sunyata protection is unsurpassable" (as translated by Ken McLeod) when one meditates on ultimate bodhicitta and rests in a state where appearances simply appear but there is no clinging to them, the dharmakaya aspect is that all appearances are empty in nature, the sambhogakaya is that they appear with clarity, the nirmanakaya is that this emptiness and clarity occur together, and the svabhavikakaya aspect is that these are inseparable.

Buddhist Organization

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. Source: [1] (accessed: January 15, 2008)
  2. Source: [2] (accessed: January 15, 2008)
  3. 3.0 3.1 Thondup, Tulku & Harold Talbott (Editor)(1996, 2002). Masters of Meditation and Miracles: Lives of the Great Buddhist Masters of India and Tibet. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Shambhala, South Asia Editions. ISBN 1-57062-113-6 (alk. paper); ISBN 1-56957-134-1. p.48
  4. 4.0 4.1 Padmasambhava (composed), Karma Linga (revealed), Gyurme Dorje (translated), Graham Coleman (Editor) and Thupten Jinpa (Associate) (2006). The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation by Hearing in the Intermediate States. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN 978-0-140-45529-8. p.452
  5. For more discussion on this particular 'intermediate state of the time of death' refer "Chikkhai bardo" (Tibetan) in the Bardo article.
  6. Thondup, Tulku & Harold Talbott (Editor)(1996, 2002). Masters of Meditation and Miracles: Lives of the Great Buddhist Masters of India and Tibet. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Shambhala, South Asia Editions. ISBN 1-57062-113-6 (alk. paper); ISBN 1-56957-134-1. p.50
  7. For further discussion of 'Kāmamudrā' (English: 'love-seal') refer: mudra, mahamudra and Yab-Yum.
  8. Huntington, Susan (1990). "Early Buddhist art and the theory of aniconism" in Art Journal, Winter 1990.
  9. For further discussion on this refer Buddhist art.
  10. Thondup, Tulku & Harold Talbott (Editor)(1996, 2002). Masters of Meditation and Miracles: Lives of the Great Buddhist Masters of India and Tibet. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Shambhala, South Asia Editions. ISBN 1-57062-113-6 (alk. paper); ISBN 1-56957-134-1. p.52
  11. Fremantle, Francesca (2001). Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Boston: Shambala Publications. ISBN 1-57062-450-X. p.86
  12. Fremantle, Francesca (2001). Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Boston: Shambala Publications. ISBN 1-57062-450-X. p.85
  13. Kunsang, Eric Pema (compiler, translator); Tweed, Michael (editor); Schmidt, Marcia Binder (editor); Zanpo, Ngawang (artwork) (2006). Wellsprings of the Great Perfection: Lives and Insights of the Early Masters in the Dzogchen Lineage. Hong Kong: Rangjung Yeshe Publications. ISBN 962-7341-57-6; ISBN 978-962-7341-57-4. p. 209
  14. Sawyer, Chad (1998, 2004). Offerings to Mahakala. Source: [3] (accessed: Saturday March 14, 2009)


External links


sk:Dharmakája th:ธรรมกาย zh:法身

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