Is the Dharma-kāya the Real "Phantom Body" of the Buddha?

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Is the Dharma-kāya the Real "Phantom Body" of the Buddha?

Citation: Harrison, Paul. "Is the Dharma-kāya the Real 'Phantom Body' of the Buddha?" Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 15, no. 1 (1992): 44–94.

Article Summary

The Trikāya doctrine of Buddhism, i.e., the doctrine that the Buddha has three "bodies," is notorious for its complexities. Attributed to the Yogācāra, but regarded as typical of the Mahāyāna in general, it is customarily cited in books on Buddhism in terms of the triad dharma-kāya, saṃbhoga-kāya (or saṃbhogika-kāya) and nirmāṇa-kāya (or nairmāṇika-kāya). Taking these in ascending order of abstraction, the nirmāṇa-kāya, usually translated "apparitional body," "phantom body," "transformation body," etc., is the physical manifestation of Buddhahood, the ordinary perishable human form, as exemplified by the "historical Buddha," Siddhartha Gautama. The saṃbhoga-kāya ("body of bliss," "reward body," "enjoyment body," etc.) is a more exalted and splendid manifestation of the enlightened personality, still in the realm of form, but visible only to bodhisattvas, those of advanced spiritual capabilities. By contrast, the dharma-kāya ("Dharma-body," "Body of Truth," "Cosmic Body," "Absolute Body," etc.) is both formless and imperishable, representing the identification of the Buddha with the truth which he revealed, or with reality itself. As such the dharma-kāya is often linked with various terms for reality, such as dharmatā, dharma-dhātu, and so on, and has even been regarded as a kind of Buddhist absolute, or at least at one with it.[1] In this light the dharma-kāya is understood as the primal "source" or "ground" from which the other two types of bodies emanate.[2] While many scholars are content to describe this in purely abstract terms, others impute personal characteristics to it;[3] and at least one writer has gone so far as to compare it to the Christian idea of Godhead.[4]
      As a summary of the Trikāya doctrine this is, of course, oversimplified. We are dealing here with a complex theory which underwent many accretions and refinements, as Buddhists continued down through the centuries to speculate on the nature of Buddhahood, on the nature of reality, and on the relationship between them.[5] It is hardly surprising, then, that attempts to plot the course of such arcane speculations have not always been entirely successful in reaching a clear consensus, although the arguments advanced, even in recent writing on the subject, do tend to follow similar lines. A good example of this is the authoritative treatment by Nagao, "On the Theory of Buddha-body (Buddha-kāya)," first published in English in 1973.[6] Generally Nagao distinguishes three phases: an initial one-body theory, a two-body theory, and the three-body theory elaborated by the Yogācāras. According to him (p. 104), the two-body theory (i.e., rūpa-kāya and dharma-kāya) "became stabilized in a variety of earlier sūtras,[7] and in early Mahāyāna sūtras, the Prajñāpāramitā, the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka, and so forth. The rūpa-kāya is the Buddha seen in a human body, while the dharma-kāya is the Buddha's personality seen in the dharma or dharma-nature." Elsewhere (pp. 106–7) Nagao states that the two-body theory was the one held "until the time of the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra and the time of Nāgārjuna," even though the raw materials for the third body, the saṃbhoga-kāya, were also to hand before the time of Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, as a consequence of the bodhisattva-conccpt and the idea that a bodhisattva's performance of meritorious actions produced a body which was their manifest "reward." Nagao's article contains many valuable observations, but, as we shall see, some of its assertions are rather too imprecise, both chronologically and philosophically, to be of much use in unravelling the early development of the doctrine at issue. Another recent treatment of the subject by Makransky (1989) also describes certain features of the putative earlier two-body theory before the Yogācāras remodelled it (see esp. pp. 51–53), and distinguishes it sharply from the previous Mainstream[8] (in this case, Sarvāstivādin) formulations. This analysis, too, is open to question in certain respects, as I shall show. In these and other articles on the subject[9] there is a general tendency to postulate a one-body/two-body/three-body progression, in terms of which a single personality is divided into a physical and a "spiritual" body, and then the physical body is further split in two, yielding the final complement of three. Some writers, however, point to the existence of three bodies even in the Pali sources, what one scholar has called the "primitive triad," i.e., pūti- or cātur-mahābhūtika-kāya, mano-maya-kāya, and dhamma-kāya.[10] The first is the corruptible physical body formed out of the four elements, while the second is the mind-made body with which the Buddha visits the celestial realms (believed by some to be a forerunner of the saṃbhoga-kāya); the third is the so-called "Dhamma-body." Now, although both these ways of approaching the subject—the assumption of a linear process, and the belief that the Pāli Canon contains an embryonic Trikāya schema—raise certain difficulties, I do not propose in this paper to discuss the evolution of the Trikāya theory in its entirety, since that would be a mammoth undertaking. What I wish to do is address one aspect of it only, viz., the early development of the idea of dharma-kāya, in the hope that clarifying this will open the way to a better understanding of Mahāyāna buddhology as a whole. (Harrison, introduction, 44–46)

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  1. See, e.g., Murti 1955: 284-287.
  2. See, e.g., Reynolds and Hallisey 1987: 330-331.
  3. See, e.g., Murti 1955: 285: "The Dharmakaya is still a Person, and innumerable merits and powers etc. are ascribed to him."
  4. See Suzuki 1930: 308–338. Suzuki's discussion of the whole subject has a distinctly "theological" flavour (see especially pp. 308, 310), to which we shall return later.
  5. For example, sometimes the dharma-kāya is also referred to as the svābhāvikakāya or "essential body," sometimes this latter is said to constitute a fourth body. The dispute over this issue is the focus of the article by John Makransky (1989).
  6. This article was reprinted with inconsequential changes in Nagao 1991: 103–122. All citations are from this later version.
  7. Presumably Nagao means Mainstream Buddhist scriptures here. "Mainstream Buddhism" is the term I employ to refer to non-Mahāyāna Buddhism, in preference to the other terms in current use, none of which is totally satisfactory. "Theravāda" is patently inaccurate and anachronistic, "Hlnayāna" is pejorative and potentially offensive, "Śrāvakayāna" is more subtly pejorative, and also makes it hard to place the Pratyekabuddhayāna (whatever that was), while "Nikāya" or "Sectarian Buddhism," although neutral, are historically misleading, given the fact that the Mahāyāna was a pan-Buddhist movement running across Nikāya or Vinaya school/ordination lineage boundaries. This means that monks and nuns converted to the Mahāyāna continued to belong also to the Nikāya in which they had been ordained, to uphold its Vinaya, and so on. However, they remained in the minority, at least in India. The term "Mainstream" reflects this situation
  8. See above, n. 8.
  9. Other valuable recent contributions are by Kajiyama (1984/1989) and Williams (1989: 167–184). The lengthy discussion by Dutt (1977: 141–177) cannot be recommended. For an excellent survey of earlier scholarly work on this question and of the Buddhist sources themselves, see de La Vallée Poussin 1929: 762–813.
  10. See Lancaster 1968: 92; see also de La Vallée Poussin 1929: 764.