The Three Simultaneous Buddhas #3

This fascicle Going beyond Buddha explores and refines our idea of what a Buddha is. It explains that in order to understand a Buddha, we have to understand what going beyond a Buddha means. We need to go beyond our concepts, our language and the name of “Buddha”.

In order to go beyond our “idea” of what a Buddha is, it is helpful to understand the classical teaching that instruct us about Buddha consciousness.

One of the most basic of the teachings is that Buddha has three layers.

  • The historic Shakyamuni Buddha
  • The Buddha that lives within all beings – our highest self
  • And the omniscient Buddha or Buddha-nature

We assume through the study of history that there was a man, Siddhartha Gautama, who was a prince and transformed into a spiritual teacher. This Buddha-man wandered around and taught his understanding for 50 years after his enlightenment. The basic teachings are his oral talks that were later written down and have become the main tenets of Buddhism.

The second layer is that in each human being, there is the ability to understand and bring forth this same consciousness of Buddha. Abraham Maslow called this in the twentieth century, bringing forth our highest, most integrated self – the self-actualized person.  Thich Nhat Hanh would say that enlightenment is actualizing our highest well-being.

The last layer is the teaching that everything, sentient and insentient, is the miracle of life dynamically working together. All life and every form and phenomena is an expression of this miraculous, unnamable force of creating life. We call this Buddha-nature.

The teaching of the three bodies of the Buddha is another expression of a simultaneous occurrence of three ideas.

  • Dharmakaya
  • Sambhogakaya
  • Nirmanakaya

Kaya is translated as body. Though these different names for Buddha are a skillful means to teach about Buddha, they all exist simultaneously and occur in each moment as one, which is actually the most important point.

Dharmakaya is the expression of the unconstructed, interdependent body that goes beyond form, language, perception and consciousness. It is sometimes called the expression of sunyata. Sunyata has a lot of translations: emptiness, voidness, unbounded openness, unconstructed reality.   Quiet, silent, space. It is the unformed reality that penetrates and is not separate from all formed reality. In a classic sense, this is a body that goes “beyond Buddha”. It is presented in the Prajnaparamita Sutras and has this type of languaging: no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. It is based on the quieting of consciousness and thinking and is located in non-perception.

The Sambhogakaya, from my understanding, is the energy body of each individual form. It is individual because it exists in each body but it is not personal in the sense that it is simply how the universal energy flows as it comes into constructed or formed reality. My inner energy blooms in the same shape as a flower energy expresses itself. Inner and outer energy become connected. It is the Qi in the Chinese understanding. The universal energy of formed life that runs through all things. In Indian lore, it is the kundalini energy. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is the rainbow body. Through refined proprioceptive sensitivity, a human being can feel their own flow of Qi and this is another type of the Buddha-body.

The nirmanakaya body is more personal and includes the 5 skandhas of each person. Each of us at birth receives our dynamic system of components that hold together into the moment of death when they are dispersed. There are five components of a life:

  • a body
  • sensation – the inherent reaction to like and dislike
  • perceptions- our sense gates, their objects
  • formation or the part of our mind that puts things together. Katagiri Roshi called this our “together-maker”
  • and the many layers of consciousness.

Through these 5 skandhas, we “exist” in each moment and, contrary to some of the more immature understandings, the nirmanakaya body includes and does not annihilate our consciousness or thinking. We sometimes think that we have to “kill” the self but the teaching is actually, not an annihilation of “self” but the releasing of clinging to a “self” as if it were a separate unit. This is the pivotal point. Though our dynamic system of components exists in the moment, our 5 skandhas are not owned by an isolated “I” or a “self.” Our 5 skandhas are a dynamic energy field like an atom. This system is porous and inter-relates to all other energy systems. We inter-be. We use our 5 skandhas to express this understanding and in Mahayana Buddhism, we use our 5 skandhas to help others. Through the practice of non-clinging, we learn to release our attachment to the 5 skandhas as a separate isolated unit. We let go of our independent Self. This is the deep understanding of no centralized self and interdependence.