The Three Bodies of Enlightenment

A teaching on the three kayas by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

By Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Photo by Bruce McKay.

A teaching on the three kayas by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

“Dharmakaya is like the sun, sambhogakaya is like the rays, and nirmanakaya is like the rays hitting the objects on the earth. Nirmanakaya is the physical situation, and sambhogakaya and dharmakaya are the level of mind.”

The three bodies of enlightenment are three types of atmosphere involved with ordinary, everyday life, as well as with enlightened mind. To start from the beginning, the first body, dharmakaya, is background or origin. It is why we are here—not necessarily why we are here in this particular place or why we are studying Buddhism, but why we are here at all. Why are we here on this earth? Why is there earth at all? Why is there sun and why is there moon? Why all of this? The first body seems to be our basis, or starting point: we start from outer space, to begin with; then we slowly get into inner space and the earth.

Basically speaking, we are not born, we don’t exist. If we are unborn, if we never give birth to ourselves, how is it possible that we are here? We might say, “Literally, I was born from my mother, and psychologically speaking, I seem to have preconceptions of things. Ideas are born in my head or my heart, and I’m executing those ideas in my life.” But who said that? That is the point. Who is actually talking about those things? Who is questioning that whole idea? Who is asking the questions? The questioner, of course. But who is the questioner? Or rather, what is the questioner?

If you look back and back and back, after and after and after, it is like overlapping onion skins—you approach outer space and you find that nobody actually said anything at all. It was just a little burp. Somebody burped, which was misunderstood as language. Then, after that, someone said, “I beg your pardon?” And somebody said, “Oh, of course, I’m sorry. I burped.” That cosmic burp, or cosmic fart, was an accident, a complete accident, unintentional—and that is what’s called the origin of karma. Everything started on an accidental level. Everything is an accident!

At the dharmakaya level, we are looking into enormous space. That particular enormous space—that inconceivable, enormous space—is the basis of the original unbornness. We could ask a subtle question about the unbornness of space: “How is it possible for space to exist eternally, if space doesn’t give birth to itself constantly? Otherwise, space would be dead.” That’s true. If space didn’t give birth eternally, space wouldn’t exist. The reason space exists constantly, but still maintains its unborn nature, is that space never gives birth! That non-giving-birth seems to be giving birth to a larger extent than giving birth in the literal sense of having a father and a mother and cutting the umbilical cord. So birth does exist in the realm of space in the sense that space constantly gives birth by itself. An analysis of space is that it has both masculine and feminine principles, both together. Fathers and mothers are one in space; therefore, nobody gets pregnant—or everybody gets pregnant. Nobody gives birth; therefore, everybody gives birth simultaneously. Mother and father are in the process of making love all the time.

We have a unique process at this point: immense space, which exists eternally or noneternally, does not give birth and does give birth—immense birth—at the same time. That is why it is called unborn. Unborn is the safest way to describe it. If you have to use a term, it is much better to say unborn than eternally born. If you say eternally born, there is a tendency to think that somebody is being nursed. We think that we are going through the process of bringing up a child from infancy to the level of teenager and young adult up to the level of old age and death. We think that we have a process to go through. However, with this particular notion of space, we have no process to go through. Unborn is already birth. Therefore, no infancy or teenagehood or youthfulness or middle age or old age or death exists. They don’t exist because nothing happened! That seems to be the basic point. That all took place at a nonexistence level. This is very hard to understand if you look at it from the perspective of trying to understand. Obviously, when we try to give birth, instead of being unborn, something begins to be born. But now what we are trying to get to and to understand—or not understand—is the unbornness of the whole thing.

There is a pattern taking place, in any case, and that pattern is workable, understandable, and realizable. However, in talking about that, we always reduce everything to a very domestic level. Not only do we reduce everything to the household domestic level, but we reduce everything to the bedroom level, saying, “If I did this, would that happen to me? If that took place, on the other hand, what would happen then?” and so forth. But in this case, the whole thing is beyond the domestic level, absolutely beyond the domestic level. Because of that, we can discuss it and we can question it. There’s a lot of room for freedom, enormous room for freedom. It’s not as if we are not allowed to talk about anything, or if we ask anything, we are dumb. Instead, because we are dumb, therefore we are intelligent. There is a new opening of freedom, a level of freedom that we have never known in our life. That is why the whole process is very outrageous and quite incomprehensible, quite rightly so. Nevertheless it is understandable. It is feel-able—you can feel it.

On that basis, we do not discuss what section of that process belongs to samsara and what section belongs to nirvana. We do not even use those terms. The whole idea is that it does not involve for or against. When we talk about nirvana and samsara, we take sides. We think of nirvana as our friend. We would like to associate with our friend, nirvana, and have enlightenment as our goal and aim. On the other side is samsara. Samsara means being imprisoned; samsara is confusion and pain. We do not want to relate with samsara or be a victim of that deadly area. That way of thinking has become the problem. Our conversations and our understanding of all this have been diverted to the level of what should be and what shouldn’t be, rather than what is and what isn’t. So we don’t realize that, in fact, we are helpless. We don’t realize that we cannot challenge this gigantic cosmic course that’s taking place. We can’t even sign our names to be in favor of it or against it. The whole thing is helpless.

We can reduce ourselves into a grain of sand, but at the same time, we are part of outer space as a whole, cosmic space. So we need to have a certain amount of open-mindedness, rather than always asking, “What does this mean to me at this point in my meditation practice? What does this mean to me in terms of my salvation? I have a problem with my husband, I have a problem with my wife. Is this particular argument, this idea or concept, going to save me from that problem?” We are not talking in those terms, at this point—we are talking BIG! We are actually tapping into an area that we have never touched, never looked at. Because we are so confused, we do not bother to look, apart from maybe the occasional glimpse. We think, “Who cares? This is not my cup of tea, my kettle of fish.” We think that we are too poor, that it is too painful. We don’t want to look at those areas that exist on a greater scale.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is about time for us to look! It is time to think bigger and open our minds to the possibility that nonduality does exist. You may not be philosophers or great meditators, but there is the possibility that greater areas could be opened to you if you bothered to look, if you bothered to open your minds. We are not talking about Tibetan Buddhism or Indian Buddhism at this point, or any other “ism,” but about how we could associate ourselves with a larger-scale world. To do so, we are using that mind in which we are not involved with “isms” of any sort.

A larger world exists, but we have never looked at it. We are too concerned with our microscopes or our magnifying glasses. We try to make things large by using magnifying glasses—but we have never looked at outer space with our naked eyes. If we looked into it, we could find it—but we don’t have to use our binoculars and telescopes. We don’t need them, they are false pretenses. We don’t need any means to do this; we could just simply look at it, whatever it is, and enjoy it. An immensely larger version of thinking and of celebration is taking place. That seems to be the very important point.

We have to step out completely from any concern and take an immense leap to a living experience of the perceptions of mind. That particular leap tends to be somewhat exaggerated or extreme because we do not allow any space or concepts to linger between perceiver and perception. Things become extraordinarily bigger in scale, so that we begin to lose track of who is actually perceiving and who is not perceiving at all—and that could be said to be the epitome of perception.

The basic ground, the dharmakaya principle, exists as a fundamental, necessary measure. Since that has taken place and developed already, it seems that the next process, the sambhogakaya, is not to question that but to proceed along. The word sambhoga means “enjoying pleasure,” or literally, “interested in pleasure.” It has a slant towards opportunism and it also has a hint of indulgence, as far as the terminology goes. Beyond that, the whole thing is natural and simple, just dealing with energy. It is simply energy—energy which need not be sought; energy which need not be worked with—energy to be with, basically.

There’s immense intensity in dealing with the world of existence—so what is the point of trying to intensify this world further? One of the attributes of sambhogakaya is play. Basically, play has the qualities of mischeviousness and humor. However, in this context, a sense of humor does not mean cracking jokes or trying to be funny out of embarrassment. Humor is not another mask or façade we put on and it does not mean turning everything into a big joke. In contrast, the sense of humor associated with the sambhogakaya principle is light. It is light as opposed to heavy. Such humor also has an uplifting quality. It is a quality of lightheartedness beyond ego’s heavy-hearted level, rather than lightheartedness in the conventional sense of ultimate frivolity.

In the sambhogakaya, a fantastic upsurge of humor comes along. That humor arises not in the nasty sense of making fun of everybody else or making fun of oneself, but as a self-existing grin, so to speak. That self-existing grin takes place all the time—throughout our sleep time, when we sit on the toilet seat, when we are confronted with challenges. Throughout everything that goes on in our life, we have that self-existing grin. That grin takes place all the time. That sense of humor seems to be the point of the sambhogakaya level. The preliminary approach to the sambhogakaya is celebration and indulgence, constant pleasuring, celebrating one’s life. If there’s no humor, you cannot celebrate, and the party begins to become a drag. Humor is the constant flow or thread that runs through one’s life. Without that you cannot celebrate.

At this point, we have descended from the space of the dharmakaya to the energy of sambhogakaya. In the transmission from the dharmakaya down to the sambhogakaya, the first impulse of the sambhogakaya principle seems to be a sense of humor and energy. Energy and humor develop as the basic sense of perspective that keeps us alive. The sambhogakaya perspective is based on energy—there’s a sense of fountain, sun and moon, and torch. From that basic energy, luminosity—light—can shine through.

Luminosity is the sense of celebration. Humor and celebration are indivisible at this point: celebration means sense of humor. Celebration means a sense of delightfulness, an uplifting quality. We could use all sorts of jargon, but fundamentally speaking, celebration is a sense of earth, actually celebrating the earth, and the sense of earth and space making love together. Humor comes from space, and earth is the celebration. When the earth begins to celebrate, space or sky begins to make love to the earth—that’s the meeting point of earth and space. They begin to mate together in a very solid and definite and humorous and delightful way. There’s nothing particularly funny about that, in terms of jokes. Everything seems to be very straightforward and simple. Earth blossoms and sky begins to pay attention to it. Sky begins to shine all kinds of light over the earth and accommodate it with its space to grow flowers or trees, to maintain rocks, waterfalls, skyscrapers and highways, whatever we have on this earth.

We don’t have to be romantic about it. We’re not just talking about nature; we’re talking about reality. In terms of reality, earth produces pollution, and sky or space begins to make love to it. Sky or space begins to connect with the solidity of the whole thing—so the hard-core earth begins to make love to the light-handed space. The meeting of the two takes place constantly. Such humor and delightfulness is not dependent on good or bad—that particular philosophical outfit. The whole thing is purely a phenomenological process; it is about things as they are, in the very basic and subtle sense.

When that general sambhogakaya quality of playfulness and pleasure begins to take place, we find that there is a sense of room. Everything is not limited to our own inadequacy, so the whole process becomes workable. It is like being on top of a mountain: we have the perspective of the surrounding hills and lesser mountains, and we could watch the distant clouds and the mist rising. We have a feeling of complete joy and complete freedom. At this level the question of indulgence is not one of becoming more and more decadent and aggressive, more completely involved in the passion, blood and dirt of neurosis. Instead, indulgence is the sense of utmost celebration. There is lightheartedness because the things that happen in our life do not mean very much. They do not mean all that much, and at the same time, they mean a great deal. Because of that, a lot more fun and a lot more inquisitiveness takes place in our life. With this perspective, every pine needle—how each pine needle behaves when it is swayed by wind—is an exquisite vision.

That process of delight should make one’s heart light and one’s breath gentle, one’s neck loose and one’s jaw relaxed. Looseness and awakeness tend to make an ideal person, and that ideal person is known as a sambhogakaya person. A sambhogakaya person is an individual who possesses all kinds of attributes, immeasurable facets. He or she has a sense of depth and a sense of width, a sense of heaviness and a sense of lightness, a sense of extreme weight and a sense of floating; a sense of being utterly dull and a sense of being utterly, extraordinarily colorful. Those facets and combinations can take place all the time.

The various types of sambhogakaya persons are described in five different ways, known as the five buddha families: vajra, ratna, padma, karma and buddha.

The vajra family is connected with the notion of immeasurable intellect. The intellect of the vajra family cuts through any other intellect with a sense of joy and relaxation. It has the sense of clear-seeing. By clearly seeing all principles, all metaphysical systems can be seen through—and cut through. On the one hand, all metaphysical principles could be regarded as unnecessary; on the other hand, all metaphysical systems could be regarded as worthwhile. Nevertheless, that cutting quality constantly takes place. The vajra approach is very cool, like a crisp wintry morning, and not particularly friendly. The only friendliness that exists is a celebration and feast of the mind. In the vajra family, a feast of prajna takes place constantly.

The ratna family has a sense of immense richness, a richness that can continue forever. It is the richness of earth and its fermentation to the level of shit—or diarrhea, for that matter. That fermentation or shit can be accommodated as magnificent incense, as fragrant incense that can serve the buddhas of the ten directions. Ratna is extremely potent. It is not particularly cutting. Ratna is the elemental process of consuming. Ratna consumption is like fire, which slowly touches, contacts and consumes, and finally, begins to make something out of something else. It’s like the process of fermentation. When something is fermented, that process does not allow any room, none whatsoever. Ratna consumes the whole area and absolutely covers the entire ground. Along with that, there is also a sense of delightfulness. Ratna is not particularly unfriendly. There is a sense of awake. It is as if the active chemical ingredients, which are very awake and intelligent, know exactly what to do with the whole process.

Padma is a question of magnetizing. At this level, earth and sky meet and begin to make love. Through that proclamation of love, all other lovers are inspired and made horny, so to speak. The trees and flowers, rocks and vampires—anything that exists in the world—are made horny, so they are inspired to make love. In talking about making love, we are not particularly discussing sex, although sex is usually the first thing that comes into our mind. The padma process is more than that. It is beyond that level, although it may include that level as well, of course. Padma is the meeting point. Padma is magnetization that is improvised constantly and thoroughly.

In the padma family, perkiness, or intelligence, takes place as well. There is a sense of perspective, so when there is a meeting, you do not become completely intoxicated and blinded by it. You are not completely wrapped up in your particular copulation process, metaphorically speaking. Likewise, the sky and earth do not get frustrated by their instant copulation—which takes place for years and years, thousands of millions of years. Sky and earth have been copulating all the time. Nevertheless, both the sky and the earth have their momentum: time to create summer, time to create autumn, time to create winter, and time to create spring. So their copulation doesn’t become just simple possessiveness. It is not like being bound or imprisoned—instead, it is a delightful dance. In that dance, no bureaucracy is involved and there is no calculation. When the time for snowfall happens, it takes place. Both earth and sky agree upon that; nobody is overpowering either of them. When it is time to rain, time to create a hailstorm, or time to produce crops or greenery, it happens. The whole process becomes extremely natural and workable—a dance takes place.

In the case of the padma family, the word copulation refers to pragmatic situations, rather than to sexual intercourse alone. For instance, you could talk about the copulation of the contents of a building, like those of us sitting here, and the building itself. This copulation works in such a way that there’s no complaint on the part of the building that too many people are sitting on the floor, and the floor doesn’t drop down. That process slowly begins to work its way through our system altogether and throughout the universe. An immense magnetizing process of accommodating one another is taking place constantly.

We have be quite clear that padma is not purely bounded by the level of sex or seduction. It is not a salesman’s mentality, and it is not like walking into a whorehouse, where you feel the vibration of sexuality the minute you walk in the door. Padma is slightly more open-minded than that. In fact, the other would be imprisonment. It would be a painful process and a disgrace, in some sense. Padma is very clear and open: whenever a dance needs to take place, that magnetizing process takes birth. From the point of view of earth and sky, up and below, east and west, south and north, that dance takes place simultaneously. That magnetizing is constantly active. In the padma family there is a constant panoramic magnetizing process. That seems to be the basic point.

The karma family is one of constant activity. Activity here does not mean that somebody is constantly speeding along, having to achieve his or her particular job or idea. The karma principle is not about being an utter busybody and making enemies all along. The definition of the karma principle is that it offers fulfillment because all activities are already fulfilled. What one has to do is to communicate that particular message to the rest of the world. So in the case of the karma family, activity is there already, a process is already happening; whereas, in the other approach of speeding along, that process is not yet happening. You might find it difficult to relate with that, so you try to shout. You are trying to run a project, so you pull everybody out of bed in their pajamas in the middle of the morning and make them work. That seems to be the wrong approach. It is not at all karma family activity. It is just some kind of hellish trip.

In the case of the karma family, plans have already happened. Political understandings have already taken place. There are reasonable situations taking place constantly, so the only way to act is to acknowledge that and look into what’s happening intelligently and very simply. By doing that, the process becomes very natural—and every project initiated in this way actually does get fulfilled. Such projects become absolutely successful projects because your project, your plan of work, and your vigor are not based on the idea that you have to initiate the whole thing, that you have to think cleverly, or that you have to go against the grain. Things actually do exist already, so you do not have to be particularly smart in order to initiate something. You can only be up to that if you are awake enough to see what’s already happening. When the gun is loaded, you don’t have to be a busybody about guns; the only thing you have to do is pull the trigger. That seems to be the general idea of the karma wisdom of accomplished action, or karma activity. The gun is already loaded—all one has to do is aim it and pull the trigger.

The sense of humor pervades the entire five buddha family process; otherwise, we are in trouble. Within that sense of humor, or basic intelligence, the buddha family energy is the process of being solid and noncommittal, which tends to bring immense dignity. It brings immense magnetizing, immense pacifying, immense destroying, and immense enriching, as well. And once again, as far as buddha energy is concerned, let me remind you that it is a natural process.

In the case of the buddha family, you don’t say anything and you don’t act out anything at all. Instead, by being so, by being as it is, you begin to create some kind of infiltration. Instead of being completely verbal, in the buddha family the gesture begins to become the message. That seems to be the basic process. Things can develop or not develop, but whatever happens, you are not moved. In fact, you are not swayed by incoming messages of any kind. You have immense dignity. The buddha family attitude is that things have already been fulfilled—they are immensely fulfilled already, from that point of view.

The five buddha family process has provided immense friendly guidance to a lot of us. It has been one of the main ways to subjugate immense aggression and uptightness. We all are made of these five types, these five different buddha family processes. So you need to understand that every situation is always workable. You don’t have to change your personality, your sambhogakaya manifestation. You don’t have to try to make an angry person into a peaceful one, and speedy people do not have to become slower. That approach seems to be based on the Christian ethics of reforming, or final conversion.

In this case, we are not asking for a change or shift; instead, you maintain your existence. You try to evaluate your existence, your level of experience, personally and properly. That seems to be the basic point. The question doesn’t arise of, “I’m out of samsara, I’m into nirvana.” If you think in those terms, you need more sitting practice. You have to think more. Your approach is too premature and too primitive. You are still approaching things at the preparatory school level. You have to relate with much more sambhogakaya humor. Once that kind of space and sense of delightfulness is taking place, there is no problem—none whatsoever—in tuning into those five buddha family principles.

The sambhogakaya leads to the nirmanakaya, which is the physical, bodily state of existence. It is everything we experience in the visual-audial world in the very ordinary sense. The sun rises, the pine trees hiss in the wind, the rock sits and waters flow—all those processes are manifestations of the sambhogakaya principle being transmitted into the nirmanakaya.

Finally, at the nirmanakaya level, something’s actually taking place. Those long-winded descriptions and ideas, those intangible, unbiased, unconditional ideas and thoughts of enlightenment are finally captured in this particular sieve of the human mind. You can actually see the physical guru and you can actually prostrate to this physical guru and touch his or her feet. You could worship that particular person, who represents all those unconditional processes and all of that basic sanity. Immense space, created through the process of enlightened awareness, is finally manifested on earth.

The nirmanakaya principle exists in every situation. The nirmanakaya principle exists in a baby’s diaper. It exists in our pencils and pad. The nirmanakaya exists at the level of our money. It exists in the flat tire on our motorcar and in the police checking on our speeding. The nirmanakaya principle exists in every situation of our life. So the nirmanakaya principle is related with the ordinary minds of individual students who care to relate with their lives properly. Rather than purely worship some higher principle, people who are into the dharma properly begin to find in the nirmanakaya a sense of worship, sacredness, gracefulness and grace in everyday-life situations of all kinds. That is, the nirmanakaya principle exists in our everyday lives.

As a matter of fact, every activity that takes place in our lives is nirmanakaya expression. That nirmanakaya expression has two types: the confused version and the enlightened version. The confused version is regarded purely as a hassle, or an expression of neurosis; and the enlightened version is that within all that there is a sense of sacredness. So having a sculpture or painting of a nirmanakaya buddha or being involved with graphic situations and experiences in our everyday life are both regarded as nirmanakaya. If you have a graphic experience such as a car crash or running a red light, the very directness of whatever is taking place in your life is regarded as nirmanakaya expression. The cosmic approach—the larger metaphysical and enlightened approach that takes place in our life—is included in the nirmanakaya, and all the petty little details that exist in our life are included in the nirmanakaya as well.

The process of nirmanakaya tends to become very powerful at times because of its claustrophobic quality or watchfulness. Everywhere we turn, around every corner, there is nirmanakaya. We can’t just hang out loosely. In other words, everything is a reminder of all kinds of things. But that’s not particularly regarded as a phenomenological situation—it is just the basic awareness that the nirmanakaya cannot be avoided. In other words, buddha can’t be avoided, buddha is everywhere. Enlightenment possibilities are all over the place. Whether you’re going to get married tomorrow, whether you’re going to die tomorrow, whatever you might feel, that familiar nirmanakaya awake quality is everywhere, all the time.

Some systematizing of this whole process has developed during the 2500 years of Buddhist reign on this particular planet Earth. Throughout the history of Buddhism, there has been constant pressure on people to sit, meditate, and lead their lives in the Buddhistic way. That is actually adopting just a fraction of nirmanakaya activities. The rest of it relies highly on awareness and devotion. In this sense, devotion means being willing to face the possibility that the all-encompassing space of nirmanakaya takes place eternally in our life, whether we want it or we don’t want it.

Altogether, the three kayas are various functions of enlightenment. It is like having a heart, a brain, a muscular system and limbs: all of those are operating at the same time. Likewise, all three kayas are operating at the same time. It is like having a motor and a driver and wheels: they function in the same way. It’s wrong to look at it in terms of a case history—that one comes first, then the second one comes, and then the third one. The three kayas have been presented that way in many cases, and it is true, in some sense, technically. But in terms of presentation, that approach is a mistake, because people will tend to think that if you get the dharmakaya, you don’t need the rest. They will think that you can get rid of the others, the bothersome nirmanakaya and sambhogakaya, and just dwell on dharmakaya. But, somehow, that can never happen. They all work together. Dharmakaya is like the sun, sambhogakaya is like the rays, and nirmanakaya is like the rays hitting the objects on the earth. Nirmanakaya is the physical situation, and sambhogakaya and dharmakaya are the level of mind.

The Tibetan expression kusum yerme means “the indivisibility of the three bodies.” In the Kagyü tradition, it is always said that the three kayas come simultaneously. In your system, as you operate your life, those three principles happen at once. You are always working with all three of them in that way. I feel that’s true, and I think that’s a good attitude.

Adapted from the forthcoming book, “Glimpses of Realization: The Three Bodies of Enlightenment,” by Chögyam Trungpa, edited by Judith L. Lief and published by Vajradhatu Publications. © 2003 Diana J. Mukpo.

Photo by Bruce McKay.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1940-1987) is recognized for playing a pivotal role in the transmission of genuine Buddhadharma to the West. One of the first Tibetan Buddhist teachers to come to America, he established Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado and an organization of some 200 meditation centers worldwide known as Shambhala International. In addition to his best selling books on the Buddhist teachings, including Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and The Myth of Freedom, he is the author of two books on the Shambhala warrior tradition: Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, and Great Eastern Sun: The Wisdom of Shambhala.