The Three Kāyas Sūtra
In the Indian Language [Sanskrit]: Ārya Trikāya nāma Mahāyana Sūtra
In the Tibetan Language: Phakpa Ku Sum zheyjaway Thekpachhenpo’i Do [‘phags pa sku gsum zhes bya ba’i theg pa chen po’i mdo]
In the English Language: The Exalted Mahāyana Sūtra known as ‘The Three Kāyas’
ADORATION TO ALL BUDDHAS AND BODHISATTVAS.
Thus have I heard: At one time, the Sublime Master was abiding at Vulture’s Peak Mountain in Rājagriha. Immeasurably innumerable bodhisattvas, gods, nagas, and retinues were all staying together in one congregation, paying reverence and making offerings to the Sublime Master.
At that time, the Bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha, who was sitting there in that assembly, rose from his seat, and thereupon addressed the Sublime Master with the following words:
“How many bodies [kāyas] does the Bhagavān possess?”
The Sublime Master bestowed teaching thus:
“Kṣitigarbha, the Bhagavān Tathāgata possesses three bodies: the Dharmakāya, the Sambhogakāya, and the Nirmaṇakāya.”
“Son of good lineage, concerning the Three Kāyas, utterly pure essential nature is the Dharmakāya, utterly pure meditative absorption [samadhi] is the Sambhogakāya, and utterly pure conduct is the Nirmaṇakāya of all Buddhas.”
“Son of good lineage, the Dharmakāya of the Tathāgata, like the sky, has the significance of the absence of inherent existence. The Sambhogakāya, like a cloud, has the significance of formation. The Nirmaṇakāya is the enlightened activity of all Buddhas, and, like rain, has the significance of permeating everything.”
The Bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha addressed the Sublime Master with the following words:
“How should one view the explanation on the Three Bodies of the Bhagavān?”
The Sublime Master bestowed teaching to the Bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha thus:
“Son of good lineage, one should view the Three Kāyas of the Tathāgata in the following way: One should view the Dharmakāya as that which is the true identity of the Tathāgatas. One should view the Sambhogakāya as that which is the true identity of the Bodhisattvas. One should view the Nirmaṇakāya as that which is the true identity of ordinary individuals who act with a sense of dedication1.”
“Son of good lineage, the Dharmakāya dwells in harmony with all Buddhas and their essential nature. The Sambhogakāya dwells in harmony with all Buddhas and their meditative absorption. The Nirmaṇakāya dwells in harmony with all Buddhas and their enlightened activity.”
“Son of good lineage, the transmutation of the storehouse consciousness is Mirror-Like Wisdom and the Dharmakāya. The transmutation of the afflicted mind is Equalizing Wisdom. The transmutation of the mental consciousness is Discriminating Wisdom and the Sambhogakāya. The transmutation of the consciousnesses of the five doors is Action-Accomplishing Wisdom and the Nirmaṇakāya.”
Then, the Bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha addressed the Sublime Master with the following words:
“Bhagavān, that I have heard the Sacred Dharma from the Bhagavān is extremely good. Sugata, it is extremely good.”
The Sublime Master bestowed teaching thus:
“Son of good lineage, whosoever thoroughly retains this Dharma discourse of the Bhagavān shall obtain limitless, inexpressible, incalculable, and unfathomable merit.”
The Sublime Master granted teaching with those words, and Bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha, together with the worlds of gods, nagas, yakshas, and gandharvas, rejoiced, and deeply praised what had been spoken by the Sublime Master.
THE EXALTED MAHĀYANA SŪTRA KNOWN AS ‘THE THREE KĀYAS’ IS COMPLETE.
Translated from Tibetan by Erick Tsiknopoulos in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India. First draft completed in late November, 2012; revised in late December, 2013. Thanks to Dr. Lobzang Gyamtso for his kind help with reviewing the translation and providing commentary and explanation for the text.
1 Generally, this means beings who are dedicated in their practice of the Dharma, but who have not yet attained the bodhisattva levels, in particular those on the Path of Accumulation and the Path of Application, before the the first bodhisattva level is attained. They “act with a sense of dedication” because they have not yet manifestly realized emptiness, and practice out of that dedication supported by the teachings, conceptual frameworks, and devotion. However, in the context of this Sutra, it could apply to anyone who is not yet (or at least not evidently) a bodhisattva, but who is dedicated to their Dharma practice or study. The Nirmaṇakāya manifests itself as such people, who appear ordinary but are, in reality, emanations of the Buddha.
Mirror-Like Wisdom, Equalizing Wisdom, Discriminating Wisdom, and Action-Accomplishing Wisdom: four of the five wisdoms (T: ye shes lnga), with the exception of the wisdom of the basic space of phenomena (T: cho kyi dbyings kyi ye shes).
They are related to their respective Buddhas in the Five Tathāgata Families (T: de bzhin gshegs pa’i rigs lnga), a key system in most tantric Buddhism generally and also in some late ‘proto-tantric’ Mahāyana Buddhist scriptures, which this sūtra appears to be a particular case of (the Sūtra of Golden Light being another good example). The correlations are as follows: mirror-like wisdom is Akshobhya/Vajrasattva, equalizing wisdom is Ratnasambhava, discriminating wisdom is Amitabha, and action-accomplishing wisdom is Amoghasiddhi.
The primary nature of the five wisdoms from the perspective of conditioned existence is that they are the purification, or purified wisdom state, of the five root disturbing mental states. Their correlation is as follows: mirror-like wisdom is the purification of anger, equalizing wisdom is the purification of pride, discriminating wisdom is the purification of attachment, and action-accomplishing wisdom is the purification of envy.
Following this sūtra, the correlations for each of the Kāyas are as follows:
The Dharmakāya is correlated to 1) mirror-like wisdom, which is by its very nature 2) the transmutation of the alaya-vijnana: the ‘storehouse’ (or ‘all-ground’) consciousness, and also 3) the purification of anger, and related to 4) Akshobhya/Vajrasattva.
The Sambhogakāya is correlated to 1) discriminating wisdom, which is by its very nature 2) the transmutation of the mental consciousness (as opposed to the five types of consciousness for each of the five physical senses), and also 3) the purification of attachment, and related to 4) Amitabha.
The Nirmanakāya is correlated to 1) action-accomplishing wisdom, which is by its very nature 2) the transmutation of the consciousnesses of the five doors (that is, the five types of consciousness for each of the five physical senses), and related to 3) Amoghasiddhi.
In this sūtra, equalizing wisdom (Ratnasambhava and the purification of pride) is correlated with the transmutation of the afflicted mind (that is, the mind that is associated with disturbing mental states), but it is not correlated with any of the Kāyas. It would be interesting to investigate why this is so.
The Three Kayas are often presented in an order of increasing importance or subtlety, from the Nirmanakaya to the Dharmakaya, with the Dharmakaya being the most subtle and profound level, the Nirmanakaya being the least, and the Sambhogakaya somewhere in between, although they are also simultaneously stated to be in some ways indivisible and of the same essence. Following this general presentation of the Three Kāyas as a form of nested hierarchy, one could infer the following:
1) Mirror-like wisdom, being related to the Dharmakaya, is the foremost profound type and very highest level of wisdom. The practice and realization of mirror-like wisdom, and its associated deities of the Vajra family such as Akshobhya/Vajrasattva, have a unique connection to the nature and attainment of the Dharmakaya.
2) Discriminating wisdom, being related to the Sambhogakaya, is the second most profound type and second highest level of wisdom. The practice and realization of discriminating wisdom, and its associated deities of the Padma family such as Amitabha, have a unique connection to the nature and attainment of the Sambhoghakaya.
3) Action-accomplishing wisdom, being related to the Nirmanakaya, is the third most profound type and third highest level of wisdom. The practice and realization of discriminating wisdom, and its associated deities of the Karma family such as Amoghasiddhi, have a unique connection to the nature and attainment of the Nirmanakaya.
4) Equalizing wisdom, being related directly to none of the kayas, is the fourth most profound type and fourth highest level of wisdom. The practice and realization of equalizing wisdom, and its associated deities of the Ratna family such as Ratnasambhava, do not appear to have a unique connection to the nature and attainment of the Three Kayas.
It may be significant however that equalizing wisdom is mentioned between the Dharmakaya and the Sambhoghakaya – this may indicate that it is a ‘bridge’ between the Dharmakaya and the Sambhogakaya, or that it even holds precedence over the wisdoms mentioned after it. With this in mind, it could be inferred that in this context, equalizing wisdom is actually the second most important wisdom, not the fourth, although this is debatable.
Erick Tsiknopoulos (b. 1981) is an American translator of Tibetan, a scholar, researcher and postgraduate student in Buddhist Studies, a teacher and tutor of Tibetan language, a writer and editor, a voracious reader in various subjects, and an experienced world traveler. He is the founder and primary Tibetan translator of the Sugatagarbha Translation Group, and the creator of their main website, Tibetan-Translations.com, which currently features English translations of over 400 Tibetan texts. Many of his translations have been published in various forms, including as books.
He has been a student of Buddhism since 1999, a student of Tibetan Buddhism since 2003, and a student of Tibetan language since 2005. He has been translating Tibetan texts into English since 2007, has been based in India and Nepal studying Tibetan language and Buddhism intensively and translating Tibetan texts since 2008, and has been working professionally as a Tibetan-English translator and interpreter since 2009.
He is available for contact via email at: EmptyElephant@yahoo.com and SugatagarbhaTranslations@gmail.com