(EDIT: Apologies that it is taking me so long to finish this miniature internet essay project I started, this is going to be a work in progress for a while. Please treat any material presented as Buddhavacana as only my own amateur attempt at reading the material.)
This post was a long time coming (its not even actually done yet). It involves (or will, once I post the analyses) a lot of amateur translation work (a lot of which I am still not 100% sure of, so please correct mistakes I make!), as well as compiling and consulting a lot of sources.
This exploration was originally inspired by another thread thread, but this post ended up being so long, and so perhaps-tangential to the OP there, that I decided to make it into its own thread.
I figured it might be interesting to have a thread inquiring into the usage of dharmakāya in EBTs, with a slight focus on Chinese texts since there is nothing I could possibly add to a discussion about its use in Pāli (although such discussions are always a joy to read). I have consulted some sources that make use of what I assume are also Sanskrit recensions from the Sarvāstivāda and some other schools, but I myself do not have access to the original documents.
Dharmakāya, or 法身 (fǎ shēn), actually makes a few appearances in SA (there is one usage in DA). It appears in: SA 604 (no extant parallel***), SA-2 196 (parallel: MN 72), & DA 2 (parallel: DN 16), as well as in a host of the individual Taishō sūtrāṇi that I haven’t looked at yet.
***see notes in analysis below for clarification of the dating of SA 604 and āgamāḥ connected thereto.
That it appears in these places isn’t necessarily marking these instances as Mahāyāna influence in the āgama in question, after all, all of the early sectarian Buddhist schools had some “stance” or another on dharmakāya, the Sarvāstivāda believed that the object of refuge was not the dhamma-congregant or form of the Buddha, but instead, believed that the dharmakāya was the true unblemished, unperishing object of refuge, if this quote from the Mahāvibhāṣā is considered at all authoritative as to what exactly “Sarvāstivāda Right View” was:
I believe dhammakāya makes a few appearances in Pāli literature as well, in diverse settings. So some sort of mention of a dharmakāya is definitely a shared feature of multiple Buddhist schools. Furthermore, it was an object of sectarian dissent, as different sects seemed to subtly disagree as to their specific interpretation of what dharmakāya was, to say nothing of later Mahāyāna discourse, which developed into trikāya Buddhology.
The Mahāyāna doctrine of the trikāya, is occasionally manifest in a pseudo-Docetism, in which the material body of the ascetic Gautama (the nirmāṇakāya) is merely an apparition or manifestation of the dharmakāya. Some interpretations of trikāya go so far as to claim that the enlightenment of the Buddha did not occur at Bōdh Gayā, but instead occurr(s/ed) beyond the limits of time, synonymously with dependent origination itself, limitless and immeasurable: in short, primordially (which is the word used to attempt to avoid accusations of eternalism, I suspect).
"Primordial" Dharmakāya in Mahāyāna Buddhism
A tangent included in case anyone also has an academic interest in Mahāyāna Buddhism and its intersections, similarities, and differences, to/from the Dhamma as attested in the EBTs:
At that time the Bhagavān discerned the myriad bodhisattvāḥ’s thrice-asking incessantly, therefore spoke to them saying:
"You all listen carefully, [of/to the] Tathāgata’s mysterious hidden direct-knowing’s [abhiññā’s] power.
All the world’s divisions[,] devāḥ, humans and asurāḥ, all speak:
“Presently [this is] Śākyamuni Buddha, [he] goes out from the Śakya clan’s castle, goes to Bōdh Gayā not distant [from there], sits in the bodhimaṇḍa, attains anuttarasamyaksaṃbodhi.”
Thus, kulaputrāḥ! I truly completed Buddhahood since without measure without boundary one hundred trillion nayuta [many] kalpāni [ago].
Example thus[:] five hundred trillion nayuta asaṃkhyeya trisāhasramahāsāhasralokadhātavaḥ [many world-systems]
Pretend as if any person [were to] in the end render them [the world-systems] atomized [paramāṇu],
[were to] move eastward five hundred trillion nayuta asaṃkhyeya kingdoms thereupon dropping one speck [of the atoms],
[were to] thus eastward continue [dropping], [until] all those atoms [were dropped].
Myriad kulaputrāḥ! To [this] idea what [think you]?
These myriad worlds, can [there be] attained a cognition comparatively calculating to know this number[,] no?"
Maitreya Bodhisattva etc. altogether spoke to the Buddha saying:
"Bhavagān! These myriad worlds, without measure without boundary, there is no calculation known, also no mental power to reach [that calculation]:
All śrāvakāḥ, pratyekabuddhāḥ, according to [their?] anāsrava-wisdom [wisdom with lack of outflows], cannot cognize to know that final number;
we here abide in avaivartika [non-retrograding] bhūmi, consequently upon [this] subject-matter [the number in question] there is no attainment [among us?].
Bhagavān! Thus so [these] myriad worlds, [are] without measure[,] without boundary/limit."
What chiefly concerns us, rather than the emergence of trikāya in the Mahāyāna, is the presence and usage of dharmakāya, as word and concept, in EBTs and early sectarian literature (by this, I refer to, for instance, documents like the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma, etc).
I think it might be appropriate to start with this, SN 22.87
[quote]Alaṃ, vakkali, kiṃ te iminā pūtikāyena diṭṭhena? Yo kho, vakkali, dhammaṃ passati so maṃ passati; yo maṃ passati so dhammaṃ passati. Dhammañhi, vakkali, passanto maṃ passati; maṃ passanto dhammaṃ passati.
Enough, Vakkali! What is there to see in this vile body? He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dhamma.[/quote]
This is a very famous quote, and I am sure I am not going out on a limb here to assume that it is also a much misunderstood quote, a frequently out-of-context quote, and I believe, very possibly the sort of quote that would cause early disagreement leading to eventual sectarianism in Buddhist interpretation of Dhamma. Does anyone have any thoughts on the proper context for interpretation here?
On the surface, this quote seems very much in-line with the dharmakāya as outlined by the Sarvāstivāda in the Mahāvibhāṣā. One could possibly conceivably argue that the seeds for some kind of conceptual polarity between the flesh-body of the Tathāgata (proto-nirmāṇakāya?) and the liberated and apparently deathless state of the Buddha (proto-dharmakāya?) existed at a relatively earlier stage of historical Buddhism, as evidenced by that very same Sarvāstivādin quote.
Since dharmakāya is a point of divergence in many early schools, as well as between Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna Buddhism, looking at where dharmakāya pops up in EBTs is prudent, both for education into postulated “early” Buddhism, but also in understanding the historical context of early Buddhist sectarianism, as well as the rise of the Early Mahāyāna, I imagine. There are several threads out there about dhammakāya in the Pāli literature, written by individuals much more learned than I, freely available, but if I am able, I would like to attempt to add to that with focus on the āgamāḥ. I hope any mistakes I make will be corrected.
For the sake of introducing another perspective, Paul Williams, in his Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, in Volume II, which concerns itself with “The Early Buddhist Schools and Doctrinal History; Theravāda Doctrine” makes the assertion that:
[quote]Students of Buddhist doctrine are generally agreed that the earliest theory of the bodies of the Buddha was a twofold one. The Buddha’s physical form - his rūpakāya - was distinguished from the body of his doctrine - his dharmakāya [he cites his, but I do not have access to the full paper]. The one was the actual physical body with which the Buddha was born at Lumbīni, the other was, as Louis de la Vallée Poussin put it, the body of his doctrine, the collection of his teachings, his pravacanakāya.
Both of these bodies of the Buddha were thought of as being in some sense “visible.” On the other hand, the rūpakāya was seen simply with the ordinary eye of flesh (maṁsacakṣu); on the other hand, to understand the Buddha’s doctrine [he means dharma here, we can assume] - specifically to maintain the disciplinary rules and to realize the four noble truths (i.e., to be enlightened) - was to “see the dharmakāya,” a vision which involved the opening of one’s eye of wisdom (prajñācakṣu).
With the death and parinirvāṇa of the Buddha, however, certain problems arose. The body of the Buddha’s teachings - his dharmakāya - presented no difficulties, it was gathered together at the first Buddhist council where the sutta and vinaya were recited, and so was preserved and passed on to the community of monks. The Buddha’s physical rūpakāya, however, passed away and was seen no more. Some groups, to be sure, identified the rūpakāya with the Buddha’s relics and, as we shall see, there arose several ways in which, in some manner, it was thought possible still to have a vision of the Buddha’s physical form. But inescapably the parinirvāṇa principally signified the dissolution of the Buddha’s physical form, and even his relics, made over to the lay kings, were dispersed and eventually spread throughout the cosmos “like a mustard seed”, so small as to be invisible.
Given this situation, at least two groups in early Buddhism appear to have chosen to identity the dharmakāya exclusively with the whole of the Buddha. First, there were certain elitist monks who, at least in some Pāli canonical texts, show little concern for the relics of the Buddha which they leave to the laity; instead, as inheritors of the Buddha’s teachings, they claim that “he who sees the Dharma sees the Buddha.” Second, in curious alliance with them perhaps, we find followers of the early Perfection of Wisdom school [prajñāpāramitā, he might be referring to Madhyamaka here]. Indeed in the Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitāsūtra those who would adhere to the Tathāgata through his form-body (rūpakāya) rather than through his dharma-body are labeled “foolish” and “ignorant,” “for a Tathāgata cannot be seen from his form-body.”
Along with such views, there arose in some circles a veritable denigration of the vision of the Buddha’s physical body, even in his own lifetime. A story in the Karmavibhangopadeśa makes this clear: Two bhikṣus set out to visit the Buddha in Ayodhya, but in order to get there they have to cross a great forest. They walk and walk; thirst comes upon them. Finally they come across some water. One of the monks drinks, but the other declares that he will not violate the dharma and vinaya by partaking of nonfiltered water which contain life. And significantly, he adds: “The Dharma of the Buddha is his body; if I uphold the Dharma, I will see the Blessed One himself.” As a result of his strict adherence to the rule, however, he dies of thirst and is reborn among the gods. His companion travels on and finally arrives in Ayodhya, where he is granted an audience with the Blessed One. There he finds that his friend, as a deity, has already arrived and had his vision of the Buddha’s dharmakāya. But to him, because he drank unfiltered water, the Buddha shows only the body which he received from his parents (mātāpitṛsambhavam śārīram), that is, his physical rūpakāya. The Buddha adds in his explanation that although the monk “saw the body which I received from my parents, he did not see me.”[/quote]
This is just one academics opinion, and not an academic who necessarily studies and is informed by EBT and related scholarship. There are a lot of claims about early Buddhism and Theravāda being made. Are these justified? Is this rūpakāya & dharmakāya differentiation really as salient as it is made to seem?
That took so much time, I am not yet done the actual “in-depth” comparative analysis (as much as I am able) of the language yet, I will be posting that shortly.
First Addition: Moving on to the actual discussion of the parallels, interestingly, none of the instances of 法身 are rendered directly into the English as “dharmakāya” or “the dharmakāya”, in the English translations of the Pāli hosted at SuttaCentral, and this is for a simple reason: dhammakāya seems to never appear in the Pāli when 法身 appears in the Chinese.
The two 法身s in SA & SA-2 are Sarvāstivādin literature, which means that potentially, the Sarvāstivādins had possession of older Buddhavacana that already stressed dharmakāya a great deal more than Pāli literature at a rather early stage. It is possible that the translators artificially inserted 法身 into the text, but if they were going to do that, why not insert a complete trikāya into the EBTs?
The DA instance of 法身 is Dharmaguptaka literature. The parallel, DN 16, mentions the body very frequently, but the word “dhammakāya” seems to not occur in it, based on my cursory search.
It is possible that 法身 is translating something other than dharmakāya from the projected Sanskrit or Prākrit original here, but that seems unlikely. In addition, my methodology for generating these statistics (“So and so appears X times here, this and that do not appear here”) is via using SuttaCentral’s search feature and Command+F, which is hardly an exhaustive methodology to say the least. If someone else wants to replicate this and see if they can produce any more accurate insights that is highly encouraged.
With this in mind I would like to try to look at the places listed at the start of this thread where 法身 can be found in the āgamāḥ:
SA 604 (no parallel): this is a very sprawling āgama full of verse-sections. Translating this whole thing would be quite beyond me at the moment, especially given that it lacks parallels***!
***this is actually a Chinese translation of a medieval Indian hagiographical biography of King Aśoka misidentified as an āgama by tripiṭaka organization schemes of the past. As such, the beneath discussion should be read in light of that:
[details=Dharmakāya in the ~2nd-15th century Aśokāvadāna]It starts pretty standard:[quote]如是我聞：
Like this I heard:
One time, Buddha dwelt [in] Rājagṛha [at] Karanda Venuvana.
At that time, [the] Bhagavān [in the?] early morning grasped [his] robe [and] held [his] alms-bowl, altogether [the] myriad monk saṃgha entered [the] city [to] beg [for] food, thus [this] gāthā’s meaning (?) [was] explained:
[/quote]The āgama appears, me not having looked through it exhaustively, to be a series of gāthā and verses in its entirety, given and spoken by different people. The specific gāthā that interests us is here, please forgive my tentativeness here, I promise my contributions will have more merit when there is a parallel available to use as a guide:[quote]「時，諸臣白王言：『何故於此布施供養皆悉勝前？』
Then, the statesman (it seems to indicate this statesman to be Śuddhodana??? This might be an oddity of one of the resources I consult) said: "What reason, in this way, to give (dāna) support more than before?"
Attempted clarification: Then, the statesman said “Why donate (more?)?”
The King said: "Listen to what I say, [what I have?] in mind thus:
[The] Tathāgata’s substantial body (rūpakāya?), the dharmakāya[:] characterized [as?] calm [and] peaceful,
The Tathāgata’s rūpakāya (and?) dharmakāya (are?) characterized as calm and peaceful,
that knowledge enables(?) practice(?), therefore [perform?] pūjana (or dāna) more.
法燈常存 世， 滅此愚癡冥，
Dharma lamp/light constantly endures, destroy this ignorance (moha) profound (or: this hell of ignorance),
[still looking at this section], therefore [perform?] pūjana (or dāna) more.
The next section: 如大海之水， 牛跡所不容， 如是佛智海， 餘人不能持。is giving me a lot of trouble. It seems that if there is to be any instruction of detail to be found in this text, it is here, as there is a simile involving the ocean, a bull or ox, and the Buddha’s wisdom, as well as an instruction to not grasp, it seems, does anyone have any ideas as to the end of this gāthā while I try to piece together what it could mean?[/details]
SA-2 196 (parallel: MN 72):“the conversion of Vacchagotta,” as it were. He is famous for asking the Buddha the “hard questions” that so often vex those newly exposed to Buddhist teachings (and which reveal more profound underlying possibilities for future (mis)interpretation of Dharma post-“original Buddhism”), namely, “Does anattā mean there is no self?”, “Is the world eternal?”, and most importantly, because it largely conditions how to “consider” Nibbāna: “Does the Buddha persist after the death of his body?” Is the Buddha “awake”? We call him the “Awakened One”.
As a side note: the sutta-parallel is entitled the Aggivacchasutta. -vaccha- here is a truncation of Vacchagotta, no doubt, but what is aggi? Fire? The “enfiring of Vaccha sutta”? That seems contrived.
The 法身 in question occurs near the end of the āgama, and the term is uttered by Vacchagotta in his praise and revelation of the Tathāgata and the Buddhadharma.
Here is the relevant ending of the sutta-parallel, beginning at the analogy of the tree and the town, wherein the term dharmakāya is found in the āgama:[quote]When this was said, the wanderer Vacchagotta said to the Blessed One: "Master Gotama, it is as if there were a great sala tree not far from a village or town: From inconstancy, its branches and leaves would wear away, its bark would wear away, its sapwood would wear away, so that on a later occasion—divested of branches, leaves, bark, & sapwood—it would stand as pure heartwood. In the same way, Master Gotama’s words are divested of branches, leaves, bark, & sapwood and stand as pure heartwood.
“Magnificent, Master Gotama! Magnificent! Just as if he were to place upright what was overturned, to reveal what was hidden, to show the way to one who was lost, or were to carry a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see forms, in the same way has Master Gotama—through many lines of reasoning—made the Dhamma clear. I go to Master Gotama for refuge, to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha of monks. May Master Gotama remember me as a lay follower who has gone to him for refuge, from this day forward, for life.”[/quote]
From the āgama:[quote]犢子即言：「譬如去於城邑聚落不遠，平博之處有娑羅林，
Vacchagotta promptly spoke: "Analogy thus[:] going to a settlement not far, calm [and] peaceful this place has a sāla tree grove/forest,
this sāla tree grove after one hundred millennium, [its] branches all fallen, only resolutely the seeds/nuts/fruits remain*** (or: “only resoluteness/chastity [is] true/actual”?).
You[,] here-and-now Gautama, [are] also as such, [has] stopped completely all kleśāḥ [and] fetters,
[has stopped] four retrograding demonic confusions, all entirely [has] destroyed all [of them], only solid true Dharmakāya remains***.
Gautama! [You?] should know my present causal preoccupations (lit. “karmic business” ???), will wish to return [to those preoccupations?].
***this character could be interpreted as “lives”[/quote]
Very interesting. As I was looking at the last line, I had it rendered at one point as something like:[quote]Gautama! One should know ātman [in the] here-and-now [that is] the conditioned, [one] will desire to return backward.[/quote] Then I had it like this:[quote]瞿曇！當知我今緣務，將欲還歸。」
Gautama! [One who?] should know ātman [in the] here-and-now [of] fated affairs (karma and causality?), will wish to return [here, to saṃsāra?].[/quote]And I’m still not 100% as to what is being said in this last line. Oh dear…
緣務 is giving me the most trouble here. It seems to mean a business or preoccupation with pratyaya? Where does Vacchagotta return to?
DA 2 (parallel: DN 16, T 9): the nikāya parallel offers in-and-of-itself a wealth of possibilities to explore native Pāli contexts for the usage of kāya, as intersecting with other threads here, some compounds including: kāyasaṅkhārā, kāye kāyānupassī (discussed recently here), parakāye, gandhabbakāyaṃ, asurakāyā, tāvatiṃsakāyaṃ, & vassūpanāyikāya. Missing in our account of Pāli kāya-compounds is a convenient dhammakāyaṃ or dhammakāyassa to point the way to a parallel for the Chinese 法身 that occurs in the āgama.
Interestingly enough, 法身 is also missing from the independent Taishō sūtra T 9 (CBETA: T01n0009_001, pseudo-Dīrghāgama), though in it, 身 (kāya) shows up a comparable amount of times as to in the Pāli. A look at each of the contexts of 身 in T 9 will be a part of this essay project once the main sections discussing 法身 are finished.