Exploring Dharmakāya in EBTs and Early Sectarian Buddhism

(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."

(Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra 16).[/quote]

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:

『如來之體身, 法身性清淨,
[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,

彼悉能奉持, 是故供養勝。
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),

皆由從彼來, 是故供養勝。
[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]:sweat_smile: 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.


Just to clarify a couple of issues.

As you hinted at, Williams is not a student of early Buddhism, and I would not rely on his work. The whole thing of rupakaya vs. dhammakaya is not really an issue in the EBTs. Sure, you can infer a few things from isolated cases, but it’s hardly a significant theme.

In the Pali EBTs, dhammakāya occurs only once, in DN 27#9. Check the whole sutta for context, but let me translate the relevant paragraph for you. I haven’t reached this sutta yet, so this is just a rough job.

Tumhe khvattha, vāseṭṭha, nānājaccā nānānāmā nānāgottā nānākulā agārasmā anagāriyaṃ pabbajitā. ‘Ke tumhe’ti—puṭṭhā samānā ‘samaṇā sakya­put­ti­yāmhā’ti— paṭijānātha. Yassa kho panassa, vāseṭṭha, tathāgate saddhā niviṭṭhā mūlajātā patiṭṭhitā daḷhā asaṃhāriyā samaṇena vā brāhmaṇena vā devena vā mārena vā brahmunā vā kenaci vā lokasmiṃ, tassetaṃ kallaṃ vacanāya: ‘bhagavatomhi putto oraso mukhato jāto dhammajo dhammanimmito dhammadāyādo’ti. Taṃ kissa hetu? Tathāgatassa hetaṃ, vāseṭṭha, adhivacanaṃ ‘dhammakāyo’ itipi, ‘brahmakāyo’ itipi, ‘dhammabhūto’ itipi, ‘brahmabhūto’ itipi.
Vasettha, you are all of different lineages, names, clans, and families, yet you have gone forth from the lay life into homelessness. If you are asked “Who are you?” you should explain that you are ascetics who follow the Sakyan. When someone’s faith is settled, rooted, and planted in the Realized One, so strong that it can’t be shifted by any ascetic or brahmin or god or Māra or Brahmā or by anyone in the world, it is appropriate for them to say: “I am the Buddha’s true-born son, born from his mouth, born of the teaching, created by the teaching, heir to the teaching." Why is that? Because these are all terms for the Realized One: “the body of teaching” and also “the body of holiness” and also “become the teaching” and also “become holy”.

In such contexts the word kāya lies close in sense to the English “corpus”.

The terms dhammabhūta and brahmabhūta occur elsewhere in a couple of stock passages, eg AN 10.115:

For he is the Buddha, who knows and sees. He is vision, he is knowledge, he is the truth, he is holiness. He is the teacher, the proclaimer, the elucidator of meaning, the bestower of the deathless, the lord of truth, the Realized One.

Brahmabhuta also occurs in such passages as MN 94:

The person who doesn’t mortify either themselves or others—living without wishes, extinguished, cooled, experiencing bliss, having become holy in themselves—does not torment themselves or others, both of whom want to be happy and recoil from pain.

The term brahmakāya occurs frequently, but in a quite different sense: the company of deities of Brahma. I am not aware of it occurring elsewhere in this sense.


FYI, I have updated my translation of the main passage, here it is:

For these are terms for the Realized One: ‘the one comprised of principle’, and ‘the one comprised of holiness’, and ‘the one who has become principle’, and ‘the one who has become holy’.

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@Coemgenu Sorry for reviving this tread, but seeing attempts to justify non-Early Buddhist doctrines in the early texts where none exist causes me to wonder about this “Dharma-body” thing.

In Venerable Sujato’s DN 27 translation, he translates the relevant passage as “For these are terms for the Realized One: ‘the embodiment of truth’, and ‘the embodiment of holiness’, and ‘the one who has become the truth’, and ‘the one who has become holy’.” His translation of SN 22.87’s famous statement is “One who sees the teaching sees me. One who sees me sees the teaching. Seeing the teaching, you see me. Seeing me, you see the teaching.” These passages seem to simply point to the fact that the Buddha is the (first) one who teaches the truth, and that those who see (understand) the teachings, see (understand) the Buddha. This sense is especially clear in both MN 28/MA 30 where Venerable Sariputta quotes the Buddha’s words “One who sees dependent origination sees the teaching. One who sees the teaching sees dependent origination.” The Buddha also says to have yourself and the teachings as your own island and refuge, with no other refuge (interestingly, DA 2 mistranslates “island” as “light” but the correct translation as “island” appears in DA 21). I don’t see any non-Early Buddhist doctrine in these passages, let alone the Dharma-body doctrine of Mahayana/Vajrayana Buddhisms.

It is really weird that, as you said, the term dhammakaya seems to never appear in the Pāli when 法身 appears in the Chinese. Also, as you said, it appears only once in the Dharmaguptaka’s Dirgha Agama, which is DA 2. According to Venerable Sujato, it appears only once in the Pali Nikayas, which is DN 27. This term seems to appear here and there in different locations.

Now that I think about it, is there actually any Mahayana/Vajrayana text that explicitly talks about Dharma-body? Or does it only appear in commentaries and/or treatises?

In your opinion, do you think this term is simply a later addition to the early texts? Or, it’s early but Buddhists of the later periods misunderstood this term, and developed later doctrines concerning this term based on their misunderstanding?


I think it’s the latter. It’s quite normal in sacred scripture for words that to be used in a simple, colloquial way, and then to have all sorts of extra significance read into them by later generations. In fact, this is so prevalent that I made it into one of the foundational guidelines of my translation: the principle of least meaning. When faced with two or more options in translating, choose the one that conveys the least significance, treating the passage in the most everyday, obvious sense.


There are plenty, like the Diamond Sūtra, for one.

What you will never find reverence of in a Mahāyāna sūtra is the sambhogakaya, because most Mahāyāna sūtra have twofold dharmakāya-rūpakāya Buddhology. According to some, Maitreyanātha or other Yogācārins synthesized the sambhogakaya by splitting the rūpakāya, resulting in a gross formal transformation body and a subtle formal bliss body, so now we have threefold Buddhology instead of twofold


Well, as it turns out, who knows why dharmakāya pops up in the Chinese, and that combined with my poor Chinese when I started made the whole study somewhat moot, hence my altered title, “and Ealy Sectarian Buddhism”

The most interesting instance of it was during the conversion of Vacchagotta āgama.


Huh, I did not know that. Thanks!

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Look at this depiction of a body of the Buddha from the Anantanirdeśasūtra:

Great indeed, great sage lord of great enlightenment,
without defilement, without stain, without attachment,

trainer of heavenly and human beings, elephants and horses,
scenting all with the wind of the way, the incense of virtue,

calm in wisdom, vast in feeling, still and concentrated in thought,
will extinguished, consciousness gone, mind tranquil,

eternally cut off from dreamlike deluded thoughts and ponderings,
no more elements, components, sense fields, or realms,

his body neither existing nor not existing,
neither caused nor conditioned, neither self nor other,

[… skipping over a long neti, neti list …]

He displays his sixteen-foot body, gleaming like purple gold,
trim and upright, shining with great penetrating brilliance;

characteristic tuft curled like a moon, sun rays behind his neck;
his coiled hair deep blue, a knob of flesh on his crown;

pure eyes, bright mirrors, gazing up and down;
eyebrows and lashes blue and lengthy, mouth and cheeks shapely;

lips and tongue red and comely as crimson flowers;
forty white teeth like snowy agate;

forehead broad, nose long, an open countenance;
breast displaying a fylfot pattern, lion-chested;

hands and feet soft and supple, marked with thousand-spoked wheels;
armpits and palms crossed with lines, inside and out well molded,

long upper and lower arms, fingers straight and slim;
skin delicate and soft, hair curling to the right;

anklebones and knees well exposed, male member hidden like a deer;
slim muscles, well-locked bones, deer-like legs;

front and back radiant, pure, without defilement, unstained by turbid water, untouched by dust,

the thirty-two features all like this, the eighty characteristics plain to see.

Yet in truth there is no form that is with or without features; he is cut off from all eyes that look for features.

With features that are featureless he bears a featured body, and the features of living beings with their featured bodies are likewise.

(T276, tr Burton Watson)

Although this isn’t an Indian text, apparently it’s likely Chinese apocrypha according to some, the curious body presented above is essentially the template for the sambhogakāya.

For instance, the 32 marks are moved from the transformation body to the bliss body, as both can carry “marks”. This frees up Shākyamuni to not look like a bizarre alien all the time.

Well, you can look it up yourself. In late Mahayana the 32 marks are on the bliss body, not the transformation body, along with 80ish additional marks. Makes the bliss bodies look rather psychedelic.

Compare the body above with the truth-body form-body distinction from the Diamond Sutra:

Śākyamuni Buddha again called, “Empty Born, in your opinion, can it be said that the thirty-two marks and eighty subtle characteristics are the Tathāgata’s Dharma body?"

Because Subhāti understood the principle of emptiness, and because he had awakened to the emptiness of people and the emptiness of dharmas he said, “No. One should not rely on physical marks to see the Tathāgata. And why? The thirty-two marks and eighty subtle characteristics of which the Tathāgata speaks are marks of the physical body, not of the true, real Dharma body. The Tathāgata has certified to the substance of the principle, the Dharma body, so although he is endowed with physical marks, there is no attachment to them, nor can he truly be seen by means of those marks.

(T235 tr Ven An-tzu)

IMO the dharmakāya emerges as an iconoclastic tendency in Mahāyāna.


Not to be misleading, there are sūtrāṇi that talk about three buddha-bodies outrightly, but they all date from after Maitreyanātha, and the term only appears in Yogācāra/Cittamātravāda scriptures.

This appears to be an observation of Loppon Malcolm, I can’t find a paper on it, but he talks about it on DharmaWheel.

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I don’t know if this is old news/already-known-trivia to you, but this is likely a ātmadīpa/ātmadvīpa confusion in the reading of the Prākrit synonym. I say “likely” but I should probably say “definitely”.

I would cite this, but I see it everywhere, and I wouldn’t even know who the first one who noticed it would be.

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@Coemgenu Yes, it’s already a known trivia to me. I just find it interesting how some words in Prakrit can have more than one meaning, but that characteristic is lost when those Prakrit words are translated in Middle Chinese and Sanskrit (and perhaps other languages as well), which forces the translators to choose one meaning over the others. I also don’t exactly remember who noticed it first.

Also, thank you for the passages. So that’s what the Diamond Sutra says about the Dharma-body.

I looked at the passage where 法身 appears in DA 2, and 法身具足 is used as one of descriptions of the community (Sangha) in the Mirror of Teachings topic. In this particular context, it can’t mean anything other than “being endowed with the embodiment of truth” since the passage continues with those who practise to realise the fruit of stream-entry up to those who are the perfected ones; it refers to how monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen are endowed with wisdom from the teachings. So, the definition of 法身 as “Dharma-body” in this context is out of the question.

As for SA2 196, I’m not sure what to make of it. 法身 appears in 已斷一切煩惱結縛,四倒邪惑,皆悉滅盡, 唯有堅固真法身在。Perhaps this sentence can be translated as “all defilements and bondages have been cut off; the four wrong views have all ceased; there is only solid, and real embodiment of truth”? Do you think 法身 in this context can be translated as something else?

The word “四倒” is puzzling. Buddhist-dict.net gives 四倒’s definition as “four errors”, and this word doesn’t seem to appear in the four main Chinese Agamas (I don’t know if it appears in individual translations).

There’s also “五分法身” which appears only in some discourses in Ekottara Agama (some discourses of this collection are influenced by Mahayana Buddhism so that’s not surprising, but still). Buddhist-dict.net gives the definition of the mentioned word as “five-part Dharma body”. I have no idea where it originated from. Do you happen to be familiar with this word?

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I think it seems to be more or less a direct reference to the notion that the definitive object for refuge/veneration of the Buddha is his dharmakāya, not his rūpakāya. How this relates to EBTs & early sectarianism I can’t say.

This is a translation of pañcadharmaskandhāḥ, a term for avaivartikāḥ on aśaikṣatvabhūmyaḥ (including obv tathāgatāni). You can see them mentioned here in Mahāśamathavipaśyanā/Móhēzhǐguān:


@Coemgenu I think the description in SA2 196 is likely altered. It’s the only version that compares the falling of branches and leaves with only a trunk left with how the Buddha cuts off defilements and bondages, with only this solid and real “法身” left. It seems like a Sarvastivada (or Mahayana) influence to me. However, if I look at the relevant passage as a whole, I think it can also simply mean that the Buddha has eliminated all defilements, and the only thing he has left is his wisdom that reflects the truth, which he realises from his practice, and he embodies it, hence the term “法身” (the embodiment of truth).

On the other hand, both SA 962/MN 72 simply say how the Buddha’s teachings/dispensation is like a tree that only has a trunk left after all its branches and leaves fall off.

The early texts can be really complicated sometimes.

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I always assumed the Sambkogakaya idea was in some way related to the Akaniṭṭha heaven.

FWIW AN 4:131 discusses a tripartite division of fetters, in contrast to the two-fold “higher” and “lower” 10-fetter model found in some Pali suttas : 1) The lower fetters, which a Once-returner has yet to abandon (and that presumably lead to rebirth in the desire realm), 2) the “fetters for gaining a spontaneous re-appearance”, which culminate in rebirth in the Akaniṭṭha heaven, and 3) “fetters for becoming”, which seem to lead to unbinding “in between” (the “Bardo” state, I guess).