The Buddha’s Images of Samādhi – Part 1
The Trikāya – The Sambhogakāya Mandala as the Middle Way
The Buddha used the language of imagery to describe subtle experiences and philosophical principles – and the Buddhist tradition continued to do the same down through the centuries. The impulse for this series of shorter articles began with a wish in me to present the beautiful images that the Buddha used to describe the four rūpa dhyānas – the first four states of integration and meditative absorption that are familiar to experienced meditators. I would like to begin however with another image – the three-level model of reality that came to called the Trikāya Doctrine. This is an image that emerged in the Mahayāna period and finds expression in the ‘Refuge Tree’ visualisation practices of Vajrayāna Buddhism. This conceptual image provides us, I believe, with a contextual framework for our study of the Buddha’s Middle Way – a framework which reveals the profound depth and subtlety of his spiritual teachings.
I have illustrated this article with various artistic renderings of the Refuge Tree used in the Triratna Buddhist Community, and have made reference to Urgyen Sangharakshita, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order, so need to make it clear, as I often do, that the reflections that I share in this article, while they are based on my Buddhist study in the context of the Triratna Buddhist Community, are my own – and should not be taken as representing any sort of consensus view within that organisation.
Trikāya means literally ‘three-body’, but it can be thought of a presenting the three layers, or levels, of the reality of Enlightenment – or three levels of the Buddha’s being. In the ‘Refuge Tree’ visualisation practices of Tibetan Buddhism, the trikāya is usually imagined as a great tree in which there are giant lotus flowers on three levels. At the topmost level there is always a single figure, usually either Vairocana or Vajrasattva, representing the dharmakāya – the transcendental absolute.
Below that, there is a layer of the tree’s structure that supports a horizontally arranged mandala of five archetypal Buddhas – blue, yellow, red, green and white – a simplified representation of the sambhogakāya mandala. A more complete description of the samboghakāya is the so called Dharmadhātu Mandala (whose name I shall explain below), that we find in the Bardo Thodol – the so-called ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’. So, a more complete depiction of the sambhogakāya mandala would show not just the five male Buddhas, but their female Buddha counterparts, and other figures from the five families of archetypal Buddhas.
Below that, there are usually several further branches which create several platforms of lotuses at right, left and centre. On this level of the tree are depicted all the historical figures in the tradition’s lineage – a representation of the nirmānakāya. Gautama Buddha is usually prominently placed in the centre, with the more contemporary teachers within the lineage arranged around and below him. Somewhat confusingly, we sometimes find mythic-historical figures also depicted on the nirmānakāya level of the tree – important mythic figures which either do not appear to fit into the samboghakāya mandala, or who, in the course of the mythological and imaginative flowering of Mahayana Buddhist tradition, have been assumed to have been historical figures, or even contemporaries of the Buddha.
The Buddha spoke of his path to Enlightenment as a Middle Way – a path in which the tension between the eternal and the mundane is held and reconciled. So, the Buddhist path is a third way – a philosophical path and a path of practice that avoids extremes, and in which this fundamental dichotomy is resolved. Over the centuries this idea of the Buddhist path as a Middle Way, and as a third way between these existential opposites, came to be expressed in this three-fold model of mind called the trikāya. By the 4th century CE, the conceptualisation that we now know as the Trikāya Doctrine, had been established. The idea being expressed, was that it is helpful as a way of reconciling the eternal, unconditioned, and divine reality of the Buddha, with his physical, historical, and human reality, to acknowledge a third and intermediate, archetypal level of mind, and therefore to speak in terms of the ‘three bodies’ of the Buddha.
I am of the view, and this is a view shared by many students of Buddhism, that the Middle Way does not only refer to this one instance. I regard the Middle Way as a much bigger and more general conceptual construct and description of reality. Indeed, I regard the Middle Way as the Buddha’s method of enquiry – as his way of approaching, not just these existential fundamentals, but all the phenomena of the body-mind, and all social phenomena as well. At every level of reality, the Buddha applied an analysis that recognises opposites; that separates and reconciles; that creates integration; that is relational and harmonising – even to the point of entirely overcoming the cognitive-perceptual dichotomy of self and other. The Dharmadhātu Mandala from later Buddhist tradition, which has been the focus of much of my writing, is a Middle Way symbol – a representation of the sambhogakāya level within the trikāya, and a symbol of the ‘separation and reconciliation of opposites’ as a guiding principle within any spiritual psychology, and on the path to wisdom.
The use of the term Dharmadhātu Mandala for the sambhogakāya mandala is a little confusing. It was given this name because the centre of this five Buddha mandala of the sambhogakāya is occupied by the white Buddha, Vairocana, who personifies the Dharmadhātu Wisdom. One of the five Wisdoms that are personified by the five sambhogakāya Buddhas, the Dharmadhātu Wisdom is the wisdom that is most rooted in the dharmakāya level of mind, since it is associated with realisation of the ’emptiness’ of the vijñāna skandha (Consciousness) – and therefore with the recognition that Consciousness is not personal. Hence Vairocana, the central samboghakāya Buddha, is sometimes seen at the top of Refuge Tree images, as a personification of the dharmakāya (as mentioned above) – although later Buddhist tradition most often places a form of Vajrasattva in this position.
The Middle Way also expresses an idea that, in the West, we often associate with the Taoist philosophy of ancient China. It suggests that progress is ultimately achieved not by going to extremes, but by the paradoxical approach of identifying the opposite of our current position – often an unconscious opposite – and fully acknowledging it. The greatest obstacle to integration, to real spiritual progress, and to the deep moral sensibility of Buddhist ethics, is the unconsciousness that arises from our unwillingness to acknowledge opposites in this way. The Middle Way principle on the other hand, is a subtle, wise and counter-intuitive one, that holds the tension between the opposites and therefore has great transformative power. If we can bring a balanced attention, recognising value in the opposite truth, or position, or direction of progress, and can learn to apply this principle in all aspects of our lives, we are led seemly inevitably to self-knowledge, psychological integration, skilled communication, and harmonious relationships. So, the Buddha’s Middle Way principle is woven through every aspect of his teaching – but is expressed particularly clearly in the development of the Trikāya Doctrine.
The impulse behind this development, was not only to provide a more complete description of who the Buddha was – it was also to provide a better understanding of ourselves; of what it is to be a human being. This is my motivation also in sharing these reflections. The Buddha’s Noble Eight-fold Path begins with Right Vision, or Right View. This launching off point for our journey of transformation, often takes the form of a deeply affecting insight or recognition, which propels us on our way. Right Vision also refers to our embrace of a description of reality that cuts through the bonds of the egoic self-illusion, and lifts us out of our mundane preoccupations and self-limiting conceptualisations. For me, the Trikāya Doctrine is just such an initiatory vision of reality. It contains a view of the person that frees us – that changes us forever when we grasp it.
Within the framework of the Trikāya Doctrine, the Buddhist tradition came to call the eternal level of the Buddha’s being the dharmakāya – the dharmic body, or body of ultimate reality. This notion of a level of being that is absolute, unconditioned, infinite, and non-dual, clearly has resonances in many other traditions of mysticism and spirituality. This entirely unconditioned level, or dharmic level, of the Buddha’s being, was contrasted with the nirmānakāya – the created, measurable, and time-bound level, which we know as the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, and the other Enlightened teachers. The word nirmānakāya is sometimes rendered as the ‘body of transformation’, and this communicates an important characteristic. Whereas the dharmakāya is the eternal level – the timeless Buddha Nature that is eternally present as a potential for Enlightenment from the beginning – the nirmānakāya is that embodied dimension of us that undergoes the multi-dimensional transformational process of ‘becoming’ Enlightened.
The whole notion of ‘becoming Enlightened’ is seen differently however, in the light of the Trikāya Doctrine. This teaching tells us that the transformation that our nirmānakāya identity undergoes in two-fold. Buddhist tradition usually frames these two in terms of the dichotomy of samatha and vipashyanā. To cultivate samatha is to cultivate calm, serenity, and tranquility of mind, while the development of vipashyanā is the development of insight and a penetrating clarity of cognition and perception. As with all apparent dichotomies within Buddhist philosophy, the relationship between these two is best understood in terms of the Buddha’s Middle Way principle. Both are essential and they work together in an interdependent and symbiotic way – we cannot afford to neglect either one, or to pursue one of them in isolation.
Those who know my writing, know that I am a passionate advocate of brahmavihāras practice (the ‘self-regarding’ and ‘other-regarding’ aspects of Loving Kindness, Equanimity, Appreciative Joy, and Compassion), which most Buddhists take to be a form of samatha practice. In the way I practice them however, I find them to be strongly generative of the sort insight that the Buddhist tradition associates with vipashyanā. The more deeply we go in our practice, the more apparent it becomes that we cannot, and should not, separate the two strands.
Vipashyanā is framed in various ways – most frequently in terms of recognition of the three lakshanas, or ‘marks of conditioned existence’, which are, in Sanskrit: anitya (impermanent), dukkha (inherently unsatisfactory), and anatman (without self-nature). Clearly, anitya (impermanent) and dukkha (inherently unsatisfactory) are aspects of the nirmanakāya, but not of the sambhogakāya and dharmakāya. Anatman however, is a feature of all existence, not just the nirmānakāya, and this gives it a special importance. It requires only a relatively commonplace understanding, to recognise that everything is change and process (anitya), and that human life is difficult and short (dukkha). Anatman however, the recognition that what we take to be a ‘self’ is in fact ’empty’ of self-nature, is more illusive.
Reflection on the trikāya can help us in this regard – because it invites us to entertain the possibility that our sense of personal consciousness (the vijnāna skandha) is an illusion related to our lack of familiarity with the dharmakāya level of mind. The vijñāna skandha of Consciousness is described by the Buddha as ’empty’ because it is an objective and collective phenomena – a phenomena of the collective dharmakāya, whose reflection in the nirmānakāya we erroneously take to be personal. When we recognise that Consciousness is not personal, then our sense of a personal will (samskāras skandha), of personal evaluation (samjñā skandha), of personal sensation (vedanā skandha), and of personal form-creating thought (rūpa skandha), are recognised to be ’empty’ also.
Our release of the self-illusion comes much more easily on the basis of deep experiences of samādhi, but deep experience of samadhi comes much more easily on the basis of the anatman insight, so we must pursue both samatha and vipashyanā in a balanced and integrated way. While the sambhogakāya mandala can appear to be a very complex cultural object, and tends to be undervalued, I have always found it to be a powerful symbolic guide in this regard – since a comprehensive model of both samatha and vipashyanā are woven into this ‘Five Wisdoms’ mandala in an integrated way.
The dharmakāya is significant because it gives us a way of talking about and approaching the eternal. While this dharmic level of reality is not directly knowable, we cannot afford to place it in the conceptual ‘too hard basket’. We must each find a way to engage with the dharmic level, because ultimately, it is this that heals us, that saves us, that sustains us, and that brings renewal to our lost and suffering world. The fundamentally unitary and timeless reality of the dharmakāya pervades the infinite multiplicity of this time-bound world (nirmānakāya). Indeed, the Buddhist tradition came to understand the dharmakāya to be of the nature of an infinite and unconditioned space, called the dharmadhātu – the dharmic dimension. An undifferentiated intelligent fabric into which all wisdom is woven, it is the primordial space of Consciousness in which everything appears.
One of our tasks as practitioners, is to open to this reality, and to become familiar with its sambhogakāya reflection as it resonates even in the somatic fields of our own bodies. In order to allow the dharmakāya to transform us, we must acknowledge it deeply, and come into a devotional-receptive relationship with it. As we practice with an awareness of the dharmakāya, always present as the context and container of our experience, we begin to recognise it to be absolutely reliable witness of our experience. By nature, both primordially still and unconditionally loving, we come to recognise it – initially only tentatively and fleetingly – as an unwavering source of the mental stability and emotional resourcefulness amidst life’s challenges. In the language of the Buddha and of the Buddhist tradition, we recognise it as a refuge – and ‘Go For Refuge’ to it.
The dharmakāya is unaffected by the mundane world of the nirmānakāya, while the nirmānakāya is profoundly affected by the dharmakāya. The relationship is therefore a one-sided one in which a stream of benefit and blessings flows from the dharmakāya to the nirmānakāya – and all that can flow back is our gratitude, our devotional receptivity, and our appreciation. The whole of the process of Enlightenment can be understood in terms of this relationship. We begin our spiritual journey identified with the nirmānakāya, but through the practice of samādhi (meditation), we begin to recognise the sambhogakāya reflection of the dharmakāya in ourselves. Through meditative receptivity, we learn to rest first ‘in’ and then ‘as’, the healing benevolence of the dharmic dimension, and begin an integration process that appears to increasingly express a subtle resonance of the dharmakāya within the nirmānakāya. Over time, this recognition profoundly humbles the egoic mind, and may even become the basis of a complete psychological revolution – the transformation of our identity, and the reorientation of our being, that Buddhist tradition spoke of as the arising of the bodhicitta.
While I find the terms dharmakāya and dharmadhātu very useful, people are put off by Sanskrit words, and by conceptualisations which seem too abstract, so, in my writing I have often used the word ‘Consciousness’ (capitalised) as a conceptual label to point to this transcendental reality. I am sure there are some who regard my use of the word Consciousness in this way as dangerously vague, and too much of a departure from their preferred strand of Buddhist tradition. I disagree strongly with this criticism. Buddhist tradition, right back to the Buddha himself, has always held that Consciousness is the primary reality – although the radicality of this assertion has often been obscured by poor translations and interpretations.
As Western students and practitioners of Buddhism, our engagement with the Buddhadharma involves translating it into a language and idiom which speaks to the Westerner – to find conceptualisations that resonate with important threads in the contemporary Western thought. The cultural conversation generated by an increasingly widespread understanding of Quantum Science, and of the Quantum Biology of the brain, and of the mysterious part played by Consciousness in Quantum Mechanics, is one of those important threads. We are living at a dramatic and crucial inflection point in history at which scientific knowledge is confirming the insights of the mystics and sages of Buddhist tradition. There is hope abroad that perhaps the science that brought us the horror of nuclear weapons can also facilitate the collective spiritual shift that is necessary if we are to prevent them from ever being used again – and as a Buddhist practitioner I feel bound to align myself with that discourse and that aspiration.
As modern Western meditation practitioners, even if we have deep emotional roots in Buddhist tradition, we are always looking for better ways to adequately describe our experience and to present a rigorous conceptual frame for our practice – and in that endeavour we cannot not engage with the phenomenon of Consciousness. While I reject as ludicrous, the idea that this engagement is non-traditional, I believe we need to go further. It needs to be said that there is great danger, a danger perhaps of missing the Buddha’s Middle Way process entirely, if we do not name the primary phenomenon in our experience that can be attributed to the dharmakāya – the phenomenon of Consciousness.
Clearly, the word Consciousness means different things in different contexts. We use the word ‘consciousness’ (all lower case) to describe the sometimes very conditioned and limited nature of our cognitive-perceptual functioning on the nirmānakāya level. Central to the experience of being human, and especially of human spirituality, is the mysterious experience of ‘being conscious’ – of being aware that we are aware. There is an entirely unconditioned dimension to the phenomenon of human Consciousness – since our Consciousness of being conscious is never ‘not there’ when we remember to acknowledge it. It is always there when we choose to notice it, and attend to it, and rest ‘in’ it, and rest ‘as’ it. It is always there when we choose to remember it and acknowledge its qualities, as we do when we practice the Buddha’s ‘remembering’ practice – Mindfulness.
The Buddha himself spoke about the ultimate nature of mind as an unconditioned ‘light’ of Consciousness. This understanding is also expressed in the way the Buddha talked about the ‘emptiness’, or non-personal nature, of the vijñāna skandha (Consciousness) – in the context of his adoption and adaption of the ancient Indian five skandhas teaching. This way of talking about Consciousness, and this deeper conceptual framing of Mindfulness practice, became increasing prevalent as the Buddhist tradition evolved over the centuries. When contemporary Tibetan Buddhist teachers speak of this direct pointing to the dharmakāya level of mind as dzogchen, or mahamudra, it is easy to misunderstand this as some sort of special advanced teaching, when, in reality, this is only a reiteration of the historical Buddha’s own teaching of the practice of Mindfulness.
Indeed, could be argued that this engagement with the ultimate nature of mind – this recognition of that bright, eternal and imperturbable dimension of mind which I have been calling Consciousness – is not just the essence of the Vajrayāna, but is the essence of Gautama Buddha’s Middle Way. The Buddhist culture which we associate with the early Buddhism, which we call the Theravada – called the Hinayāna, by the Mahayāna culture that succeeded it – could be characterised as viewing the Buddha’s teachings from a nirmānakāya perspective. As it entered the Mahayāna phase, Buddhism combined this ‘self-development’, or ‘self-transcendence’ perspective, of striving for liberation from the nirmānakāya, with a new perspective that can be characterised as one of devotion-receptive ‘self-surrender’. The Mahayāna can therefore be thought as an ‘other-power’ emphasis emerging after a period in which the emphasis was on ‘self-power’. This was a new culture of practice in which their was as opening to transformative power of the dharmakāya – the dharmakāya finding reflection in human mind as the images and bodily-felt experience of the sambhogakāya.
The Vajrayāna phase may be seen a further unfolding the Buddha’s vision. In the spirit of the Buddha’s Middle Way, it transcends the dichotomy of ‘self-power’ and ‘other-power’. In its essence, it can be characterised as a path of ‘self-discovery’ – one in which the transcendental dharmic reality is no longer simply projected out and related to either as an ideal to be striven for (‘self-development’ / ‘self-transcendence’), or a external source of healing to be related to in receptive devotion (‘self-surrender’). In the Vajrayāna, the focus of practice is to familiarise ourselves with the dharmic dimension that is already present within. So, it reconciles the previous dichotomy of Hinayāna and Mahayāna and integrates the best of both. The Vajrayāna is culturall – bringing us to a clearer . There is still profound receptivity and surrender (Mahayāna), and there is still a profound engagement with the transforming the egoic kleshas – the dark energetic momentum that must be reversed if the potential nirmānakāya is to manifest.
In the trikāya model, we are presented with a third ‘body’, or level of being – an intermediate, or ‘middle’, level between the dharmakāya and the nirmānakāya. This middle kāya was called the sambhogakāya – the ‘bliss’ body. This was a hugely significant development, and a logical one for a tradition whose focus was on understanding of the nature of mind and on the mapping out the inner world of meditative experience. It is often not clear from most ‘Refuge Tree’ images of Buddhist tradition, just how important, and indeed central, the sambhogakāya level is, within the trikāya model – since the eternal dharmakāya and archetypal sambhogakāya are represented right at the top of the tree, while most of the rest of the revered figures are the human nirmānakāya teachers within the historical lineage.
The sambhogakāya mandala is of great practical importance because it can be thought of as providing a symbolic description of the Buddha’s ‘Middle Way’ process by which the eternal and the mundane are reconciled. It represents the process by which our identity moves in progressive stages from an initial position of receptive relationship to the dharmakāya, to a position in which we come to recognise the timeless dharmakāya as the core of our own nature – even as we simultaneously recognise ourselves as beings with roots in the time-bound physicality of the nirmānakāya. I shall be talking about my favourite ‘map’ of these progressive stages of the spiritual journey in a future series of articles, in which I will present a personal view on the ‘System of Practice’, which Sangharakshita presented in the 1970s – the four-fold path of Integration, Positive Emotion, Spiritual Death, and Spiritual Rebirth.
The sambhogakāya provides us with a Middle Way between non-duality and duality. Whereas the dharmakāya is the unitary, undifferentiated, and ultimately unknowable core of all being, the sambhogakāya makes that intangible reality knowable as imagery and as bodily-felt experience. Most commonly presented as a mandala of five archetypal Buddhas (or five ‘Buddha couples’ – ten archetypal Buddhas altogether), the sambhogakāya presents aspects of the undifferentiated, non-dual absolute, in a differentiated, knowable, and structured way. So, whereas the dharmakāya gets symbolically represented as a single personified image representing non-duality, the sambhogakāya is a multiple image – and indeed shows us the fundamental dualities that are present in Consciousness as it unfolds out of the non-dual and into ordinary human experience.
The two axes of the sambhogakāya mandala show us some of the most fundamental of the many tensions and apparent contradictions within Consciousness and invite us to hold the somatic resonance of those tensions within ourselves – as the first step in a reconciliation and healing of the cognitive-perceptual oppositions that lead to patterns of unconsciousness in the egoic mind. The five archetypal Buddhas and their associated dharmic principles present us with five paths of transformation that we must traverse simultaneously, neglecting none, if we are to move from egoic identification to liberation in an integrated way. This image of the five simultaneous paths appearing to converge on Enlightenment, is a profound one, and is presented very powerfully by Padmasambhava in the main text of the Bardo Thodol. The sambhogakāya mandala calls us to cognitive-perceptual wholeness, to comprehensive self-empathy and empathy, and to the development of a balanced range of beneficial faculties.
Perhaps the most significant of the many polarities within the sambhogakāya mandala, is that which is represented symbolically by the relationship of the centre of the mandala and it four peripheral quadrants. On one level, this symbolises the relationship between Consciousness and its cognitive-perceptual functions, but on a deeper level it presents with a symbolic reflection of the relationship between the eternal dharmakāya and the time-bound nirmānakāya. The great spiritual importance of the phenomenon of Consciousness is highlighted by the placement of the corresponding Dharmadhātu Wisdom in the centre of the mandala – the wisdom of Mindfulness. The Buddha’s Middle Way is laid out for us comprehensively in the details of the sambhogakāya mandala symbolism – every aspect of Mindfulness; every aspect of Enlightenment to be integrated; and the antidote to every tendency of the egoic mind.
It would seem that the sambhogakāya cannot be absolutely distinguished from the dharmakāya, since the former is a reflection of the latter. In the sambhogakāya, the eternal dharmic principles that are woven into the undifferentiated and ‘empty’ fabric of dharmakāya are made visible as ‘form’ – as ideas, values, energies, somatic sensations, and as beautiful imagery. The sambhogakāya shows us the many dimensions of our deeper true nature in an impactful symbolic way. It shows us the virtues and potentialities, and the dimensions of well-being, that are trying to unfold in us. The sambhogakāya Buddhas model for us both the Spiritual Death of the egoic mind though a devotional-receptive surrender to the energies of the Transcendental, and the Spiritual Rebirth of recognising who we really are. They show us how to rest receptively ‘in’ Consciousness and release the obscuring patterns of our egoic identification, and they show us how rest expansively ‘as’ Consciousness – and in that expansion to begin to recognise the meaning of bodhicitta.
There are various ways in which the sambhogakāya mandala can be approached – it is as if all the most universal truths of the Buddhadharma are contained within it. For example, it can be seen as a graphic and detailed description of the Four Noble Truths. It may also be thought of a comprehensive symbolic description of the body-mind. It describes not just the inner life of a Buddha, but the transformative process of meditative integration by which Buddhahood is achieved.
The sublime brahmavihāras – the ancient Indian dimensions of love – which the Buddha adopted into his teaching framework with great enthusiasm, and which I like to think of as the ‘attitudes of Consciousness’, are central, in my view, to our understanding of the sambhogakāya. I shall be returning once again to these in the next article in this series. As most of my readers already know, I like to speak of the sambhogakāya mandala as the ‘Mandala of Love’.