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.