The Three Bodies of the Tathagata



“Good friends, you must all with your own bodies receive the precepts of formlessness and recite in unison what I am about to say. It will make you see the threefold body of the Buddha in your own selves. ‘I take refuge in the pure Dharmakaya Buddha in my own physical body. I take refuge in the ten thousand hundred billion Nirmanakaya Buddhas in my own physical body. I take refuge in the future perfect Sambhogakaya Buddha in my own physical body.’ (Recite the above three times). The physical body is your own home; you cannot speak of turning to it. The threefold body which I just mentioned is within your own self-natures. Everyone in the world possesses it, but being deluded, he cannot see it and seeks the threefold body of the Tathagata on the outside. Thus he cannot find the threefold Buddha body in his own physical body.

“Good friends, listen! I shall make you see that there is a threefold Buddha body of your own self-natures in your own physical bodies. The threefold Buddha body is produced from your own natures. “What is the pure Dharmakaya Buddha? Good friends, although the nature of people in this world is from the outset pure in itself, the ten thousand things are all within their own natures. If people think of all the evil things, then they will practice evil; if they think of all the good things, then they will practice good. Thus it is clear that in this way all the dharmas are within your own natures, yet your own natures are always pure. The sun and the moon are always bright, yet if they are covered by clouds, although above they are bright, below they are darkened, and the sun, moon, stars, and planets cannot be seen clearly. But if suddenly the wind of wisdom should blow and roll away the clouds and mists, all forms in the universe appear at once. The purityof the nature of man in this world is like the blue sky; wisdom is like the sun, knowledge like the moon. Although knowledge and wisdom are always clear, if you cling to external environments, the floating clouds of false thoughts will create a cover, and your own natures cannot become clear. Therefore, if you meet a good teacher, open up the true Dharma, and waft aside your delusions and errors; inside and outside will become clear. Within your own natures the ten thousand things will all appear, for all things of themselves are within your own natures. Given a name, this is the pure Dharmakaya  Buddha. Taking refuge in oneself is to cast aside all actions that are not good; this is known as taking refuge.

“What are the ten thousand hundred billion Nirmanakaya Buddhas? If you do not think, then your nature is empty; if you do think, then you yourself will change. If you think of evil things then you will change and enter hell; if you think of good things then you will change and enter heaven. [If you think of] harm you will change and become a beast; [if you think of] compassion you will change and become a Bodhisattva. [If you think of] intuitive wisdom you will change and enter the upper realms; [if you think of] ignorance you will change and enter the lower quarters. The changes of your own natures are extreme, yet the deluded person is not himself conscious of this. [Successive thoughts give rise to evil and evil ways are always practiced]? But if a single thought of good evolves, intuitive wisdom is born. [This is called the Nirmanakaya Buddha of your own nature.

What is the perfect Sambhogakaya Buddha?] As one lamp serves to dispel a thousand years of darkness, so one flash of wisdom destroys ten thousand years of ignorance. Do not think of the past; always think of the future; if your future thoughts are always good, you may be called the Sambhogakaya Buddha. An instant of thought of evil will result in the destruction of good which has continued a thousand years; an instant of thought of good compensates for a thousand years of evil and destruction. If from the timeless beginning future thoughts have always been good, you may be called the Sambhogakaya Buddha. Observed from the standpoint of the Dharmakaya, this is none other than the Nirmanakaya When successive thoughts are good, this then is the Sambhogakaya. Self-awakening and self-practice, this is ‘to take refuge.’ Skin and flesh form the physical body; the physical body is the home. This has nothing to do with taking refuge. If, however, you awaken to the threefold body, then you have understood the cardinal meaning.”

We have now arrived at the sections mentioned in an earlier blog concerning the “signless precepts”; essentially, these are in reference to an embedded (within the Sutra at this junction) ordination ceremony for both monastics and laity alike. What we are reading here is truly novel since we witness Hui-neng actually preparing his disciples for what they will be adhering to for the rest of their lives, i.e., committing themselves to the Southern School of Ch’an Buddhism by openly proclaiming allegiance to these forthcoming precepts. First up: discerning the three Bodies of the Tathagata within oneself.

The Three Bodies of the Tathagata

Firstly, one promises to take refuge in the Dharmakaya, or the True-Absolute Body of Perfect Suchness. Hui-neng places premium emphasis here on the Absolute Purity of the Dharmakaya; he explicitly states that any-thing formed outside the Undivided Body of Dharmakaya Buddha has the propensity to be tainted with negativity—yea, he even goes so far as to call them evil. This basically describes the nature of adventitious defilement’s that can cover, like a cloud, the Luminous Dharma-Realm of all Buddhas. Prajñā holds the key to dissolving those evil cataracts;  but not just any Wisdom, but rather, Bodhi-Prajñā—the untainted and undivided awareness power of the Tathagatas. If the situation warrants it, one should not neglect, says Hui-neng, to “open-up” to a True Teacher of the Buddhadharma, one who can help to dissipate those dark clouds of illusion by wafting aside one’s delusions and errors. Thus, Hui-neng says that taking refuge in oneself (in full light of the Buddhadharma) is tantamount to taking refuge in Dharmakaya Buddha, or the Absolute Buddha-Body (Buddhakaya) of the Tathagatas.

Next, one promises to take refuge in the Nirmanakaya; what’s truly astounding here is that Hui-neng says in doing so, one is taking refuge in “ten thousand hundred billion” Nirmanakaya Buddhas. Notice that this is not focusing exclusively on Gautama-Buddha alone, but rather upon an infinitesimal number; essentially this figure goes on into infinity—to take refuge an infinite number of times by calling upon the infinite number of Nirmanakaya, or transformation bodies of the Buddhas in all the ten directions within the infinite universe of universes. This is a mystical-formula; when enraptured in Wu-hsin, all phenomena is negated (sunya) in favor of the prior-sustaining force of the Dark Principle; this Dark Principle remains constant and immutable throughout the ten-directions, regardless of form or formlessness. Remaining intuitively within Wu-hsin one transcends (under all circumstances, both within and without) avidya by putting on the mantle of Buddhahood (invoking those transformational bodies wherein one’s own body becomes transformed in Unborn Light) and thus entering into the permanent realm of all Buddha’s.

Lastly, one promises to take refuge in the Sambhogakaya; Hui-neng places particular importance here on the “perfect-future” visionary body. He’s not making reference to some form of future epic of time, like climbing into a time machine and encountering some perfect-form of a future-Sambhogakaya Body. Hui-neng’s metaphor of the lamp places all this into proper dharma-perspective. Thousand-years of darkness are dispelled through even one slight-beam of light emanating from a lantern; in similar fashion, one flash of Wisdom (Prajñā) destroys ten-thousand years of ignorance (avidya), as well as its lingering karma. Don’t keep focusing on your karma, says Hui-neng, in doing so you are continually placing yourself in bondage to the demon of time. Rather, Recollect the ever-present (Now-Buddha-Voyager) Sambhogakayic Visionary Realm of the Tathagatas that transcends the fabric of the three times and thus catapults one away from all apparent (phenomenologically induced) dangers of the past, present, or future. Thus, it is within the Sambhogakaya that the Nirmanakaya Recollects the Permanent-Realm of the Dharmakaya. Hence, taking refuge in the Three Bodies of the Tathagata has nothing to do with placing any kind of temporary emphasis on the rupakaya (personal-forms), but rather employing Eternal Vigilance, through one’s Dharma-eye, into the Supraessential Self that awakens on the Permanent-Plane of Suchness.

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