Here we come to the metaphysics of Mahayana Buddhism. We can make some comparison with the Western modes of metaphysics. Metaphysics is to do with transcendence and we can talk about levels of transcendence. Thus, we encounter phenomena in the world. We try to understand them. That effort to ‘understand’ is an attempt to put things into a meaningful context. This move to ‘meaningful context’ is transcendence. We meet some people and do not understand their language. We make sense of it be saying, “Oh, they are Portuguese.” Now the particular individuals have been subsumed into a larger category. They are instances of Portuguese people. Actually ‘Portugal’ is a human convention. It only exists because humans go on acting as though it does. Birds and foxes do not recognise it. It has no being in the world, only in our heads and actions. It is not a physical category, it is a meta-physical one. It is ‘meta’ in that we have gone up one level in our analysis. Without such transcendent moves in our minds we would have no sense of understanding anything. Portugal is a country. It is an instance of countries. Now we are at a meta-meta level. And so it goes on, or can do.
Problems of Ultimate Transcendence
Western religion personified the higher levels of analysis, but then, by a process of a kind of purification of thought, decided to personify only the very highest level. There was a kind of competition between the gods until only one remained. This was the war god of Israel - Jehovah. However, the process continued. There was then competition between the attributes of God (now spelt with a capital G) until only the very best qualities could be attributed. Nowadays we say only that God is love and light and truth. God is not allowed to be angry or grumpy any more. He no longer has thunderbolts. However, there are problems with such a high level of transcendence. It leads people to ask, “If God is so good AND so powerful, how come he allows evil things, how come he lets babies die?" and so on. Every type of thought system has its limit problems and this is the kind of limit problem of a system that attempts ultimate transcendence. Some people try to solve this by making God extremely abstract, but then He starts to feel irrelevant. It is a difficult problem. However, the fact that a system has problems does not of itself validate any alternative system because all systems have problems.
Science as Transcendence
We can see this is the rise of science. In many ways, science is a direct result of the Western style of transcendence thinking. The scientist is, in concept, a person who transcends the matter that he studies. He is objective. Ideally he is as objective as only God could be. This approach has yielded a lot of knowledge - some of which helps us and some of which threatens our existence. Because, at a rather fundamental level, our culture believes in this kind of transcendence, we also believe in ‘knowledge for its own sake’. The more knowledge we have the more transcendent we feel ourselves to be. All of this runs the kind of danger that the Greeks called hubris. Playing God is dangerous. It is, however, a deeply ingrained cultural habit and very difficult to break free from.
In the East Buddhism developed. It is also a system of transcendence. It worked in a slightly different way to the Western approach. This was in part because of the massive influence of the philosophy of Nagarjuna and in part because of the obdurate practicality of Chinese people. Nagarjuna showed that any logical thought carried to the limit becomes nonsense. We are like fish living in the sea who can never really get to a viewpoint outside of the water without dying. So there is not the same pressure to find the right system of ultimate transcendence because we know in advance that at the ultimate level they are all going to fail because we are human. We are not God. So Eastern though it more in the nature of a kind of truncated transcendence, or a transcendence that turns back on itself. This is close to the Western idea of dialectics. As Western thought has gradually more and more run up against the limits of transcendence it has tended to become more dialectical. In science we now recognise that the observer influences the experiment and so is part of the experiment so that there is a kind of infinite regression inherent in the analysis. Ultimate knowledge eludes us.
Metaphysics is Unavoidable but Never Ultimate
All this means that (1) some degree of transcendent thinking is unavoidable and those who think they have avoided it are fooling themselves. Even the thought of one’s self having done so is itself a kind of transcendent thinking, trying to put oneself above the game. Yes (2) no system of transcendence can be carried to its ultimate conclusion. This leaves us with a truncated transcendence which, at best, becomes dialectical as I shall explain further below. This can feel unsatisfactory, because we can never reach any ultimate ‘ground’. In our Western thinking we are always trying to do so and even systems of thinking that start with a rejection of the whole idea (eg. existentialism, phenomenology, Marxism, logical positivism) pretty quickly seem to fall back into the same problems.
Tao as Dialectic
So how does this work out in Eastern metaphysics? The Chinese were blessed from the beginning with a kind of dialectical system called the Tao. The Tao consists of yin and yang which are opposites. Here, therefore, there is no an image of an ultimate truth as an eternal static something that defies the laws of physics. Rather there is a sense that the ultimate or most fundamental reality is time or change. This can be expressed as a paradox - that what is eternal is change. Buddha taught impermanence as the fundamental driving force of spiritual endeavour and the Chinese grafted this onto their existing ideas about yin, yang and Tao. This produced a particular kind of hat I am here called truncated transcendence or transcendence that eternally turns back upon itself.
Relic Worship as Original Buddhism
So to bring this down to earth, the question that the ordinary Buddhist wanted to know was ‘Where is Buddha now?’ When Buddha died his relics were distributed and enshrined in stupas in different parts of India so that all those communities that had believed in and supported him each got a bit of him. Reliquaries were built. These became stupas and ultimately pagodas. These were places of pilgrimage and worship. The earliest form of spiritual practice for ordinary lay Buddhists was to go to the stupa, circumambulate and pray. This is where Pureland Buddhist practice comes from. In those days, there were a few monks who lived in small hermit like communities who meditated with a view to transcending this world themselves and becoming Buddhas or Arhats, but the ordinary Buddhist practised by revering the remains of the Buddha body, the Buddhakaya. Of course, this naturally led to the question, ‘Where is the Buddha now really?'
Relic worship remains an important part of Buddhism. There were not just the relics in stupas. Even when Buddha was alive people had relics. When he cut his hair people would keep it. This is like having a locket with a curl from one’s beloved. Relics are love-tokens. People loved the Buddha and wanted this connection. However, the person who wears a locket with a token of his or her beloved, when they touch it of think about it, has also many other ways of experiencing the presence of the one they love. Hence naturally arise ideas about how the true reality of Buddha is not just flesh and bones, but is something that transcends the empirical being in the world. Shakyamuni is an instance of Buddha(s). In this sentence, ‘Buddha’ is already a transcendent term.
Three Ways Buddhas Continue to Appear and Change History
Nor is this purely a cognitive matter. It is conative. We take refuge in Buddha. In what? Taking refuge is a powerful spiritual act. People in Buddhist history have had dreams and visions. Shinran went to Honen because of a vision. Atisha went to Selingpa because of a vision. Whole schools of Buddhism - some of the most important in the world today - arose ultimately from such dreams and visions. The inspiration arises in an encounter with Buddha in some form or other. Hence it is apparent phenomenologically speaking that Buddha(s) can assume many forms in order to get their saving work accomplished. How were Buddhists to think about this? A modern psychologised reduction would never have resulted in missionaries crossing continents, new civilisations forming, or the profound swaying of the hearts and minds of millions of people. A transcendent way of understanding the nature of Buddha was required and was found. The way we now talk about this way of understanding the Buddhakaya is as a threefold manifestation, a trinity. This is called the trikaya, 三身, or 'threefold body’. The three elements are Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya. We say that all Buddhas have these three dimensions or three levels of manifestation.
Trikaya as Linear Transcendence
If we think of these three in the manner of the Western mode of transcendence thought, then they form a kind of hierarchy. Dharmakaya is the highest truth, the ultimate, sometimes personified as Vairocana, the primordial Buddha. Nirmanakaya is manifest concrete embodiment of Buddha in the world. It means ‘transformation body’ and the idea is that Buddha can appear as innumerable transformations according to the needs of beings. The person sitting next to you on the bus could be nirmanakaya buddha. The person who does something drteadful and gives you a shock so that you do not fall into doing something similar yourself could be nirmanakaya. Shakyamuni Buddha or Jesus Christ are nirmanakaya. Between the Nirmanakaya and the Dharmakaya - between the immanent and the ultimate transcendent - lies the spiritual realm, sambhogakaya. This means ‘enjoyment body’ and as such it refers both to the way that we enjoy the presence of the Buddhas in dreams and visions and also to the way that Buddhas enjoy their Buddhahood in the state of transcendent bliss. So here we have a three level transcendence that can even be mapped into the Christian trinity, with Dharmakaya equivalent to God, sambhogakaya as the holy spirit and nirmanakaya as the christ. In this sense, we could say that Mahayana Buddhism is worship of the Holy Spirit. The bodhisattva is full of bodhichitta which is ‘holy spirit’. The bodhisattvas, therefore are the apostles of Buddhism.
We can also see the relationship between the three bodies n observing that nirmanakaya, being a transformational appearance in the world, has a beginning and an end - is born and dies. Sambhogakaya also has a beginning, but it has no end. A Buddha became a Buddha at some point, but does not cease to be one. The truth imparted by Sambhogakaya Buddhas occurs at a point in time, but it never ceases to be true. The Dharmakaya has neither beginning nor end. It was always true and will always be true. In relation to this we can observe that one of the questions that occupied Dogen and some others was the fact that if enlightened being is unconditioned then it cannot be the case that anything that happens in the conditioned realm could be the cause of enlightenment. Or, to put it differently, nothing achieved by the delused mind could be the basis of awakening. This is important because it is probably true that the great majority of people practising with a view to enlightenment think implicitly that when they just understand enough or the right think or get the right perspective upon the problem of life, then they will be enlightened. However, it cannot be so. Were it so then enlightenment would be dependent upon a conditioned phenomenon and would not be true enlightenment. Dharmakaya is not created by something else. Thus, the Buddha is in line with all other Buddhas, but not in line with Siddhartha Gotama. However, Siddhartha Gotama has not ceased to exist when Shakyamuni Buddha appears.
Trikaya as Dialectical Transcendence
If we try and let go of the normal Western mode of thought, what is possible? Thinking dialectically means using the frame of thesis giving rise to antithesis, the interaction of the two generating synthesis and the synthesis then becoming the new thesis. This mode of thought is what I have been calling truncated transcendence. It never arrives at ultimacy. The antithesis is a transcendence of the thesis, but the attempt at going a step higher - synthesis - actually brings us back down to ground level. Applying this way of thinking, Nirmanakaya is the thesis. Nitmana means transformation. In other words, something happens. When something happens it is, in a sense, a Buddha appearing in the world. Buddha’s teach. Anything - however god, bad, clever or boring it may be - can teach us. Therefore it is a Buddha. It provokes. The task of Buddhas is to provoke us out of our sleep, our complacency. So, nirmanakaya. We react. We try to get our mind (soul, body, imagination, the lot) around what has happened. This is an attempt at transcendence. We are trying to make sense of it. Insofar as anything of this kind happens it is sambhogakaya. It is a new occurrence that can also teach us. For ‘teach’ we can say ‘change’. We are changed. So with nirmanakaya as thesis, sambhogakaya arises as antithesis. However, one is not now any longer the same person. Thus in the third move, antithesis meets thesis again, but it is not the same as before. One is already changed. Hence the original encounter is now replaced by a new encounter. This is synthesis, Dharmakaya. Dharma means that is really true. By the three moves one has moved toward truth. However, one has not arrived in any final sense. The new encounter gives rise to a new three steps.
Let us say this again, slightly more formally. X happens and is experienced. X is an experience. Y arises in the attempt to make sense of X. Y transcends X. Y now meets X and this meeting is a new experience because the person embodying Y is not the old person any more. Hence, there is a new experience Z. However, Z cannot be the end of the matter. It is just the provocation of the next stage.
Let us apply this to our earlier example:
X = John meets people and does not understand what they are talking about.
Y = John realises that these are Portuguese people.
Z = John interacts with the new people in a new way since he has a new grasp of the problem. John is now a slightly different person from how he was before and the encounter is certainly different.
Z, here, however, is only the beginning of John’s attempt to understand his new acquaintances and he will make many further transcending moves as he does so and will each time be brought back down to earth as he tries out his attempts to get to the truth about how to talk to a Portuguese person.
We can generalise from this example. Trying to understand life is like meeting people who speak a foreign language. Nature speaks her own language. Other souls speak their own language. All the time we are trying to master the language of life and so understand what ‘this’ is all about. So when we try to understand Buddha and answer the questions where, what, how, why is Buddha we naturally go through a similar process. Hence Buddha manifests in all three modes - X, Y and Z.
If you like to use long words, then this latter, dialectical process can be called hermeneutic rather than transcendental. Hermes was the messenger of the gods. We can see that the dialectical process is piecemeal. We inch forward mostly, occasionally having bigger breakthroughs when a lot of bits all fall into place at once. Perhaps we suddenly get the hang of how Portuguese people form the past tense of verbs and a whole area of new discourse opens up. This process is iterative and is actually the way that most people from childhood onwards learn most things. Hermes brings us cues. We endlessly try to interpret them, rising to heights and being brought down again. Whether we are rising or falling, Buddha is holding our hand.
Yin & Yang
In China they did not have Hegel’s dialectical formulation, but they did have the Tao and yin and yang, which do more or less the same job. In Far Eastern Buddhism, therefore, there is not really an attempt to generate an ultimate transcendence in the way that there has been in Western religion. The Buddhas are transcendent, but not many levels up. they are here in this world helping us. When we try to think of them as ultimately transcendent the whole scheme of thinking tends to fall apart. There is Nirmanakaya - the encounter with Buddha in the midst of life. there is Samghogakaya, the processing of all this is the deeper mind. This may mean that we than arrive at Dharmakaya, but as soon as we do we find we are back in the concrete world. Dharmakaya is mountains and rivers, breakfast and supper, chopping wood and drawing water. As such it is again Nirmanakaya and so the wheel turns. Yin gives rise to yang. Yang collapses into yin. They are not so much manifestations of a Tao that is above it all as instances of Tao right here. So where is Buddha now? Here, there, the 'cypress in the yard', 'three pounds of flax', a tile that is also a mirror because it can never be a mirror, and so on.
When one is used to a linear transcendent mode of thought, one finds one’s mind again and again trying to escape into the stratosphere of thought, but Buddhism keeps bringing us down. This bringing us down, however, is quite different from the comedown induced by reductionism. Much modern thinking is concerned with the demythologising of life and with reducing things to mechanical processes. This is a deceptive strategy because it is really part of an attempt to place ourselves in the position of ultimate transcendence, above it all. In such a scheme, only ourselves are important. In Eastern thought, however, there is no such escape possible. We could call this the ‘wisdom of no escape’. We are unavoidably here in the world, but there is a great deal more too the world than we can possibly grasp. Becoming Buddha is not a matter of achieving ultimate transcendence and thereby understanding it all. That is not becoming Buddha, that is becoming God. Becoming Buddha is becoming Sambhogakaya, being filled with ‘holy spirit’ that, nonetheless, endlessly brings one back down to the ground. Atisha listened to Quan Shi Yin and then made the very concrete and arduous journey to Indonesia to find Selingpa and obtain the teachings and then came back and took them to Tibet.
Thus, in most oriental Buddhist temples, the main altar figures are Sambhogakaya Buddhas - Quan Yin, Samantabhadra, Manjushri, Amitabha and so on. In the West, Buddhists prefer to have statues of Shakyamuni Buddha because they like to emphasise historicity and fact. Eastern Buddhism, however, is more to do with meaning than fact. Facts are never certain and endlessly change. However meanings always brings us back to the factual, but they do so in a frame of mind that is prepared for transformation. The holy life is the life of wise compassion in action. It is not an escape into the realm of the ultimate, but nor is it a reduction to a demythologised world of dead mechanism. Buddha, in practice, is Sambhogakaya because Buddha is enjoying us and we are enjoying Buddha. How lucky we are!
I'm an Acharya (a senior teacher) with the Order of Amida Buddha, which is a Pureland Buddhist Order. I'm a minister, teach on-line and hold Pureland Buddhist sangha gatherings in Perth, Scotland. I mainly write about Buddhist matters and share the teachings of the Head of our Order, Dharmavidya David Brazier