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Where do Buddhas come from?

Site-Wide Activity Forums Shrine Room Buddhist Q&A Where do Buddhas come from?

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    • #2948

      Someone writes and asks a question – I give an answer. Have your own question? drop me an email sometime.

      “[Did all] Buddhas start out as ordinary sentient beings who then took on the Bodhisattva Path and then became Buddhas?

      The reason for the question is that this interests me as all Buddhas are thought to be emanations or the embodiment of the Dharmakaya and I wonder how how they got there.”

      Sometimes it’s impossible to square the circle. Buddhist doctrine can be like many windows on to the same landscape, but each view is partial, and a question one asks when looking through one window no longer makes sense when one looks through the second. Having said that, I’m up for saying something about this 🙂

      Where do Buddhas come from? They are inspired by other Buddhas. There was once an old lady who said that the Earth rests on the back of a giant turtle, and when someone asked her what the turtle rides on she said, “It’s turtles all the way!”

      It’s the same with Buddhas. It’s Buddhas all the way. Amida was inspired by Lokeshvararaja, who was inspired by…. and so on.

      You mention Dharmakaya – sometimes described as ultimate reality, this can appear like a field which is separate from the Buddhas but gives birth to them. But just as true as saying all Buddhas come from Dharmakaya, is to say that all Buddhas are Dharmakaya. What does this mean? A wave is the ocean, as well as being born from the ocean.

      Buddhas are said to have three bodies: Dharmakaya – the ineffable truth body; Sambogakaya – the bliss or spiritual body; and Nirmanakaya – the action or vow body. Dharmakaya is the emptiness aspect of the body, it is the Tao if you like, the fount of love and truth. Sambogakaya is love and truth appearing as thoughts, feelings, dreams and prayers and visions of Buddhas. Nirmanakaya is truth and love acting in this world, it is the hand that passes you another biscuit, or opens the door for you.

      Any being that completely embodies wise-love is a Buddha.

      Buddhas and Bodhisattvas both show us the way to allow this love to flower in our own hearts, and words, and movements, and they show us that whatever state of flowering we are presently in, we are loved. Sometimes we think that a Buddha does this perfectly, whilst a Bodhisattva is still learning, but some Bodhisattvas appear to do this perfectly as well.

      Some historical context:

      In the Pali cannon – what are usually thought of as the oldest written Buddhist texts – ‘bodhisattva’ refers to the previous lives of the Buddha, where he/she is still learning to perfect the qualities of the Buddha. In one sutta the Bodhisattva (a previous incarnation of Shakayamuni) meets the Buddha of that age, who makes him an offer – come and practice with me and you will go to nirvana at the end of this lifetime, or have more re-births and eventually you will become a perfect Buddha called Shakyamuni. In this story you can see the roots of the Mahayana Bodhisattva Vow: may I not be completely enlightened/go to nirvana until all beings are saved. So here a Buddha is completely perfect, and a Bodhisattva is still learning.

      Later in the Mahayana tradition, the bodhisattvas that we know and love (Quan Yin, Tara, Tai Shi Chi, Manjushi and so on) seem to have perfect qualities in the way that a Buddha does. The distinction – if there is one – becomes less clear: Both Buddhas and Bodhisattvas make themselves available to us, and so have not ‘disappeared into nirvana’, and both have perfect qualities.

      Back when Dharmavidya and I lived in community together, in one of his talks he suggested that these archetypal bodhisattvas were based on real people. I think it was the Pratyutpanna Samādhi Sūtra, or perhaps the Lotus Sutra, in the text the bodhisattvas are described as wearing white, and coming from a specific place. Both of which suggest lay people.

      What does all of this have to do with the Pure Land? A Pure Land is any realm with a Buddha at the centre. It is the field of influence of the Buddha, if you like. With love at the centre, even the landscape changes. We can see this in our everyday lives – care improves communities, and a cared for place looks different. Beings in the Pure Land are exposed to the love of the Buddha, which transforms them into Buddhas themselves.

      Namo Amida Bu

    • #2950
      Johnathan Robertson

      Thank you Kaspa. Namo Amida Bu

    • #2962
      Michael Sabani

      Beautiful piece! Very inspirational. Namo Amida Bu!

    • #3168
      Richard Ollier

      Just noticed this post, Kaspa.

      It’s absolutely beautiful, a really poetic, clarifying and enchanting piece. Thank you.

      Really grabbed me!

      Love and Namo Amida Bu.

    • #3174

      Hello I am new to the form though I lurked for awhile. Read your book too and liked it a lot.

      I can understand the Trikaya, the Dharmakaya and and the Nirmanakaya, but I get tripped up on how the Sambogakaya manifests itself. I think the Dharmakaya is reasonably deductive and the Nirmanakaya is itself empirically explicit; but what of the Sambogakaya? Could this be the “force” between the two, and it is revealed then in conjunction with the two?


    • #3176

      Hi Xavier,

      Sambogakaya is how the Dharmakaya breaks through to this world (when it isn’t in a human body). It is the Tataghata in the sense of ‘one who comes’. The Buddha that appears in our dreams, a felt sense of ‘Other Power’ in meditation, and we might even think of the Buddha statues, images and sutras as Sambogakaya as well.

      Dharmavidya once said is Dharmakaya is the high-voltage electricity in power-lines, Sambogakaya is the transformed electricity that we can actual use. Plugging your kettle directly into the power-lines would blow the fuse, but you can plug it in to a wall socket at home…

      If you wanted to make a comparison with the Christian Trinity, you could compare it to God as Holy Spirit, rather than God as Christ, or God as God.


    • #3192

      Hello Kaspa!

      I read your post about Sambogakaya and Dharmakaya. I have a limited understanding of the Buddha. Could you explain what the Nirmanakaya and Trikaya are? What do all these aspects of the Buddha mean? Thanks.  Namo Amida Bu.

    • #3193

      Hey Kaspa ,  I finally read the entire post from the beginning. It would be like me to only read part and start asking questions. Still I am slightly confused. I get that the Buddha has three bodies now, but with Dharmakaya you said that all Buddhas are both born from Dharmakaya and Dharmakaya at the same time. You used a great analogy with the wave and the ocean. Does that mean that all of us who call on Amida (and are Buddhas to be) are part of the Dharmakaya?  As you said Buddhas are inspired by Buddhas.  Thank you for your patience. Namo Amida Bu!!

      • #3202

        Hi Jeaunice, thanks for your question. Sorry I didn’t get to it sooner.

        I recently read a commentary by Dharmavidya, on an old Buddhist poem – the great mirror samadi.

        At the beginning of the poem it compares a white egret to the moon, saying they are not the same. The white egret is the enlightened person, reflecting the bright moonlight, but the moon is much bigger and brighter.

        So you could say that the enlightened mind has something of the same quality as Dharmakaya, but that Dharmakaya is unfathomably bigger.

        In terms of Pureland practice, we are not enlightened beings so we practice relationally: me – a flawed human – coming into relationship with perfect Amida.

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