The Three Bodies of the Buddha
…a course at the University of Colorado – Winter, 1971
by John J. Baker
In the fall of 1970 Bob Lester, then Chairman of the Religious Studies Department at the University of Colorado (CU), invited Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a highly ranked, Tibetan Buddhist lama, to teach a course on Buddhism to undergraduates. Rinpoche had arrived in the U.S. that spring from Scotland, landing at Tail of the Tiger (now Karme Choling) in Barnet, Vermont, where he gave summer seminars on the teachings of Milarpa and other subjects. In August some CU professors had invited Rinpoche, then about 31 years old, to come to Boulder, and I and another student, Marvin Casper, both in our mid-twenties, had asked him if we could accompany him. So in October of 1970 the three of us moved to Colorado, initially living together in a stone cabin with a pot-bellied stove and outhouse at 10,000 feet in Gold Hill, but later moving to a modern duplex in Four-Mile Canyon just outside of town. Rinpoche’s wife, Diana, joined us after a couple of months, and they lived together in the first floor apartment, while Marvin and I inhabited the upstairs.
The CU course was to run in the winter semester of 1971. Rinpoche appointed Marvin and me his teaching assistants, which meant helping him select readings, construct the syllabus, run the class, and conduct discussion groups. He, of course, determined the content and delivered the lectures.
At Tail of the Tiger Rinpoche had given Marvin and me pointing-out-instruction and forged a bond stronger than any I had known in my relatively short lifetime. He had recently asked us to start teaching the students who were coming to him from the coasts and elsewhere, hippies mostly, without much money, adventurous and inspired by the dharma, in general, and Rinpoche, in particular. We knew very little doctrine, but Rinpoche had introduced us to the heart of the teachings. He felt it important for Westerners to connect to the essence of Buddhism first, so that they would not be dazzled and seduced by the many exotic forms promising spectacular results, a problem he considered pandemic in America at the time.
The university had a population of about 25,000, including staff and students; this in a town whose total population was about 100,000. In addition, the town had a prominent population of Seventh Day Adventists (no alcohol sold within city limits), there were no malls, and hippies were arriving from the coasts to live in the town and in the communes that constellated around it.
CU in those days had the reputation of being a second-tier school with a few stand-out departments, such as engineering. It was known to be popular with undergraduates who wanted proximity to Colorado’s ski areas, as well as the overall opportunity to play and party. So our expectations for the class were not high, and we were not disappointed. My memory was that 40 or so students sat slumped in their chairs (the kinds with an enlarged arm for notepads), giving the impression of sleepiness and apathy. In fact, a few of them later became devoted students of Rinpoche. You just never know.The room was large, stark, bare, and brightly lit, both by the overhead fluorescents and the Colorado sunlight streaming in through out-sized windows. Rinpoche wore a sport coat and tie, portly with tousled hair. He stood before the class, blackboard behind him, the Flatirons visible through the windows, rising 1,800 feet into the clear blue sky. Marvin and I sat in the front row, to the side.
Rinpoche presented basic Buddhist doctrine, but with an emphasis on the teaching of “spiritual materialism,” which he felt was particularly relevant to his audiences at that time. America was in the throes of the counter-culture revolution, protests against the Vietnam War, and the invasion of Eastern religions from India, Tibet, Southeast Asia and Japan. Think Satguru, Maharishi and the Beatles, Yogi Bhajan, Hare Krishna on street corners and in airports, Zen Beats, macrobiotic diets, of course yoga and meditation and kundalini energy and much more. We were all so naïve, ready to ape the cultures of these imports, hoping that, by adopting their to-us-exotic forms, we would enjoy some benefit or release from unhappiness. Rinpoche spent a lot of his time debunking that notion: he once told an audience, almost apologetically, “If I told you to stand on your heads 24 hours-a-day, you would do it!” A lot of the Hindu teachers preached happiness/bliss/love, etc. Rinpoche called that “love and light.”
The lecture that most stands out in my memory – because it was so revelatory for me personally and so brilliant – was the one he gave on the trikaya, a Sanskrit term that refers to the three (tri) bodies (kaya) of the buddha: the dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya, which are to be understood at various levels. This was not a lecture on spiritual materialism.
Most basically, the term nirmanakaya refers to the actual, physical and mental manifestation of Shakyamuni Buddha, as well as other enlightened individuals. Nirmana is usually translated as “manifestation” or “apparition” or “incarnation.” It is the idea that one has taken rebirth many times – died and been reborn over and over again – and that this current birth is the “nirmana” or current manifestation/incarnation. The Tibetan for this term is tulku, a word applied to reincarnate lamas, so the Dalai Lama is the 14th tulku (or nirmanakaya) in his line, and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was the 11th Trungpa tulku.
In one sense we are all nirmanakayas (tulkus), because we all have been reborn many times, however the term is usually reserved for enlightened teachers who take rebirth deliberately, out of compassion and because they have taken a vow to work for the benefit of confused, sentient beings until there are no more. The rest of us unenlightened individuals take rebirth not deliberately but out of the force of our karma: habit and desire drive us forward in life and in death to continual and uncontrolled rebirth in various realms of suffering. We are fortunate to be human beings in this life – the human realm is the only one in which a being may traverse the path to enlightenment and freedom – but we may not be so fortunate in future lives. Sooner or later we will be reborn in all the realms: god realms, animal, hungry ghost, and hell realms. In fact, we experience this psychologically even during the course of a day, in which we experience the anger and panic of the hell realms, the pride and pleasure of the god realms, the hunger and sense of deprivation of the hungry ghost realms, or the stupidity, sloth, and fear of the animal realms.
Dharma is a Sanskrit word which has a number of different meanings, but here it refers first to the Buddhist teachings: the “truth” about who we are and what confusion and wisdom are, the path to realize enlightenment and release from suffering. In addition, “dharma” refers to the true action of an enlightened individual, a buddha. Dharmakaya, then, from the earliest teachings refers to the “teachings” body of the buddha: the instructions he gave to his students to help them see what is real and tread the path. Additionally, it refers to the buddha’s capacity to act in accord with what is true and real.
Sambhogakaya is a term that appeared in a later period of history and which is usually translated “enjoyment body” of the buddha. It refers to the idea that, when one has the eyes to see, there is a world of celestial beings, buddhas and bodhisattvas, dharma protectors, teachers, and embodiments of energy, enlightened and not. This world is present here, and in truth we are in the midst of the Akanistha (Above All) Heaven, but the Sambhogakaya realm is hidden in plain sight from the unenlightened, who may become aware of it only in glimpses, if at all. It is a world of beauty, power, and meaningfulness and, it is completely available to individuals who have left confusion behind, bodhisattvas on the “grounds” or stages of the path and enlightened beings or “buddhas.”
To continue reading this article, and find out how Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche demonstrated these teachings on the trikaya, please click here.
This history was composed to celebrate a collaboration between Naropa University and the University of Colorado on a Buddhist Studies Lecture Series in honor of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The annual lecture brings scholars of Buddhism to Boulder to give a lecture, free and open to the public, hosted on alternating years by Naropa and CU Boulder.
This year, John Makransky of Boston College will be delivering the second annual Chogyam Trungpa Lecture in Buddhist Studies at Naropa. For more information, visit this website.
John Baker has been a student Buddhism for more than 41 years. A close disciple of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, he co-founded and taught at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, serving as its CEO for the first three years of its existence and teaching Buddhism there for five. He also co-founded and co-directed the Karma Dzong Meditation Center in Boulder for the first five years of its existence. He is the co-editor of Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and The Myth of Freedom and author numerous articles. After 23 years in private business, he retired in 2000. During this time he continued teaching Buddhist thought and meditation practice throughout North America, delivering lectures, weekend programs, and multi-month courses. Today he is a senior teacher in the North American Buddhist community and at the New York Shambhala Center and the Westchester Buddhist Center, of which he is a founder. He has led a number of month-long meditation programs at Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado and Karme Choling Meditation Center in Vermont and has taught at the Vajradhatu Seminary. John lives in Manhattan where he trades options and enjoys coaching part-time. His younger daughter, Olivia, lives with him half-time. His adult daughter Cara, son-in-law Vajra Rich, and granddaughter Stella, live in Boulder, Colorado.
Copyright John J. Baker 2014