Buddhism has always recognized more than one Buddha. In the Pāli Canon twenty-eight previous Buddhas are mentioned, and Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha, is simply the Buddha who has appeared in our world age. Even before the Buddha's Parinirvāṇa the term Dharmakāya was current. Dharmakāya literally means Truth body, or Reality body. However all of these Buddha are unified in two ways: firstly they share similar special characteristics. All Buddhas have the 32 major marks, and the 80 minor marks of a superior being. These marks are not necessarily physical, but are talked about as bodily features. They include the 'ushnisha' or a bump on the top of the head; hair tightly curled; a white tuft of hair between the eyes, long arms that reach to their knees, long fingers and toes that are webbed; his penis is completely covered by his foreskin; images of an eight-spoked wheel on the soles of their feet etc.
The other thing that all Buddhas have in common, is the Dharma that they teach, which is identical in each case.
In the Pali Canon The Buddha tells Vasettha that the Tathāgata (the Buddha) was Dharmakāya, the 'Truth-body' or the 'Embodiment of Truth', as well as Dharmabhuta, 'Truth-become', that is, 'One who has become Truth' ().
On another occasion, Ven. Vakkali, who was ill, wanted to see the Buddha before he died from old age. The text from the Samyutta Nikaya (SN 22.87) is as follows:
Trikāya and Mahāyāna
Later Mahayana Buddhists were concerned with the transcendent aspect of the Dharma. One response to this was the development of the Tathāgatagarbha doctrine. Another was the introduction of the , which conceptually fits between the Rāpakāya, now renamed Nirmānakāya, and the Dharmakāya.
Schools have different ideas about what the three bodies are. The Three Bodies of the Buddha from the point of view of Pure Land Buddhist thought can be broken down like so:
The Svabhavikakaya is simply the unity or non-separateness of the three kayas.
The term Svabhavikakaya is also known in Gelug teaching, where it is one of the assumed two aspects of dharmakaya: Essence Body/Svabhavikakaya and Wisdom Body or Body of Gnosis/Jnanakaya.
In Mahamudra and Dzogchen
In dzogchen teachings, "dharmakaya" means the buddha-nature's absence of self-nature, that is, its emptiness of a conceptualizable essence, its cognizance or clarity is the sambhogakaya, and the fact that its capacity is 'suffused with self-existing awareness' is the nirmanakaya.
The interpretation in Mahamudra is similar: when the mahamudra practices come to fruition, one sees that the mind and all phenomena are fundamentally empty of any identity; this emptiness is called dharmakāya. The essence of mind is seen as empty, yet having potential which takes the form of luminosity; the nature of the sambhogakāya is understood to be this luminosity. The nirmanakāya is understood to be the powerful force with which the potentiality effects living beings.
In Esoteric teachings of Buddhism, it is the Bodhisattva who refuses to pass into the Nirvanic state or "don the Dharmakaya robe and cross to the other shore", as it would then become beyond their power to assist even so little as Karma permits. They prefer to remain invisibly (in spirit so to speak) in the world, and contribute towards men's salvation by influencing them to follow the Good Law, i.e., lead them on the Path of Righteousness. It is Exoteric Buddhism that believes that Nirmanakaya simple means the physical body of Buddha, however Esoteric Buddhism shows no such thing.
It is the Nirmanakaya of Esoteric teachings that assumes when the Buddha dies, instead of going into Nirvana, he remains in that glorious body he has woven for himself, invisible to uninitiated mankind, to watch over and protect it.
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