What Is Nirmanakaya in Buddhism?

One of the Three Buddha Bodies

A smiling stone Buddha in the forest outside of Chaya, Thailand.
Marianne Williams / Getty Images

In the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, the teaching of tikaya holds that a buddha is said to exist in three "bodies"—the dharmakayasambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya. The doctrine seems to date back to about 300 CE, when this theory about the nature of the Buddha was formalized.

What Is Nirmanakaya?

The nirmanakaya form is the earthly, physical body of a buddha—the flesh-and-blood being that has manifested in the world to teach the dharma and bring all beings to enlightenment. For example, the historical Buddha is said to have been a nirmanakaya buddha.

The nirmanakaya body is subject to sickness, old age and death like any other living being. It is often said, however, that nirmanakaya buddhas, or any enlightened individual, may take on the form of sambhogakaya buddhas upon their deaths. 

By contrast, the dharmakaya body, the "truth body," can be thought of as the ineffable truth or spirit of Buddha-nature, something that is not manifested in physical form. 

Sambhogakaya, the "body of enjoyment," can be thought of as a buddha with physical form but who is not earthly. Such a buddha may appear to practitioner in visions in a physical, visual form, and is regarded as real, although western sensibilities might view such buddhas as symbolic or mythical. The many, many images of buddhas found in Mahayanan art are Sambhogakay buddhas. Avalokiteśvara is one such buddha. 

A Parallel With Christianity

There is an interesting parallel between this doctrine and the principle of the Christian Trinity, where God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost are somewhat similar to the Sambhogkaya, Nirmanakaya and Sambhogakaya principles of Buddhism. Such comparisons would, of course, be irrelevant to Buddhists, for whom the existence or non-existence of deities is of no concern. It does, however, speak to the possibility that religious symbols across apparently unrelated religions may share archetypal sources. 

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
O'Brien, Barbara. "What Is Nirmanakaya in Buddhism?" Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, learnreligions.com/nirmanakaya-449847. O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 25). What Is Nirmanakaya in Buddhism? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/nirmanakaya-449847 O'Brien, Barbara. "What Is Nirmanakaya in Buddhism?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/nirmanakaya-449847 (accessed June 2, 2023).