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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 4: Deepening the Understanding of the Path > Fine Points Concerning the Physical Bodies of Buddhas and Arhats

Fine Points Concerning the Physical
Bodies of Buddhas and Arhats

Alexander Berzin, August 2007
Based on an explanation by Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche II

The Physical Bodies of a Buddha

A Buddha’s omniscient mind pervades all knowable objects and, from an anuttarayoga tantra point of view, is purely a subtlest clear light level of mind. Since a Buddha’s subtlest wind and subtlest clear light mind have the same essential nature (ngo-bo gcig), a Buddha’s subtlest wind also pervades all phenomena – for example, all phenomena that are forms of physical phenomena (gzugs, Skt, rupa, form). This is similar to space (nam-mkha’) pervading all forms of physical phenomena. Taking the four elements – earth, water, fire, and wind – of some form of physical phenomena, such as the table, as a basis for imputation (gdags-gzhi), we can impute not only space on that basis, but also the person (gang-zag) of a Buddha.

[See: Introduction to Voidness and Mental Labeling.]

But since the referent object of the labeling (btags-chos) and the basis for imputation are not the same, then just as the table is not the space of the table, so too the Buddha that we meditate on as being imputed on the basis of the table is not the table. Thus, we can meditate on the Buddha as being imputed on everything and everywhere, but that does not make Buddha identical to the universe or Buddha as being the size of the universe. Thus, the Buddhist assertion of a Buddha’s omniscient mind pervading the universe is not equivalent to the non-Buddhist Samkhya and Vaisheshika assertions of persons (skyes-bu, Skt. purusha) or “souls” (bdag, Skt. atman; selves) pervading the universe and being static, partless, and existing independently of a body or mind.

[See: Summary of Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Verses.]

A Buddha has untainted aggregates (zag-med-kyi phung-po). This means that the four elements of a Buddha’s Corpus of Emanations (sprul-sku, Skt. nirmanakaya, emanation body) are also untainted. They do not derive from disturbing emotions and attitudes and thus they are not the four tainted elements of ordinary bodies. Since a Buddha only has subtlest-level mind and wind, and these are untainted, then any specific emanation body also has only untainted subtlest four elements.

[See: Tainted and Untainted Phenomena.]

According to Kalachakra, these untainted subtlest elements would be part of the untainted subtlest drop; while the sound of the speech of a Buddha would be part of the untainted subtlest “ nada” sound.

[See: Taking the Kalachakra Initiation – part IV, chapter 11.]

Just as on the basis of the tainted four elements of the table as a basis for imputation, we can meditate and label a Buddha and thus a Buddha’s emanation body; similarly, on the basis of the tainted rough four elements of a parent’s sperm and egg, we can meditate and label a Buddha and a Buddha’s emanation body. Then, just as the table is not the emanation body of a Buddha; likewise, the rough body that develops from the tainted four elements of the parents’ sperm and egg are not the emanation body of a Buddha. The actual emanation body of a Buddha is just the untainted subtlest four elements, wind, mind, and sound. Thus, the basis of imputation of a Buddha’s emanation body undergoes old age, sickness and death; and thus it appears that a Buddha’s emanation body undergoes old age, sickness, and death, but actually the untainted four elements of the emanation body of a Buddha do not undergo old age, sickness, and death.

The Buddhist assertion, then, of a Buddha’s untainted emanation body and thus a Buddha being imputable on the tainted elements of, for instance, an ordinary human body is not at all the same as a non-Buddhist-style view of a truly existent “soul” that can exist independently of a body and mind and can enter into the elements of an ordinary human body.

We can make a similar analysis of the bodies that comprise a Buddha’s Corpus of Full Use (longs-sku, Skt. sambhogakaya; “enjoyment body”) – subtle forms that appear to arya bodhisattvas in pure lands (dag-zhing) to teach them Mahayana. The untainted four elements of a Buddha’s Corpus of Full Use would be imputable on the basis of the tainted subtle four elements of a pure-land body. These tainted subtle four elements resemble the subtle four elements of the bodies of the beings on the plane of ethereal forms (gzugs-khams, Skt. rupadhatu; form realm). From an anuttarayoga tantra point of view, however, the four elements of such bodies are still gross forms, not subtle ones like those of an illusory body (sgyu-lus).

The Physical Body of an Arhat

As for the body of an arhat, we need to consider the following points. According to Gelug Prasangika, shravaka aryas, pratyekabuddha aryas, and bodhisattva aryas all have the same understanding of voidness. Thus, from Gelug Prasangika point of view, all arhats – shravaka, pratyekabuddha, and bodhisattva – have untainted aggregates during total absorption (mnyam-bzhag; meditative equipoise) on voidness and tainted aggregates during subsequent attainment (rjes-thob; post-meditation). This is the case both during the lifetimes in which they attain liberation and in all subsequent lifetimes until attaining enlightenment.

  • According to Gelug Prasangika, a person’s aggregates are tainted when his or her minds are giving rise to appearances of truly established existence. They are untainted when his or her mind do not give rise to any such appearances.

From the moment they attain nonconceptual cognbition of voidmness and become aryas, and even during the remainder of the lifetime in which they attain liberation and become arhats, the bodies of these aryas and arhats, whether tainted or untainted, are included among cognitive stimulators that are forms of physical phenomena (gzugs-kyi skye-mched). Such cognitive stimulators may be cognized by either visual or mental consciousness.

During subsequent lifetimes until their attainment of enlightenment, shravaka and pratyekabuddha arhats who have not developed bodhichitta reside in pure lands. Arya bodhisattvas may also reside in pure lands if they so choose and do the appropriate practices to reach such lands. Shravaka and pratyekabuddha arhats who, subsequent to their attainment of liberation, develop bodhichitta, as well as bodhisattva arhats of definite lineage (rigs-nges-pa’i byang-sems) – namely, bodhisattvas who have been definite about their lineage as bodhisattvas from before attaining arhatship and thus who have attained arhatship as bodhisattvas and not as shravakas or pratyekabuddhas before developing bodhichitta – may or may not reside in pure lands. Arya bodhisattvas and shravaka and pratyekabuddha arhats who develop bodhichitta receive Mahayana teachings there from a Buddha’s Corpus of Full Use.

When in pure lands, the bodies of aryas and arhats are visible to their own eye consciousness, as well as to the eye consciousness of other arhats, but not to the eye consciousness of ordinary beings. Because of that, their bodies are still included among cognitive stimulators that are forms of physical phenomena. Nevertheless, these bodies are considered to be forms of physical phenomena having the functional nature of mind (yid-kyi rang-bzhin gyi gzugs) and are sometimes called “mental bodies” (yid-lus). In this sense, they also resemble the subtle four elements of the bodies of the beings on the plane of ethereal forms.

  • Being a “mental body” and “having the functional nature of mind” do not imply that these forms of physical phenomena are ways of being aware of something. It means that their functional nature – how they function to produce cognitions of them – is similar to that of objects that are known only by mental consciousness.

According to Vasubandhu in A Treasure-House of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa’i mdzod, Skt. Abhidharmakosha), the bodies of arhats are only included among the cognitive stimulators that are all phenomena (chos-kyi skye-mched). In other words, their bodies are subtle forms of physical phenomena that can only be known by the mental consciousness of ordinary beings. In this sense, they are similar to dream bodies (rmi-lam-gyi gzugs).

[See: The Aggregate of Forms of Physical Phenomena.]