“dharmakāya ceased”

By David Reigle on October 25, 2021 at 4:31 am

In the sample translation of verse 1 of the Book of Dzyan given by H. P. Blavatsky when retaining the foreign technical terms (The Secret Doctrine, vol. 1, p. 23), we find the phrase, “Dharmakaya ceased.” This is a highly unusual idea in Buddhism, as noted by Michael Lewis and reported by Ken Small. The dharma-kāya, “dharma body” or “body of dharmas,” is a kind of ultimate in Buddhism, and we would not expect it to ever “cease.” An authoritative description of it is given in the first verse of the Kāya-traya-stotra, “Praise of the Three Bodies,” attributed to Nāgārjuna. Here is the original Sanskrit and my English translation:

yo naiko nāpy anekaḥ sva-para-hita-mahā-sampad-ādhāra-bhūto

naivābhāvo na bhāvaḥ kham iva sama-raso durvibhāvya-svabhāvaḥ |

nirlepaṃ nirvikāraṃ śivam asama-samaṃ vyāpinaṃ niṣprapañcaṃ

vande pratyātma-vedyaṃ tam aham anupamaṃ dharma-kāyaṃ jinānām ||

“What is not one and not many, is the great basis of perfect benefit for self and others, is not non-existent and not existent, is of the same taste like space, whose nature is hard to be realized, is stainless, is immutable, is quiescent, is equal to the unequaled, is [all-]pervading, is without diversification, is [only] to be known inwardly, I praise that incomparable dharma-kāya of the victors.”

So could such a thing ever cease? From the descriptions and usages of it throughout the Buddhist texts, we would think not. There is, however, a Buddhist text that speaks of the dharma-kāya coming into being or arising, which of course implies that it would also cease. The Kālacakra-tantra says that the dharma-kāya comes into being or arises from the śuddha-kāya (chap. 4, verse 107: śrī-śuddhād dharma-kāyo bhavati), or from the sahaja-kāya (chap. 5, verse 89: sahaja-tanur iyaṃ dharma-kāyo babhūva), or in the closely related Hevajra-piṇḍārtha-ṭīkā, from the svābhāvika-kāya (chap. 3, verse 22: svābhāvikāt bhavet dharma). The svābhāvika-kāya or sahaja-kāya or śuddha-kāya are all synonyms for the fourth body in the four-body scheme, as opposed to the more common three-body scheme. From this fourth body comes the dharma-kāya, the third body. From this body comes the sambhoga-kāya, the second body, and from this body comes the nirmāṇa-kāya, the first body.

This teaching may perhaps find some warrant in the Ratna-gotra-vibhāga, which teaches that the dharma-kāya is twofold (chap. 1, verse 145): the completely pure (sunirmala) dharma-dhātu, and its natural outcome (tan-niṣyanda). The first is only in the range of nonconceptual wisdom (avikalpa-jñāna-gocara-viṣaya) and pertains to the dharma to be realized inwardly (pratyātmam adhigama-dharmam). The second is the cause for attaining that (tat-prāpti-hetu) first kind of dharma-kāya, which cause is the teaching (deśanā) whose methods (naya) are deep (gāmbhīrya) and varied (vaicitrya). Although the Ratna-gotra-vibhāga does not describe the second kind of dharma-kāya as coming into being or arising, that it is described as the natural outcome (niṣyanda) of the first kind would fit in with the Kālacakra-tantra’s teaching of its coming into being or arising. Of course, what comes into being or arises must cease.

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