In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Three Bodies of the Buddha (Trikāya)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Dictionaries and Encyclopedias
  • Dharmakāya
  • Sāmbhogikakāya
  • Four-Body Theories
  • Buddha-Body Views in Tantric Buddhism
  • Trikāya in Comparative Thought

Buddhism Three Bodies of the Buddha (Trikāya)
Ruben L.F. Habito
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0069


The notion of Trikāya, or the Three Bodies of the Buddha, is an outcome of speculation by Buddhist followers on the question “What is Buddha?” that can be seen against a background of a wide variety of devotional, ritual, and other practices reflecting evolving ways of thinking and doctrinal standpoints. The development of Trikāya theory involves a process that spanned many centuries, beginning with the period after the demise of the historical Buddha Śākyamuni until about the 4th or 5th century CE. The Trikāya notion, presented in commentarial literature in at least two distinctive structural formats, provides a framework of Buddhist understanding of ultimate reality, making a threefold distinction in the Buddha’s mode of being, activity, and manifestation: dharmakāya (truth body) or svābhāvika-kāya (body of self-nature), Sāmbhoghikakāya or saṃbhogakāya (enjoyment body), and Nairmanikakāya or nirmāṇakāya (transformation body). This notion came to be a reference point in subsequent Buddhist thinking about the relationship between our mundane, earthly realm and ultimate reality.

General Overviews

Historical and systematic studies of Buddhism and Buddhist thought highlight the soteriological significance of the Trikāya doctrine, tracing its backgrounds in centuries of developments in views of Buddha, buddha-bodies, and buddha-lands, and situate it in the overall development of Buddhism as a religion. Williams 2009 describes the doctrine on the bodies of the Buddha, and locates this in a central place within the overall doctrinal framework of the Mahayana. Hirakawa 1979 and Dutt 1930 situate the Trikāya in Mahayana history. Suzuki 1921 and Suzuki 1963 present Trikāya as a key theme in understanding Mahayana Buddhism. Ui 1965 gives an overview of buddha-body views, focusing on the notion of dharmakāya. Ui 1963 and Murakami 1905 highlight the centrality of views of Buddha in understanding Buddhism as a whole.

  • Dutt, Nalinaksha. Aspects of Mahāyāna Buddhism in Relation to Hīnayāna. Calcutta Oriental Series 23. London: Luzac, 1930.

    NNNThis is a dated, but still very useful account of the development of the Mahayana against the background of what the author refers to as “pure” and “mixed” Hinayana. It contains a valuable chapter dealing with the Doctrine of Kāya (pp. 96–128), which names significant textual resources that focus on this doctrine.

  • Hirakawa Akira. Indo-shisōshi. Vol. 2. Tokyo: Shunjūsha, 1979.

    NNNVolume 2 (untranslated) offers a valuable resource for a general historical background of buddha-body views leading up to the Trikāya, describing movements, texts, doctrines and practices across several centuries as Buddhism developed and blossomed in the Indian sub-continent. Hirakawa’s views have been challenged by Gregory Schopen, summarized in Williams 2009, pp. 21–44. In Japanese. Volume 1 translated and edited by Paul Groner, A History of Indian Buddhism from Sakyamuni to Early Mahāyāna (1990).

  • Murakami Senshō 村上専精. Butsudaron: Bukkyō Tōitsu Genri (仏陀論: 仏教統—原理 . Vol. 3. Tokyo: Kinkodo Shoseki, 1905.

    NNNA general overview of Buddhism giving centrality to views of the Buddha as a principle that unites the entire religious tradition, with descriptions of Trikāya doctrine. In Japanese.

  • Suzuki, D. T. “The Buddha in Mahāyāna Buddhism.” Eastern Buddhist 1–2 (1921): 109–122.

    NNNPresents Trikāya as summit of development of views of Buddha in Mahayana Buddhism.

  • Suzuki, D. T. Outlines of Mahāyāna Buddhism. New York: Schocken, 1963.

    NNNThis is a thematic, rather than a chronological, account of the topic, placing emphasis on the significance of the Trikāya doctrine in the overall teaching of Mahayana Buddhism. It also suggests the possibilities of comparing Trikāya with Christian and Hindu doctrines of ultimate reality. First published in 1907 (London: Luzak).

  • Ui Hakujū 宇井伯寿. “Butsudakan no Hattatsu to Igi (仏陀観の発達と意義).” In Bukkyōshisō no Kiso, Dainibu (仏教思想の基礎, 第2部). By Ui Hakujū, 211–450. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1963.

    NNNThis study provides a panoramic view of the development of views of the Buddha as a key to understanding the development of Buddhism as a religion. The author has also published other studies on particular themes in historical developments in views of the Buddha, including one focusing on Pali texts, and one on dharmakāya in the Mahāprajňāpāramitāśāstra (Daichido-ron, Dazhidulun) (Ui 1965). In Japanese.

  • Ui Hakujū. 宇井伯寿. “Butsudakan no Hattatsu (仏陀観の発達).” In Indogaku Tetsugaku Kenkyū (印度学哲学研究」第四). Vol. 4. By Ui Hakujū, 791–828. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1965.

    NNNAn overview of development of views of Buddha, focusing on the notion of dharmakāya. In Japanese.

  • Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. 2d ed. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 2009.

    NNNA compendium of Mahayana doctrine, with the Trikāya figuring prominently in the framework (pp. 172–186). Also emphasizes the bodhisattva path of compassion and the cult of buddhas and bodhisattvas as key characteristics of the Great Vehicle (pp. 187–266). This is a thoroughly revised edition of a volume published in 1989, incorporating the two decades of scholarship since the first publication.

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