QUESTION: As a vow 22 student, just starting., I've been asked to look at the trikaya and make some comments. I'm researching the answer but find many answers on the subject. Not all the same and can differ considerably.
Could you give me your interpretation of the Trikaya and what each means to you?
SHORT ANSWER: Nirmanakaya = the Buddha appearing in the world; Sambhogakaya = the Buddha appearing in spiritual form; Dharmakaya = the ultimate nature of Buddha
LONGER ANSWER: The spiritual life is grounded upon our experience through the senses and intuition. We encounter teachers who act within the practical world; we have spiritual experiences, often as a function of such meetings; and we have an unavoidable intuition of a beyond - the ultimate, infinite, unconditional - that Buddha sometimes calls the Unborn, sometimes the Deathless. This is metaphysics, but it is very practical in that it designates our experience. Experience goes beyond the merely empirical. Our experience of the transient world inevitably generates our intuition of what is not impermanent - nirvana. However, we find ourselves stuck in samsara. Spiritual life actually occurs in the tension between the two - the space of spirituality - the sambhogakaya. This is the realm of visions, dreams, and profound awakenings. Amida Buddha is sambhogakaya.
There is some correspondence between trikaya and the Christian trinity. God the father (Dharmakaya) is beyond our ken. God the Son (Nirmanakaya) appears in the world, teaches, relates, and engages in human life in the material world. The Holy Spirit (Sambhogakaya) thus descends upon those with faith and empowers them to go forth in apostolic mission. This is very similar to the Buddhist principle.
Those who presume to know more than can be known about the absolute are dogmatists. Those that seek to deny the absolute are sceptics. Buddhism is a middle way. Neither dogmatists nor sceptics can experience a real spiritual life. The sambhogakaya is inaccessible to them because of, on the one hand, rigidity of pre-judgement and on the other negativity of faith.
In East Asia Buddhism revolves around sambhogakaya, not just in Pureland but in the generality of the main schools. In the West there has been such an emphasis upon the historicity of Shakyamuni that many practitioners have lost touch with the spiritual level and made Buddhism into either a technical practice (which turns it into a kind of mental keep-fit) or a moral system (which puts the emphasis upon conformity rather than discovery, doctrine rather than wisdom). Buddhism has techniques and morals but they are not the core of the Dharma.