From The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen translated by Michael H. Kohn; © 1991 by Shambhala Publications, Inc. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., www.shambhala.com
Skt., lit., “three bodies”; refers to the three bodies possessed by a buddha according to the Mahāyāna view. The basis of this teaching is the conviction that a buddha is one with the absolute and manifests in the relative world in order to work for the welfare of all beings. The three bodies are:
1. Dharmakāya (body of the great order); the true nature of the Buddha, which is identical with transcendental reality, the essence of the universe. The dharmakāya is the unity of the Buddha with everything existing. At the same time it represents the “law” (dharma), the teaching expounded by the Buddha.
2. Sambhogakāya (“body of delight”); the body of buddhas who in a “buddha-paradise” enjoy the truth that they embody.
3. Nirmānakāya (“body of transformation”); the earthly body in which buddhas appear to men in order to fulfill the buddhas’ resolve to guide all beings to liberation.