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in Buddhadharma

On Hylic Pluralism

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"This verily, is the person consisting of the essence of food. Verily, other than and within the one consisting of the essence of food, is the Self consisting of breath. Verily, other than & within the one consisting of breath, is the Self consisting of mind. Verily, other than & within the one consisting of breath, is the Self consisting of understanding. Verily, other than & within the one consisting of breath, is the Self consisting of bliss."
Taittirîya Upaniśad, 2.2,3,4 & 5.

"By the Dharmakâya and all the visible kâyas, the Sun of omniscience rises in the sky, which is the very heart of enlightenment, to shed light beams of wisdom on beings."

Arye Maitreya : Uttaratantra Śastra, chapter 4.

Hylic Pluralism in Hindu thought
The Trikâya
Buddhist Cosmology
Buddhist Psychology

Hylic Pluralism, from "hyle" or "matter", is the philosophical view accepting a plurality within matter, i.e. subdivisions conceived as a multiplicity of layers of matter, from ordinary (coarse) to finer, subtle strata of decreasing density. Hence, besides the gross, coarse four-dimensional form of matter (known to conventional science), spiritual technology reveals the presence of various subtle forms or layers of matter. Each layer accommodate the expression of certain higher functions of consciousness, like physical action, life-breath, emotion, concrete thought, abstract thought, intuition & bliss. These higher levels of matter are the functional basis of the "siddhis", the so-called "perfect abilities" or "miracle-powers" attained by the accomplished yogi.

In Sâmkhya & Vedânta, the absolute, inherent existent higher Self, called "puruśa" or "âtman", is covered by 3 sheaths :

  • the gross body : "sthûla-śarîra", "annamaya-kośa" (food body) ;

  • the subtle bodies : "sûkśma-śarîra", also called "linga-śarîra", made up of "prânamaya-kośa" (breath body), "kâmamaya-kośa" (feeling body), "manomaya-kośa" (thought body), "âtimamaya-kośa" (abstract thought body) & "vijñanamaya-kośa" (intuition body) ;

  • the sheath of bliss : or "kârana-śarîra", also called "ânandamaya-kośa" (bliss body).

 Hylic Pluralism in Hindu thought

The term "hylic pluralism" was coined by J.J.Poortman in his Vehicles of Consciousness (1978). In these magisterial five volumes, he traced its presence in Ancient Egypt, Hermetism, the Greek Mysteries, Ancient Assyria & Babylonia, Ancient Persia, Vedic India, China, etc. In the Western Tradition, based on the theoretical framework of the Qabalah, hylic pluralism engenders correspondences between the various elements functioning on these planes, as elucidated elsewhere.

Hylic pluralism can be understood from the side of the object or from the side of the subject.

As a cosmological thesis, various levels, planes or strata of the world-system are considered. Each plane features a particular kind of rarefied matter. In general, the world-system is divided up in seven planes. The physical plane contains nominal, ordinary matter and a more subtle physical stuff, called "etherical" and related to "prâna" (vital energy, "winds" or "ch'i").

N° Hindu Loka Yoga
7 parâ-
logoic Dharma-
6 satya hiranya
monadic Sambhoga-
5 tapar atmic
4 janar vijñana
3 mahar âtima
2 svar mano
1 bhur prâna
etherical Nirmâna-

As a psychological thesis, each material plane accommodates the functions of a "vehicle of consciousness". Each vehicle is an instrument used by consciousness to express itself in the world in a particular way. Besides the coarse body (or "annamaya-kośa") and its etheric double (the energy-matrix sustaining the ordinary body or "prânamaya-kośa"), finer, less dense vehicles are postulated. The etheric double is used in alternative healing practices like acupuncture & homeopathy, as well as in Ch'i Kung, and is a sheet or "double" covering the physical body. The vehicle allowing consciousness to express emotions & feelings is called the "astral body" ("kâmamaya-kośa"). The vehicle to express concrete thought is the "mental body" ("manomaya-kośa"). The vehicle of abstract thought is the "causal body" ("âtimamaya-kośa"). The vehicle of direct intuition or "vijñanamaya-kośa" is followed by the vehicle of bliss or "ânandamaya-kośa". These bodies involve manifestation and so are not yet the "Body of Truth". They are merely very subtle & subtle manifestations or enjoyments, connecting the highest with the lowest.

In the pyramid stairway (Ancient Egyptian religion), the Tetraktys of Pythagoras (Hermetism, Pythagorism), Jacob's Ladder (Qabalah), the liturgy of the Eucharist, the "scala perfectionis" (Christian mysticism) and the Mi'raj of the Prophet (Sufism), the workings of these esoteric vehicles appear in various similar metaphors.

Hylic pluralism provides an explanation for the many extraordinary, spectacular, even miraculous features of spiritual life (the powers or parapsychological feats). It is always present in systems featuring spiritual exercises and explains these feats in naturalistic terms, albeit meta-nominal.

The "supernatural" should not cover up ignorance, in this case the absence of knowledge about how subtle matter and the co-relative vehicles work on their own, as well as together. This eliminates the "super" and makes all "siddhis" part of the "natural" world. Hence, instead of distinguishing between the natural and the supernatural, the crucial ontological division is between the natural & the supramundane, as Buddha understood. Miracle-powers & parapsychological faculties are all mundane and so "natural".

 The Trikâya

In Buddhist philosophy, the distinction known as the Two Truths is crucial. Absolute, transcendent, ultimate truth or reality is nondual and beyond all possible positive, conceptual designations. It is nirvanic. Supramundane, it transcends the world, beyond any possible duality ("pârarûpa"). Buddhas, having eliminated all obstructions to omniscience, directly and completely experience absolute truth permanently, i.e. halt substantial instantiation completely & irreversibly. Relative, conventional truth is dual and designated (posited, imputed) by a contaminated mind (rendered unwholesome). It is samsaric. Buddhas also experience the conventional world as it appears to sentient, deluded beings, but when witnessing a phenomenon, they -with perfect nondual cognition- simultaneously perceive its emptiness. That is why they are no longer sentient beings. The Buddhadharma does not advocate nihilism or the idea there is nothing real "out there" and/or "in here", nor eternalism, positing enduring, independent substances or essences. In the Great Middle Way, all phenomena are devoid of inherent existence, and this fundamental nature of all conventional things is their ultimate truth.

The Two Truths point to the distinction between mundane & supramundane. The latter is "entered" as soon as all afflictive emotions and mental obscurations (the two kinds of obstructions) have been completely eliminated from the continuum of the mind. Stopping afflictions leads to liberation, while ending self-grasping results in awakening or Buddhahood. In Shentong, or other-emptiness, the natural state of the mind is already enlightened. So according to this view, Buddha-nature ("tathâgatagarbha") needs not to be retrieved or gained. It is not lost. Ripping off dirty coverings is all what is to be done. In Dzogchen, this Buddha-nature is the natural state of the mind, and this from the very beginning inseparable from the ultimate truth, the emptiness or non-substantial, process-like nature of all things samsaric & nirvanic. These views, born out of valid meditative experiences, have been thoroughly criticized by Critical Mâdhyamikas like Tsongkhapa.

One should not conceive of the supramundane (emptiness) as another "realm" or "world". It is beyond all possible positive designation. This is the emptiness of emptiness, the fact every emptiness (namely the emptiness or ultimate nature of every object) is also without "self" or substantial features of its own. It transcends affirmation and denial and cannot be grasped at or posited by the consciousness of a sentient being. Trapped in cyclic existence, beings may consider "nirvâna" as another reality "out there" or "in here" or "yesterday" or "tomorrow". But this is erroneous. Ultimate truth is not "beyond" the physical world, like a Platonic world of archetypal perfections or numerous Peripathetic "forms" hidden away in matter.

Ultimate truth is ineffable and object of un-saying.

Absolute truth or emptiness (the universal absence of inherent existence) is the object of the so-called "Dharmakâya", "Truth Body" or perfect wisdom-mind, whereas relative truth is the object of the "Form Bodies", the "Sambhogakâya" or Enjoyment Body and the "Nirmânakâya" or Emanation Body. The former is the ultimate reality, as conceived by the enlightened mind, whereas the latter are enlightened vehicles generated by this bodhi-mind to liberate sentient beings. These Form Bodies ("Rûpakâya") are the enlightened body & the enlightened speech of an enlightened one, a Buddha, while his enlightened mind equals the "Dharmakâya". Ordinary beings possess one body, while a Buddha has three simultaneously. The Emanation Body can be seen by ordinary beings. The Enjoyment Body can be seen by those of higher realization only. The Truth Body are only seen by Buddhas. In meditative equipoise on emptiness, these supreme beings only apprehend the pure, space-like absence of inherent existence.

1. The Dharmakâya

This direct, nondual, non-conceptual cognitive experience of absolute, ultimate truth by a Buddha implies he or she realized the Truth Body or "Dharmakâya". This body is called "Truth Body" and has two parts, namely Nature Body & Wisdom Body, i.e. ultimate true cessation and ultimate true path respectively. It is the supramundane base, the ground of all existence ("dharmadhatu") and the natural state of wisdom-mind.

Ultimate true cessation (Nature Body) is the natural state of the enlightenment principle of the mind, its Buddha-nature, i.e. the emptiness of the mind. Ultimate true path (Wisdom Body) is the irreversible nature of the levels of purification of the Bodhisattvas, meditating on this emptiness of the mind and by doing so generating Buddha qualities (Rangtong) or eliminating adventitious material and therefore allowing the qualities of a Buddha to manifest (Shentong).

The Nature Body is of two types : the naturally pure Nature Body, referring to the absence -since beginningless time- of inherent existence in the transcendent sphere of Buddhahood (the nature of mind is always naturally free from inherent existence) and the adventitiously pure Nature Body, or absence of stains (afflictive obstructions & obstructions to omniscience) through the application of antidotes (right practice). The latter refers to the mind actually cleaning all contaminations.


Formless body


Truth Body
Body or
true cessation
empty by
absence of the
stains of inherent existence
Wisdom Body or
true path
secret Guru

Form Bodies


Enjoyment Body
meditational Deity
inner Guru
Emanation Body
outer Guru

The Nature Body has no production, duration or disintegration, no beginning, middle or end. It is not a different entity from phenomena, and does not fall into the extremes of existence or non-existence. Pure of all obstructions & unconditional it is unknowable by the conceptualizing, conditional mind.

The Wisdom Body is the final, perfect wisdom, cognizing the mode of existence of phenomena as their are, i.e. empty of inherent existence or substance. In other words, it perceives all conventionalities, i.e. the varieties of phenomena, as having no substantial, independent, inherent existence, devoid of substantial instantiations. This "body" is the omniscient consciousness of a Buddha, i.e. his omniscient eye, ear, nose, tongue, body & mental consciousnesses. It cognizes the emptiness of everything in a nondual way, covering past, present & future instantly (omniscience) and beyond designation (omnipresence).

The Truth Body is not contaminated and so does not belong to "samsâra". It is supramundan. In terms of hylic pluralism, this means it is altogether beyond matter and the world-systems. It can therefore be identified with the "pârarûpa" of Hinduism, albeit in a desubstantialized format (in the same way it relates to the "hyper-being" of negative theology, i.e. a station-of-no-station beyond the four extremes of "existence", "non-existence", "existence & non-existence" or "neither existence nor non-existence"). It is the absolute in its absoluteness.

2. The Sambhogakâya

The Truth Body is formless and supramundane (transcendent). The other two bodies (the Enjoyment Body & the Emanation Body) possess form and manifest in the world (immanent). They do so to liberate and awaken sentient beings, viewed as the only good reason to "exit" the unsurpassed bliss of "nirvâna".

If the Truth Body is the base of the principle of supramundane emptiness, then the Enjoyment Body or "Sambhogakâya" is the base of the principle of all-pervading awareness in actual experiential events or the experience of clarity or Clear Light. According to Rangtong, this clarity does not inhere in the Truth Body (as other-emptiness claims), but is generated while meditating on the emptiness of the mind itself.

In Tantra, the Enjoyment Body is also called the "illusionary body" because it possesses arms, legs etc. but is insubstantial and not made of ordinary flesh, blood, etc. It can only be perceived by advanced, clairvoyant practitioners.

In terms of hylic pluralism, the illusionary body is a subtle body and encompasses "kâmamaya-kośa" (feeling body), "manomaya-kośa" (thought body), "âtimamaya-kośa" (abstract thought body), "vijñanamaya-kośa" (intuition body) and "ânandamaya-kośa" (bliss body).

Although impermanent, the Enjoyment Body continuously displays the same type of lightbody and so, as a permanent kinetography, is immortal. It accommodates the activities of wisdom and compassion, the basic motivation for its generation.

3. The Nirmânakâya

For a Buddha, when the nondual, ultimate "Dharmakâya" is related to the dual, conventional dimensions (the supramundane in touch with the mundane), it is the "Sambhogakâya", and when these two relate to a physical body ("annamaya-kośa" & "prânamaya-kośa"), it is the "Nirmânakâya" or Emanation Body. Without the world, there could only by the Truth Body, no Enjoyment Body and no Emanation Body. The "Sambhogakâya" is thus "the light" of the "Dharmakâya" communicated to the "Nirmânakâya". This happens because of the aim of the Buddhas to enlighten all sentient beings. For Critical Mâdhyamikas, as Tsongkhapa argued, this "clarity" is not inseparable from the Truth Body "from the very beginning", as it were inhering in it, as Dzogchen, Shentong & Mind-Only claim, but is generated as the fruit of meditative equipoise on the emptiness of the mind itself

Responding to the needs of sentient beings, Emanation Bodies appear, performing their task without effort. As long as space exists, the activities of the Buddhas come into existence spontaneously, effortlessly and continuously. Insofar as sentient beings are fortunate, they may notice or not notice these Emanation Bodies displayed by the Enjoyment Bodies of the Buddhas.

 Buddhist Cosmology

The Sûtras describe 31 distinct "planes" or "realms" of cyclic existence into which sentient beings can be reborn during their long wanderings through "samsâra". These range from hell all the way up to the blissful heaven worlds. In all these realms, existence is impermanent and unsatisfactory. There is no eternal hell or eternal heaven. Beings are born in these worlds as the result of the law of "karma" or "action", and they cease to exist there when their "karma" is exhausted, i.e. when the conditions causing their presence are gone. Then, as long as they do not realize all these phenomena do not exist from their own side, they continue to migrate "up and down" and do not irreversibly escape suffering.

These 31 planes are divided in the 11 planes of the Desire Realm ("kâma-loka"), the 16 planes of the Form Realm ("rûpa-loka") and the 4 planes of the Formless Realm ("arûpa-loka").

It is unmistaken these planes refer to the hylic pluralist notion of various levels of cyclic existence. In Buddhism, the ultimate nature of all these is the same, namely emptiness or absence of substantiality, process-like. The difference between a celestial deity of the highest heaven and a hell being of the lowest hell is therefore not ontological, but cognitive, i.e. related to the state of mind of the sentient being in question.

 Buddhist Psychology

Ordinary human personality is made up of five aggregates, groups or heaps ("skandhas"). There is no inherently existent, monadic, substantial & independent soul ("âtman"), as Hinduism and the substantial traditions at large claim ; under ultimate analysis, such a "self" cannot be found.  Corporal sensations, emotions & feelings, thoughts, volition & consciousness constitute Buddhist psychology. In general, the "body" is identified with corporal sensations, while the other heaps are identified as "mind". All aggregates are impermanent, unsatisfactory and devoid of a permanent substantial core.

Hence, Buddhahood, true cessation, is without heaps. Buddhahood is at hand when the aggregates have no more fuel to burn, unable to cause more craving & aversion, desire & hatred, grasping & rejecting, uprooting the root : ignorance, or the state of mind experiencing itself and others as independent entities, existing from their own side as self-powered substanties endowed with inherent own-power ("svabhâva").

In the Hînayâna Sûtras, renunciation, equanimity and the wisdom realizing the emptiness of self, the true nature of the mind, allow for a slow purification of body, speech & mind, the three "doors" of the subject of experinece. This process ends in liberation from cyclic existence, the personal state of the Arhat. The latter has thoughts & feelings etc. but none of these ever get permanently established in his mind.

In the Mahâyâna Sûtras, mindful renunciation, great compassion (Bodhicitta) and the wisdom realizing the emptiness of all phenomena, the true nature of all of existence, cause the path to be finished sooner, ending in full enlightenment, awakening or the universal state of Buddhahood.

cosmological psychological
Formless Dharmakâya Mother (base) mind meditate Buddha fruit
Form Sambhogakâya Son (awareness) speech reflect Dharma path
Desire Nirmânakâya Energy (display) body study Sangha view

The element of "speech", clearly distinguished from "mind", cannot be properly understood without hylic pluralism, for Tantra explains how out of speech/wind springs the "illusionary body", the Body of Enjoyment of a Buddha. Moreover, there are obvious correspondences between cosmological (macrocosmic) & psychological (microcosmic) levels.

Tantra seeks to transform the body, speech & mind of an ordinary human being into the enlightened mind ("Dharmakâya"), the enlightened speech ("Sambhogakâya") and the enlightened body ("Nirmânakâya") of a Buddha, performing enlightened actions. The very subtle wind (acting as the mount for the very subtle mind) residing in the central channel in the "indestructible drop" at the centre of the sixfold knot at the heart-wheel, is the effective cause of the Enjoyment Body. This wind is called the "continuously residing body" and the very subtle mind the "continuously residing mind". Both are continuous life after life. Both are impermanent (for not inherently existent), but immortal (for a continuous, unending well-ordered dynamism or kinetography). They have never separated and will never separate. Their power to communicate is the very subtle speech.

Without the Enjoyment Body, the Form Body cannot be constituted. Without the Form Body there would be no manifestations of the Enlightened Ones in the world-systems. To free ourselves from suffering permanently, Tantra changes the basis of imputation from contaminated heaps to uncontaminated Buddha-bodies.


© Wim van den Dungen, Antwerp - 2017
philo@sofiatopia.org l Acknowledgments l SiteMap l Bibliography

Mistakes are due to my own ignorance and not to the Buddhadharma.
May all who encounter the Dharma accumulate compassion & wisdom.
May sentient beings recognize their Buddha-nature and find true peace.


initiated : 29 XI 2008 - last update : 11 I 2012 - version n°2