When we become enlightened, we attain the dharmakaya. But sentient beings cannot see or communicate with the dharmakaya, so in order to benefit them, the dharmakaya manifests the rupakaya, holy body of form, which has the two pure aspects of sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya. But ordinary beings, whose minds are obscured, also cannot see the pure forms of buddha, so for them, the dharmakaya manifests various ordinary forms.
There is nothing fixed about these manifestations. The dharmakaya can manifest in whatever form fits the level of mind of a particular sentient being. There are numberless different kinds of manifestations for those whose minds are impure, obscured by karmic obscurations. Manifesting in an ordinary form means doing exactly what such a being would normally do because it is only in this way that it can help others.
Jamyang Shepa, a very high lama from Amdo, explains that when special holy beings, such as the great Indian and Tibetan pandits and yogis, reincarnated, when they were babies, all they knew how to do was suck milk from their mother’s breasts, cry and make pipi and kaka exactly like an ordinary baby. They did nothing new. They acted exactly like any normal child, having to learn the alphabet and everything else, even though in reality they were enlightened beings. You might then say that they weren’t the incarnations of special beings, but many of those children could also remember their past lives as great beings and the great activities they had done. Those children ate, slept and experienced sicknesses and obstacles to their lives. They also became old and later passed away.
Jamyang Shepa asks, “Even though all these things happened, how is it possible that they were all only ordinary beings? How is it possible that a buddha would experience these sufferings? It’s not possible.” Jamyang Shepa then explains that it is impossible for even a Mahayana arya being to have a rebirth caused by karma and delusion. Those who have achieved the Mahayana arya paths, either the path of seeing or the path of meditation, have completely abandoned suffering rebirth, old age, sickness and death; they have a spiritual body. Jamyang Shepa says that these great beings eat and sleep and experience sickness and other problems like ordinary human beings as methods to subdue the minds of sentient beings. They do these actions for the benefit of sentient beings and they are all the appearances of sentient beings’ karma. Jamyang Shepa then says, “Therefore, any fault that appears is not necessarily an actual fault.”
Jamyang Shepa goes on to say that when a buddha appears in the form of a dog, the manifested dog will behave exactly like an ordinary dog. It will bark, wag its tail, eat kaka and all other kinds of dirty things, and also have sex with other dogs. And, of course, it will look exactly like a dog. That’s what manifesting as a dog means.
When I mention eating kaka, I’m thinking especially of the dogs at Tushita Retreat Centre, where, during Lama’s time, we had about thirteen dogs, a mixture of Lhasa Apso and Pekinese. Lama used to say, “I don’t want to give them to other people—I love my dogs.” Anyway, the dogs loved to eat kaka. In the afternoon when the dogs were released from their enclosure and allowed to run outside, they would run in just one direction, to the road around the side of the mountain, where they would find piles of kaka. They would then quickly return, all smelly and excited.
When a buddha manifests as a pig, that pig will have a pig’s round nose as well as the body and tail of a pig. And it will spend its time behaving exactly the same as a normal pig, snuffling its nose into garbage with a Tantric College noise.
It is the same when a buddha has manifested in an ordinary human form. That person behaves exactly like an ordinary human being usually behaves; he has delusions and suffering and makes mistakes in his actions, exactly like an ordinary person. That’s what manifesting in an ordinary human form means.
For some sentient beings, a buddha manifests as a butcher and is exactly like an ordinary butcher, doing what a butcher normally does. For some sentient beings who have a lot of attachment, a buddha manifests as a prostitute and behaves exactly like a prostitute. Beings with ordinary minds just see the manifestations behaving exactly like those ordinary beings; they don’t see anything higher than that. Buddha doesn’t show a higher aspect because it wouldn’t suit ordinary human beings who don’t have the karma to see a higher or purer aspect.
When a buddha manifests as an ordinary bodhisattva, he acts exactly like an ordinary bodhisattva, not showing at all the qualities of someone who has achieved the higher paths of an arya bodhisattva. He never shows such special qualities to sentient beings who don’t have the karma to see such an aspect but only the karma to see an ordinary being. Or even if they have the karma to see a bodhisattva, they can see only an ordinary bodhisattva.
For example, in teachings or in conversations with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, His Holiness quite often says “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure,” even in response to Dharma questions. If you don’t have a pure mind you might think that His Holiness really doesn’t know and see him as an ordinary being. Of course, if you have a pure mind that sees His Holiness as a real buddha, a real Chenrezig, you wouldn’t have that thought. And sometimes, to certain people, His Holiness might show the aspect of being upset or angry. However, it’s all the view of us sentient beings and, of course, it’s done to benefit sentient beings, especially those particular sentient beings who needed such an aspect. Common people, who don’t have the pure mind realizing that His Holiness is a buddha, might think that His Holiness is angry because they see an ordinary form with discriminating thoughts.
Since it’s extremely difficult to understand somebody else’s mind, we can’t judge who is a buddha and who is not a buddha. It’s clear that we can’t use our perception to prove that someone is not a buddha. When we go to a market or an airport or a train station, we can’t really tell who there is a buddha and who is not.
One time when Serkong Dorje Chang, the previous incarnation of the Serkong Dorje Chang who passed away in Nepal, went to see the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, upon entering the room he saw the Thirteenth Dalai Lama in the aspect of Chenrezig called “Resting in the Nature of the Mind.”* Whereas somebody with a pure mind will see a deity, common people like us will see a human form, and sometimes a human form in the aspect of sickness. Some people will see an aspect that is upset or disturbed. It’s totally up to us sentient beings. In reality the Dalai Lama is Chenrezig, essence of all the buddhas’ compassion, but what we see accords with the quality of our mind. As most people don’t have the pure mind to see the form of a deity, all they see is a human form.
*NOTE: This is an aspect of Chenrezig, white, with one face and two arms, in a posture of ease, with the left hand resting behind on a moon disc.