Buddhism originated sometime between the 4th and 6th centuries BCE, when Siddhartha Gautama gained enlightenment and began teaching the Dharma. Since then his teachings have spread out from India, integrated with local cultures and belief systems resulting in many schools and traditions. However, despite their diversity, all these schools have one thing in common, the Middle Way taught by the Buddha.
Who is the Buddha?
The answer to the question “Who is the Buddha?” is anything but clear-cut. The immediate answer that comes to mind is Siddhartha Gautama, who became Gautama Buddha or Shakyamuni Buddha after his enlightenment. He is the historical Buddha, that is, historians are reasonably sure he lived about 2500 years ago, although the true details of his life are now lost in time and shrouded in legend.
On the other hand, fundamental to the Mahayana school is the divinity of the Buddha. The Mahayana school explains the divine nature of the Buddha using the Trikaya doctrine, stating that there are three aspects or forms (kayas) to the Buddha – the nirmanakaya, sambhogakaya and dharmakaya. This doctrine allows the Buddha to exist in the absolute while appearing in our relative world for the benefit of other beings. This gives rise to the pantheon of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and other divine beings of the Mahayana traditions.
In oversimplified terms, we can think of the dharmakaya as the absolute, eternal, formless truth body of the Buddha, while the nirmanakaya and sambhogakaya are the relative forms of the Buddha. The nirmanakaya is the form of Buddha that manifests in the world – as a human, or some other earthly form and sambhogakaya is the celestial or deity form of Buddha that experiences the bliss of enlightenment, often in a Pure Land.
Gautama Buddha or Shakyamuni Buddha fits into Mahayana traditions as one aspect, a human aspect, of a divine Buddha, but he is only one of the many forms of Buddha. Great teachers and tulkus are also considered nirmanakaya Buddhas. Then there are the sambhogakaya Buddhas – Buddhas like Amitabha Buddha, the Medicine Buddha or the other Buddhas of the Five Buddha Families who rule over the Pure Lands. They are celestial forms of Buddha that represent different aspects of enlightenment. But ultimately, all the Buddhas are the different aspects of one Buddha, the dharmakaya or truth body. The primordial or dharmakaya Buddhas are central to Vajrayana traditions. For the Nyingma school, the primordial Buddha Samantabhadra is believed to be the originator of the Nyingma lineage.
Despite the names and forms given to the dharmakaya Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism, the dharmakaya is an abstract concept – it is the primordial truth that is beyond form, space and understanding, where all beings are united and phenomena unmanifested. It is the unchanging, eternal absolute, where everything is united in Buddha nature. Thus the dharmakaya is the embodiment of wisdom and is sometimes synonymous with shunyata, the emptiness or non-separation that is at the heart of Mahayana teachings. Shunyata leads to the Mahayana ideal of the bodhisattva and the Bodhisattva vow. The bodhisattva strives to free all beings from suffering before achieving enlightenment for himself/ herself because with the realisation of shunyata, he/ she realises that there is actually no separation from other beings, thus the enlightenment of others is his/ her enlightenment.
Background Photo Credit: Untitled via Pixabay