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.

The Historical Buddha
What we do know of Siddhartha Gautama is that he was born a prince, or into a ruling family of the Shakya clan, about 2500 years ago in what is now Lumbini, Nepal. Shocked by his encounter with old age, illness and death after a very sheltered life, he renounced his privileged life to search for the end of human suffering. He discovered that the end of suffering can be found in what he calls the Middle Way – the path between the extremes of the sensual pleasure of his youth and extreme deprivation of his later ascetic practices. He began to teach what he had learned, and these teachings, now known as the Dharma, endured over two millennia, to form the basis of present-day Buddhism. As the first person to discover and teach the Dharma in our known history, he is acknowledged by the Theravada school as the Buddha of this age, and credited by the secular world as the founder of Buddhism.

Beyond the Historical Buddha
However, “Buddha” is actually a word or title that means awakened one or enlightened one. The Theravada school and the Mahayana school have slightly different opinions about what makes a Buddha a Buddha. The Theravada school only recognises one Buddha per age, and for this age it is Gautama Buddha who discovered the Four Noble Truths without the guidance of a teacher. Those who achieve enlightenment after Gautama Buddha are recognised as Arhats, not Buddhas. Also central to Theravada belief is the humanity of the Buddha.

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.

The Buddha in all of us
The dharmakaya is also identified with Buddha nature, where there is no distinction between the Buddhas and everyone else. Buddha nature is a Mahayana belief that everyone is already a Buddha, and that Buddhahood is not something to be achieved, but to be revealed or uncovered by clearing away our ignorance and confusion with the practice of wisdom and compassion as guided by the Dharma. In the Mahayana tradition we can uncover our Buddha nature by practising the Six Paramitas or Six Perfections and by taking the Bodhisattva vows. In Tibetan Buddhism, there is another path to enlightenment- the path of tantra or Vajrayana. Thus with the right practice, everyone can become one with dharmakaya. Everyone can become a Buddha in one lifetime according to Vajrayana provided one relies upon an authentic guru/teacher and develops the right view, meditation and conduct. Whereas according to the general Mahayana path, it takes at least three countless eons to achieve Buddhahood through the practice of the six paramitas.

Photo Credit:
Untitled via Pixabay

Photo Credit:
Untitled via Pixabay

Background Photo Credit: Untitled via Pixabay