Who was the Buddha? In order to understand Buddhism we need to have an appreciation of who the Buddha was.
The historical Buddha was one of countless buddhas who have appeared in the past and who will appear in the future. Buddha Shakyamuni was born in the fifth century BCE in Lumbini, a place located in what is now Nepal. His birth was the culmination of many lifetimes spent striving towards enlightenment, driven by his wish to benefit limitless beings.
Life Story of Shakyamuni Buddha
Shakyamuni was born as a prince into a royal family in Northern India and was destined to be the next king. However, after 29 years of living a sheltered life he broke away from his life of luxury and encountered the brutal realities of life beyond the palace walls, seeing the sufferings of old age, sickness and death for the first time.
This shocking realization that such experiences are an inevitable part of every being’s life prompted him to renounce his worldly life in order to pursue a spiritual path with the aim to bring an end to such suffering.
First he spent six years practicing extreme austerities under the leading spiritual masters of his time, but none of them could reveal the underlying root of suffering itself.
Finally, seating himself under the Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya he achieved enlightenment at the age of 35, realizing that the cause of suffering is our attachment to self, arising from our ignorance about our true nature. Subsequently the Buddha gave teachings so that others could follow the path to enlightenment and free themselves and others from suffering.
Buddha’s life ended at the age of 80 in the village of Kusinagara in Northern India. There he displayed his final teaching, the inevitability of change and the impermanence of life.
The Truth Body and the Form Body
In the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism the life of Shakyamuni Buddha is seen as the magical display of an already enlightened buddha to show others the path to enlightenment.
To understand this it is necessary to have some understanding of the nature of enlightenment, Buddhahood.
In the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, Lord Buddha says:
“Those who see me by my physical body do not see me, only those who know my dharmakaya (my truth body) really know me.”
This quote signifies that the reality of buddhahood is much more than simply someone who appears in the world as an enlightened teacher.
There is a primordial dimension to buddhahood; the ultimate reality of what it is to be enlightened is called the truth body (Sanskrit: dharmakaya).
This recognition of ultimate reality is the dharmakaya, the body of truth. As ultimate reality never changes the dharmakaya is without beginning or end.
As the nature of reality is ungraspable by conceptual thought the dharmakaya cannot be said to exist or not exist. The dharmakaya is unborn, unceasing, ineffable and non-conceptual, the ground of all reality, the ground of all phenomena.
However, as buddhahood arises from the intention to become a buddha in order to benefit other beings attaining the dharmakaya is not an end, but the beginning of working for all sentient beings.
A buddha has cut through the notion of self and out of his boundless compassion manifests in limitless forms to benefit all sentient beings, to show them the way to gain buddhahood and freedom from suffering. These manifestations for the benefit of others are called the rupakaya or ‘form bodies’.
As the dharmakaya is non-conceptual and indescribable ordinary beings cannot see the it. For ordinary beings there needs to be a ‘bridge’ to ultimate reality that is apparent in the human world in day to day life. This is the rupakaya.