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The Ultimate Reality in Buddhism

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama - the Buddha, lived in the sixth century BC. Two main forms of Buddhism are known today: the conservative branch, represented by the <poem>Theravada Theravada school, spread mainly in Sri Lanka and southeast Asia, and the liberal branch - Mahayana, spread mainly in China , Tibet, Korea and Japan.

The Theravada school, which claims to have guarded the unaltered message of its founder, teaches that there is neither a personal god, nor a spiritual or material substance that exists by itself as Ultimate Reality. The world as we know it does not have its origin in a primordial being such as Brahman. What we see is only a product of transitory factors of existence, which depend functionally upon each other. The Buddha said:

The world exists because of causal actions, all things are produced by causal actions and all beings are governed and bound by causal actions. They are fixed like the rolling wheel of a cart, fixed by the pin of its axle shaft. (Sutta-Nipata 654)

That gods exist is not rejected, but they are only temporary beings that attained heaven using the same virtues as any human disciple. Gods are not worshiped, do not represent the basis for morality, and are not the givers of happiness. The Ultimate Reality is nothing but a transcendent truth, which governs the universe and human life:


There is grief but none suffering,
There is no doer though there is action.
There is quietude but none tranquil.
There is the path but none walks upon the path. (Buddhaghosa; Visuddhi Magga 16)

Mahayana Buddhism emerged later, between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD, and was organized by Nagarjuna in the 2nd century AD. Although the texts of Mahayana Buddhism claim to be a recollection of early speeches of the Buddha, they contradict some conservative doctrines of the Theravada school. It is said that the Mahayana sutras were revealed many years after the master's death, because at that time the world was not yet able to understand them. According to their teaching, Ultimate Reality is also an ultimate truth, called the truth of emptiness. Emptiness is a quality attached to any physical, mental or doctrinal concept. It is the basis of our world, not as a substance, but as a truth. The doctrine of emptiness denies any kind of substantial ultimate reality and affirms that the world is to be seen as a web of interdependent and baseless phenomena.

The presence of many Buddhas in Mahayana Buddhism inaugurated a strong devotional trend that had to be reconciled with this doctrine of emptiness. The result was the doctrine of the three bodies of the Buddha (Trikaya), developed by the Yogachara school in the fifth century AD. It says that Ultimate Reality, called Buddhahood, is expressed at three levels of understanding. The first is Dharmakaya, the essential body of the Buddha, representing emptiness itself. It is the ultimate truth that governs the world. The other two bodies are the embodiment of compassion for beings ensnared by illusion. It is only because ignorance blinds conditioned beings, that the Dharmakaya is manifested as the other two, so that the conditioned beings can grow in wisdom and eventually attain enlightenment.

The second body is the Samboghakaya, the body of enjoyment. It is the body of the Buddhas in their Pure Lands, where they preach the Mahayana doctrine to those reborn here. The Buddhas in this form are the objects of Mahayana devotion, the source of grace for the devotees of popular Buddhism.

What was known as the physical body of Siddhartha Gautama is the third body of the Buddha, the Nirmanakaya. It is a mere image manifested in our world for the benefit of the lowliest of beings, the most ignorant and weak, unable to attain a Pure Land.

Mahayana takes a different stand on the person of Siddhartha Gautama. According to the traditional view he was a physical being, the founder of the four noble truths and the first human that reached nirvana. In Mahayana Buddhism he is considered to be only one of many Buddhas, the compassionate beings that help other humans to find liberation.