The life of the Buddha

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The Nirmanakaya (transformation body) refers to the earthly appearances of the Buddha.

  • The Sambhogakaya (glorious body) refers to the heavenly Buddhas who have many powers and whose purpose is the salvation of all beings. They are the focus of Mahayana worship.

  • The Dharmakaya (Ultimate body) refers to the underlying truth about the universe, the emptiness of all things and the truth of enlightened purified consciousness.

    People need great teachers to guide them and gods to pray to ask for help in their lives. Consequently, since most people have trouble grasping ultimate truth for themselves, other forms of the Buddha have developed over time in order to help all beings come to enlightenment. It could be argued that Mahayana Buddhists do not really believe that all these Buddhas and Bodhisattvas exist They are simply ways of looking at ultimate reality.

    • Theravada Buddhists believe that we are tied to the cycle of Samsara and after many lifetimes may be reborn as a monk. As a monk our goal is to rid ourselves of all attachments and achieve Nibbana. Mahayana Buddhists, however, believe that we are all in Nibbana now, we simply have to see the illusion of Samsara and realise our own Buddha nature.

    Nibbana in Buddhist practice

    • As Theravada Buddhists believe that Nibbana is achievable by following the Dhamma and through individual effort, the practice of Buddhism is centred on the striving towards enlightenment. Monks and nuns are more likely to gain enlightenment than lay people because they are less affected by the cravings of the wold. The discipline of monastic life is more conducive to following the spiritual path.

    • The Mahayana belief in Nibbana for everyone affects the role of the Sangha. There is less of a difference between lay people and monks and nuns than in the Theravada tradition and in some schools the monks are more like priests and are able to marry. Monks are often asked to recite parts of the Dhama in order to transfer merit to a relative who has died so that they may gain a better rebirth.

    Buddhist practices

    The Three Jewels

    The Buddha, the Dhamma (the Buddha’s teachings) and the Sangha (the community of Buddhists) are the three Jewels and are also known as The three refuges. Refuge meaning something which provides comfort and safety and which can be trusted. The three jewels are the focus for all Buddhist practice. The three Jewels help Buddhists cope with suffering and leads them in the right direction towards Nibbana. The three Jewels are the basis of Buddhism and are required for Buddhism to make sense. Without the Buddha there would be no Dhamma. You need the Buddha as an example to follow the Dhamma and without the Sangha there would be no-one to keep following the Dhamma to keep Buddhism alive.

    The Buddha

    The Buddha was a prince, ascetic, son, husband, father, monk and teacher. The Buddha is a role model for Buddhists who want to live compassionate and contented lives. It was the Buddha who recognised the nature of existence and the nature of human beings. He realised that life is full of suffering and concluded that the cause of suffering was desire and that there was a way of escaping suffering. Buddhists have a great respect for the Buddha and the sacrifices he made to live a better life and to escape from the cycle of Samsara. The Buddha was a man and not a God. Once he had reached enlightenment he taught other people what he had learned so that they could follow his example.

    The Dhamma

    Dhamma is the term given to Buddhist teaching. This can refer to a particular teaching such as the Four Noble Truths, a collection of scripture like the Pali Canon (this contains the teaching of the Buddha when they were finally written down), or the whole of Buddhist teaching. Dhamma also includes the entire collection of Buddhist scriptures including traditional teachings such as the Dhammapada and modern teachings. Today the Dhamma includes written texts, spoken words, books, CD’s and DVD’s. Dhamma is sometimes translated as ‘the way’ as it shows what Buddhists should do in order to gain enlightenment. Buddhists actually refer to their religion as the Dhamma. The Dhamma is seen as a guide which indicates the way to Enlightenment and not the source of Enlightenment itself.


    Buddhist scriptures are part of the Dhamma. When the Buddha died his teachings were passed on by word of mouth for about 300 years. When they were finally written down on palm leaves and stored in three baskets they were known as the Tipitaka which means ‘three baskets’.

    The first section is called ‘discipline’ and contains rules for Buddhist monks to follow. The second section contains the key teachings of the Buddha including the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path (This is where The Dhammapada section can be found). The third section explains the Buddha’s teachings.

    The Tipitaka was originally written in the Pali language and is known as the Pali Canon. Many monks learn the Pali language so that they can read the Tipitaka in its original form. Other sacred writings include the thousands of teachings called the ‘Suttas’. These are mainly teachings of the Buddha. The most famous of the Suttas are the Lotus and Heart Suttas of Mahayana Buddhism.

    The Tipitaka




    These writings are concered with monastic discipline, and practice. They include instructions on peaceful living, caring for the sick, giving to the poor and teaching the lay community.

    These writings include the eachings of the Buddha as told by his disciple Ananda. They are divided into five parts and include dialogues, illustrations and parables linked by common moral and spiritual themes.

    These writings provide an analysis of key Buddhist ideas with a special emphasis on different mental states and help with meditation.

    The Dhammapada is the most famous section of the Sutta-Pitaka. Its 423 verses provide practical advice on a person’s path to Enlightenment and provide a useful summary of many of the Buddha’s most important teachings.

    The Dhamma in Buddha’s life

    • After Buddha became enlightened he was able to help others towards enlightenment by teaching the Dhamma. He decided to teach the five ascetics that he had lived with first. His first sermon is known as Sermon of Benares or Deer Park Sermon because it was given at the Deer Park at Sarnath by the Varanasi (once called Benares).

    • The Buddha returned to his childhood home where he preached the Dhamma to his father who accepted his rejection of inheritance. His preaching of the Dhamma continued throughout his lifetime as he travelled around India.

    • On his deathbed Buddha explained the necessity of following the Dhamma as a way to Nibbana (enlightenment)

    • After Buddha’s death a gathering of Arahats (worthy ones) agreed on one version of the Dhamma. Ananda, as one of Buddha’s closest disciples, recited every teaching the Buddha had taught. These sayings of the Buddha were eventually written down and became the Sutta Pitaka section of the Pali Canon.

    The Dhamma in Buddha’s teachings

    • The Sermon at Benares – It appears to be an over emphasis to talk of the Dhamma in Buddhist teaching but the concept is often referred to by name. It takes a central place as one of the three jewels or refuges, the focus for Buddhist practice. “To the Buddha for refuge I go; to the Dharma for refuge I go; to the Sangha for refuge I go.” Buddhist Scriptures (p182)

    • The sermon also talks of setting the wheel of Dhamma in motion. This means that the basic Buddhist teachings are explained in the Sermon and any later teaching simply elaborates them. The Sermon at Benares explains the Middle Way between indulgence and asceticism. Its central teaching is the four noble truths and the eightfold path.

    • All schools of Buddhism see the teachings on the four noble truths and the eightfold path as central to the Dhamma, however their interpretation of how the Dhamma should be understood varies.

      • Theravada – ‘teachings of the elders’ concentrates on the Dhamma first taught by the Buddha and then passed on to the Sangha. It is important for Theravada Buddhists that the Dhamma is what the Buddha actually taught his disciples. The Pali Canon (Tipitaka/Three baskets) contains the Buddha’s philosophy and ethics and it is this that the Theravada must follow to the letter if they wish to gain enlightenment.

      • Mahayana Buddhism includes additional references to later scriptures inspired by the Buddha’s teaching but not actually his words. Examples of this are the Lotus and Diamond Sutra. These later teachings are written in many of the native languages of the countries where Mahayana Buddhism spread e.g. Japanese, Tibetan. The Lotus Sutra emphasises the point that Buddha wanted everyone to understand the Dhamma and so later teachings emerged to enable more people to understand.

    • The parable of the burning house explains how the three different ways of explaining the Dhamma are in fact a skilful device for getting more people to realise its truth. In other words, there are more ways of understanding Buddhism than simply the actual words of the Buddha.

    The Dhamma in Buddhist practice

    • The importance of the Dhamma in Buddhists’ lives cannot be over-emphasised. The religion is based around the development of understanding and most schools of Buddhism concentrate on developing understanding through hearing the Dhamma.

    • Theravada Buddhists still use recitation of the Dhamma as an important way to gain knowledge and insight into the meaning of the Dhamma. The monks recite the 227 rules of the Vinaya Pitaka every fortnight and many of the sayings of the Buddha are told again and again to emphasise the point. It is regarded good Kamma to learn sections by heart and sections are chanted both morning and evening.

    • Through the Dhamma the Buddhist can gain wisdom.

    • The Dhamma of Mahayana Buddhism develops the teachings of the Pali Canon and emphasises the way to Nibbana is possible for everyone. Different schools within Mahayana use the Dhamma in a variety of ways. Collecting scriptures is important in many Mahayana traditions and the written texts are often wrapped and stored in places of honour around the shrine. The number of scriptures that exist makes it unlikely that many Buddhists could learn them all so the emphasis on memorisation and reciting the scriptures is seen as less important. Most Mahayana schools concentrate on teachers explaining the meanings of the Dhamma to their students.

    • Zen teaches that scriptures are only a tool rather than the Dhamma itself. They use riddles to try to awaken the understanding of the impermanence of existence. These are known as Koans. Other ways to gain enlightenment can come through experiences such as flower arranging, archery or the Japanese tea ceremony. These appear not to be connected to the Dhamma but the practices do relate to the teaching of mindfulness which is an important part of the eightfold path and so central to the Dhamma.

    The Sangha/Arya Sangha

    The community of Buddhists is called the Sangha. The Sangha has two groups: the ordained (monks and nuns in monasteries and retreats) and the laity (Buddhists who work and live ordinary lives).

    At first, the Buddha wondered whether it was possible to teach others about the things which he had come to understand. Then he had a vision and knew that he had to teach the doctrine of existence. He remembered the five ascetics who had looked after him after he had left the palace and with his Buddha-vision he learnt that they were staying in a deer park at Benares. When the ascetics saw him in the distance they planned to have nothing to do with him because they believed that he had taken up a life of comfort. However, the five men listened to what he had to say. The Buddha told them that he had arrived at the truth and found an end to suffering. The Buddha shared his knowledge with the five and soon they all became enlightened, they became arhats (worthy ones). Soon sixty people had become enlightened and the Buddha sent them out to spread his teaching. This was the first Sangha.

    Taking refuge as a monk or nun in a monastery or retreat helps Buddhists overcome selfish cravings by being cut off from worldly temptations. In the monastery monks have the opportunity, free from distractions, to learn the wisdom of senior monks and have time to meditate without distractions.

    The Arya Sangha is a special group of Buddhists who have achieved Enlightenment. In Mahayana Buddhism they are called Bodhisattvas and in Theravada they are called arhats.

    Some say that it is wrong to include lay Buddhists in the sangha as they weaken the strength of Buddhism. They may also say a monastic setting provides the best environment for those who want to reach enlightenment. Other Buddhists would reject this view they would say that it is not realistic to expect all Buddhists to become monks and nuns. They would also say that lay Buddhists bring a lot to the community.

    In Scotland there is a Tibetan centre and monastery – Samye Ling. Near Eskdalemuir in Dumfriesshire.

    Magga /The Noble Eightfold Path ‘The middle way’

    The Noble Eightfold path is a summary of the Buddha’s teachings on how to end suffering and attain Enlightenment. It is the Buddha’s fourth and final Noble Truth. The path towards Nibbana is known as the Middle Way and is followed in one way or another by all Buddhists. The teachings of the Noble Eightfold Path can be separated into three divisions: Wisdom, morality and meditation. This threefold division of the Eightfold Path is called the threefold way.

    Right understanding/viewpoint

    Understanding and accepting the Four Noble Truths and the true nature of the self. Understanding that you can be freed from the consequences of past actions and that you can achieve release and enlightenment.



    Right Thought

    Trying to be unselfish and caring for people rather than concentrating on yourself. Non-harming and good will are important thoughts.

    Right Speech

    No lies, slander or boasts but being kind, thoughtful and helpful when you talk to people.



    Right Action

    Acting morally by being kind, considerate to all people and creatures, this is why Buddhists are vegetarians. Not killing, stealing or drinking alcohol.

    Right Livelihood/living

    Doing a useful job which doesn’t involve killing, hurting others, selling alcohol or trafficking slaves or women.

    Right Effort

    Pursuing the Eightfold Path at your own pace, seeking the truth and the good, rejecting lies and avoiding things which are evil. Get rid of the idea of the self.

    Meditation/mental discipline


    Right mindfulness/awareness

    Bringing experiences to come to mind and developing an awareness of things which go on around you. Becoming aware that there is nothing permanent about the body’s activities (breathing), sensations or feeling. Getting rid of the five hindrances: Covetousness, malevolence, sloth, restlessness and doubts.

    Right concentration

    Training your mind so that you concentrate completely on the achievement of Nibbana without your mind wandering.

    The Middle way is interpreted differently by Theravada and Mahayana traditions. For the Theravada Buddhists the path to enlightenment is the one of the Arahat and therefore only monks can follow the Eighfold Path to Enlightenment. By following the path of the Arahat an individual can learn how to get rid of the craving that leads to dissatisfaction and become enlightened. For the Mahayna Buddhists the path of the Arahat is seen as too narrow and individualistic. Instead the path is the one of the Bodhisattva. Beings of enlightenment can then dedicate themselves to obtaining enlightenment not for themselves but in order to help others.

    Magga in Buddha’s life

    • The Sangha – The Buddha became enlightened through his own efforts. After he left the palace he tried many ways and sought a lot of advice before eventually sitting under the Bo tree meditating for 49 days. This is seen as the model for the way of the Arahat.

    • After becoming enlightened, The Buddha taught others the Middle Way. Many people who listened to the Dhamma became enlightened themselves whilst others formed a group of followers who spent their time wandering and teaching the Dhamma. During the rainy season travel was difficult so these followers began to gather together in Viharas (resting places). Eventually the Viharas developed into the Buddhist monasteries of today.

    • At Buddha’s death he gathered members of the Sangha around him to give advice. He said be lamps unto yourselves’ which is seen by Theravada Buddhists to show that enlightenment is achieved through personal effort. This is not seen as an act of selfishness but rather to put all effort and concentration into getting rid of self. “It is sometimes felt that this self-reliant religion is rather selfish, concerned only with saving oneself from suffering, but this is to misunderstand Theravada Buddhism. It is a contradiction in terms to strive to save ‘yourself’. By definition, an arahat is one who has lost all sense of ‘self’ separate from others, and all selfish impulses. Compassion for others, and helping them on their spiritual path, is a vital part of Theravada Buddhism. Monks teach ‘for the sake of the welfare and happiness of gods and men’. Without a compassionate mind, enlightenment would never be attained.” [Denise Cush p 46]

    Magga is Buddhist teachings

    • Theravada Buddhsts look to the stories of the Sangha at the time of the Buddha where individuals became Arahats by following the eightfold path. The Pali Canon explains the advice the Buddha gave to disciples on how to practice the Middle way.

    • As well as the Suttas, Theravada Buddhists look to the Vinaya Pitaka to teach them how to follow The Way. The Vinaya Pitaka (basket of discipline) contains not only the rules to be followed but also information about the life of Buddha and the early Sangha. It contains the 227 rules for monks who were known as Bhikkhus (one who shares) and includes the rules that must be followed in order to remain in the Sangha as well as the additional rules for Buddhist nuns.

    • As the number of Theravada nuns dwindled, the additional rules helped lead to their extinction. Full ordination of nuns can only be given in the presence of both Theravada monks and nuns. There have been no fully ordained Bhikkhunis (nuns) in the Theravada tradition since the 11th Century. Women who shave their heads and follow the ten precepts are still technically lay sisters.

    • Only Mahayana Buddhists accept Mahayana Sutras as scripture. Mahayana monks and nuns follow the Vinaya rules passed down by earlier schools. However, the main difference is in the interpretation of the rules to suit the circumstances of the school. Tibetan monks may cook their food and Zen monks even see the growing of food as part of their spiritual progress.

    Magga in Buddhist practice

    • Theravada Buddhists believe that the path to Nibbana is one that takes many lifetimes to achieve. This is because Kamma that increases attachment to Samsara is accumulated gradually and similarly getting rid of attachment can only be achieved gradually and without full realisation of the progress.

    • Theravada Buddhists believe that Nibbana can only be achieved by following the eightfold path. This can be quite challenging as everyday life makes it difficult to understand ultimate truth. “It is harder to overcome the clinging to a self when we are seeing, hearing or thinking, than to endure bodily hardship. The development of wisdom is a life task. We need much courage and perseverance in order to be aware of daily life.”[ Van Gorkam: Buddhism in Daily life p76]

    • Monks are given the highest respect in Theravada Buddhism as they have devoted their lives to perfecting the Middle Way and are living examples of this for all members of the Sangha. “We take refuge in the Sangha also when we pay our respect to the monks, no matter whether they are Aryans or not, because the goal of monkhood is to apply what the Buddha taught in order to realise the truth and to try to help other people as well to realise the truth. The monks remind us of the ‘three Gems: The Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha [Ibid p77]

    The Five precepts/Monastic and Lay community

    All Buddhists, the lay community and monastic Buddhists follow the five precepts and these encourage the development of selflessness.

    • Avoid harming other life

    • Avoid taking what is not given

    • Avoid sexual misconduct

    • Avoid incorrect speech

    • Avoid drink and drugs that cloud the mind

    Monks follow the five precepts to show the lay community what is expected of them and to develop a sense of Anatta. Monks are able to follow these precepts to the fullest degree with the word avoidance being replaced by abstinence. In addition they follow another set of five which are more difficult outwith the monastic environment.

    • Avoid food after midday

    • Avoid a high or luxurious bed

    • Avoid public amusements e.g. music, dancing

    • Avoid jewellery and perfume

    • Avoid handling gold and silver

    Monks are not allowed to work for money and therefore rely on the lay community for support. This is often seen in the daily alms round where the monastic Sangha travel through the villages with their alms bowls into which lay people donate food. Lay people may go to the vihara to provide and cook meals for the monks or they may invite monks to their homes for meals.

    The only possessions which a Buddhist monk has are a robe, a begging bowl, a razor for shaving his head, and a filter to strain insects out of his water. They live in small huts in a monastery which has very little furniture.

    The monks usually get up early and spend their days meditating, studying scriptures, performing ceremonies and preaching sermons to lay people. During the rainy season retreat (vassa) they spend most of their time in meditation and at the end of the retreat they celebrate Kathina day where the lay people provide them with new robes.

    Lay people are often seen as inferior in religious status to monks as they cannot devote all their lives to the Dhamma but are concerned with worldly attachments. However the relationship between the monastic and lay community is essentially interdependent – the monks rely on the lay community for their material needs and the lay people rely on the monks for their spiritual needs.

    The goal for most lay people is to gain good Kamma for a better rebirth (Samsara). Merit can be gained through moral behaviour, by taking part in religious ceremonies and by supporting the monastic Sangha.


    The principle of ahimsa is of non-violence and abstention from harming living things. This principle involves all living creatures because Buddhists believe that everything is interconnected. If they do not want to suffer and experience pain then it is only good sense to assume that neither does anything else. A Buddhist would not believe it was right to impose pain and suffering on any living creature. As a result many Buddhists are vegetarian. Behaving in this manner nurtures the positive quality of loving kindness to all creatures.

    Buddhists should also apply the principle of ahimsa to themselves. They should not put themselves through undue pain and suffering whilst on the path to enlightenment as extreme actions would not be the ‘middle way’.

    Meditation and worship/Puja


    Performing Puja (worship) is seen as an important way for lay people to gain good Kamma. Lay Buddhists recite the three refuges and renew their taking of the five precepts either in daily puja at a shrine, at home or more formally at the temple. People make offerings before the statue of the Buddha as a symbolic reminder of the truth of Buddha’s Dhamma. For example flowers represent impermanence and candles represent enlightenment.

    Some lay Buddhists take additional precepts when they visit the Temple. They dress in white robes with no jewellery, perfume or amusements. They do not eat after midday and do not use comfortable chairs or beds.

    Rites of passage are seen as less important as they focus on the self. Initiation and death are the only religious ceremonies as they focus on the concepts of Anicca and Samsara. Many lay Buddhist families encourage their sons to join the monastic community for a period of time in order to gain good Kamma for themselves and the whole family. Temporary admission to the monastic Sangha is not seen as failure as everything is impermanent and in some countries it gives boys the additional material advantage of a good education.

    In the Mahayana schools the difference between the monastic and lay community may in some schools seem less distinct whilst in others there are greater divisions.

    Pure land Buddhism with its emphasis on faith in Amida Buddha encourages lay people to believe that enlightenment is possible for anyone who calls upon his name.

    Tibetan Buddhism has very obvious divisions between the monastic and lay Sangha. Buddhism was the foundation of Tibetan society with one in six men being monks at one time. Joining the monastic Sangha is a lifetime commitment and for some this begins at a very early age. The different sects within the Tibetan school each have a lineage of leadership. In some cases when an important teacher or lama dies the monastery searches for his reincarnation. These lamas are believed to be Bodhisattvas who take human form in order to help others towards Nibbana. When the incarnation is found the small boy is taken to the monastery and brought up as a monk. His parents see giving birth to a lama as being a special honour which produces good Kamma and will not be as reluctant therefore to give him up as a western family might be. The Dalai Lama, head of Tibetan Buddhism, is believed to be the fourteenth incarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara orCheenrezig.

    Tibetan Buddhists are taught that everyone has a Buddha nature. Each Buddhist has gained the perfect human rebirth which is believed to be as rare as a blind turtle swimming in a vast ocean and only surfacing once in a century putting its head through a small ring which is floating somewhere on the surface of the water. Therefore all Buddhists should try to make spiritual progress during this lifetime and if possible achieve Nibbana.


    Meditation is often seen as central to Buddhism because only through training of the mind can you begin to see the world and yourself as they really are. Only then can you stop craving and follow the path that leads to enlightenment – Nibbana. Remember that it was as a direct result of meditation that Buddha hained enlightenment.

    Meditation also forms one-third of the Noble Eightfold Path: ‘Samadhi’ (right effort, mindfulness and concentration).

    Meditation allows the person to get rid of thoughts and feelings that are motivated by the three root poisons and to replace them with calm, peaceful and loving thoughts and feelings.

    Samatha Meditation

    This is the simplest form of meditation which involves concentration on one thing in particular: Your breath, for example. This helps to calm the mind and increase self-awareness. Samatha meditation also induces contentment and patience.

    Vipassana (insight) meditation

    This is a more advanced form of meditation in which Buddhist teachings are explored in a deeper way. Mahayana Buddhists may concentrate on a bodhisattva with some, or all, of his virtues. Samatha meditation helps to bring about temporary changes whereas vipassana meditation helps to bring about permanent changes.


    Anicca: Impermanence

    Arahat (Arhat): An enlightened monk in the Theravada tradition

    Asceticism: living with only the bare minimum needed for existence

    Avalokiteshvara: The Bodhisattva of compassion

    Bodhisattva: A person with the potential to gain enlightenment or someone who chooses to help others gain enlightenment. Literally Bodhi-Sattva Enlightened – Being

    Biddhi: Monk ‘one who shares’

    Dhamma (Dharma): Buddhist teachings, The way of Buddhism

    Hinayanna: The lesser vehicle (Mahayana term for Theravada Buddhism)

    Kamma (Karma): An action that produces good or bad results

    Mara: The arch tempter who tries to trap the Buddha with sense pleasures

    Mahayana: The greater vehicle

    Nibbana (Nirvana): enlightenment

    Pali Canon: Authoritative Buddhist scriptures

    Sakyamuni: A title of Siddhatta Gautama: ‘sage of the Sakyas’

    Samsara: The cycle of rebirth

    Siddhatta Gotama (Siddhartha Gautama): the Buddha’s name before enlightenment

    Skandhas: the five bundles that make up a person ‘body’, feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness

    Tathagata: A title of the Buddha (Theravada) ‘thus gone’

    Theravada: Teachings of the Elders

    Tipitaka (Tripitaka): The three baskets of Buddhist scriptures

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