The Dharma and the Form Body

The death of the Buddha left his followers with a difficult problem. During his life, the Buddha had been a source of authority for the Buddhist community. He was a source of teaching, a source of discipline, doctrine and all of those things that made the Buddhist tradition in that time the beginning of a great world religion.

He was also a focus of veneration and worship for many of his followers, particularly for his lay followers. So, when the Buddha died, he left the realm of rebirth, he was no longer reborn in this world and he was no longer available for intervention or any kind of worship.

What was left to fill the void? What was left after the Buddha died that could fill the void left by his absence?

Buddhist traditionally have given two answers to this question. For those who wanted to venerate or to worship the Buddha, the Buddha left behind what was called the form body. Initially, this form body was comprised simply of the relics of his cremation.

The Relics of The Buddha

As I wrote in other article, when the Buddha died, his disciples took his body and cremated it. When the cremation was over, they took the relics of the cremation and distributed them to a number of lay disciples. These were set up as the focus of worship.

Over time, any physical representation of the Buddha came to play the same role, including objects that the Buddha touched, places he visited, and even images of the Buddha.

In the past, probably around the third or fourth century of the common era, one of the most important shrines in the whole Buddhist world was a shrine that was set up in what now is Pakistan. This shrine was set up to hold and to worship the Buddha’s begging ball.

Any object that was associated with the Buddha was potentially a focus of worship. These objects represented, in one way or another, the form body of the Buddha, his physical presence in this world.

The Dharma

For people who wanted to follow the Buddha’s example, he left behind what was called his Dharma. His teaching. The teaching that expresses the content of his awakening and shows the way for others to achieve this awakening themselves.

Out of this distinction in the Buddhist tradition between the physical body of the Buddha and the body of his teaching, came the distinction between two bodies of the Buddha.

Two Bodies

If you have studied Christian theology, you know that in the early years of the development of that religion, there was a lot of discussion about the two natures of Christ. Christians say that Christ is fully human and also fully divine.

As you can imagine, this distinction between the two Buddha bodies is in a way similar to that Christian distinction between the human nature and divine nature of the Christ.

The Buddha has two bodies. The form body that rises and passes away. I suppose you could say like the human nature of Christ. And the Dharma body is the eternal, and doesn’t change. It is important not to carry this comparison too far. It’s misleading to think that the Buddha is divine in either of the senses. Either in the physical sense, or the sense in which we identify the Buddha with his teaching.

The Dharma for Buddhists is beyond the gods. The gods arise and pass away. But the Dharma is eternal. In that sense it is possible to speak of the Buddha as was done in the Mahayana tradition, as being eternal, in the sense that he has left behind the body of his teaching.

In the next article we are going to begin to dig into the content of that teaching.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha's Teachings.

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