When the Buddha spoke of being liberated from the confines of the temporal body which was just an image (rupa), his followers, with the help of his power, were able to grasp this. The Buddha’s power was like a lamp whose light shone in their darkened minds so that they might better understand his teachings. For some, naturally, their mind was so darkened the could hardly make any progress. Nevertheless, with the Buddha’s compassion it wasn’t difficult for many to attain nirvana. The Buddha’s presence was always there making straight the path; clearing away the vines of deep rooted ignorance.
It is only after the Buddha’s death, laying aside his finite body in perfect nirvana (parinirvana), that things began to get confusing among is followers. With Gautama no longer present—the light gone—darkness began to become greater than the light. Those who still remembered his presence like Ananda were marginalized by new leaders who interpreted the Buddha’s discourses in different ways none of which showed a glimmer of illuminative compassion (mahakarunacitta).
Thus, did the great compassionate light which the Buddha emanated, wane. It gradually became like the light of a small candle eventually going out. The Buddha’s followers, by habit, were more disposed to the darkness of the temporal world than the light of the transcendent world, svarga. More and more they came to value elaborate and complicated treatises. They turned to words and logic having failed to confirm their theories by meditation seeing, directly, what the Buddha saw when he became awakened.
The Buddha’s religion of the living was now turning into the religion of the dead. While the Buddha’s funerary ashes were being venerated along with his words that were being set to memory—the true living spirit, which he brought into the world with his presence, was not enshrined or venerated. Nobody could sense, anymore, the powerful light of compassion he once emitted which confirmed his teachings. What came to represent him was, instead, a statue made of bronze or stone.
The light eventually disappeared because of the stronger habit of materialism blocked it out. Buddhism eventually turned into something Gautama the Buddha never intended it to be, viz., a religion of monkish guardians who made sure that the belief in a spiritual self (atman) would never plant itself in the hearts of the people. These guardians would repeat the mantra that all is impermanent, suffering, and without self; that nirvana is extinction, analogous with the flame of a candle gone out.
Along side of this view grew Mahayana Buddhism beginning with the Mahasanghikas whose understanding of Buddhism was decisively spiritual and appeared to worship the Buddha as a spiritual presence—not has a human being subject to sickness, old age and death. They even considered the Buddha to be born with a manomayakaya, that is, an immaterial pneumatic body which was undefiled (an-âsrava). While this seems absurd to those caught up in materialism, that is, to regard the Buddha as immaterial, for those who have witnessed the spiritual glory of pure Mind, it is not absurd to look at the Buddha as an allegorical representation of this pure Mind struggling in the human world to save it from its self-inflicted ignorance.
Even considering that the Buddha was human, the value of his teaching was not his moral character or teaching that the carnal body has no atman. Any Buddhist who leans on this kind of view of Buddhism doesn’t understand the Buddha’s message—and perhaps never will. They are caught up in materialism in which Buddhism is turned on its head; the Buddha being the ultimate materialist who tells the world that believing we are more than the sum of our biological parts is a belief of fools. Quite the opposite, the Buddha taught that we are not our biological body; that the self, or the actual, interfaces with the body but is not in our biological body (rupa). In a word, the body is not actual (anatman). Instead, the body is particulate (skandha) being surrounded and animated by the non-particulate universal Mind which alone is actual (atma).