Buddha and Buddhas
A Buddha is defined, first and foremost, as one who has undergone the profoundly transformative experience known as Nirvāṇa and who, as a result, will never be subject to the cycle of birth and death again.
These disciples, however, were not themselves referred to as Buddhas, for that term was reserved for those rare individuals who experienced Bodhi (awakening) on their own in a world with no knowledge of Buddhism.
for those who did so but did not teach others how to replicate that experience were known instead as Pratyekabuddhas, a term variously explained as “individually enlightened” or “enlightened through (an understanding of) causation.”
In addition to attaining Nirvāṇa without assistance from others, the classical definition of a Buddha includes teaching others what one has found. A Buddha is, in sum, not only the discoverer of a timeless truth, but the founder of a religious community.
It is possible—though far from certain—that the earliest Buddhist tradition knew of only one such figure, the so-called historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Śākyamuni (sage of the Śākya clan). But the notion that other Buddhas had preceded him appeared at an early date, and may well have been assumed by Śākyamuni himself.
Over the next 4-5 centuries Buddhists came to believe that other such Buddhas would also appear in the distant future; some even claimed that Buddhas were living at the present time, though in worlds unimaginably distant from our own.
While the belief in past and future Buddhas came to be accepted by all Buddhist schools, the idea of the simultaneous existence of multiple Buddhas appears to have gained general currency only in Mahāyāna circles.
3. Seven Buddhas
A wide range of literary, artistic, and epigraphical sources refers to “seven Buddhas of the past,” a list including Śākyamuni and 6 prior Buddhas:
6. Kanakamuni, and
A source for the emergence of this tradition is again supplied by an inscription, in this case on a Stūpa railing at Bhārhut in north-central India (ca. 2nd century B.C.E.), where Śākyamuni’s predecessors (with the exception of Śikhin, where the railing has been damaged) are mentioned by name.
The same six Buddhas, together with Śākyamuni, are prominently featured on the gateways to the great Stūpa at Sāñcī (ca. first century B.C.E.). Subsequently, they appear, both in artistic works and in inscriptions, at a host of other Buddhist sites.
The widespread agreement on both the number and sequence of these previous Buddhas in surviving sources—including canonical scriptures preserved in Pāli and Chinese that can be attributed to several distinct ordination lineages (nikāya)—suggests that the list of 7 was formulated at an early date.
More specifically, it points to the likelihood that this list had been standardized prior to the first major schism in Buddhist history, the split between the self-proclaimed “Elders” (Sthāviras) and “Majorityists” (Mahāsaṁghikas, or Great Assembly), which took place a 100-150 years after the Buddha’s death.
The most detailed discussion of Śākyamuni’s predecessors in early (i.e., non-Mahāyāna) canonical literature is found in the Pāli Mahāpadāna-suttanta (Dīgha-nikāya, sutta no. 14) and in other recensions of the same text preserved in Chinese translation:
Here the lives of the Seven Buddhas, from Vipaśyin (Pāli, Vipassī) to Śākyamuni himself, are related in virtually identical terms, from a penultimate existence in the Tuṣita Heaven, to a miraculous birth, to the experience of Nirvāṇa and a subsequent preaching career.
Implicit in this replication of a single paradigmatic pattern is the assumption that all Buddhas-to-be (Sanskrit, Bodhisattva) must carry out an identical series of practices, after which they will teach a dharma identical to that of their predecessors.
In subsequent centuries this would lead to the idea that by replicating the deeds of Śākyamuni and his predecessors in every detail, other Buddhists, too, could strive to become Buddhas rather than Arhats.
If we divide the list into subgroups of “archaic” Buddhas said to have lived many eons ago (Vipaśyin, Śikhin, and Viśvabhū), and “ancient” Buddhas described as preceding Śākyamuni in the present eon (Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni, and Kāśyapa), a clear pattern can be discerned:
Based on surviving images and inscriptions, as well as on further data found in the travel accounts of Faxian and later Chinese pilgrims, it has been suggested that the Buddha Kāśyapa may have been an especially popular object of veneration.
4. Twenty-five Buddhas
it does appear in the Nidānakathā, an introduction to that collection that is generally assigned to the 5th century C.E. and quotes directly from earlier sources such as the Buddhavaṁsa and the Cāriyā-piṭaka.
The story is frequently depicted in art from the Gandhāra region, though it is virtually absent from other Buddhist sites, suggesting that it may have originated at the northwestern fringes of the Indian cultural sphere.
Since Śākyamuni Buddha was portrayed as having made his initial vow to become a Buddha in the presence of Dīpaṁkara, this motif became quite common in the writings of advocates of the Bodhisattva Path in subsequent centuries.
Around the turn of the millennium, however, a shorter list of 5 was compiled —
Besides introducing a Buddha-of-the-future for the first time, this list was also innovative in its optimism about the nature of the present age, for these 5 figures were labeled Buddhas of the bhadra-kalpa (fortunate eon).
Estimates varied as to the amount of time that would elapse between our own age and the coming of Maitreya. One of the most common figures was 5.6 billion years; other traditions offered a figure of 560 million.
While many Buddhists worked to acquire merit in order to be born here on earth in that distant era when Maitreya would at last attain Buddhahood, others strove to be reborn more immediately in his presence in the Tuṣita heaven.
Scriptures reflecting this perspective speak of other world systems located “throughout the 10 directions”—that is, in the 4 cardinal directions, the 4 intermediate directions, the zenith, and the nadir.
By far the most prominent are:
The term Celestial Buddha has no precise equivalent in Sanskrit (nor for that matter in Chinese or Tibetan), yet it can serve as a convenient label for those Buddhas who are presently living and teaching in worlds other than our own and into whose lands believers may aspire to be reborn.
Conditions in these lands are portrayed as idyllic, comparable in many respects to Buddhist heavens; indeed, this comparison is made explicit in scriptures describing the worlds of celestial Buddhas, such as the Akṣobhya-vyūha and the larger Sukhāvatī-Vyūha-Sūtra.
In addition to inhabiting such glorious places—
Yet the factors that elicited these seemingly parallel circumstances are not the same:
In the case of the archaic Buddhas, their long life spans are the corollary of their being placed at a point in the cycle of evolution-and-devolution where human life spans in general stretch to between 60 - 80 thousand years;
In the case of celestial Buddhas, on the other hand, their long life spans are necessitated by their role as the presiding Buddhas in other realms to which believers from other worlds might aspire to be reborn.
the Akṣobhya-vyūha makes much of Akṣobhya’s eventual pari-nirvāṇa and auto-cremation,
Other developments would subsequently take place,
such as the claim that Śākyamuni Buddha had already attained Nirvāṇa a prior to his appearance in this world and the concomitant assumption that his life span was immeasurably, though not infinitely, long,
Throughout most of the history of Buddhism in India, however, Buddhas continued to be viewed as human beings who had achieved awakening as Śākyamuni did, even as the list of their qualities and their attainments grew ever more glorious.