The term Buddha, literally “awakened one,” is one of many Indian epithets applied to the founder of the Buddhist religion.
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.
Women and men who experienced this same awakening by following in the footsteps of the Buddha were referred to as Arhats or “worthy ones,” an epithet also applied to the Buddha himself.
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.
Moreover, to attain awakening without the help of a teacher was not in itself sufficient to be classified as a Buddha,
for those who did so but did not teach others how to replicate that experience were known instead as Pratyeka-Buddhas, 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.
2. Buddhas of the past
The earliest datable evidence for a belief in the existence of Buddhas prior to Śākyamuni comes from the time of King Aśoka (ca. 300-232 B.C.E.), who claimed in one of his inscriptions to have enlarged the memorial mound (Stūpa) of a previous Buddha named Koṇāgamana (Sanskrit, Konākamuni).
No names of other Buddhas are mentioned, and there is no way to determine whether Aśoka viewed Koṇāgamana as belonging to a larger lineage scheme.
Within a century or so after Aśoka’s time, however—and possibly much earlier, depending on what dates are assigned to materials in the Pāli canon— other names had been added to the list as well.
3. Seven Buddhas
A wide range of literary, artistic, and epigraphic sources refers to “Seven Buddhas of the past,” a list including Śākyamuni and 6 prior Buddhas:
5) Kanakamuni, and
A reason 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 6 Buddhas, together with Śākyamuni, are prominently featured on the gateways to the great Stūpa at Sāñcī (ca. 1st 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 (nikāyas)—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 “Majority” (Mahāsaṁghikas, or Great Assembly), which took place between a century and a century and a half 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.
Only in minor details—such as the names of their parents, their life spans, and the caste into which they were born—can these biographies be distinguished.
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.
Not all the members of this list of 7, despite their parallel life stories, appear to have played equally significant roles in cultic practice:
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:
While the ancient Buddhas are all associated with known geographical locations, the towns where the archaic Buddhas are said to have lived have no clear historical referent.
When the Chinese monk Faxian (ca. 337-ca. 418) visited India at the beginning of the 5th century C.E., for example, he was taken to 3 towns in north-east India (all within range of the city of Śrāvastī), where the ancient Buddhas were said to have lived, and he was shown Stūpas said to contain their remains.
No comparable pilgrimage sites connected with the 3 archaic Buddhas are mentioned, either in Faxian’s report or in those of subsequent Chinese visitors.
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
An expanded version of the list of seven, totalling 25 Buddhas in all, is attested in the Pāli Buddhavaṁsa, though it appears to be little known outside the Theravāda tradition.
This list extends still further into the past to begin with the Buddha Dīpaṁkara, in whose presence the future Śākyamuni made his initial vow to attain Buddhahood.
Although the story of Dīpaṁkara is not included in the Pāli collection of Jātaka tales recounting Śākyamuni’s former lives, 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 Cariyā-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 north-western fringes of the Indian cultural sphere.
Though no occurrence of the list of 25 Buddhas of the past has yet been identified in Mahāyāna scriptures, the first Buddha in this series, Dīpaṁkara, plays a significant role in these texts.
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.
5. Buddhas of the future
The earliest lists of multiple Buddhas referred only to Śākyamuni and his predecessors.
Around the turn of the millennium, however, a shorter list of 5 — consisting of:
4 Buddhas of the past (the ancient Buddhas Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni, Kāśyapa, together with Śākyamuni) along with one Buddha of the future (Maitreya; Pāli, Metteyya) - was compiled.
The weight of this tradition is still anchored firmly in the past, but the door was now open to speculation on other Buddhas who might also appear in the future.
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 labelled Buddhas of the Bhadra-kalpa (fortunate eon).
The list of 5 Buddhas remained standard in the Theravāda tradition, but a longer list of 1 000 Buddhas of the Bhadra-kalpa frequently appears in Mahāyāna scriptures.
An intermediary list, consisting of 500 Buddhas of the Bhadra-kalpa, appears to have circulated mainly in Central Asia.
In all of these systems Maitreya holds pride of place as the next Buddha to appear in our world.
Like all Buddhas-to-be, he is said to be spending his penultimate life in the Tuṣita Heaven, from which he surveys our world to determine the right time and place to be born.
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.
Still others strove for visionary encounters with Maitreya, through which they could see him in his heavenly realm even before departing from this life.
6. Buddhas of the present
All of the traditions discussed above share the assumption that only 1 Buddha can appear in the world at any given time.
Each Buddha is portrayed as having discovered a truth about reality (i.e., an understanding of the dharma) that had, prior to his time, been utterly lost.
Since a Buddha can appear, therefore, only in a world without any knowledge of Buddhism, only one such figure can exist at a time.
This restriction applies, however, only if one posits the existence of just one world system,
and around the turn of the millennium some Buddhists began to articulate a new view of the universe that consisted not of one, but of hundreds or thousands of such worlds.
This made possible, for the first time, the idea that other Buddhas might currently be living and teaching, albeit in worlds unimaginably distant from our own.
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.
Many Indian texts refer simply to these Buddhas of the 10 directions in the aggregate, but occasionally particular figures are named, some of whom appear to have gained a strong following in India:
By far the most prominent are:
- the Buddha Akṣobhya,
said to dwell in a world known as Abhirati (extreme delight) far to the East, and
- the Buddha Amitābha (also known as Amitāyus),
dwelling in the land of Sukhāvatī (blissful) in the distant West.
These 2 figures, together with others currently presiding over comparably glorious realms, have come to be known in English-language studies as Celestial Buddhas.
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.
Yet these realms are not heavens in the strict sense, but “amputated” world systems, shorn only of the lower realms (durgati) of hell- beings, animals, and ghosts.
In addition to inhabiting such glorious places— said to be the by-product of their activities as Bodhisattvas, and in some cases (most notably in the Sukhāvatī-vyūha) described as resulting from specific “world-designing” vows—
Celestial Buddhas, like the Archaic Buddhas of our own world, are described as having immensely long life spans.
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 60-80 000 years;
the same is true of the future Buddha Maitreya, who is scheduled to appear in our world when the maximum life span of 80 000 years has again arrived.
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.
Such an aspiration for rebirth makes sense, of course, only if the believer is confident that the Buddha in question will still be alive when he or she arrives.
Celestial Buddhas are not, however, described as immortal:
the Akṣobhya-vyūha makes much of Akṣobhya’s eventual Parinirvāṇa and auto-cremation,
while early translations of the Sukhāvatī vyūha make it clear that Avalokiteśvara will succeed to the position of reigning Buddha of Sukhāvatī after Amitābha has passed away.
Thus the lives of these Buddhas—while far more glorious in circumstances and far longer in duration—still echo the pattern set by Śākyamuni.
Other developments would subsequently take place,
such as the claim that Śākyamuni Buddha had already attained Nirvāṇa prior to his appearance in this world and the concomitant assumption that his life span was immeasurably, though not infinitely, long,
and the even grander claim that all Buddhas who appear in this or any other world are merely manifestations of an eternal dharma-body (dharmakāya).
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.