Theoretically, there are many Buddhas that have existed over a time period of many eons. Typically, there is one Buddha for a life cycle. It seems that a “life cycle” is not defined by one human life span. Instead the life cycle lasts over billions of years. It begins and ends with the birth and destruction of the world system. As a result, the best way to cover the topic of Buddhas is to start at the very beginning with the Adi-Buddha or primordial Buddha.
Adi Buddha is believed to be the ultimate primordial Buddha. However, similar to the bodhisattvas, Adi-Buddha is know by many names depending on the geographical region. For example, in Tibet he is known as Samantabhadra or Vajradhara. In East Asia this Buddha is known as Vairocana.
In Sanskrit, Vajra translates as “diamond” or “lightening bolt”. As a result, in Tibetan Buddhism he is considered to be the supreme essence of all male Buddhas or the “Ruler of the Vajra Beings.
However, by referring to Adi Buddha as primordial, it implies that his human form depicted in sculpture is merely conceptual. Indeed, Adi Buddha represents the wisdom that always existed in the universe. Therefore, it is not actually a person but instead it represents the innate form of wisdom.
The concept of a primordial Buddha is the same as picturing our universe before it became an organized system of stars and solar systems held together and put in motion by gravity. Before this time all the elements for an organized universe existed but they had not worked in unison. The concept of primordial or innate wisdom is similar to gravity.
The Buddhas of our Time
Buddhists believe that there are three Buddhas of our time. There is the Buddha of the past (Dipankara), the Buddha of the present (Gautama Buddha) and the Buddha of the future (Meitreya).
Although Meitreya is not actually a Buddha at this time, instead it is foreseen that he will be the Buddha of the future. As a result, he is technically a bodhisattva until he reaches Buddhahood. Each Buddha is responsible for teaching the Dharma to the sentient life that exists in their eon or “life cycle”.
Dipankara Buddha is known as the first Buddha of our time. He is thought to have existed here on earth about 100,000 years ago. An enormous amount of time has passed since Dipankara Buddha walked the earth. As a result, trying to recreate the physical features of Dipankara is a bit obscure. In contrast, Shakyamuni Buddha walked the earth over 2000 years ago but we have a general idea of what he may have looked like. This is because the “32 Physical Characteristics of the Buddha” are found in the Pali Canon.
Dipankara Buddha statues usually depict him as a sitting Buddha. Also common in Tibet, China and Nepal are standing Buddha statues that show him using the Abhaya mudra with one or both hands. Additionally, Dipankara Buddha was believed to have been one of the “Buddhas of Bamiyan” that existed in Afghanistan prior to their destruction in 2001.
Gautama Buddha was also a bodhisattva in many or his prior lifetimes and he recounts these past lives in the Jataka Tales. In one previous incarnation he existed as a hermit named Sumedha. The hermit Sumedha had previously lived the life of a rich Brahmin and had since become a renunciant. During his new life as a hermit he had an encounter with Dipankara Buddha. This encounter is depicted in wall frescoes that exist in many Buddhist stupas and temples.
The Buddhist artwork shows the hermit Sumedha laying down his long dark hair in a mud puddle. This is so that Dipankara Buddha can walk through it without becoming dirty. Dipankara then approaches Sumedha and says to him
“In the ages of the future you will come to be a Buddha called Shakyamuni”.
Sumedha then replied to Dipankara:
“I am to become a Buddha, awakened to enlightenment, may you tread with your feet on my hair – on my birth, old age and death.”
Then Dipankara Buddha responds by saying that:
“Freed from human existence, you will become an effective teacher, for the sake of the world. Born among the Shakyas, as the epitome of the Triple World, the Lamp of all Beings, you will be known as Gautama. You will be the son of King Suddhodana and Queen Maya. Shariputta and Moggallana will be your chief disciples. Your caretaker will name as Ananda.”
In this life cycle sentient beings received the Dharma teachings from Shakyamuni Buddha. As a result, Dipankara Buddha is not at the forefront in contemporary Buddhism in the same way as Shakyamuni.
Nonetheless, Dipankara is widely known and venerated by devotees. Starting in the 1600s Nepalese communities believed Dipankara was associated with alms giving and that he protected merchants as they traveled abroad. Additionally, Dipankara is believed to provide protection to sailors and their ships. Therefore, statues of him can be found along the coastlines.
The exact birth date of Siddhartha Gautama is not known with certainty. However, it is estimated that his birthday is sometime between 563 BCE and 480 BCE. His birthplace was in northern India however in present times the location is Lumbini, Nepal. Lumbini is now located in south central Nepal near the border with India.
Additionally, it is believed that on the night he was conceived his mother had a dream that a white elephant with tusks entered her right side. Then 9 months later Siddhartha was born. As was the tradition at the time, his mother attempted to travel to her father’s kingdom in order to give birth. However, she would not arrive in time and her new son was born in Lumbini on the side of the road under a sal tree.
As was his way in many of his past lives recounted in the Jataka Tales, Siddhartha would renounce his kingdom in exchange for a life of solitude and austerity. Indeed Siddhartha was born a prince and he renounced his kingdom when he was 29 years old. Throughout his life he had been overcome with compassion for sentient life and he wished to end the suffering of all sentient beings.
Siddhartha Gautama obtained enlightenment 6 years later. He spent the remaining 40 years of his life teaching the Dharma and died when he was 80 years old. In present times, it is estimated that Buddhism has 500 million followers worldwide.
The Future Buddha
The future Buddha is known as a bodhisattva named Meitreya. Meitreya is waiting in a special place until his time has come to reteach the Dharma to sentient life. It is foreseen that he will return at a time when the sangha has fallen into disarray and forgotten the Dharma. Meitreya will become a Buddha and lead all sentient life to their awakening.