Saptatathāgata

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In this engraving at Sanchi, the "seven buddhas" are represented by stupas and bodhi trees.

saptatathāgata (P. sattatathāgata; T. sangs rgyas rabs bdun/de bzhin gshegs pa bdun; C. qifo/guoqu gifo 七佛/過去七佛) is translated as "seven buddhas [of antiquity],"[1] "seven successive buddhas,"[2] etc. This term refers to a group of seven buddhas that span two great eons (mahakalpa).

The seven buddhas are:[1][2]

The last three buddhas of the "glorious eon" (vyūhakalpa):
  1. Vipaśyin (P. Vipassī)
  2. Śikhin (P. Sikhī)
  3. Viśvabhū (P. Vessabhū)
The first four buddhas of the "fortunate eon" (bhadrakalpa):
  1. Krakucchanda (P. Kakusandha)
  2. Kanakamuni (P. Koṇāgamana)
  3. Kāśyapa (P. Kassapa)
  4. Gautama (P. Gotama)

These seven buddhas are a bridge between the "glorious eon" (vyūhakalpa) and the current eon, known as the "fortunate eon" (bhadrakalpa). The first three buddhas in the list are the last buddhas of the "glorious eon," and the next four buddhas are the first buddhas of the "fortunate eon".[1][2]

Textual sources

These seven buddhas are identified in the early texts of both the Sanskrit and Pali traditions.

A key textual source is the Mahāpadāna of Pali Canon and the Mahāvadāna of the Chinese (and Sanskrit) āgamas.[3]

Hence, the seven buddhas are presented in the following texts:[4]

(1) in Pali in the Dīghanikāya as the Mahāpadānasutta;
(2) in several Chinese translations including (Daben jing in the Dīrghāgama, Taishō 1), (Qi fojing, Taishō 2), and (Pipo shi fojing, Taishō 3); and
(3) in Sanskrit as the Mahāvadānasūtra in a number of fragmentary manuscripts from which the text has been reconstructed (Waldschmidt 1952– 8, Fukita 2003).

The Princeton Dictionary states:

The seven buddhas of antiquity are widely discussed in the āgama literature... where their activities, lineages, parents, offspring, disciples, residences, and teachings are recorded in great detail.[1]

Representations

The Dharmachakra Translation Committee states:

The appearance of successive buddhas over time is a theme common to all Buddhist traditions. From a historical viewpoint, artifacts referencing past buddhas can be dated as early as the emperor Aśoka’s time (third century ʙᴄᴇ), and references to the well-known set of seven successive buddhas are frequent from at least the first century ʙᴄᴇ onward.[3]

The Princeton Dictionary states:

Initially depicted symbolically, such as at Bhārhut and Sāñcī in the form of a row of seven bodhi trees, the seven tathāgatas were shown in human form by the time of the Kushan dynasty and are common in monastic art across Central and East Asia. The buddhas are often differentiated only by the mudrās they display. Maitreya is often added as an eighth figure, distinguished by his bodhisattva guise.[1]

The stages in the life of a buddha

The Dharmachakra Translation Committee states:

The notion that buddhas have arisen and will arise one after another over time is the logical corollary of the idea that buddhas arise not as individuals in isolation but because they have, in previous lifetimes, been inspired and taught by previous buddhas. In this fundamental process through which the presence and teaching of buddhas inspire ordinary beings to themselves become further buddhas, the successive stages are seen as being spread over very long periods spanning many eons. The stages are defined in various different ways, but in essence the process begins with a period in which an individual accumulates merit independently, without necessarily involving the influence of a buddha. This is then followed by the first vow to attain awakening in the presence of a buddha, and at some subsequent point the prophecy of awakening made by another, later buddha. Next comes a long period of maturation during which the six (or more) perfections are practiced and the successive bodhisattva levels are traversed under the guidance of still more buddhas. During this period the bodhisattva will eventually reach a stage of irreversible progress after which awakening is inevitable. The process culminates in the bodhisattva being anointed by the preceding buddha as the next to come, taking birth in the Heaven of Joy, and being reborn in the final human lifetime in which awakening as a tathāgata will occur.
Each buddha during his dispensation will, in turn, inspire numerous disciples to make the aspirational vow to become awakened, will teach and guide others already on their path to that end, will prophesy the future awakening of many, and will anoint an immediate successor.[3]

Notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. saptatathāgata.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 84000.png Dharmachakra Translation Committee (2023), The Good Eon, Glossary, "seven successive buddhas" , 84000 Reading Room
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 84000.png Dharmachakra Translation Committee (2023), The Good Eon, "Introduction" , 84000 Reading Room
  4. 84000.png Dharmachakra Translation Committee (2023), The Good Eon, "Introduction, n.8" , 84000 Reading Room

Sources