A Look at DĀ 1: Buddhas, Brahmins—and Bodhisattvas

This week, I want to begin a series of blog posts that take a look at selections from the Dīrgha Āgama, both in their own light and that of parallels that exist. These posts won’t be in-depth essays or particularly technical; rather, I’ll introduce a particular sūtra and attempt to draw out a few issues that wouldn’t be immediately obvious on a first reading. This week’s topic will be DĀ 1.

The Great Legend (or Beginning)

Before I begin discussing this sūtra’s content, I want to make a couple comments about its title. DĀ 1 is titled the Great Legend Sūtra in my Dharma Pearls translation, but the Chinese title could be read in a couple different ways because of a word used that was not a typical translation of S. avadāna. This is why Ichimura renders it as “The Great Origin” in the BDK edition. A naive reading of it could be “origin” or “beginning.” DĀ 1 and DĀ 2 taken together do depict the beginning and end of the Buddha, so it’s not an inappropriate title.

However, there is a complication: The sūtra’s name is translated differently at the end of DĀ 1. This is something Ichimura set aside and translated as he did the first title. The term used in the concluding title does sometimes translate S. avadāna. Given that this text is titled Mahā-Avadāna in Sanskrit and Mahā-Apadāna in Pali, I take it to be a more literal Chinese translation of the same. As a result, I’ve set aside the apparent poetic license taken in the headline title and translated it as “Great Legend.” If I were to translate the initial title literally, I would choose “The Great Beginning [of Buddhas].”

Buddhas—and Bodhisattvas

The vicissitude of DĀ 1’s title aside, the Mahāvadāna Sūtra describes two topics that became closely intertwined at some point in Buddhist history: Buddhas in the distant past and bodhisattvas. The basic notion that’s communicated by the entire sūtra is that buddhas arise in the world according to a kind of natural law. The arising of buddhas and the course of events that lead to their awakening naturally follow a similar pattern. It’s not an identical pattern, however. They do not arise at regular intervals, for instance, but rather they increase in frequency as we approach the present. The first arose 91 eons ago, the next two arose 31 eons ago, and last four arose in the present eon. Similarly, they are born into either a noble warrior or priest family headed by a king or a priest. They have different names, live in different cities, and sit under different trees when they awaken.

We should also note that the lineage in the Mahāvadāna Sūtra is really only a series of buddhas; i.e., these seven buddhas have no connection to each other besides their similarity. In other Buddhist sources that describe these subjects (such as the Mahāvāstu), buddha lineages are made explicit. Bodhisattvas receive teachings and predictions from buddhas that they will themselves become future buddhas, and these events become major milestones in their spiritual careers. When the Mahāvadāna Sūtra moves on to describe Vipaśyin as a bodhisattva, there’s no mention of his having encountered a previous buddha, nor does he bestow a prediction to a bodhisattva once he is himself a buddha. On the face of it, each of the seven buddhas is treated as one of seven independent-yet-very-similar stories. The bodhisattva story that’s appended to it simply expands on Vipaśyin’s biography by depicting the events attributed to Gautama’s early life in other Buddhist texts.

Which brings me to another feature of the Mahāvadāna Sūtra that’s unusual but not unprecedented among Buddhist sūtras: It’s a fusion of two related texts into one sūtra. In the Pali edition, there’s no attempt to avoid this history. DN 14 consists of two discourses. The first ends with “that is what the Buddha said,” as any other sutta would end. Then the introduction for the second discourse begins, and it’s quite elaborate in making it clear that the two discourses happen on different occasions. The situation is similar in a Chinese translation that contains both discourses: In Taisho 2, the monks depart, have another discussion, and then the Buddha gives them a second discourse. In DĀ 1, the transition is not as noticeable. The Buddha only offers to give the monks another discourse after the first is complete, and they approve of it as they would at the start of a sūtra. The transition between discourses is nearly erased in the Sanskrit edition, which inserts a summary verse between the two as the only marker that the first is complete.

If the above observations are not enough, we also have three Chinese translations (Taisho 3 and 4 and EĀ 48.4) that present the seven buddhas and the story of Bodhisattva Vipaśyin as separate texts. These Chinese translations provide direct evidence that there was a separate Seven Buddhas Sūtra and a paracanonical story about Vipaśyin that circulated independently as late as ca. 1000 AD.

It seems very likely, then, that the story about Vipaśyin is a later addition that combines biographical details about Gautama’s early life in other texts with those about Vipaśyin in the Seven Buddhas Sūtra. The date of such a composition would have been comparable to those texts that also contain the new material (e.g., the Buddha walking at birth, the fortune tellers examining his marks, and the four encounters as a prince, etc.). On the other hand, the Seven Buddhas Sūtra may have been older, much older in fact.

The Proliferation of Buddhas from One to Ubiquity

One of the questions that might come to a reader’s mind is this: Why are there seven buddhas in particular? Why not ten or twenty or a hundred? After all, we find other lists of buddhas that are much longer in various Buddhist sources. It’s been suggested that there was a connection between this lineage of seven buddhas and the claim that a true brahmin must have a pedigree of seven generations of fathers and mothers who were themselves proper brahmins. This lineage of buddhas may have been intended to give the Buddha Gautama more spiritual legitimacy by creating a similar pedigree of seven buddhas. If that was the case, it might establish the Seven Buddhas Sūtra as one of the earliest Buddha lineage texts and explain how the genre came about. It might also provide us with a motive for incorporating material about buddhas and bodhisattvas into early Buddhist canons. The Long Discourses collected together sūtras that address issues of sectarianism and competition between Buddhists and other religions in India. Perhaps the Seven Buddhas Sūtra was originally a part of that theme.

If the Seven Buddhas Sūtra was among the earliest Buddhist texts, it would also stand to reason that the original reason for composing it may have become obscure in later centuries. Then the expanded story of Vipaśyin was appended to it, and it was paired with the Parinirvāṇa Sūtra as the “alpha and omega” of the Buddha, so to speak. By that point in history, Buddhists may have begun imagining longer and longer periods of time and a larger and larger cosmos surrounding our own world. It would’ve made sense to compose longer and longer lineages to depict a natural law of spiritual realization across such vast amounts of time and space. And this is precisely what we find in texts like the Mahāvāstu and Abhiniṣkramaṇa.

Eventually, the notion of many buddhas expanded to include all three time periods. The Seven Buddhas Sūtra established a lineage that extended into the past. The next logical step was to create a lineage of future buddhas like Maitreya. When Buddhist cosmology began to imagine other worlds beyond the limits of our own, it was only a matter of time before those worlds would be inhabited by buddhas in the present. The grand vision of time and space being thoroughly penetrated by buddhas may have formed in stages, but it would reach full bloom in the hands of Mahāyāna writers who didn’t feel constrained by canonical precedent.

It could be argued that this genre of scripture continued with the development of the abstract notion of a primordial, immortal buddha that would be called the Dharmakāya or Adibuddha. In the opposite direction, there was also the idea of an infinite number of imminent, potential buddhas present in all sentient beings around us. These later Buddhists ideas extended the literal idea of past, present, and future buddhas to its logical and abstract ends.

Perhaps it all started with seven buddhas.

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