The Mahavastu (great story)

by J. J. Jones | 1949 | 502,133 words | ISBN-10: 086013041X

This page describes many buddhas (bahubuddha-sutra) which is Chapter V of the English translation of the Mahavastu (“great story”), dating to the 2nd-century BC. This work belongs to the Mahasanghika school of early Buddhism and contains narrative stories of the Buddha’s former lives, such as Apadanas, Jatakas and more..

Chapter V - The many Buddhas (bahubuddha-sūtra)

Note: Strictly speaking, as Senart points out, the foregoing is neither a sūtra, nor is the subject-matter “The Many-Buddhas”. That subject is dealt with rather in the following.

(46) O Mahā-Maudgalyāyana, from the time that I made a vow to acquire enlightenment there have been immeasurable, incalculable kalpas. Countless Tathāgatas, Arhans, and perfect Buddhas did I adore, but none of them proclaimed my enlightenment. I adored three hundred of the name Puṣpa, yet I received no proclamation from them. Immeasurable, incalculable kalpas did I live and pass through, and countless Buddhas did I adore, but they made no proclamation concerning me.

Here, Mahā-Maudgalyāyana, are the four stages in the careers of Bodhisattvas. What are the four? They are these: the “natural” career, the “resolving” career, the “conforming” career and the “persevering” career.[1]

And what, Mahā-Maudgalyāyana, is the “natural” career? It is the nature of Bodhisattvas in this world to respect mother and father, to be well-disposed to recluses and brāhmans, to honour their elders, to practise the ten right ways of behaviour, to exhort others to give alms and acquire merit, and to honour contemporary Buddhas and their disciples. But as yet they do not conceive the thought of winning the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment.

First they worship glorious Tathāgatas with great reverence, (47) but not yet do these supreme men[2] turn their thoughts towards becoming a Foremost Man.[3]

These leaders of men worship koṭis of those who have won mastery over all the powers,[4] long since reached perfect mastery[5]; but not yet do they turn their thoughts towards crossing the ocean of knowledge.

These wise men honour koṭis of Pratyekabuddhas[6] who have won the highest good, but not yet do they turn their thoughts to a knowledge of the whole dharma.

Such, Mahā-Maudgalyāyana is the “natural” career. And what is the “resolving” career? There have elapsed immeasurable, incalculable kalpas since a Tathāgata named Śākyamuni, an Arhan, a perfect Buddha, proficient in knowledge and conduct, a Sugata, an unsurpassed knower of the world, a driver of tameable men, and a teacher of devas and men, appeared in the world. Now, Mahā-Maudgalyāyana, Śākyamuni’s city was named Kapilavastu, and so on. At that time I was a merchant, and after I had made an offering of rice-milk to Śākyamuni, I made a vow to win enlightenment.

When (the Bodhisattvas) have laid up an abundant store of merit, and have body and mind well developed[7] (48) they approach the beautiful Buddhas and turn their thoughts to enlightenment, (each vowing).

“By the merit I have formerly laid up in store, may I have insight into all things. May not my vow come to naught, but may what I vow come to pass.

“May my store of the root of merit be great enough for all living beings. Whatever evil deed has been done by me, may I alone reap its bitter fruit.

“So may I run my course through the world as He whose mind is rid of attachments does. May I set rolling the wheel of dharma that has not its equal, and is honoured and revered of devas and men.”

I first offered a drink of rice-milk to the world-transcending exalted Śākyamuni an incalculable kalpa ago. Then was my first vow made.

An immeasurable, incalculable kalpa afterwards, Mahā-Maudgalyāyana, a Tathāgata of the name of Samitāvin appeared in the world, an Arhan, a perfect Buddha, proficient in knowledge and conduct, a Sugata, an unsurpassed knower of the world, (49) a driver of tameable men, and a teacher of devas and men.

Now at that time there was a Bodhisattva, who was a universal king, ruling over the four continents, who was triumphant, possessing the seven treasures of a king, who was righteous, a king of righteousness, pursuing the path of the ten virtues. These seven royal treasures are the wheel, the elephant, the horse, the precious stone, the woman, the householder, and the counsellor. He had a full thousand sons, who were valiant, courageous, and stout of limb, who crushed the armies of their foes. He ruled over these four continents, to wit, Jambudvīpa, Pūrvavideha, Aparagodānīya and Uttara-kuru—a land compact and peaceful, untroubled[8] by the scourge and sword, girt by sea and mountain, which he had won not by violence, but by righteousness.

Now, Mahā-Maudgalyāyana, this universal king supplied the perfect Buddha Samitāvin and his company of disciples with all the requisites, with robe, alms-bowl, bed, seat, and medicines for use in sickness. He had a palace built of the seven precious substances, gold, silver, pearls, beryl, crystal, white coral, and ruby, with eighty-four thousand pillars, each pillar up to its middle fashioned of points of gold set close together.[9] He had erected eighty-four thousand buildings with peaked roofs, bright and sparkling, of the seven precious substances, gold, silver, pearls, beryl, crystal, white coral and ruby.

When, Mahā-Maudgalyāna, he had built such a distinguished palace, the universal king presented it to the perfect Buddha Samitāvin, and made this vow: “Ah! May I in some future time become (50) a Tathāgata, an Arhan, a perfect Buddha, proficient in knowledge and conduct, a Sugata, an unsurpassed knower of the world, a driver of tameable men, and a teacher of devas and men, as this exalted Samitāvin now is. May I become endowed with the thirty-two marks of a Great Man, and my body adorned with his eighty minor characteristics. May I have the eighteen distinctive attributes of Buddhahood, and be strong with the ten powers of a Tathāgata, and confident with the four grounds of self-confidence, as this exalted perfect Buddha Samitāvin now is. Having crossed over, may I lead others across; comforted, may I comfort others; emancipated, may I emancipate others. May I become so for the benefit and welfare of mankind, out of compassion for the world, for the good of the multitude, for the welfare and benefit of devas and men.

Such, Mahā-Maudgalyāyana, was the vow of the Tathāgata.

May I journey through this world as He whose mind is rid of attachments does. May I set rolling the wheel that has not its equal, and is honoured of devas and men.[10]

Then, this thought occurred to the perfect Buddha Samitāvin: “How now? When I have utterly passed away,[11] when these disciples of mine have passed, and when the preaching of the dharma has ceased, after how long a time will an exalted Buddha appear in the world?”

He did not foresee one in one kalpa, (51) nor in two. It was in a hundred thousand kalpas that he foresaw a Buddha in the world.

Then, Mahā-Maudgalyāyana, a feeling of great pity for all beings came over the compassionate Buddha Samitāvin. “I must,” said he, “inevitably fulfil the five obligations of a Buddha. What five? I must set rolling the wheel of dharma. I must convert my mother and my father, and those ready to receive the Buddha’s teaching,[12] and I must anoint the heir to the throne. For he, when I have passed away, will become a Buddha in the world. As I am now, so this Bodhisattva, Ajita, will become a Buddha in the world. His name will be Ajita, of the Maitreya family, in the capital city, Bandhumā.[13] Let me then continue in life for a hundred thousand kalpas.”

Then, the perfect Buddha Samitāvin addressed his monks: “As I was alone here in seclusion and retirement this mental reflection arose in me. When I have utterly passed away, when my disciples, too, have passed, and when the preaching of dharma has ceased, after how long a time will a Buddha appear in the world? I did not foresee one in one kalpa, nor in two kalpas, nor in three. But in a hundred thousand kalpas I did foresee a Buddha in the world. Now, I must inevitably fulfil the five obligations of a Buddha, and this person whom I have to anoint heir to the throne will be reborn among the long-lived devas. What now if I decide to live on for these one hundred thousand kalpas? Who will stay with me?”

(52) Then, Mahā-Maudgalyāyana, eighty-four thousand monks who had full mastery over the powers,[14] chose to live on in this world. “We, lord,” said they, “We, Sugata, will stay.” And so the perfect Buddha Samitāvin and his disciples lived for a very long time.

At the dissolution[15] of the universe men after death are reborn among the Ābhāsvara devas.[16] On his death, therefore, the king was reborn among these devas, and the Exalted One also, together with his disciples, passed to the realm of the Ābhāsvara devas.

When the universe begins to re-evolve, and the world is being resettled, beings pass away from the world of the Ābhāsvara devas, because their span of years there is ended,[17] and they come down to this world. The Bodhisattva also passed away from the realm of the Ābhāsvara devas, and, coming to the world, became again a universal king over the four continents, triumphant, and so on up to “he ruled over these four continents having won them by righteousness.”

When the duration of men’s lives began to be limited, and old age, sickness and death became known, the exalted Samitāvin, the perfect Buddha, came to Jambudvīpa, and there taught men dharma. Then the universal king presented the perfect Buddha with all the requisites, robe, alms-bowl, bed, seat, and medicines for use in sickness. He built a palace of the seven precious substances like the one already described, and presented it to the exalted perfect Buddha. In this way the perfect Buddha Samitāvin and his community of disciples survived for one hundred thousand kalpas, and was always served by the Bodhisattva, who in every kalpa without fail built a similar palace of the seven precious substances and presented it to the perfect Buddha Samitāvin. (53) In his quest for the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment, the Bodhisattva as a universal king presented Samitāvin with a hundred-thousand palaces made of the seven precious substances.

An incalculable kalpa afterwards,

When he had prescribed his gift, the Bodhisattva made his vow: “May I become a guide of the world, a teacher of devas and men. May I expound the noble dharma.

“Thus may I expound and preach dharma; thus may I establish many people in the noble dharma.

“Thus may devas and men listen to my eloquent words; thus may I set rolling the wheel of dharma for the sake of the multitude.

“May I bear about the torch of dharma; may I beat the bannered drum of dharma. May I raise the standard of dharma; may I blow the noble trumpet.

“May I plant the rudiments of wisdom in the world which is sunk in misery, is afflicted by birth and old age, is subject to death, and sees only with the eye of the body, and [may I lead it) from its state of woe.

“May I release from the round of rebirth (saṃsāra) those who are scattered in Saṃjīva, Kālasūtra, Saṃghāta, Raurava, Avīci, and the six spheres[18] of existence.

“May I release from the round of rebirth (saṃsāra) those whose karma has fully or partly matured in hell, those who are afflicted in the states of woe, those subject to death, and those of little happiness and much suffering.

(54) May I live on doing good in the world, and teach dharma to devas and men. Thus may I convert people as this Light of the world now does.

Then was the second vow made.

The Bodhisattva gave eighty mansions built of sandalwood to the world-transcending Buddha, Guru, and vowed: “In an incalculable kalpa hence may I become an Exalted One.”

Then was the third vow made.

As King Arka the Bodhisattva gave to the Buddha named Parvata eighty-thousand grottos adorned with the seven precious substances. Then was the fourth vow made.

He spent six years being instructed by Ratanendra[19] in the ideas of impermanence, mental images, and the pleasures of the senses. Then was the fifth vow made.

Here ends the sūtra on the “Many-Buddhas” in the Mahāvastu-Avadāna.

Footnotes and references:


See p. 1.


I.e. the Bodhisattvas.


I.e. Agrapudgala, an appellation of the Buddha, practically the equivalent of agrapuruṣa, see p. 4.


The analogy of other passages in the Mahāvastu, e.g. i. 52, implies that


Reading gatān, accusative for gatā, nom., and similarly °pudgalān for °pudgalā in line 8.


Pali paccekabuddha, literally “ individually enlightened,” i.e. a“ Buddha ” who wins enlightenment, but passes away without proclaiming it to the world.


Literally “body and mind made-to-become,” bhāvitaśarīramānasā.


Reading anutpīḍāṃ for anutpīḍena, as the syntax demands ; °adaṇḍena is tautological, repeating the same word earlier in the compound.


? ābaddhahiraṇyakoṭihi nirmito upārdhasya.


See note, p. 37.


Parinirvṛta, Pali parnibbuta, also translated “emancipated” when it denotes complete freedom from earthly bonds, or the potentiality of not being liable to rebirth. Here it refers to the actualisation of that potentiality at death. In this latter sense it is sometimes translated “passed to Nirvāṇa.” which, however, gives the false implication of passing to some localised state.


Bauddhavaineyakā. Vaineyaka = vaineya which is the Pali veneyya “to be instructed” (vineti, vinaya), a late term in the Jātakas and the Commentaries.


In the Pali texts, the Buddha Metteyya is to be born at Ketumatī.


I.e. the powers or balāni of an āryaśrāvaka, or “noble disciple,” namely, prajñābala (Pali paññā°), “power of wisdom,” vīrydbala (viriya°), “of exertion,” anavadya? (anavajj°), “of blamelessness,” and saṅgrāha (saṅgāha) “of self-restraint.” (A. 2. 142; 4. 363.) At D. 3. 229, these balāni are given in greater detail as consisting of three groups of four balāni each.


Saṃvartakālasamaye, literally “at the time of the saṃvarta (Pali saṃvaṭṭa). Saṃvarta is the noun of the verb saṃvartati (Pali saṃvaṭṭati) which, according to the Pali Dictionary, means “to be evolved,” or “in process of evolution,” while saṃvaṭṭa is said to mean “rolling on” or “forward,” opp. to vivaṭṭa (see below), “rolling back.” But the texts, on the whole, would seem to suggest the meaning of “rolling up” for saṃvaṭṭati and “rolling out” for vivaṭṭati, or practically “involution” or “dissolution” for the former and “evolution” or “coming to be” for the latter. At DA. 1. no Buddhaghosa glosses saṃvaṭṭati with vinassati (“is destroyed”) and vivaṭṭati with santhāti (“comes to be”). Woodward (A. 2. 142) translates the two terms respectively “rolls up” and “rolls out,” while Rhys Davids (Dial. 1. 17) has “passes away” and “re-evolves.” Buddhaghosa at Vism. 414 defines these two cycles in the words parihāyamāno kappo samvaṭṭakappo, vaḍḍhamāno vivaṭṭakappo—“the descending [lit. ‘waning’] cycle is the cycle of dissolution, the ascending [lit. ‘growing’] cycle is the cycle of evolution.” (Maung Tin’s translation.) A little later, Buddhaghosa uses the term saṃvaṭṭa to denote the “end” of the world, whether caused by water, fire, or air.


“The shining devas” or the devas of Ābhāsvara (Pali Ābhassara) “a Brahmā-world where live radiant devas from whose bodies rays of light are emitted like lightning” (D.P.N.) The world of the Ābhāsvara devas was left untouched when the dissolution was the kind caused by fire, as the Subhakiṇha world was in that caused by water, and the Vehapphala in that caused by air. (Vism., l.c.)


Āyuḥkṣayāya of the text has been changed to āyuḥkṣayā (causal ablative, for -āt, cf. apāyā, abl., p. 42 of text), so as to bring the passage into conformity with such Pali passages as D. i. 17, ath’ aññataro satto āyukkhayā vā puññakkhayā vā Ābhassarakāyā cavitvā, “and some being or other, either because his span of years has passed or his merit is exhausted, falls from the World of Radiance” (Dial. 1. 30). Cf. also D. 3. 29. In printing āyuḥkṣayāya (dative of purpose), Senart took the meaning to be “pour épuiser ce que leur karman leur attribue encore d'existence,” and cites in support of his interpretation Mahāvastu 1. 338, where āyuḥkṣaya is coupled with karmakṣaya. But the latter is there equivalent to the Pali puññakkhaya, that is to say, karma as good karma, which it is here, is equivalent to puṇya (puñña).


See note p. 36.


A name unknown to the Pali texts. Of the other names on this page neither Guru nor Parvata (Pabbata) appears in those texts as the name of a Buddha, although the latter is the name of both a Paccekabuddha and a Bodhisattva. Araka (= Arka) is the name of the Bodhisattva as a brahmin teacher at J. 2. 195 and A. 4. 136-8 (D.P.N.).

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