14. Mahapadana Sutta

The Buddhas of the Past

The disciples of the Buddha are talking about past lives. Hearing about their conversation, Buddha narrates about the Buddhas of the past. Buddha lists the six Buddhas who were born before him. The first of these Buddhas, Vipassi (“attentive”) lived in an age when a lifespan reached 80,000 years, the next Buddha – in an era with a lifetime of 70,000, then – 60,000, 40,000, 30,000, 20,000, until in the Shakyamuni era, life became brief, rarely reaching 100 years. With all the Buddhas described by the Buddha, almost identical events occur, accompanying some core events like entering the womb of the mother, giving birth, meeting with the three messengers of old age, sickness and death, renunciation, attaining enlightenment under the appropriate kind of buddha tree, turning the wheel of teaching, etc. The life of Buddha Shakyamuni seen in the earthly body is one of the reflections and consequences of what happened earlier in the higher worlds. It is the result of the “unfolding” of phenomena from the formless state to the subtle state, and then to the physical state (reverse process – folding). The first three Buddhas (Vipassi, Sikhi and Vessabhu) belong to the formless worlds; their unifying feature is the origin of the Kshatriya family. The next three (Kakusandha, Konagamana and Kassapa) belong to the worlds of subtle forms; all of them originated from Brahman families. The Buddha Shakyamuni himself is an earthly incarnation in the chain of Buddhas of the past. He came from a Kshatriya family.

How Buddha knows about the Buddhas of other times?

The Buddha describes that where the rays of the Sun and the Moon do not reach, the light of liberated beings continues to shine. Seeing this radiance, they know about each other (this description corresponds to the description of the world after folding, before the new unfolding).

The story of Buddha Vipassi

Buddha recounts the story of Buddha Vipassi in detail. This story anticipates all the key events in the life of the Buddha Shakyamuni himself. In the story, these events appear as increased duration of time, miracles and the vastness of the heavenly worlds. At birth, a baby makes seven steps; he is accompanied by deities. As a prince, he reveals the signs of a great man. Mahapadana sutta lists those signs.

32 signs of a great man

(1,2,3,7) Feet with a level sole; on the soles of the feet there are signs of a wheel with a thousand spokes; projecting heels; ankles like rounded shells.
(4,6) Long and straight fingers and toes; netlike lines on palms and soles.
(5,8,9) Well-formed, soft-skinned limbs; taut calf muscles like those of an antelope; hands can reach knees without bending.
(10) Sexual organ concealed in a sheath.
(11,12,13,14) Skin is bright, golden, so smooth that dust does not settle on it; body hair are separate with one hair per pore, blue-black in color, curl clockwise in rings.
(15,16,17,18,19,20,22) Posture is straight; protruding muscles are round; immense torso like that of a lion; straight back between the shoulder blades; his height is equal to the extent of his arms; round and smooth neck; jaws like those of a lion.
(21,23,24,25,26,27) Sensitive taste-buds; beautiful smile; forty teeth; teeth are even with no gaps between them, white in color; tongue is large and long.
(28) Beautiful voice, like a voice of a songbird.
(29,30,31) Bright blue and clear eyes; eyelashes like those of an ox; wisp of hair between the eyebrows white and soft, like cotton.
(32) Head is like a royal turban (large and well formed).

This list of signs is an early form of the doctrine of visualizing a subtle (illusory) body. A contemplator imagines this body with no flaws, endowed with all the signs of vitality. A development of an illusory body from (the energy) of the visible body of the contemplator is mentioned as one of the visible fruits of asceticism (see Samaññaphala Sutta, Digha Nikaya 2).

Comprehension by the Buddha Vipassi of the truth about the interdependent occurrence of suffering

Contemplating, the ascetic Vipassi sought the cause of death and suffering. He found this cause in the birth. What is the cause of birth? – Becoming/formation (bhava, “attraction to existence”); the cause of becoming/formation is desire; the cause of desires is attachment for the pleasant and disgust from the unpleasant; the cause of attachment and disgust – in the impermanence of perceptions; the impermanence of perceptions penetrates into consciousness because of the contact (the attachment of consciousness to perceived objects); contact occurs because the consciousness relies on the six senses (this is called “a bad control of the doors of vitality”); the cause of the reliance on the six senses is dependence on name and form; the cause of dependence on the name-form is consciousness (“I”). However, the cause of consciousness (“I”) is name-form!

Therefore, by stopping attachment to the name-form, we destroy the consciousness of the “I”, secondary birth, death and suffering.

Contemplations on Skandhas

At another time, Vipassi contemplated the emergence and disappearance of the five groups of attachment (skandhas): form, sensations, perceptions, mental activity or formations, and the consciousness of the “I”. After that, his mind was completely purified.

Doubt and its overcoming

Contemplating, Buddha Vipassi thought that spreading of the Teaching must encounter many obstacles because of all the bad qualities of the beings that inhabit samsara. He said these words:

What I have comprehended – why should I reveal it to the world?
Those who are full of lust and hatred will never comprehend my Teaching.
My wisdom goes against the flow.
It’s hard to understand it, people blinded by passions cannot accept it …

When Vipassi uttered these words, His mind leaned towards inaction. This was seen by one of the highest Brahmas, and this Brahma foresaw a great danger in the inactivity of Vipassi. Wishing to prevent the ills that await the universe in the event of the concealment of the Teaching, Brahma came to Vipassi and began to persuade the Arhat to reveal the Teaching to the world. He said that there are some beings whose view is only slightly covered with the dust of delusions. They are able to comprehend the Teaching. And then, glancing around the world, Vipassi realized that there are beings with different qualities. Just like lotuses, some of which dwell and blossom under water, some reach the surface, and some rise above the water – some beings are deeply immersed in ignorance, some are on its surface, but there are also those who rise above it.

The sermon of Vipassi

After teaching the Dhamma to the two of his most gifted disciples, Vipassi then spread the Teaching further and created a huge Sangha. Summarizing the basic instructions, He said:

Patience is the greatest offering;
The highest achievement is nibbana.
Do not do evil, but do good,
Purify your mind – this is the Teaching of the Buddhas.
Do not hurt, do not harm, be moderate in food,
Renounce the world, develop the sublime mind.

Buddha Shakyamuni visits the Pure Lands

Concluding the story of the Buddha Vipassi, the first in the chain of the heavenly prototypes of Shakyamuni himself, the Blessed tells of his visit to the Pure Lands, which are difficult to reach and inhabited by liberated beings. There, traveling from the heavens of non-falling into the lower spheres (Aviha, corresponds to the stage of entering the flow of the Teaching), through the heavens of Attapa (the heavens of returning for the last time) and, further, through the heavens of the Sudassa (the heavens of non-returning), the Buddha reached the upper heavens of Akanittha (the heavens of perfect Arhats). And in all the heavens He was surrounded by gods who were in their time freed from samsara by following the Dhamma of the Buddha Vipassi. Many other gods came with the Buddha from the earthly world to the Pure Lands, telling about the Buddha Shakyamuni the same as the gods of the Pure Lands were telling about the Buddha Vipassi. Thus, the Buddha foretells the liberation to his innumerable followers.

The Law of cause and effect

The narrative of the sutta reveals the meaning of the law of karma, of cause and effect. Each phenomenon in the visible world is preceded by a chain of states of consciousness in higher worlds, formless and endowed with a subtle form. This law is also valid for a Buddha. The good power of the law of karma is manifested by Shakyamuni Buddha through the penetration into the essence of Dhamma, that is, through his ability to go “against the flow”, to penetrate from the visible world into higher worlds, from the world of effects to the world of causes, through the skillful actions of the body, mind and speech.

Vladimir Pyatsky and Smadar Pyatsky
Translation: Natalia Tsimbler