The Buddha’s Former Births
Theosophical Quarterly, April, 1910
Among the great religions of the world, none has been so greatly misunderstood in our day as the teaching of Gotama Buddha, the sage who was born in Northern India five and twenty centuries ago.
In the face of the clearest evidence in his sermons, Buddha has been called a materialist and nihilist, and his magnificent wisdom has been distorted into a teaching of inevitable death.
But a reaction has begun, and splendid work in restoring a true understanding of this great spiritual system has been accomplished, notably by the author of The Creed of Buddha.
To aid in the restoration of the Buddha’s teaching, we hope, from time to time, to publish translations from the books which contain it. The first of these, concerning that life in which he first formed the high hope of attaining to Buddhahood, is here begun. It is taken from the Introduction to the Jataka, a work certainly not less than twenty-two centuries old.
THUS THE MASTER SPOKE:
Four countless ages and a myriad years ago, there was a city by name Amara, “the Immortal,” fair to behold, delighting the heart, ringing with the tenfold din of city life, with rich store of food and drink.
There were heard elephants and horses, the rattle of drums, conch-trumpets, chariots, and the voices of victuallers, crying: “Come! eat and drink!”
The town possessed wealth of every kind, all sorts of work were carried on there, the sevenfold treasures of jewels were there; the streets were full of varied folk; it was an abode of those who wrought righteousness, like a blest city of heavenly powers.
In that city Amara, dwelt a Brahman, by name Sumedha, “the Wise”; he possessed many millions, stored wealth and granaries.
He was a student, had mastered the holy verses, learning the Three Vedas well, and was perfect in divination, history and the duties of his birth.
That Brahman Sumedha was I.
Once on a time, entering an inner chamber, I sat and meditated thus:
“A sorrow truly is ceaseless rebirth; painful is the parting from the body. I, who am bound to birth and wasting age and sickness, am determined to cross to the ageless immortal shore of freedom from this life.
“Putting aside this vesture of decay with all its seeds of death, I shall go forward without regret, without desire.
“There is the Path, for the Path must be; on that Path I shall go forward to freedom from this life.
“If there be sorrow, then there must be joy. If there be this life, there must be freedom from this life.
“If there be heat, there is also grateful cold. So if there be the threefold fire, we should seek Nirvana, the quenching of that fire.
“If there be sin, there must be holiness. If there be birth into this world, then we may seek for freedom from that birth.
“If a man should fall in the mire and should behold a lake full of pure water, and yet should not go to the lake to wash, are we to blame the lake?
“So, since there is the lake Immortal, cleansing from sorrow and sin, if one go not to that lake to wash, the fault belongs not to the lake Immortal.
“If one hemmed in on all sides by his foes, seeing a path of escape, yet takes it not, the fault lies not in the path.
“So, since there is the Path, for him hemmed in by sorrows, if one tread not that Way, the fault is not in the Way.
“If a man be full of sickness, and there be one at hand who heals, if he seek not the physician for his sickness, this is not the healer’s fault.
“Thus, indeed, if one be sore and grievously oppressed with the sickness of sorrow, and yet seek not the Guide, the fault is not the Teacher’s.
“Like as a man, who had been tied by the throat to a dead corpse, casting it off, would go rejoicing, free, lord of himself;
“So, putting off this muddy vesture of decay, would I go forward, without regret, without desire.
“As men or women, casting rubbish on the heap, go forth without regret, without desire;
“So, indeed, laying aside this muddy vesture of decay, shall I go forward, without regret, without desire.
“As master-mariners leave a rotten bark, shattered and leaking, and go without regret, without desire;
“So shall I put aside this wasting vesture of decay, as sailors leave the riven ship, and go on, forward.
“As a man carrying merchandise, who found himself among thieves, fearing to lose his treasure, would escape;
“So shall I quit this vesture, chiefest of thieves, and flee from it, fearing to lose salvation.”
Thus meditating, and thereupon bestowing on those who had wealth and those who had none my unnumbered millions, I set forth to the snow-covered Himalayas.
Hard by the snow-peaks is a hill, the Mount of Holiness; there I built me a refuge, a hermitage of boughs and leaves.
I measured out a walk for myself there, free from five hindrances, and with eight good gifts; and there I sought illumination’s power.
There I laid aside the vesture with nine faults, and donned the raiment of bark, with twelve good qualities.
Again I left my hermitage of boughs, for it possessed eight faults, and betook me to the shelter of a tree, for such a shelter has ten virtues.
Nor did I longer live on grain that had been sown and reaped, eating only wild fruit, that has unnumbered virtues.
Then wholly concentrated, whether I sat, or stood, or walked, after a space of seven days I gained the power of illumination.
When I had thus gained divine power, and made myself master of the Law, the Master Dipankara came, “the Light-bringer,” leader of the world.
When he was conceived, when he was born, when he became a Buddha, when he taught the Law, so deep was I in meditation, that I beheld not the four mighty signs.
To the regions of the border country they invited him, who had come as his Predecessors came; and all with hearts full of gladness prepared the way for his coming.
At that very time, I had come forth from my hermitage, and in rustling robe of bark was passing through the air.
Seeing there the people full of joy and delight and well-pleased, descending from the air I asked the men who were there:
“This great multitude of the people is full of joy and delight and well-pleased; for whom, then, is the path being prepared, whose is this way? for whose coming?”
To my question they made answer: “A Buddha unexcelled in the world, Dipankara by name, a Master is born to lead the world; for him they are preparing the way, and this is the path for his coming.”
“Buddha!” When I heard it, joy was born in me. Saying, “Buddha, Buddha,” I uttered my heart’s delight.
Thus standing I meditated, joyful, my heart full of delight: “Here shall I sow the seeds. May this moment not pass away!
“If ye are preparing the path for the Buddha, make a place for me also, for I too would prepare his path, and open the way for his coming.”
Then they gave me a place also, a part of the path to clear; and I prepared the path, thinking, “Buddha, Buddha!”
While my part was not yet cleared, Dipankara, mighty Saint, the Master, with two score myriad saints free from all sin and stain, who had attained six-fold illumination, came by that way.
Then rose to greet him, with the multitudinous sound of drums, beings human and divine; rejoicing, they welcomed him.
Beings divine and human there beheld each other; both, with palms reverently joined, went toward him who had come as his Predecessors came.
Beings divine, making divine harmony, human beings with human melody, went forward rejoicing toward him who had come as his Predecessors came.
Beings divine, gathered there in the ether of the sky, scattered about him blossoms of paradise and heavenly lotuses and red coral flowers.
Men, standing on the earth, strewed before him flowers of the forest, fragrant, beautiful.
Then letting my hair flow loose, and spreading on the still uncleansed path my cloak of bark and my robe of skins, I cast myself prone on the ground before him, saying:
“Let the Buddha with his disciples go forward, stepping on me; if I can keep him from the mire, it will be to me a blessing.”
As I lay prone there on the earth, this was my meditation: “If I wish it, I can today make an end of all my sorrows.
“Yet what shall it profit me, if all unknown I master the wise Law? Let me rather gain all wisdom, and become a Buddha to save beings human and divine.
“What shall it profit me, alone, resolute to ford the river of death and birth? Rather attaining all wisdom let me lead others across, beings human and divine.
“By this determination, I, a man, firm in heart, shall attain all wisdom, and shall carry over with me many beings.
“Cutting through the river of death and birth, scattering the threefold powers of this life, entering the ship of the Law, I shall carry over with me beings human and divine.”
Dipankara, knower of all worlds, receiver of offerings, standing near my head prone on the earth, spoke this word:
“Behold this man full of devotion, his hair flowing loose, as he makes this hard sacrifice; measureless ages hence, he shall be the Buddha of the world.
“He, coming as his Predecessors came before him, shall set forth from the pleasant city of Kapila, when he has fought the great fight, and accomplished the supremely difficult work.
“He, coming as his Predecessors came, shall sit at the root of the Ajapala tree, receiving there an offering of rice, and going thence to the stream Neranjara.
“After he has received the offering of rice on the bank of the Neranjara, he the Conqueror shall go by the well-prepared path to the root of the Bodhi tree.
“There, bowing lowly down before the throne of wisdom, he, excellent and glorious, shall attain illumination at the root of the sacred fig tree.
“The name of the mother who shall bear him shall be Maya; his father, Suddhodana by name, he himself shall be Gotama.
“The chiefest of his disciples shall be Kolita and Upatissa, cleansed from sin, with lust gone from them, with hearts at peace, full of concentration.
“Ananda shall wait on him, the Victor, amongst the women who are his disciples, Khema and Upalavanna shall be chief;
“They shall be cleansed from sin, their passions gone, of quiet heart, well concentrated. The sacred fig tree shall be the tree of wisdom for that worshipful one.”
Hearing this word of that incomparable mighty Master, beings, human and divine, cried out in delight: “In this man are the seeds of Buddhahood.”
Beings human and divine in ten thousand worlds applauded, clamorous, full of joyful laughter, making obeisance with joined palms.
“If we fail to master the teaching of this present Lord of the world, we may yet, in times to come, stand before the face of that other teacher.
“As men who, seeking to cross a river, fail to pass the higher ford, yet pass the great river, going through a lower ford;
“So verily we all, if we fall short of this present Master, may yet, in times to come, stand before the face of that other.”
Dipankara, knower of all worlds, receiver of offerings, after he had thus praised what I had done, raised his right foot to depart.
All the Master’s children, his disciples, paid me reverence; men, serpents, seraphs bowed down to me and departed.
When that Master of the world with his congregation had passed from my sight, I, joyful, with joyful heart, rose from the earth.
Happy was I with happiness, glad, and of cheerful heart. Altogether filled with. joy, I sat down there to meditate.
Sitting there in meditation, these thoughts arose within my heart: “I have already gained power in contemplation; I have reached the further shore of illumination.
“In a thousand worlds, there is none such as I ; unequalled in the power of the Law, I have gained this perfect joy.”
When they beheld me thus seated meditating, the dwellers in ten thousand worlds sent up a great shout: “Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“The signs that were seen in days gone by, when those who should be Buddhas sat in meditation, these same signs are present today.
“Bitter cold passes away, sharp heat ceases. These signs are seen today. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“The elements of ten thousand worlds are filled with quietness and peace. These signs are seen today. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“The storm winds cease, the torrents are stilled. These signs are seen today. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“The blossoms of the land and the waters all burst into bloom. They all blossom today. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“All vines and trees are laden with fruit. They so bear fruit today. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“The jewels of earth and sky sparkle in their brightness. These jewels gleam today. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“The melody of mortals, the harmony of beings divine resound. Both sound forth clear today. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“Many-hued flowers are strewn across the sky. These signs are present today. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“The mighty ocean makes obeisance, ten thousand worlds bow down. So they pay reverence today. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“Ten thousand fires die out in hell. So do the fires sink today. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“The sun shines spotless; all the stars come forth. So do they shine today. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“Even though there be no rain, the earth is clothed with greenness. So is the earth clothed with greenness today. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“The hosts of the stars shine forth throughout the mansions of the night. The moon stands in the Balance. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“The creatures that dwell in dens and lairs depart. So have they left their lairs today. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“There is no grief among beings, all are filled with contentment. So are they content today. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“All sicknesses are healed, and hunger is satisfied. Thus does it pass today. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“Lust loses its power, sin and delusion cease. Thus have they ceased today. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“Fear cannot linger then. And today, fear is gone. By this sign we know. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“Dust flies not abroad at such a time. So is it today. By this sign we know. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“Unpleasant odors flee away; divine fragrance comes. Such fragrance breathes today. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“All divine powers become manifest, save only those of the formless world. They all are manifest today. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“Whatever hells there be, become manifest. They are all manifest today. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“Solid walls and doors and rocks are no longer a barrier. They have today become as transparent ether. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“Being born and dying cease at such a time. Thus it is today. Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.
“Do thou therefore quit thee valorously; linger not, but go forward. This we know well: Surely thou shalt be a Buddha.”
When I had heard the words of the Buddha of that time, and of the dwellers in ten thousand worlds, rejoicing and glad of heart, I meditated thus:
“The words of a Buddha are not doubtful; the words of a Master are not vain. In a Buddha there is no falseness. Surely I shall be a Buddha.
“As surely as a clod thrown in the air falls back upon the earth, so is the word of the most holy Buddhas sure and everlasting.
“As surely as death is the constant portion of mortals, so is the word of the holy Buddhas sure and everlasting.
“As when the night has waned, the rising of the sun is sure, so is the word of the holy Buddhas sure and everlasting.
“As certain as the roaring of a lion that has come forth from his lair, so is the word of the holy Buddhas sure and everlasting.
“As it is certain that she who is with child must bring forth, so is the word of the holy Buddhas sure and everlasting.
“Let me therefore search and seek out the law of the making of the Buddha, upward, downward, toward the ten points of space, so far as the elements of law extend.”