A Buddha is a special kind of enlightened being. He is a being who has become enlightened through his own effort, without a teacher. From this it follows that there are different kinds of enlightened beings. Buddhas are rare, but they are not unique. That is to say, Siddartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, was not the only Buddha. Thus, his Buddha teaching is not the only Buddha teaching. This is an important feature of Buddhism that distinguishes it from Christianity. For the Christian, the birth of Jesus was a defining moment in time, a unique event that permanently and irrevocably changed the fundamental nature of reality. In light of what we know about the nature of reality, this raises serious problems, similar to the problems raised by theism in fact. The Buddha, however, was the latest in a succession in a repetitive cycle of self-discovery that is beginningless in origin and that proceeds in vast cycles of epochs of time extending hundreds of thousands, millions, even billions of years in duration (similar in fact to the geologic and astronomical cycles identified by science). The teachings of the Buddha, the dharma, are not new but are rather a rediscovery of a primordial tradition that is coterminous with reality itself as well as the ancient Indian civilization of the Vedas ritualized in the Brahmanic civilization of the 5th century BCE against which the Buddha reacted. It does not follow from the foregoing that Vedic civilization is necessarily the only authentic expression of dharma, however. One would rather expect to find dharma manifesting spontaneously throughout the multiverse, much as life itself does, for it is the dharma to which the Buddhas attest and for which the Buddhas achieve enlightenment and teach others. Thus the Buddha cautions his followers against attachment to rules, rituals, and beliefs.
The appearance of a Buddha necessarily changes his environment, including the geographical and temporal areas extending from the point of his appearance in space and time. Thus the Buddha is not only a man of wisdom. He is also a man of power, his renunciation and enlightenment itself an Act of Power. Thus we speak of the Buddhist epoch or era that began with the parinirvana of the Buddha between 405 and 383 BCE. One might also speak of epochs originating in the Buddha’s enlightenment or birth. The first Buddha was Tanhankara, although some authorities cite Dipankara as the first Buddha.
According to the Pali Canon, Siddartha Gautama was the 28th Buddha in a lineage that is only one of infinite numbers of Buddhas. Once he had formulated the intention to achieve emancipation, it took the Buddha billions of rebirths to achieve Buddhahood (Nidanakatha). His immediate predecessor was Kassapa, the third of five Buddhas of the present eon (kalpa). At that time human beings were very long-lived and existed at a higher rate of vibration. All that remain of them today are the degenerated primates of which Homo sapiens are merely the least degenerate, but we exist during a generally devolutionary cosmic cycle that means that we ourselves constantly tend to depart from the dharma. According to the Wikipedia,
During the Vivartakalpa the first humans appear; they are not like present-day humans, but are beings shining in their own light, capable of moving through the air without mechanical aid, living for a very long time, and not requiring sustenance; they are more like a type of lower deity than present-day humans are. Over time, they acquire a taste for physical nutriment, and as they consume it, their bodies become heavier and more like human bodies; they lose their ability to shine, and begin to acquire differences in their appearance, and their length of life decreases. They differentiate into two sexes and begin to become sexually active. Then greed, theft and violence arise among them, and they establish social distinctions and government and elect a king to rule them, called Mahāsammata, “the great appointed one.” Some of them begin to hunt and eat the flesh of animals, which have by now come into existence.
The foregoing quotation vividly describes the transition from the hunter-gatherer to the neolithic stage of human civilization. Thus, higher beings will continue to degenerate into lower beings until the nadir of the cycle is reached. The Buddha predicted that the next Buddha, Maitreya, would not appear until Buddhism is forgotten after 5,000 years from the parinirvana, since there can only be one Buddha at a time. This accords with the year 4600 CE approximately, and will be followed by a period of decline. According to the Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta, this period of decline will culminate in a period of anarchy, out of which a new “golden age” of the dharma will emerge. Although the latter is popularly associated with Maitreya, who is portrayed as being born at the nadir, in fact (according to the Pali Canon) Maitreya will be reborn at the climax of this golden age when human longevity is near its maximum. At some indefinite time following the time of Maitreya the kalpa will end.
The exact definition of a “kalpa” is obscure. In any case it is millions or billions of years. Kalpas are divided into sub-kalpas, the smallest of which may be as short as ten years, thus further complicating the problem of calculation. Thus it is impossible to infer any particular duration from the list of 28 Buddhas, but the direction is entropic. Thus, the longevity of Dipankara was supposed to be 100,000 years. The Pali Canon definitely encodes information from immemorial antiquity, and includes a precise map of the physical state of the planet 130 million years ago, consisting of four major continents divided into eight-subcontinents.
The interval between kalpas is characterized by mass extinctions caused by wars, hunger, and plague, but the present kalpa cannot end before Maitreya appears and Maitreya cannot appear for at least 2,500 years, probably longer. Therefore we are not living at the “end of the age.” There are also cycles within cycles. We are currently at the midpoint of the 5,000 year cycle, the beginning of the second cycle of 2,500 years, which is associated with the dharma teachings of Siddartha Gautama.
True dharma is universal, absolute, coterminous with the real. It is this fact that establishes its power. However, when we observe the succession of the Buddhas we observe a continuous diminution of capacity, if not of the Buddhas themselves, then of the environment in which they disseminate the dharma, characterized by reduced longevity and understanding. Thus, over time the expression of the dharma inevitably deteriorates. We observe this in our own historical framework, how much more then in the cosmic dimensions of the 28 Buddhas. It is impossible, therefore, to identify the literal dharma including Vinaya, Sutra, and Abhidharma, whether of Hinayana or Mahayana, including even the Tantras, with the original dharma of Tanhankara. Nonetheless it may be and presumably is so that vital elements of the original dharma must be implicit in the cultural and historical traditions and individuals, just as gold is combined with the matrix in which it is found. And, just like gold, through the application of energy it is possible to distill it down to its original essence. This is the same method that the Buddha himself used in revealing the original philosophy of Brahmanism, which had become degenerate, and which we can use today to reconstruct the universal primordial dharma of antiquity, aka the philosophia perennis.
And yet the revelation of the dharma itself creates a rare opportunity, even today, for the sincere seeker to realize the true dharma hidden within the structures that have been constructed around it with or without a teacher. It is for this reason that the gold of Buddhism today, at the midpoint of the current 5,000-year kalpa, subsists in the innermost and most secret traditions alone, best discerned directly through the practices of mindfulness and the methods of skeptical inquiry.
- Thus given the current chronology the 2500-year cycle will change between 2016 and 2118 CE.
- It is possible to calculate the date of the advent of Maitreya (Pali Metteyya) based on the human evolutionary cycle of 16,798,000 years (called the atarakappa). According to this cycle, human beings will continue to devolve for another 11,000 years, followed by a reversal of direction and the advent of a new golden age that will see human longevity greatly increase. Maitreya will appear 7 million years later, long after the dharma of Siddartha Gautama has been forgotten but not before the dharma is rediscovered. After the birth of Maitreya, the human age will run for another four million years, at which time it will end. According to this chronology, human beings have been devolving for approximately 8 million years. According to current scientific thinking, this corresponds to the epoch of Sahelanthropus Ttchadensis, the last common ancestor between chimpanzees and humans. Also, during the current historical epoch the Buddha himself was preceded by two “proclamations,” one hundred and one thousand years before his advent, viz., Laozi (6th century BCE) and the Rigveda (15th century BCE).