Can There Be More Than One Buddha At A Time?

Can There Be More Than One Buddha At A Time?

Buddhist Scriptures By Edward Conze Contents:

The Penguin Classics Founder Editor (1944-64):

E.V. Rieu Editor: Betty Radice

EDWARD CONZE was born in London in 1904 and educated in Germany. He gained his Ph.D. degree from Cologne University in 1928, and then studied Indian and European comparative philosophy at the Universities of Bonn and Hamburg. From 1933 until 1960 he lectured in psychology, philosophy and comparative religion at London and Oxford Universities. Between 1963 and 1973 he held a number of academic appointments in England, Germany and the U.S.A., and was also a Visiting Professor in the Department of Religious Studies in Lancaster, as well as Vice-President of the Buddhist Society.


The Hinayana position King Milinda said: ‘The Lord, Nagasena, has said: “That is impossible, O monks, that cannot be, that in one single world system two fully enlightened Buddhas should simultaneously appear-that is quite impossible.” But, Nagasena, all the Tathagatas always teach the same thirty-seven dharmas which act as Wings to enlightenment, they explain the same four holy Truths, they train in the same three kinds of training (in morality, trance, and wisdom), and they all admonish us to practice vigilance.

If all Tathagatas have one and the same teaching, doctrine, training and instruction, for what reason should two Tathagatas not appear at the same moment? The appearance of even one Buddha already lights up this world. If there were still a second one, the splendour emanating from the two would light up the world still more. And also two Tathagatas could instruct with much more ease, could admonish with much more ease! Tell me therefore the reason for this saying of the Lord, so that my doubts may be dispelled!’

‘This world system of ten thousand worlds can bear just one single Buddha, can bear the virtue of just one single Tathagata. If a second Buddha were to arise, this world system of ten thousand worlds could not bear him. It would shake and tremble, bend, twist, and disintegrate, be shattered, ruined, and destroyed. It is just as with a boat which can carry one man only. When one man has got into it, it remains steady above the water. But if a second man should come along, as large and weighty as the first one, and also get into it, would then that boat be able to carry both of them?’ – ‘Certainly not. But it would shake and tremble, bend, twist, and disintegrate, be shattered, ruined, and destroyed, and it would sink down into the water.’ – ‘Just the same would happen with this world system if a second Tathagata were to appear.

There are three further reasons why it would be unsuitable for two fully enlightened Buddhas to appear at the same moment:

(1) For if they did, disputes might arise between their respective followers, and arguments about “our Buddha” and “your Buddha” would lead to the formation of two rival factions, just as it happens with the followers of two powerful ministers.

(2) Moreover, the simultaneous appearance of two fully enlightened Buddhas would falsify the well-known Scripture passage which describes the Buddha as the foremost, supreme, the best, the most eminent, the utmost, the most excellent, unequalled, without an equal, matchless, without a counterpart or rival.

(3) And finally, this is a natural attribute of Buddhas that only one Buddha at a time appears in the world. For what reason? Because of the greatness of the qualities of the all-knowing Buddhas. Of other things also which are great in the world, there is in each case one only to be found. There is one great earth only, one great ocean, one great world-mountain Sumeru, one great space, one great Shakra, one great Mara, one great Mahabrahma. A Tathagata, Arhat, fully enlightened Buddha is great, and so there is only one in the world. Wherever any of these arise, there is no room for a second. And so also with the Tathagata.’ –

And king Milinda replied: ‘Well said, Nagasena. So it is, and so I accept it.’

3b. The Mahayana position The Sarvastivadin: The Buddha has said: ‘Two Buddhas cannot simultaneously arise in one and the same world system, no more than two universal monarchs can co-exist at the same time’.

It is therefore untrue to say that at present there are other Buddhas apart from Shakyamuni. The Mahayanist: These are certainly the Buddha’s words, but you do not understand their meaning. The Buddha wants to say that two Buddhas cannot appear simultaneously in one and the same great Tri-chiliocosm. But he does not exclude this possibility for the whole universe extending in all the ten directions.

Two universal monarchs cannot appear together in the same Four-Continent world system, because each would brook no rival. And so in one Four-Continent world system there is only one single universal monarch. Just so with a Buddha and a great Trichiliocosm. The Sutra here draws an analogy between Buddhas and universal monarchs. If you believe, as you do, that in other Four-Continent world systems there are other universal monarchs, why do you not believe in the existence of other Buddhas in other great Tri-chiliocosms?

Moreover, one Buddha alone cannot possibly save all beings. There must therefore also be others. In fact, beings are countless and their sufferings are measureless. Countless Buddhas are therefore necessary to lead them to salvation. The Sarvastivadin: The Sutra says that Buddhas appear as rarely as a flower on the Udumbara tree, one only from age to age, with immense intervals between. If the ten directions were full of Buddhas, then the occurrence of a Buddha would not be a rare event, one could find one easily, and could not say that Buddhas are exceedingly difficult to meet.

The Mahayanist: It is true that in one great Tri-chiliocosm the Buddhas follow each other in great intervals. But there is nothing here about the whole universe. The Buddhas are so difficult to meet because imperfect people do not know how to honour them and are lax in searching for the Path. Many of them in addition fall into the States of woe as a result of their evil deeds, and there, for aeons on end, they never see a Buddha, or hear one mentioned. It is because of the imperfection of men’s hearts that the appearance of Buddhas is said to be rare. The Sarvastivadin: If there actually were in the ten directions countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, why do they not come and save beings from sin and suffering?

The Mahayanist: For countless aeons these beings have heaped up sins and faults. It may be that they have also gained some merit, but that is often not sufficient for them to see a Buddha. That is why they cannot see them. As it has been said in these verses: When the reward of merit is still far away, When the after-effects of the sins are still felt, One cannot possibly see before one’s eyes, The Lord, The Buddha, however great his might. The minds of the Buddhas, the Lords do not vary In their fixed intention to save all the beings. For all they feel love and compassion abundant, Desirous at all times to rescue the sufferers. But those to be saved must be ripened in merit, Their wisdom be keen, their virtue established. These are the conditions salvation requires, They must be present for freedom to burst through. 

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