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Buddha remaining for an eon

mahayana
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#1

DN 16:13

Whoever has developed and cultivated the four bases of psychic power—made them a vehicle and a basis, kept them up, consolidated them, and properly implemented them—may, if they wish, live on for the eon or what’s left of the eon. The Realized One has developed and cultivated the four bases of psychic power, made them a vehicle and a basis, kept them up, consolidated them, and properly implemented them. If he wished, the Realized One could live on for the eon or what’s left of the eon.”

Assuming that eon means eon here, and not merely a normal human lifespan, and also assuming that it would be impossible to extend the life of a single human body for what amounts to millions or perhaps billions of years, could the Buddha here have been offering to postpone his own paranibbana and continue taking rebirth for the benefit of sentient beings? In other words, could this passage be an early referene to bodhisattva-vows?


#2

And maybe the Buddha would just live a normal lifespan and declare the end of the eon upon his death.

I’ve often reflected on whether I would have asked the Buddha to stay an eon if I had the chance to make Ananda’s appeal. It’s a pretty large request, and I am inclined to think that the Buddha has done more than enough. Now it’s our turn to preserve his teachings as best we can.


#3

Or imagine the Buddha died just like every other person and the tradition found the profanity of it offensive.


#4

Sure, my gut reaction to the passage has been to dismiss it since the first time I read it, as a later, larger than life legend about the Buddha. Followers tend to deify and ascribe supernatural powers to their religious founders. I am not discounting that as a possibility, but if it isn’t pure legendary embellishment, perhaps it could be a source of the bodhisattva ideal? Or perhaps even if it is?


#5

I’ve run into this in Indian texts in Chinese, usually during accounts of what happened afterwards when Mahakasyapa attacked Ananda for being stupid and not getting the hint the Buddha was dropping. It was apparently taken literally. I’ve yet to see an old text saying it was just an exaggeration, at least. Usually, though, they say “an eon or part of an eon.” Who knows what “part of an eon” means. Maybe that was the escape valve for the rational reader.


#6

When I read it, I just figured that “or what’s left of an aeon” or “part of an aeon” just meant “however much time is left in X aeon before conflagration.” If this is proto-Mahāyāna, it is from before:

For endless aeons long-lasting, from Gṛdhrakūta to myriad manifold place, I dwell. Sentient beings witness the aeon’s end and the great fire when the aeon is burned; however, this land of mine is tranquil.
(T262.43c4)

So it’s possible that it might have been considered absolutely impossible to withstand the end of the aeon at one point, if the above speculations are true — which is interesting enough. Iirc, different Buddhist cosmologies have different dhyāna heavens maintained after the aeon’s conflagration, presumably with their dhyānin dieties undisturbed. I will have to try to hunt down where I remember reading that, though.


#7

Yes, good point. I was meaning just what amount of time that would be (100 years, 100,000 years?), but it would probably be considered a really, really long time even it were part of an eon.


#8

Do the parallels have the same phrase in them?

with metta,


#9

Interestingly, Sariputta claimed that Mahamoggallana could live for an aeon in SN 21.3:

“Friend, compared to the Venerable Mahamoggallana we are like a few grains of gravel compared to the Himalayas, the king of mountains. For the Venerable Mahamoggallana is of such great spiritual power and might that if so he wished he could live on for an aeon.”