How did the Buddha know about the past Buddhas?

Short before the Buddha’s awakening, he recollected previous lifetimes. If his knowledge of past Buddhas came from those memories, then doesn’t it imply that he remembered the Dhamma instead of finding it out?

Some passages (sorry, I don’t remember what exactly) say that the Buddha practiced under another Buddha’s guidance in a previous lifetime to the point of attaining stream-entering. On the book The Genesis of The Bodhisattva Ideal, Bhikkhu Analayo advances that these suttas are problematic. One of the reasons for that is because they imply that the Buddha wasn’t self-awakened. So I started to ask myself if we can also say that suttas about previous Buddhas are equally problematic. What are your thoughts on this?


I think this is an excellent point. In MN81 for example the Buddha specifically claims to have heard a talk from the previous Buddha Kassapa and to have ordained as a monk.

This is a HUGE problem for the coherence of the repeated claims that the Buddha discovered the dhamma not heard before.

The, IMO obvious, solution is that the past life stories in the suttas are simply not spoken by the Buddha and made up by monks after he was long dead.

Probably a lot of the suttas are like that.


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How did the Buddha know about the past Buddhas?

I don’t remember the citation, but I read a sutta a few months ago where the Buddha claimed that devas/or another class of paranormal being told him about the past Buddhas.

If his knowledge of past Buddhas came from those memories, then doesn’t it imply that he remembered the Dhamma instead of finding it out?

Through recollecting those past lives he saw patterns, the Four Noble Truths, and seeing that completed his unbinding/liberation from samsara ( nibanna ).

Bhikkhu Analayo advances that these suttas are problematic. One of the reasons for that is because they imply that the Buddha wasn’t self-awakened

I’m not a scholar like Analayo and I haven’t read that book. I don’t see the problem. Everyone has to start somewhere. In his last life the Buddha went to a multitude of teachers before going off on his own and developing his own way of doing things.

What about all of those passages poetically calling the dhamma “the ancient path”, “the path to the ancient lost city” ?

I never got the impression that the Buddha was the first one to discover these things, just the first one in this Buddha cycle.


Hi. I do not recall any such passages. For example, MN 81 seems to not indicate any attainment of stream-entry.

Its a problem because SN 56.11 and other suttas say the Buddha awakened to dhammas “never heard before/not learned before from another”.

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Hi! I just got the time to quote Bhikkhu Analayo’s book itself:

"According to the account of the Buddha’s awakening given in the Mahāsaccaka-sutta and its parallels, Gautama’s attainment of liberation was preceded by developing the ability to recollect past lives. The standard descriptions of such recollection indicate that through exercising this supernormal knowledge one will remember such information as one’s name and social standing in a former life, the food eaten and the pleasurable and painful experiences one had at that time.

Given that in the case of the bodhisattva this recollection of past lives was part of an attempt to reach awakening, one would expect his recollection soon to focus on his former life as a monk under the Buddha Kāśyapa. The period of training as a monk under Kāśyapa would have been the nearest instance in the past where the bodhisattva had been in contact with a teaching capable of leading to liberation. According to the Pāli commentary on the Ghaṭīkāra-sutta, the young Brahmin had in fact learned all of the Buddha Kāśyapa’s teachings and had practised insight meditation right up to the brink of stream-entry.

By recollecting the teachings of the Buddha Kāśyapa, the bodhisattva Gautama would have had a firsthand experience of the liberating teachings of a Buddha, which would have shown him how to proceed in order to reach awakening himself. From this perspective, it would follow that Gautama’s own awakening did not really take place independently of a teacher."

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These suttas do not refer to any “supernormal” powers for the attainment of this “knowledge”. I think the writer needed to be more accurate with whatever he was attempting to say.

Here, the writer seems to have given MN 81 precedence/authority over the other suttas, such as SN 56.11. I personally would never give MN 81 authority over SN 56.11.

These are my thoughts. They may be mistaken.

I agree with Anālayo that they are problematic to some extent. I think that it is perfectly reasonable that the historical Buddha taught that there were past Buddhas who had, or could have, realized this Dhamma before and taught it. I think as far as the suttas are concerned, this is a basic point of Buddhology: Buddhas are a kind of cosmic role, much like Buddhist deities, who re-appear cyclically. Sakka—the traditional lord of the gods—is not an immortal deity but rather a position in a cosmic order into which one can be reborn.

I think we can see several ways in which this cyclic, cosmic Buddha narrative is mythologically significant. I have just named one, that is, the Buddha is elevated to the position of a cosmically significant position akin to a deity. This is the exact same trajectory that developments in later Buddhology took: they gradually deified the Buddha and pushed his existence further back in time with the Jātakas and the idea of the perfections. They even pushed his existence forward in time first with a coming Metteyya Buddha and then with the idea of Buddhas who are in Pure Lands, stay in Saṁsāra, manifest in different bodies some of which are more permanent, Buddha-nature as a cosmic entity, etc.

The other way in which it seems mythologically significant is its relationship to Brahmanism. In the suttas, the earliest form of ‘past Buddhas’ are the 7 past Buddhas. That is to say, there is our Buddha, and there are a number of Buddhas going back seven “generations”. This is a parallel of Brahmanical value: The brahmins in the suttas consistently talk about how a lineage is authenticated by going back 7 generations with fathers, teachers, mothers, hermits, sages, seers, poets, etc. It begins with the 7 ṛṣis, and even this goes back further to other non-Indic cultures—probably having to do with the constellations and the Big Dipper which has 7 stars.

This means that the 7 Buddhas happen to authenticate the lineage of the Dhamma back 7 generations with previous, mythological, historical sages in the exact way that the Brahmins and the Jains did. The Jains also taught that they had a lineage of past awakened beings. The Buddhists were missing this: It was just the Buddha and his followers. No ancient texts; no lineage of ancient sages. Well, unless they introduce it.

Is it authentic? I don’t know. Like I said, these past Buddhas are found in all kinds of suttas. They sometimes correspond to clearly later ideas like the wheel-turning monarch destiny which may be an indication of their relative lateness. They appear in formulaic passages (like at the beginning of the SN where they are just stock-suttas with repeated formulas and no new doctrinal information), and in literary narratives which are clearly more mythological and building on earlier ideas, like the story of Vipassī Buddha at DN 14.

I think the principle of Buddhas being able to arise in the past and future and re-discover the Dhamma holds true. The authenticity of specific past Buddhas with these names that the Buddha himself encountered though? We cannot be sure, but I think they can be valued more for their mythological and cosmological significance rather than their specific authenticity. Note that this is not a dismissal of the ideas; mythology does not mean useless untrue stories. It just means, among other things, stories which are less about historical fact and more about meaningful presence in the minds of the current people telling them.



Let’s use physics as a testbed thought experiment.

Say the laws of physics seems to be the same from previous cycles of the universe with this one.

And we know in this cycle, some physicists discovered some good laws of physics like general relativity and quantum mechanics.

Imagine if those physicists, just before their discovery, have past life recall and remembered that in their past life in a previous universe cycle, they were also a physicist. They might remember that there’s something taught by their physics teacher on it.

However, I doubt that there’s a need to just remember all the notation and words which can be very different, and copy it to help discover the current modern physics.

Could be that they have a notion that it’s not impossible, someone had done this before and that can give the confidence to complete the discovery on their own.

I suspect this might be what happened with the Buddha. He might had recalled previous Buddhas and having learnt from them, but it doesn’t mean all the knowledge from past lives he would recollect again, he might just stop short of that and just have the confidence that there is such a thing as a Buddha, so enlightenment is possible, and with that confidence, break through to the last knowledge of the destruction of the taints on his own.

This justifies not having learnt from anyone before (in this life).


As usual, to bring in infinity creates unsolvable issues. If we go by certain suttas (and Theravada orthodoxy) every being has an infinite ignorance-based past. In this perspective it is only based on ignorance that we see ourselves as individual beings who have been born only a few decades ago. In “truth” this being-perpetuated-by-ignorance is infinitely old who has merely forgotten its past. Taking this seriously nobody ever has been self-awakened. To say that the Buddha had no Buddha-teacher to show him the way would be merely from an ignorant person’s perspective. Because obviously all previous experiences (including teachings from a former Buddha) must have left some karma traces, some influence.

This leaves two possibilities. Either the teaching of a self-awakened Buddha is a true teaching in the sense that it’s directed at ignorant normies for whom the one life-time is the norm and who couldn’t understand the ignorance-infinity basis of beings.

Or the infinity past of all beings (along with their karmic development) is wrong.

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Bhikkhu Analayo is referring to the Iddhi. More specifically, the ability to recollect past lives. Other translators prefer to call that psychic powers.

That’s just a quote btw. The book is 182 pages long, so maybe it sounds more clarifying analyzing it as a whole.

His argument is more complicated, scholarly, and longer than mine is, btw. I was just pointing out a seeming contradiction that appears when reading those texts literally, but Bhikkhu Analayo argues based on the parallels as well.

I’m not sure I’d be willing to give up that much. Recollection of past lives is the main way that the Buddha gained knowledge of karma and rebirth, but if one doesn’t believe in them, then that may be a good solution ofc.

You have a great point!
Thanks for bringing up the historical context of a past lineage. That’s very clarifying.

edit: but… doesn’t this sound just like secular Buddhists’ argument to you? I mean… “this was already present in the Buddha’s culture, so that’s why it was added.” We could reiterate that for kamma and rebirth as well. Except for the fact that, as you said, past Buddhas appear in suttas without much doctrinal significance. Kamma and rebirth appear in very clearly non-mythological suttas.

Just to clarify, there are no suttas (or even commentary to my knowledge) that say the Buddha had attained stream entry in a previous life.

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I showed the reference in my reply to @CurlyCarl

If this is so, I don’t recall the suttas ever saying this.

To me, it does not sound scholarly. MN 81 is an unimportant sutta in the scheme of the Buddha-Dhamma. The idea Gotama learned Dhamma from previous Buddhas seems similar to a Christian believing Christ did not rise from the dead. Kind regards :pray:t2:

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That sounds plausible, but the Buddha seems to recall too many details from those lifetimes with past Buddhas, and it’s unlikely that he wouldn’t have tried to remember them just before his awakening since that was exactly the type of information he had been struggling for so long to obtain. It’s also unlikely that he wouldn’t tell people that he felt inspired by the memories of past Buddhas… This would be a very crucial point during his awakening.

I feel like there’s a bit of a false dichotomy here between a) Gotama Buddha encountered previous Buddhas in his previous lives and thus should have been able to recall their teachings; and b) Gotama Buddha had no knowledge of previous Buddhas. To me, a third case seems plausible: Gotama Buddha never encountered a samma-sambuddha in a previous birth but, after his full awakening, he was able to gain knowledge of previous buddhas through psychic means other than recalling his own past lives.


No, for a couple of reasons. Doing historical inquiry and textual criticism is not the same as secular Buddhists who would say that X or Y is inauthentic because they find it non-secular. We don’t have to be fundamentalists just because some people pick and choose things.

The premise of secular Buddhism necessitates some kind of excuse for why kamma and rebirth and devas etc. are in the texts in order to be able to exclude them from practice. On the other hand, textual criticism is a curiosity and about discovering layers within the texts like geological strata. We can investigate: “Is it really true that kamma and rebirth are just cultural baggage?” It turns out: no. They are central to the Buddha’s message no matter where you look. They are also essential to the philosophy and practice of the dhamma as a whole. That 7 Buddhas with specific names existed X eons ago is not central philosophically, practically, or to the Buddha’s message. It’s not a problem because it’s non-secular (past Buddhas not being much of a threat anyway), but because it has several suspicious characteristics in line with later Buddhological advances, Brahmanical/Jain authority, etc.

But another difference is that, unlike secular Buddhism, I am not just dismissing it “because it’s cultural.” Like I said, I am only shifting our emphasis: We should prioritize the mythological significance of the teachings rather than the historical factuality of them. These teachings are first and foremost meant to be present in our minds, give meaning to the Buddha Dhamma and Sangha, and establish certain things about his and our lives. They served and continue to serve a purpose for the Buddhist community that we can appreciate, learn from, and continue with. And we don’t need to deny them as necessarily ahistorical, just set that aside as secondary.

Hope that helps some :slight_smile: This is just how I see it.

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Yes, that sounds plausible too! Do you have any hint of what psychic power that could be? Or do you think it hasn’t been mentioned?

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