How do you understand the Cakkavatti Sutta?

How could humans have lived 80 000 years in the past? And how could we live 10 years in the future, with people reaching sexual maturity at five, when life expectancy is constantly increasing? :thinking:



I understand this sutta as mythic:

from wkipedia,
Folklorist Alan Dundes defines myth as a sacred narrative that explains how the world and humanity evolved into their present form. Dundes classified a sacred narrative as “a story that serves to define the fundamental worldview of a culture by explaining aspects of the natural world and delineating the psychological and social practices and ideals of a society”.[33] Anthropologist Bruce Lincoln defines myth as “ideology in narrative form.”[

So literal, factual relevance is not relevant to me in this sort of teaching; the concerns, cautions, observations of moral development are.

It’s also interesting to me to consider different understandings of Time, and how it might relate to the mental clutter and distractions and irrelevancies which increasingly consume life spans. We tend to think of time as duration, but what if experience is considered apart from apparently unchanging time units? It is a commonly recognized, that time seems to “slow” or “speed up”, as an individual subjective experience. Isn’t that interesting?

And I understand this sutta as teaching for mendicants, turning views upside down, for their benefit and progress towards liberation:

Mendicants, you should roam inside your own territory, the domain of your fathers. Doing so, you will grow in life span, beauty, happiness, wealth, and power.

And what is long life for a mendicant? It’s when a mendicant develops the basis of psychic power that has immersion due to enthusiasm, and active effort. They develop the basis of psychic power that has immersion due to energy, and active effort. They develop the basis of psychic power that has immersion due to mental development, and active effort. They develop the basis of psychic power that has immersion due to inquiry, and active effort. Having developed and cultivated these four bases of psychic power they may, if they wish, live on for the eon or what’s left of the eon. This is long life for a mendicant.

And what is beauty for a mendicant? It’s when a mendicant is ethical, restrained in the monastic code, conducting themselves well and seeking alms in suitable places. Seeing danger in the slightest fault, they keep the rules they’ve undertaken. This is beauty for a mendicant.

And what is happiness for a mendicant? It’s when a mendicant, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, enters and remains in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected. As the placing of the mind and keeping it connected are stilled, they enter and remain in the second absorption … third absorption … fourth absorption. This is happiness for a mendicant.

And what is wealth for a mendicant? It’s when a monk meditates spreading a heart full of love to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of love to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. They meditate spreading a heart full of compassion … rejoicing … equanimity to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of equanimity to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. This is wealth for a mendicant.

And what is power for a mendicant? It’s when a mendicant realizes the undefiled freedom of heart and freedom by wisdom in this very life. And they live having realized it with their own insight due to the ending of defilements. This is power for a mendicant…

This is teaching perhaps leading to a different world view, to the Noble Eightfold Path, from where those listeners were. It was perhaps especially relevant for them, but can still be beneficial to us, in disrupting our old views.

Looking forward to seeing other responses. :slight_smile:


It is a DN sutta and, as such, it may have accumulated a lot of different layers of myths and cultural appropriation as it got memorized, repeated, written and read, and written again.
Of course, there is also the possibility the Buddha understood things as having occurred/been this way in the past and relevant enough to be topic of a specific Dhamma talk.
If clearing this doubt is really key for one to give a try developing the eightfold path and the other factors to awakening, then there always is the option of sticking around until the next Tathagatha arises in the world and see if he comes up with the same version of the story! :sweat_smile:


Of course you can also stick around and see if life expectancy drops to 10 years. :grimacing: :grimacing:


:slight_smile: This makes me think beyond the literal; what if, as we build our existences with illusions of instant gratification (mind-as-a-hamster-wheel going nowhere, developing nothing but circling to stay in place), and the illusions of delayed gratification (“someday” “after I finsh school/career/raising a family/when I retire”), we have effectively reduce our life experience by these automated patterns?

(Studying bhava in dependent origination :slight_smile:

I was being cheeky to @Gabriel_L because in this particular sutta the age were people only live 10 years comes long before the next Tathagatha. So if you live to enough lives to see Matreiya then you’ll live through the troubling times described in the Cakkavatti Sutta.

I take this sutta as a Buddhist version of an apocalyptic text and so I personally don’t want to unwind all the symbolism out of it.


It is not wise to claim the story is mythical just because we cannot see the scope.
Fluctuation of the life span is presented in a number of suttas making it considerable. Ex DN14, SN15.20

DN 27 and Dn24 explains a human excistence from the very beginning of the world.

All of these suttas go parallel to each other making them significant. So we have to be neutral about them becaise it is not certain whether they are myths or completely true.


I guess we have to understand what a “human” is from a Buddhist point of view where all things are subject to change. Is what the Buddha meant by “human” the same as what an evolutionary scientist means by “human”? How does that fit with what a modern day ‘person in the street’ means when they refer to a “human”? I guess homo sapiens have only been around 0.3 million years as a species, but what about what was before that? What about Neanderthals and hybrids? Do they count? As a genus “humans” have been about for around 2.5 million years, but what about before that? You get my drift.

I don’t think that this is an EBT definition (as far as I’m aware), but when I see the concept of “human” in the suttas, I read it as: the class of beings that find it easiest to understand the dhamma at a given point of time regardless of their anatomical structure, life span, etc…

Perhaps, Venerable, you and I have a different understanding of what “mythic” means (and perhaps my understanding is incorrect and or partial). I don’t see “myths” and “completely true” as opposites.

Still, the concerns, cautions, observations of moral development are of interest to me; the “business” of this life is this life, and its development through restraint and through meditation. The beginning of the world, its persistence, its end, or past or future aeons are only relevant, it seems to me, in how anicca, dukkha and anattā can be observed and better understood, for me at this time.

=D posting on a forum: probably not wise for me either! But my intention was clean and in the best sense friendly, and I think that’s not bad.


Fair enough.

A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events (Oxford Ref)

1 Like

I’d be interested to know what @sujato has to say about the way that Cakkavatti sutta:

  • Starts off with “So I have heard…”
  • Then proceeds with the Buddha exhorting his monks to roam within their territory
  • Then shifts into a story with the phrase “Once upon a time, mendicants, there was a king named Daḷhanemi who was a wheel-turning monarch…”

I’ve heard Ven. Sujato explain how “Thus I have heard…” means something very different from “At Savatthi…” or some such place.

So when the Buddha says “Once upon a time…” he’s likely telling a story of some sort, could be a myth or something he’s made up to highlight his teaching?

1 Like

Bhikkhu @sujato wrote:

The Dīgha contains truly mythic texts in DN 26 Cakkavattisīhanāda and DN 27 Aggañña. These set forth a myth of origins, replacing conventional creation mythology with an evolutionary account of how the world came to be the way it is. In these stories, human choices play a critical role in how the environment evolves, and in how it will all fall apart. The Aggañña depicts climate change quite explicitly, showing how human activity affects the plants, the weather, and the natural ecosystem of which we are a part (see also AN 3.56).

The mythology is essentially cyclic. There is no absolute beginning; just another turning of the wheel. Thus even when the world falls apart and civilization collapses, there will be a new renaissance, far in the future, and ultimately another Buddha will arise. He is named as Metteyya (Sanskrit: Maitreya) who in the early texts appears only in DN 26 Cakkavattisīhanāda. He went on to become one of the most important figures in Mahāyāna Buddhism, and many Buddhists even today still await his coming with hope. Yet DN 26 is not taught in order to encourage devotees to dedicate themselves to Metteyya, but to illustrate the impermanence and uncertainty of our lives. The Buddha always taught that we should practice as best we can to understand the Dhamma in this life.

The Long Discourses: Dhamma as literature and compilation


Yes, this phrase in Pali is bhūtapubbaṁ, lit. “It was in the past …”. It is used to introduce a story or event from days of old, and typically applied to stories that we would consider legends or myths. Occasionally it is used to introduce a more historical past, but this is the exception.


We consider these stories to be myths because they seem unbelievable to us, but did the Buddha consider them to be so? I find it hard to believe it, it seems more like he was telling what he saw through his powers and that he really thought it was the past of the world. Don’t you think so?

1 Like

I would put it rather differently: the “idea” of history as something distinct from legend was not yet clearly established.

To distinguish “history” as a science, it requires “archeology” or something like it. You have to be able to see something that is a shared object of agreed fact, so that it can be compared to what the stories say. You can, in addition, go some way by comparing different stories and accounts. But in any case, if it is just a single person’s memory, we can’t test the reliability of that.

There’s no real evidence that for the Suttas, such a distinction was acknowledged. You see, for example, the story of the ancient city discovered in the forest. Now, I suspect that this is based on the physical remains of the Harappan culture, which would have been an impressive find in the jungle. We now know that the Harappan culture, with it centrally planned brick cities, extended well down into the Ganges valley.

But in the Suttas, while the story of this is told, there is no sense of, “Well, if such cities exist, how do they compare with the stories of the past that we have heard? Who were these people? Are there mentions of them in our stories?”

So just bear on mind, when we hear these stories, we want to classify them according to the categories we are familiar with. Those categories were not necessarily the same in those days. Hence in my post I said “stories that we would consider legends or myths”.

If I may offer an opinion, not directly to what you are saying, but more generally: history, in the sense of a realistic inquiry into the facts of the past, is still a rare thing. In Buddhism, as in the world in general, tales told of the past are usually there to serve the needs of the present. This is not very compassionate: no-one likes to have their words and deeds quoted out of context for someone else’s agenda. The fundamental assumption of history, as I understand it, is that the people of the past have their own story to tell, on their own terms. The compassionate thing is to listen to what their story meant for them. But it takes time.


Mendicants, these four things are unthinkable. They should not be thought about, and anyone who tries to think about them will go mad or get frustrated. What four?

The scope of the Buddhas …

The scope of one in absorption …

The results of deeds …

Speculation about the world …

Free from desire, you realize the mystery, caught in the desire, you see only the manifestations.


When we try to understand myths in their own context we should also not mistake them as history in our sense. So while, before just dismissing a story, we should ask for its function and purpose we should also not take it as describing scientific/biologic truth.

First of all, the sutta with an intertextual reference to attadipa which appears in SN 22.43, SN 47.9, SN 47.13-14, and DN 16. So it is probably commentarial in nature, referring either to the SN or even DN 16.

The following Kathañca pana is borrowed from MN 10 or DN 22, the only other suttas it appears in, also introducing a passage on body contemplation.

So the whole sutta is a commentary on body contemplation, which is again a commentary on how to understand attadipa.

I would argue that the ‘once upon a time’ commented on by B.Sujato above is precisely a marker for the contemporary audience, leaving them in no doubt whatsoever that the following is a mythological story which is not to be taken as real (if in doubt you can look it up in the SN in SN 1.11, SN 3.20, SN 6.14, SN 11.1-7, SN 11.9-10, SN 11.14, SN 11.18-20, SN 11.22-25, SN 15.20, SN 17.3, SN 20.7, SN 20.9-10, SN 35.240, SN 35.248, SN 47.6, SN 47.19 - maybe with the exception of SN 42.13)

We use those markers so that the audience doesn’t ask: Oh really? When did so-and-so live? what did they work? how did they do agriculture back then? Did s/he have a good digestion? etc. These fantasy tales are understood by the audience to make a certain point, to entertain etc. It’s not that they mix it up with a strictly chronological history - at least not audiences knowledgeable in story-telling.