The Four Signs & Buddha Gotama: Reading Sujato early Buddhism/Theravada difference

Reading and enjoying thoroughly on kindle. Very handy go to checklist I believe was its intention and it’s perfect for that. Had a question on the four signs
From the text
the four signs
Tradition tells us that Siddhattha was motivated to go forth by the unexpected sight of four signs, from which his father had tried to hide him: an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a renunciate.
吀he EBTs, rather, tell this story of the Buddha Vipassī, set in a legendary time far in the past. Our Buddha of the present gave a similar motivation for going forth—to seek an escape from rebirth, old age, and death—but without the dramatic narrative of the four signs. In the overlooked Attadaṇḍa Sutta, he further explained that he went forth a昀ter seeing the strife and violent conflict in the world.

So is the story of the four signs literally not in the suttas?

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It’s in DN 14

DN14:2.1.0: 5. Jiṇṇapurisa
5. The Old Man

From here onward.


Thank you for informing me about the Attadaṇḍa Sutta (Snp 4.15). There is also AN 3.39.

I’m confused by reading this part above of the text it seems he’s saying it’s not in the EBT’s

The story of the four signs is in the EBTs, but not related to “our” Buddha; rather to the legendary Buddha Vipassī.

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the EBTs, rather, tell this story of the Buddha Vipassī, set in a legendary time far in the past


Are these details about previous Buddhas described in the Buddhavamsa thought to be the word of the Buddha? Because they’re clearly not describing anything on our planet or in our universe but refer to places in India. I’ve never seen these stories before.

@JoeL I changed this to the Q&A category since it seemed like a straightforward question. You can mark the response you feel answers your question.

And just in case it wasn’t clear, the four signs are found in the EBTs, just not for Buddha Gotama. The story of Buddha Gotama and the four signs is found in later texts. For example the Dhammapada Commentary.

There they are called the three signs, though.

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They are regarded as such in the Theravada tradition, but by modern scholarship as late additions to the canon.

By the time the Buddhavamsa was composed Buddhists had become much wedded not only to cosmological eternal recurrence (i.e., the belief that when world-systems are re-evolving after a cosmic cataclysm they will always take on exactly the same 31-plane structure as formerly), but also to geographical eternal recurrence. This recurrence supposedly extends not only to the topography of the human world but even to its political geography. For example, according to this conception early humans will always take it upon themselves to construct a city at the location 25°19′08″N 83°00′46″E and they’ll always name it “Vārāṇasī”. Then a couple of hundred miles away at 27°31′1.5″N 82°3′2.2″E they’ll build another city and they’ll call it “Śrāvastī”.

And so to understand the Buddhavamsa from the original readers’ point of view one needs to suspend disbelief and put oneself in the position of someone for whom this particular geographical mythos is the reality and not, say, that of Humboldt and Ritter. From this perspective, there’s nothing problematic in accounts of some past Buddha being born in “Vārāṇasī” a few billion years ago. Like the Ship of Theseus, though all of its parts have been replaced, it still counts as “Vārāṇasī” on account of its unchanged location.

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