Shakyamuni Buddha sometimes called Gautama Buddha, is said to be the Buddha of the current age. According to early Buddhist scripture, there were Buddhas in earlier ages as well, and there will be other Buddhas in future ages. For example, ancient sources say that Maitreya Buddha will be the Buddha of the next age.
But what about the earlier Buddhas? Is there anything we need to know about them?
Six Previous Buddhas
Probably the earliest source of information on previous Buddhas is the Mahavadana Sutta, or “Discourse on the Great Legend,” which is found in the Pali Sutta-pitaka (Digha Nikaya 14).
In this sutta, we find “our” Buddha, Gautama, in Anathapindika’s park in the Jeta Grove. After the Buddha and his disciples had enjoyed their daily meal, the subject of previous births arose. The Buddha offered to speak of his predecessors, and his disciples eagerly accepted the offer. The Buddha then told of six previous Buddhas. They all lived many eons, or kalpas, ago. A kalpa is a length of time that defies calculation; just know that one kalpa usually is a really, really long time.
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The most striking thing about the stories of the six previous Buddhas is that their spiritual paths all followed the same course, all very much like the life of the historical Buddha. They were all born to high-caste families and raised in luxurious homes. Each married and had a son. Each encountered the Four Passing Sights — an elderly person, a sick person, a corpse, and a holy man seeking enlightenment. Disturbed by what he saw, each left home and became a wandering mendicant, looking for peace of mind.
Each realized enlightenment while meditating under some sort of tree. After enlightenment, each went forth to teach.
Do the six previous Buddhas have spiritual significance? That’s hard to say. Certainly you can practice for many years without bothering to learn about them. They do come up in many texts and in art and chanting liturgies, however, so it doesn’t hurt to be aware of who these Buddhas were.
Did they really live? Several of them lived so many kalpas ago they would have been genuinely prehistoric if they had. The point they seem to be making is that the dharma is likely to have been found and lost and found again many times in the great cycle of time. It’s also the case that great teachers of other spiritual traditions of India were said to have had similar predecessors.
The six previous Buddhas described in the Mahavadana Sutta are listed below.
Vipasyi or Vipassi. Vipasyi was born 91 kalpas ago to a family of the Khattiya (warrior) caste. His clan name was Kondanna. He was enlightened under a patali, or trumpet flower, tree.
Sikhi. Sikhi was born 31 kalpas ago, also to a family of the Khattiya caste. He also was of the Kondanna clan, and he was enlightened under a pundarika, or artemisia, tree.
Visvabhuj or Vessabhu. Visvabhuj also was born 31 kalpas ago to a family of the Khattiya caste. Also of the Kondanna clan, he was enlightened under a sal tree.
Krakucchanda or Kakusandha. Krakucchanda and the remaining three Buddhas were born during the current kalpa, but still an unimaginably long time ago. Krakucchanda was of the Brahmin, or priest, caste. He and the remaining three Buddhas also were of a clan called Kassapa. He was enlightened under an acacia tree.
Kanakamuni or Konmagamana. Another member of the Brahmin caste, Kanakamuni was enlightened under an udumbara, or cluster fig, tree.
Kasyapa or Kassapa. Another Brahmin, Kasyapa was enlightened under a banyan tree. He should not be confused with a disciple of the Buddha by the same name; the Buddha’s disciple Kasyapa usually is called Mahakasyapa, or Great Kasyapa, to distinguish him.
[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]