The Lifespan of the Tathāgata
Thereupon the Buddha addressed the bodhisattvas and the entire great assem- bly, saying: “O sons of a virtuous family! You should believe the true words of the Tathāgata.”
He addressed the great assembly again, saying: “You should believe the Tathāgata’s true words.”
He repeated this to them, saying: “You should believe the Tathāgata’s true words.”
Then the great assembly of bodhisattvas, headed by Maitreya, addressed the Buddha with their palms pressed together, saying: “O Bhagavat! We entreat you to explain it. We will accept the Buddha’s words.”
After they had spoken in this way three times, they again said: “We entreat you to explain it. We will accept the Buddha’s words.”
Then the Bhagavat, realizing that the bodhisattvas continued to entreat him after those three times, addressed them, saying: “Listen carefully to the Tathāgata’s secret and transcendent powers. The devas, humans, and asuras in all the worlds all think that the present Buddha, Śākyamuni, left the palace of the Śākyas, sat on the terrace of enlightenment not far from the city of Gayā, and attained highest, complete enlightenment. However, O sons of a virtuous family, immeasurable, limitless, hundreds of thousands of myriads of koṭis of nayutas of kalpas have passed since I actually attained buddhahood.
“Suppose there were a man who ground ﬁve hundreds of thousands myr- iads of koṭis of nayutas of incalculable great manifold cosmos into particles. While passing through ﬁve hundred thousands of myriads of koṭis of nayutas of incalculable lands to the east, he dropped just a single particle; and in this way he continued to drop the particles as he went toward the east, until they were all gone.
“O sons of a virtuous family! What do you think about this? Can all of these worlds be calculated or not? Can one imagine all of these worlds, cal- culate, and know their number or not?”
Bodhisattva Maitreya and the others together addressed the Buddha, saying: “O Bhagavat! These worlds are immeasurable, limitless, incalcula- ble, and beyond our powers of conception. Even all the śrāvakas and pratyeka- buddhas, with their knowledge free from corruption, are not able to com- prehend them, or know their number. Although we abide in the stage of nonretrogression we cannot understand it. O Bhagavat! Such worlds as these are incalculable and limitless.”
Then the Buddha addressed the assembly of the great bodhisattvas, say- ing: “O sons of a virtuous family! I will now explain it clearly to you. Sup- pose all these worlds, whether or not a particle was left in them, were reduced to particles, and each particle represented a kalpa. The period of time since I became a buddha would exceed this by hundreds of thousands of myriads of koṭis of nayutas of incalculable kalpas. Since then I have constantly been residing in the sahā world, teaching the Dharma and inspiring sentient beings. I have also been leading and beneﬁting sentient beings in incalculable hun- dreds of thousands of myriads of koṭis of nayutas of other worlds.
“O sons of a virtuous family! During this interim I explained about the Buddha Dīpaṃkara and others. Furthermore, I also said that they had entered parinirvāṇa. I have explained such things through skillful means.
“O sons of a virtuous family! If any sentient being comes to me, I per- ceive the dullness or sharpness of his faith and other faculties with my buddha- eye. According to the way I should bring them to the path, I, myself, proclaim different names and lifespans in various places. In each case I have also clearly stated that I would enter parinirvāṇa. Through various skillful means I have explained subtle teachings and have made the sentient beings rejoice.
“O sons of a virtuous family! To those beings whom the Tathāgata per- ceives as taking pleasure in the inferior teachings, who have few qualities and grave deﬁlements, he teaches that the Buddha attained highest, complete enlightenment after he renounced household life in his young age. However, it has been a very long time indeed since I attained buddhahood. I give such an explanation only to lead and inspire the sentient beings to enter the buddha path through skillful means.
“O sons of a virtuous family! The sutras that the Tathāgata has expounded are all to save the sentient beings. Whether the Tathāgata teaches about him- self or others, whether he reveals his form or that of others, whether he shows his acts or those of others, everything he says is true, never false.
“Why is this? Because the Tathāgata perceives all the marks of the triple world as they really are: that there is no birth and death, coming or going; that there is also no existence or extinction in the world, truth or falsehood, sameness or difference. The Tathāgata does not view the triple world as sen- tient beings in the triple world see it. The Tathāgata perceives such things clearly and without mistakes.
“Since sentient beings have various natures, desires, behaviors, thoughts, and distinctions, the Tathāgata, wanting to cause them to plant roots of good merit, has explained various teachings through a variety of examples, expla- nations, and illustrations. He has not desisted from doing buddha acts even for a single moment and in this way it has been an extremely long time since I attained buddhahood. My lifespan is immeasurable and incalculable. I abide forever without entering parinirvāṇa.
“O sons of a virtuous family! The lifespan that I ﬁrst attained through prac- ticing the bodhisattva path has not yet expired. It is twice as great as the num- ber previously mentioned. Although I do not actually enter parinirvāṇa I pro- claim that I do. It is through this skillful means that the Tathāgata leads and inspires sentient beings.
“Why is this? Because if the Buddha abides a long time in this world, those who have few qualities do not plant roots of good merit, acquire poor and superﬁcial characters, are attached to the desires of the ﬁve senses, and enter into the web of illusions and false views. If they see the Tathāgata always existing without extinction, they then become proud, self-willed, and negligent. The thought that the Buddha is difficult to meet and that he is to be respected cannot awaken in them. That is why the Tathāgata teaches through skillful means, saying:
O monks! You should know that the appearance of the buddhas in the world is very difficult to encounter.
“Why is this? Because some of those with little merit may not see the Buddha during the passage of immeasurable hundreds of thousands of myr- iads of koṭis of kalpas.
“For this reason I say:
O monks! It is difficult to meet the Tathāgata.
“Hearing such words, the thought that it is very difficult to meet the Tathāgata will certainly awaken in these sentient beings. Longing and yearn- ing for the Buddha, they will plant roots of good merit. For this reason, although the Tathāgata does not really pass into extinction, he nevertheless says he does.
“Furthermore, O sons of a virtuous family, the teaching of all the Buddha Tathāgatas is exactly like this. It is entirely true, never false, all for the sake of saving sentient beings.
“Suppose there were an excellent doctor. He is wise, knowledgeable, his prescriptions are effective, and he has skillfully cured a variety of dis- eases. This man has many sons, say ten, twenty, or even one hundred in num- ber. For some reason, he has to go far off to another country and, while he is away, his children, whom he has left behind, drink some poison. The poi- son starts to take effect and they roll on the ground in agony.
“At this moment their father returns home. Some of the children who have taken the poison are delirious, while others are not. Seeing their father in the distance they all rejoice greatly and kneeling respectfully address him, saying:
It is good that you have returned safely. In our ignorance we took this poison by mistake. We entreat you to cure and save us, and restore us to life.
“Seeing his children suffering in this way, the father searches for beneﬁ- cial herbs possessed of good color, aroma, and ﬂavor, according to the med- ical manual. Blending them together after grinding and sifting, he gives the mixture to the children and says:
This is an extremely beneﬁcial medicine with good color, aroma, and ﬂavor. All of you take it! It will quickly remove your pain and you will never be afﬂicted again.
“Then the children who have not become delirious see this beneﬁcial medicine of good color and aroma, and immediately take it. The afﬂiction is completely removed and they are cured. The remaining children, those who are delirious, seeing their father coming to them, rejoice and ask him to seek a cure for their illness. Although he offers them the medicine, they will not take it. Why is this? The poison has so deeply penetrated them that they have become delirious. They do not think that the medicine with good color and aroma is good.
“The father thinks:
These children are to be pitied. The poison has completely warped their minds. Although they rejoiced upon seeing me and sought a cure they will not take this beneﬁcial medicine. I will now cause them to take this medicine through skillful means.
“Then he says to them:
You should know that I am now old and feeble, close to death. I will now leave this beneﬁcial medicine here. You should take it. Do not worry about not recovering.
“Having left these instructions he goes to another country and sends a messenger back home to tell them: ‘Your father has already died.’ Upon hear- ing that their father is dead, the children become very distressed and think:
If our father had lived he would have taken pity on us and protected us. But now, abandoning us, he has died in a distant country.
“They now consider themselves orphans having no one to rely upon. Through constant grieving their minds become clear, and only then do they realize that the medicine has ﬁne color, aroma, and ﬂavor. They immediately take it and the poison is completely driven out. The father, hearing that all his children have completely recovered, immediately returns and makes his appearance.”
The Buddha then asked the bodhisattvas: “O sons of a virtuous family! Do you think there is anyone who would say that this good doctor is guilty of lying?”
The bodhisattvas replied: “No, we do not, O Bhagavat!”
The Buddha said: “I am just like this. Since I became a buddha, immeas- urable, limitless, hundreds of thousands of myriads of koṭis of nayutas of incalculable kalpas have passed. Though for the sake of sentient beings, I use skillful means and say that I will enter parinirvāṇa, there is no one who could rightly say that I am guilty of falsehood.”
Thereupon the Bhagavat, wanting to elaborate on the meaning of this further, spoke these verses:
Since I attained buddhahood,
Immeasurable hundreds of thousands of myriads Of koṭis of incalculable kalpas have passed.
I have been constantly teaching the Dharma, Through these immeasurable kalpas, Leading and inspiring
Innumerable koṭis of sentient beings
And enabling them to enter the buddha path. Using skillful means
I have manifested the state of nirvana To bring sentient beings to this path; Yet I have not actually entered nirvana,
But continually abide here expounding the Dharma. Although I am always among these erring beings, With my transcendent powers,
I prevent them from seeing me. The sentient beings,
Seeing me enter perfect extinction Earnestly revere my relics
And, ﬁlled with longing, Yearn for me.
When the sentient beings become Sincere, mild, and receptive,
And, wanting wholeheartedly to meet the Buddha, Are willing to give unsparingly
Of their bodies and lives,
Then I, together with the sangha, Will appear on Mount Gṛdhrakūṭa.
I will declare this to sentient beings:
Although I am always here without extinction, Through the power of skillful means
I manifest extinction and nonextinction.
If there are any sentient beings in other worlds Who respect and believe in me,
I will also teach them the highest Dharma.
Not knowing this, you only think That I have entered parinirvāṇa. I see all sentient beings
Submerged in the ocean of suffering. That is why, by not manifesting my form, I cause them to yearn for me.
Then, after awakening this longing, I appear and expound the Dharma; Such are my transcendent powers. For innumerable kalpas
I have constantly resided
On Mount Gṛdhrakūṭa and elsewhere. When sentient beings see themselves Amidst a conﬂagration
At the end of a kalpa,
It is in fact my tranquil land, Always full of devas and humans. All the gardens and palaces
Are adorned with various gems.
The jeweled trees abound with ﬂowers and fruits, And the sentient beings are joyful among them. The devas beat heavenly drums
Making constant and varied music. They rain down māndārava ﬂowers
Upon the Buddha and the great assembly. Although my Pure Land never decays,
The sentient beings see it as ravaged by ﬁre And torn with anxiety and distress;
They believe it is ﬁlled with these things. Because of their misdeeds
These erring sentient beings do not hear The name of the Three Treasures
For incalculable kalpas. But all who cultivate merit,
And are receptive and honest, Will see me residing here, Expounding the Dharma.
For the sake of these sentient beings I teach that the lifespan
Of the Buddha is immeasurable. To those who, after a long time, Finally see the Buddha,
I teach that it is difficult to meet him. Such is the power of my wisdom.
The light of my wisdom illuminates immeasurably And my lifespan is of innumerable kalpas.
This has been achieved through long practice. You wise ones, do not give in to doubt!
Banish all doubt forever!
The Buddha’s words are true, never false. It is like the physician
Who proclaimed his own death, Although it was untrue.
He did this to cure his delirious sons, Through excellent skillful means;
So no one could say he really spoke falsehood. I, also, being the father of the world,
Cure those who suffer.
To the deluded and unenlightened I say that I have entered nirvana,
Although, in fact, I am really here. For if they were to see me,
They would become lazy and arrogant. Attached to the desires of the ﬁve senses,
They would fall into the troubled states of being. Always aware of which sentient beings
Practice the path and which do not,
I teach the Dharma in various ways, According to their ability to be saved. I am always thinking:
By what means can I cause sentient beings to be able to Enter the highest path
And quickly attain the Dharma?