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The fortunate aeon. How the thousand buddhas become enlightened

The fortunate aeon. How the thousand buddhas become enlightened

Within the interplay of space and time, worlds are born, come to maturity, and end, governed by great pulses in time that define the beginning and end of kalpas — aeons of so great an extent that they embrace the life cycles of countless world-systems and innumerable millions of beings. 

Wherever beings can look beyond survival and self to seek a higher purpose and meaning in existence, Buddhas appear to demonstrate the path to enlightenment. Through example and through analysis of the nature of existence, the supremely accomplished ones show how to break the cycle of suffering and light the way to liberation for others. But many aeons are dark: Possibilities are limited, and there are few opportunities to develop the unbounded potential of human consciousness. 

Ignorant of the implications of their existence and vulnerable to all kinds of suffering, sentient beings can only repeat an endless cycle of birth and death. Thus the appearance of even one Buddha is an occasion for great rejoicing. At the end of the previous kalpa, when the world was engulfed by flood, one thousand golden lotuses arose from the great ocean. Beings residing in the heavens understood that this auspicious sign was a harbinger of the one thousand Buddhas who would brighten the coming aeon. 

This kalpa would be known as the Bhadrakalpa, the Fortunate Aeon, a time when thousands of generations would hear the Dharma and have the opportunity to become enlightened. The Bhadrakalpa is our present aeon, and Sakyamuni, the Buddha of our present age, is the fourth of the one thousand Buddhas. Appearing in India twenty-five centuries ago, the Buddha taught the Dharma for nearly five decades. 

On many different levels he demonstrated the joys of enlightenment and the dissatisfaction and suffering inherent in worldly pleasures. Through his teachings on stupas and images he presented the body of the Buddha; through the Sutras he communicated the sound of enlightened knowledge, the speech of the Buddhas; through his awakened awareness he established the minds of others in the enlightened view, enabling them to develop the inner light of Bodhicitta. Thus he revealed the path that purifies and transforms body, speech, and mind. 

Although many centuries have passed since the Buddha’s Parinirvana, it is still possible to study and practice the teach ings he imparted, and to attain enlightenment by following the path he set forth. The path of the Dharma is both clear and systematic: If one follows it in the way the Buddha demon strated, one will certainly reach the goal. Among the many teachings offered by Sakyamuni was the Bhadrakalpika Sutra, a celebration of the great procession of Buddhas who bring such joy into the world. In its teaching it reveals the inner heart of liberation and the path followed by all who aspire to become Buddhas. Focusing on the fully enlightened Buddha, the Bhadrakalpika Sutra clarifies the ten strengths that distinguish a Buddha from all other beings. It describes the samadhi that develops these strengths, and the 8,400 perfections that form the gateway to this samadhi. 

The ten strengths of the Buddha are based on knowledge — knowledge of what is possible and impossible, knowledge of the different propensities of beings, and knowledge of the intercon nection of cause and effect, the karmic momentum that persists over many lifetimes. This knowledge includes full understand ing of previous lifetimes, as well as the causes and conditions of all forms of existence. Such knowledge is gained through samadhi, a transformation of awareness in which understanding is internalized and integrated. Arising from enlightened awareness, samadhi is the culmination of the perfections of body, speech and mind — an open channel to full comprehension of all that is. Through this channel flow the dharanls, the mental imprints of knowledge. 

The realizations that culminate in samadhi are based on practice of the six paramitas: giving, morality, patience, effort, meditation, and wisdom. Through practicing the perfections, Bodhisattvas (those in training to become Buddhas) develop the qualities of enlightenment, while also benefiting living beings — two aspects of one integrated activity. Those who fol low the teachings to gain enlightenment for others, not for themselves, are those on the Bodhisattva path of the paramitas, on the way to becoming fully enlightened Buddhas. 

 Through their practice, they mature in understanding, while exempli fying to others the great value of the perfections and demon strating how these perfections are developed. The Bhadrakalpika Sutra contains extensive teachings on the paramitas, setting forth their attributes and qualities. Within these teachings are presented the essentials of the systematic path to realization, often described as the Thirty- Seven Wings of Enlightenment: the Four Applications of Mindfulness, the Four Restraints, the Four Bases of Miraculous Power, the Five Strengths, the Five Powers, the Seven Branches of Enlightenment, and the Eightfold Path. Practicing this path removes all impediments and allows the teachings to manifest clearly in one’s thoughts, words, and deeds. 

 The Sutra often illustrates the virtues of the paramitas by referring to the Jataka, tales of the Buddha Sakyamuni in his past lives as a Bodhisattva. Through these illustrations, the focus returns to the Buddha, who embodies the culmination of the practice that leads to liberation. These passages clarify that the paramitas are not simply a conceptual system of knowl edge, but a way of understanding to be internalized and then practiced in life after life. The Bhadrakalpika Sutra affirms this teaching by describ ing the Buddhas who have already appeared during this aeon: Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni, Kasyapa, and Sakyamuni. 

 It is Sakyamuni who discloses here the attributes of the thousand Buddhas yet to come: the circumstances of their birth, their special qualities, their disciples, their span of life and the duration of their teachings, and the relics they will leave. Since the activities of a Buddha are the basis for the liberation of all beings, the Bhadrakalpika Sutra, which relates the names and attributes of this great procession of Buddhas, is revered as a highly auspicious teaching. The devotion accorded to the Bhadrakalpika Sutra arises from knowledge that human awareness has the potential to become enlightened. The presence of Buddhas in the world clearly demonstrates this potential and the value of developing it to the fullest. 

When we have understood what a Buddha is, and how one becomes a Buddha, we recognize what is possible for us as well. Honoring the Buddhas, and all that supports realization, we expand our capacity for love and compassion. From this ground can arise the aspiration to attain the Buddha’s perfect enlightenment. Although this aspiration might take lifetimes to mature, practicing the perfections is inherently joyful and satisfying, always beneficial to ourselves and to others. Appeal ing equally to the heart and the mind, the Bhadrakalpika Sutra heightens appreciation for the great value of a human exis tence, and invites us to experience the full measure of our good fortune by studying and practicing the way of the Buddhas.