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Buddhism Teaching Resources

Buddhism Teaching Resources

Teach about Buddhism with a little help from Edinburgh Buddhist Studies

Taking the Buddha-vow: an image from the NMS

Buddhism through 108 objects in Scotland: Object 1 – A Gandharan relief of the Dipankara story

This image at the National Museum of Scotland Edinburgh shows the Buddha-to-be in a past life, taking a vow to future buddhahood at the feet of the past buddha Dipankara.

Confused? A few things to keep in mind:

  1. The buddha we call “the Buddha” is not the only buddha. Buddha means “awakened one” and is an epithet or title that he receives after he achieves buddhahood (or awakening). He is not the only buddha to have existed. (That is why some scholars use buddha-in-lower-case to refer to the category and Buddha-with-a-capital-letter to refer to the specific person also known as Gotama, Siddhartha or Shakyamuni)
  2. According to early Indian Buddhism – and to some current branches of Buddhism such as Theravada – there can only be one buddha at a time, with long times of no buddhas in between, but the series goes backwards (and forwards) indefinitely.
  3. Achieving buddhahoood takes many many lifetimes. The path is often said to begin with a vow taken at the feet of a buddha. This vow is to do everything necessary to become a buddha in a future lifetime. Often the buddha confirms that the aspiring buddha will actually become a buddha in the future!

So this is what is going on here: the Buddha of our time (Gotama, Siddhartha, Shakyamuni) is here portrayed in a distant past life. It is said that in this lifetime he was a young ascetic seeking religious teachings. He heard about the imminent visit of a buddha named Dipankara and was absolutely thrilled to learn that there was a buddha in the world at the time. As Dipankara approached, the young ascetic was worried that this eminent awakened teacher would have to walk through a patch of muddy puddle, so he used his own hair – long and matted from his life as an ascetic – to provide a walkway. He then expressed his aspiration to become a buddha in a future lifetime, and Dipankara confirmed that this would indeed happen.

You can see Dipankara in the centre of the panel, and the young ascetic (usually called Megha or Sumedha in the stories) kneeling at his feet.

The panel is from the Gandharan region, which was an early heartland of Buddhism and crucial to the development of Buddhist art. Many objects were taken from this region by soldiers and collectors, and Gandharan Buddhist art survives in collections all over the world. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has some fascinating objects, and a helpful essay if you want to learn more about this area.

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