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The earliest lists of past buddhas consist only of six previous buddhas plus Śākyamuni, but in subsequent centuries the list was expanded to twenty-five, beginning with a buddha known as Dīpaṃkara (Lightmaker). According to relatively late Pāli works, such as the Buddhavaṃsa and the Nidānakathā, it was in the presence of Dīpaṃkara that the future Śākyamuni first made his vow to become a buddha.

Dīpaṃkara's complete absence from the Pāli sutta literature makes it virtually certain that traditions concerning this buddha did not gain general currency until several centuries after Śākyamuni Buddha's death. The distribution of artistic images of Dīpaṃkara—which abound in Gandhāra, but are virtually absent from other sites—points to the likelihood that the story of Dīpaṃkara was first formulated on the far fringes of northwest India. It may also be significant that the story of Dīpaṃkara related in the MahĀvastu (i.193ff)—a work ascribed to the Lokottaravāda branch of the MahĀsĀṂghika school, known to have flourished in what is today Afghanistan—is rich in narrative detail, while the account found in such TheravĀda sources as the Buddhavaṃsa (and based on it, the Nidānakathā) is more formulaic. Dīpaṃkara himself eventually became the subject of jĀtaka tales relating his previous lives, preserved in medieval Theravāda texts (Derris) and in early Chinese translations (Chavannes, story no. 73).

The story of Dīpaṃkara's prediction of the future Śākyamuni's eventual attainment of buddhahood came to play an especially important role in MahĀyĀna circles, where aspiring bodhisattvas interpreted the story as an indication that they too must be reborn during the time of a living buddha and receive a prediction (vyākaraṅa) in his presence.

See also:Buddha(s); Buddha Images; India, Northwest


Chavannes, Edouard, trans. Cinq cents contes et apologues extraits du tripitaka chinois, 4 vols. Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1910.

Derris, Karen. "Virtue and Relationship in the Theravādin Biographies." Ph.D. diss. Harvard University, 2000.

Soper, Alexander. "Dīpaṃkara." In Literary Evidence for Early Buddhist Art in China. Ascona, Switzerland: Artibus Asiae, 1959.

Jan Nattier