Buddha Before The Buddha
Bridging The Mud
In Buddhist texts, Sumedha is a previous incarnation of Gotama Buddha, in which he declares his intention to become a Buddha. Buddhist texts describe this taking place when Gotama Buddha is still a Buddha-to-be (Sanskrit: bodhisattva). Traditions regard Sumedha’s life as the beginning of the spiritual journey leading to the attainment of Buddhahood by Gotama in his last life, a journey which takes place through many lifetimes.
The encounter between Sumedha and Dīpankara Buddha is the oldest Buddhist story known which deals with the path of a bodhisattva.
Encounter with Dīpankara Buddha
One day, while travelling to the city of Rammavatī, Sumedha sees people preparing a road for Dīpankara Buddha to travel on (Dīpankara is the first of twenty-four Buddhas that Sumedha will meet before becoming a Buddha himself). Being joyful on hearing the word “Buddha”, Sumedha takes responsibility for a part of the road which has not yet been finished (a metaphor for teachings that have not yet been explained), but he doesn’t manage to finish it in time for Dīpankara’s arrival.
Since he does not want to use his psychic powers to repair the road, Sumedha prostrates himself in the mud as a human bridge in front of Dīpankara Buddha and his following. He spreads out his hair, and his deer skin and bark garment on the mud to cover it fully. Later texts would come to see this is as an advanced stage in the development of Gotama, the Buddha-to-be, in that he fully dedicates himself to Buddhahood, not only in mind and in speech, but also physically. In this manner, he pays homage to Dīpankara Buddha and helps him and the monks to cross the mud unsullied.
This is regarded as a sacrifice of Sumedha’s life in that it entails many monks walking over him, and him possibly dying in the process. While doing this, Sumedha then pronounces a specific vow that, in the future, he too will become a Buddha.
Before walking over Sumedha’s body, Dīpankara stops before him and makes a prophecy that Sumedha’s wish will come true in a future lifetime: he will become the Buddha called Sākyamuni. Dīpankara also mentions several details of the future Buddha’s life, such as the names of his parents and main disciples. When Dīpankara makes this statement, many devotees who believe they cannot attain enlightenment under Dīpankara vow that they will attain it under the next Buddha, Sākyamuni.
After the prediction – with Sumedha still lying in the mud – Dīpankara Buddha and his following of monks circumambulate around Sumedha (and, in some stories, offer flowers) as a sign of respect and to celebrate Sumedha’s future Buddhahood.
The fact that people who formerly encountered Dīpankara Buddha became enlightened under another Buddha – Gotama – indicates that each Buddha is regarded as continuing the work left unfinished by the previous Buddhas.
We are all Buddhas in the mud.
Wake up clarity and count.
Teachings have to add up!