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Many a birth have I traversed, seeking the Builder.
Religion is man's contact with the mysteries of the infinite, and that is why most religions have tales to tell about the beginnings and ends of things, the limitless past and the unmeasured future. The Buddhist legend-makers have imagined that mankind has existed through aeons of time, each aeon being a number of years so high that no mathematician of earth or heaven can possibly calculate it: twenty-seven zeros after ten might be a modest estimate.
Now and again in this fantastic stream of time, there arises a Buddha--an "Enlightened One"--and he becomes a teacher of his fellow man. Every one of the Buddhas teaches the same thing. When mankind forgets his teaching, it is time for a new Buddha to be born and a new Buddha-age to begin.
We are living today in the age of Gautama Buddha, but we are told that six Buddhas lived before him; some legends count twenty-four or even one hundred, and there are those that speak extravagantly of several hundred million Buddhas who walked the earth before Gautama.
Buddhas are not gods. They are human beings, no different in essence and origin from you and me: sparks of energy bound, according to Buddhist belief, upon the ever-turning Wheel of Life, and every Buddha is fated to be born and reborn throughout an eternity in many different conditions, high and low. In the beginning perhaps he is simply dumb matter, a lump of clay or a rock. After crossing an immense desert of years, his life-spark passes into plants and then animals, and it lives, dies, and is re-created through aeons untilat last it animates a man. Birth, decay, old age, death: the Buddha knows this universal cycle scores, even hundreds, of times, as indeed we all do. So far, a Buddha is Everyman.
But there is one respect in which a Buddha differs from others. At some time or another in his myriad lives he has been filled with a sublime determination: to make his soul perfect. From this moment, he is no longer a common man: he is a Bodhisattva--one who is going to be enlightened.
The story of Gautama Buddha, therefore, begins not on earth but in the jeweled and perfumed gardens of the Heaven of Delight, where enthroned in the light of a million suns, a Perfect Being sits meditating upon his long course of lives, like an accomplished actor remembering his past roles.
Once at an inexpressibly remote time he had been a conceited young divinity student named Megha who, after spending some years in the mountains reciting his scriptures and prayers until he knew them by heart, descended into a village of the plains to find it festively arrayed with banners and flowers. His first thought was that these decorations had probably been put out in his honor, but a young girl quickly robbed him of this pleasant idea. "We are holding a festival of welcome for Dipankara Buddha," she told him. "He is going to pass through our village today."
In her hand she held seven lotus flowers which she said she intended to throw beneath the feet of the famous Teacher. Megha persuaded her to sell him five of them.
He joined the throng on the highway and watched the Buddha approach, majestic and benign, his visage calm as a smooth lake. The people hailed him with delight and bowed with their palms pressed together, and the girls ran around him strewing their flowers. The Buddha drew near, and Megha tossed his lotuses; but to his utter amazement, instead of falling onto the path, they remained suspended in the air in a circular pattern, and Dipankara was turning his wonderful gaze upon him.
Megha thrilled throughout his body. Under that glance his vanity fled, and he fell to the ground with his long hair spread so that the Buddha might walk over it.
Dipankara passed on in silence; and yet in thought he had spoken to Megha. The young man felt a wish and a will arise in him: he would forge himself into a Perfect Being, like Dipankara. Fast on that thought came another, the incredible realization that it was actually going to happen; that Dipankara had in fact recognized him as a future Buddha, an Enlightened One.
Now, sitting in the gardens of the Heaven of Delight, he knew that the long discipline was almost complete. The imperfect soul that had once lent life to a divinity student had changed beyond recognition. It had become a Bodhisattva, a Buddha-to-be, with only one life left to live--that of a Teacher.
The Bodhisattva's mind embraced the earth in time and space. He chose the year, the place, the parents; and then he prepared himself for the adventure of rebirth.