Buddhas of the Three Times

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on July 20, 2015.)

Buddhas of the Three Times at Liurong Temple, Guangzhou

The main hall of some temples is called the "Precious Hall of the Great Hero," which refers to Shakyamuni, the historic Buddha. He is usually seated with figures on either side of him--bodhisattvas, or other Buddhas.

If Buddhas, they may be different from the central figure, or sometimes, as at Liurong Temple in Guangzhou, they are virtually identical. In this case, they are the "Buddhas of the Three Times."

To understand this better, let's talk about Buddhist time. A scholar named John Snelling pictures time as a down-turned arc, like a small mountain, with a horizontal line across it. The smaller arc above is historical time; the two curved "legs" are mythical time, with the past on the left, and the future on the right.

Everything we know of history, and all realistic projections of the future, are in the arc above the line. This is the time of Shakyamuni, "the historical Buddha." But Buddhism teaches that there were cosmic, or mythical, Buddhas before Shakyamuni, and more to come after.

Now we're ready to look at the Three Buddhas. The one on the left is Dipankara, called in Chinese Randeng Fo ("Lamp-Lighter Buddha" or in Sanskrit Dipankara). He was one of the many Buddhas who came before Shakyamuni, and in fact met him (in one of our Buddha's previous lives) and declared that he would be the next person to attain Buddhahood.

Likewise, Shakyamuni recognized his disciple named Maitreya as the next to achieve this status. Chinese know him as Mi'le Fo, often depicted as a fat, jolly man, but sometimes seen looking very much like other Buddhas.

And so we have the Buddhas of the Past Age, Present Age, and Future Age seated together, representing the "Three Times."

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