At that time the Buddha said to Śāriputra: “I will now reveal to you before the great assembly of devas, humans, śrāmaṇas, and brahmans that in the past, in the presence of two hundred thousand koṭis of buddhas, I led and inspired you constantly for the sake of the highest path. You have followed my instructions for a long time. Because I led you with skillful means, you were born in my Dharma.
At the beginning of Chapter 3, the Blessed-One reveals that this has not been the only occasion that he has presented the Buddhadharma to this great assembly; that, indeed, in the distant past he also inspired them in the presence of two hundred thousand koṭis of buddhas. This has led many to speculate that the early awakening experience by Gautama Buddha under the Bodhi-tree was only a story, a mere expedient-means to bring others to a heightened sense of awareness. Another speculation is that this early awakening experience did in fact occur, not just once, but many times in different settings and in a myriad of Buddha-lands; this also would seem to indicate that the present members in the assembly also lived many lifetimes, perhaps in many parallel dimensions as well. This is one of the many splendors of the Lotus Sutra, as it presents Buddhist Cosmology from several different vantage-points, reincarnation being a salient feature. This is truly brought home from the fact that the Blessed-One makes many predictions concerning Bodhisattvas, and also in particular here with Śāriputra:
“O Śāriputra! In the past I inspired you to seek the buddha path. Yet just now you had completely forgotten this and considered yourself to have attained nirvana. Now, because I want you to remember the path that you practiced according to your original vow in the past, I will teach the śrāvakas the Mahayana sutra called the Lotus Sutra, the instruction for the bodhisattvas and treasured lore of the buddhas.’
“O Śāriputra! In the future after immeasurable, limitless, and inconceivable kalpas, you will have paid homage to thousands of myriads of koṭis of buddhas, preserved the True Dharma, and mastered the path practiced by the bodhisattvas. You will become a buddha called Padmaprabha, a Tathāgata, Arhat, Completely Enlightened, Perfect in Knowledge and Conduct, Well-Departed, Knower of the World, Unsurpassed, Tamer of Humans, Teacher of Devas and Humans, Buddha, Bhagavat.
Notice how the Blessed-One begins by reminding Śāriputra that on numerous occasions in the past he taught him the essentials of the Buddhadharma, but that like those śrāvakas who left the assembly, he too, automatically assumed that he had already attained Nirvana. But now, because he wants him to recollect his Right Path he is speaking-presently through the Lotus Sutra by making a prediction that in the long-distant future Śāriputra will, because of his faithful homage to the Buddhadharma, will become a Buddha, a Supreme Tathāgata named Padmaprabha. Perhaps even more miraculous still is that Padmaprabha will one day make a prophecy concerning a future Buddha:
“After these twelve intermediate kalpas have passed, the Tathāgata Padmaprabha will predict Bodhisattva Dhrtiparipūrna’s attainment of highest, complete enlightenment and will address the monks, saying:
This Bodhisattva Dhrtiparipūrna will become the next buddha after me. His name will be Padmavrsabhavikrama, a Tathāgata, Arhat, Completely Enlightened. His buddha world will also be like this one.”
What I find fascinating is that each consecutive Buddha will, in turn, make predictions concerning future Tathāgatas. This particular one by Śāriputra, reincarnated as Buddha Padmaprabha, predicting that a future Bodhisattva will also become the next Buddha after him, also makes mention that the Buddha-land will be identical to the present one. It’s almost as if a form of “eternal-recurrence” is being perpetuated here; each consecutive Buddha inheriting the present-Buddha-land. All this goes to show that reincarnation has a major role to play in the perpetuation of the Buddhadharma. One can only wonder how our present saha-world is only one in a Trillion-Trillion like Buddha-fields where similar predictions are unfolding; while the life-form of these Buddhas most surely differ, their mission in promulgating the Buddhadharma remains the same.