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In other words, did they exist first, and then Śākyamuni became a Buddha later on?

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From a canonical perspective, Shakyamuni is one of many Buddhas (i.e. humans who attained satori) and many lived before him, so the answer would be yes.

According to Therevada, each Kalpa has 1.000 Buddhas. Theravada lists some of these as "the named Buddhas":

  • Vipassī (the 998th Buddha of the vyuhakalpa)
  • Sikhī (the 999th Buddha of the vyuhakalpa)
  • Vessabhū (the 1000th and final Buddha of the vyuhakalpa)
  • Kakusandha (the first Buddha of the bhadrakalpa)
  • Koṇāgamana (the second Buddha of the bhadrakalpa)
  • Kassapa (the third Buddha of the bhadrakalpa)
  • Gautama (the fourth and present Buddha of the bhadrakalpa)

In Mahayana, Amithaba was originally a monk called Dharmakāra in very ancient times (long before Shakyamuni).

From a historical research perspective, the Mahayana deities first appear in scriptures hundreds of years after Gautama's lifetime.

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  • some addition: Maitreya seems to be the buddha after Gautama. Gautama is Śākyamuni. Vyuhakalpa is a Kalpa, and so is bhadrakalpa. According to Wikipedia, each regular Kalpa is 16,798,000 years long, and "a small kalpa is 1000 regular kalpas, or about 16 billion years. Further, a medium kalpa is roughly 320 billion years, the equivalent of 20 small kalpas. A great kalpa is 4 medium kalpas, or around 1.28 trillion years." Commented Oct 26, 2018 at 21:51
  • by the way, is Avalokiteśvara, et al, deity without being a human first? Śākyamuni and perhaps Kassapa and Maitreya are human first, and then became deity? Commented Oct 27, 2018 at 5:12
  • There's two perspectives on this: in Buddhist cosmology, someone who attains Buddhahood is no longer subject to Samsara. often depicted as the 6 realms. Avalokiteshvara and other Boddhisattvas are either regarded as inhabiting the Deva realm, or to be able to manifest in any realm. Buddhas are considered to be free of Samsara and therefore not in any of the 6 realms, or all of them - this varies between lineages. The other perspective is that Boddhisattvas manifest in any person who performs good acts or takes the vows.
    – Codosaur
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 18:23

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