This sutta takes place in Sāvatthi, the capital of the kingdom of Kosala. The Buddha was staying in "Jeta's Grove Park," at a monastery which had been donated to the sangha by a rich layman named Anāthapindika.2 After he and his monks made their morning alms-round to receive donations of food from the layfolk of the capital, a few elder monks were talking about past lives. The Buddha, by way of his "divine ear,"3 overheard the conversation and decided to go over and join them. "Monks," he said, "what were you talking about just now?"4
They filled him in, and the Buddha said, "Would you all like to hear a sermon about past lives?" "Oh, yes, that would be great!" they exclaimed. "Very well," he said. "Listen closely."
The Buddha told the monks details about the lives of six previous Buddhas, as well as his own life. The sutta presents this information through his dialogue, but for the sake of simplicity, I'm just going to present it in a list format.
i. Lived 91 aeons ago6
ii. Born to a Khattiya family
iii. From the Kondañña clan
iv. Lived when the human lifespan was 80,000 years7
v. Became enlightened beneath a trumpet-flower tree
vi. Chief Disciples: Khanda & Tissa
vii. Held three assemblies attended by many arahants:
a. One assembly with 6,800,000 arahants
b. One assembly with 100,000 arahants
c. One assembly with 80,000 arahants
viii. Chief attendant: Asoka
ix. Father: King Bandhuma
x. Mother: Queen Bandhumatī
xi. Capital city: Bandhumatī
i. Lived 31 aeons ago
ii. Born to a Khattiya family
iii. From the Kondañña clan
iv. Lived when the human lifespan was 70,000 years
v. Became enlightened beneath a white-mango tree
vi. Chief Disciples: Abhibhū & Sambhava
vii. Held three assemblies attended by many arahants:
a. One assembly with 100,000 arahants
b. One assembly with 80,000 arahants
c. One assembly with 70,000 arahants
viii. Chief attendant: Khemankara
ix. Father: King Aruna
x. Mother: Queen Pabhāvatī
xi. Capital city: Arunavatī
i. Lived 31 aeons ago
ii. Born to a Khattiya family
iii. From the Kondañña clan
iv. Lived when the human lifespan was 60,000 years
v. Became enlightened beneath a sāl-tree
vi. Chief Disciples: Sona & Uttara
vii. Held three assemblies attended by many arahants:
a. One assembly with 80,000 arahants
b. One assembly with 70,000 arahants
c. One assembly with 60,000 arahants
viii. Chief attendant: Upasanta
ix. Father: King Suppatīta
x. Mother: Queen Vassavatī
xi. Capital city: Anoma
i. Lived in the present "fortunate aeon"8
ii. Born to a Brahmin family
iii. From the Kassapa clan
iv. Lived when the human lifespan was 40,000 years
v. Became enlightened beneath an acacia tree
vi. Chief Disciples: Vidhura & Sañjīva
vii. Held one assembly attended by 40,000 arahants
viii. Chief attendant: Buddhija
ix. Father: Aggidatta
x. Mother: Visākhā
xi. Capital city: Khemavatī, ruled by King Khema
i. Lived in the present "fortunate aeon"
ii. Born to a Brahmin family
iii. From the Kassapa clan
iv. Lived when the human lifespan was 30,000 years
v. Became enlightened beneath an fig tree
vi. Chief Disciples: Bhiyyosa & Uttara
vii. Held one assembly attended by 30,000 arahants
viii. Chief attendant: Sotthija
ix. Father: Yaññadatta
x. Mother: Uttarā
xi. Capital city: Sobhavatī, ruled by King Sobha
i. Lived in the present "fortunate aeon"
ii. Born to a Brahmin family
iii. From the Kassapa clan
iv. Lived when the human lifespan was 20,000 years
v. Became enlightened beneath an banyan tree
vi. Chief Disciples: Tissa & Bhāradvāja
vii. Held one assembly attended by 20,000 arahants
viii. Chief attendant: Sabbamitta
ix. Father: Brahmadatta
x. Mother: Dhanavatī
xi. Capital city: Vārānasī (Benares), ruled by King Kikī
i. Lived in the present "fortunate aeon"
ii. Born to a Khattiya family
iii. From the Gautama clan
iv. Lived when the human lifespan was fleeting - at most, around 100 years
v. Became enlightened beneath a pipal tree
vi. Chief Disciples: Sāriputta & Moggallāna
vii. Held one assembly attended by 1,250 arahants
viii. Chief attendant: Ānanda
ix. Father: King Suddhodana9
x. Mother: Queen Māyā
xi. Capital city: Kapilavatthu
After revealing these details to the monks, the Buddha got up and returned to his dwelling. The monks continued chatting. "It's incredible how he can recall these details of all of these past Buddhas! How do you think he's able to do it? It is because he has comprehended the laws of reality10, or could it be that the gods revealed these secrets to him?"
Amusingly, the Buddha once again perceived this conversation, got right back up, and rejoined them. He asked them about their new discussion and answered their question: "Monks, I am able to recall these details of the past buddhas because I have comprehended the laws of reality. However, the gods have also spoken to me about these things, as well. Would you like to hear another sermon?" They excitedly said yes, and the Buddha started the next part of his discourse.
The Buddha recounted all of the points he mentioned regarding Vipassī Buddha above, then used the story of Vipassī's birth to explain what happens when a bodhisatta11 - a person who will become a Buddha in their final lifetime - is born. Each event is followed with "ayamettha dhammatā," meaning "this is normal in such a case" (as translated by Sujato) or "this is the rule" (as translated by Walshe). This means that these events happen consistently, as a result of natural principles, after the birth of a bodhisatta in any aeon. We may think of this in the same way how, when you toss a ball in the air, it falls to the ground due to the workings of natural forces - "this is normal in such a case."
i. The bodhisatta descends from the Tusita realm, mindful and aware all the while, into the womb of a woman.
ii. When he is conceived, the universe quakes and trembles, and is pervaded by a brilliant light. This light even reaches dark depths of space, where the light of the sun & moon is unknown. The beings who live there are able to see for the first time, and they become aware that they exist alongside other beings.
iii. Four gods from the four corners of the world come to guard the bodhisatta and his mother, keeping them safe from harm.
iv. His mother becomes exceptionally virtuous, refraining from: taking life; stealing; sexual misconduct; lying; and intoxication.
v. She is freed from all sexual desire, and no lustful man has the power to violate her or harm her.
vi. She experiences the pleasures of the five sense-objects.
vii. She is guarded from sickness and fatigue, resting at ease. She is able to see the bodhisatta inside of her body.
viii. Seven days after giving birth, she dies, and is reborn in the heavenly Tusita realm.
ix. The pregnancy lasts for exactly ten months.
x. She gives birth while standing up.
xi. When the bodhisatta emerges from the womb, he is first received by the gods, and then by humans afterwards.
xii. Before he touches the ground, four gods take him and gently place him before his mother, saying "Rejoice! You have birthed a mighty a son!"
xiii. The child is born clean, unsullied by any bodily fluids.12
xiv. Two streams of water appear in the sky, one cool and the other warm, and they wash the child and his mother.
xv. The child stands on the ground, takes seven strides to the north with a white parasol held above him (by a god, presumably). He looks to the four corners of the world, and declares, "I am the foremost, the eldest, and the highest in this world! This will be my final life - I will not be born again."
xvi. Once again, the universe is illuminated with a brilliant light as it quakes and trembles.
So, having told the monks about the birth of Vipassī (and all other bodhisattas), he continued the story. "King Bandhuma invited Brahmin soothsayers to come and inspect his newborn son. Excitedly, they proclaimed, 'Rejoice, O King! You have here a mighty son. The infant prince bears the 32 Marks of the Great Man!'13 This means the boy will fulfill one of two destinies, O King.
'Should he stay home, he will become a Wheel-Turning King.14 He will rule as a just and righteous monarch, leading a stable realm extending to the four corners. He will possess the seven noble treasures: the wheel-treasure, the elephant-treasure, the horse-treasure, the jewel-treasure, a treasured woman, and a treasured advisor. He will have over one-thousand sons, valiant heroes all, and they will vanquish the armies of his enemies. After conquering this land from sea to sea, he will rule through righteousness, without needing to rely on the rod or the sword.
'Should he leave home to embrace the holy life, however, he will become a perfectly-enlightened Buddha. He will make seen the light of truth in this world, shrouded as it is in the present.'"
Here, the Buddha stopped to list the 32 Marks.
i. Well-planted feet / feet with level tread
ii. The image of one-thousand-spoked wheel on the soles of his feet
iii. Projecting heels
iv. Long fingers and toes
v. Soft, tender hands and feet
vi. Hands and feet "cling gracefully" or "are net-like" (perhaps meaning they are slightly webbed)
vii. High ankles / arched feet
viii. Legs/calves "like an antelope"
ix. When standing upright, his palms can touch his knees
x. His genitals are "sheathed" (meaning either he has a foreskin, or his genitals are able to retract into his body)
xi. Golden complexion
xii. Skin so delicate that dust and dirt do not stick to it
xiii. Body hairs grow individually; no more than one from any pore
xiv. Bluish-black hair which curls clockwise
xv. Body as straight as a Brahmā god's
xvi. Muscles bulge in seven places
xvii. Chest "like a lion"
xviii. No hollow area between the shoulder-blades
xix. Proportioned "like a banyan tree" - his height equals his arm-span
xx. Cylindrical torso
xxi. Keen sense of taste
xxii. Jaws "like a lion"
xxiii. Forty teeth
xxiv. Teeth are evenly-spaced
xxv. No gaps in between teeth
xxvi. Perfectly white teeth
xxvii. Exceptionally long tongue
xxviii. Voice "like a Brahmā’s, or a karavīka/cuckoo"
xxix. Deep blue eyes
xxx. Eyelashes "like a cow"
xxxi. A soft, white tuft of hair between the eyebrows
xxxii. Head shaped "like a royal turban"
King Bandhumā gave the Brahmins clean clothes and saw that their needs were met. Then, he appointed nurses to care for his newborn son, and throughout the boy's life he was always covered with a white parasol to shield him from the weather, grass, dust, and dampness. The citizens of the realm adored the prince. He had a pleasant voice, and due to his past kamma, he had the "divine eye," enabling him to see clearly across long distances, both by daylight and in the dark of night. He was "unblinkingly watchful, like the Thirty Three Gods." As such, he was called "Vipassī."15
The boy's perspective was so clear that the king would sit the boy in his lap when judging cases. The young prince would carefully consider each case, and reach a logical solution. This is why he was known as "Vipassī."
King Bandhumā had three palaces built for the boy - one for Winter, one for Summer, and one for the rainy season. He was allowed to enjoy the five sensual pleasures (sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and tactile sensations). In the rainy seasons, he stayed upstairs for the entire four months, where he was entertained by a harem of musically-talented women.
The prince lived a simple, pleasurable life like this for many thousands of years. Eventually, Vipassī told the royal charioteer that he wanted to visit a nearby pleasure-park for a pleasant outing. There, for the first time, he saw an old, decrepit man. "What's the matter with this man?" the prince asked. The charioteer explained to the prince that the man had simply grown old. The prince was shaken. "Will I grow old like this as well?" he asked. "Yes," the charioteer responded, "all people must grow old."
The prince was crestfallen. "I've seen enough for today. Take me back to palace." When they returned, the prince brooded, saying to himself: "All who are born must grow old, like that man I saw... birth is a cursed thing!"
King Bandhumā summoned the charioteer and asked how the outing went. "Not well, Your Majesty - the prince was greatly troubled." He told the king what happened. The king recalled the prophecy of the boy's two destinies, revealed by the Brahmin soothsayers, and realized that his son might become disillusioned with the worldly life if he reflected on unpleasant things such as old age. He resolved to further numb his son's pain by surrounding him with even more sensual pleasures.
Over the course of many hundreds of thousands of years, this same series of events unfolded twice more: the prince would eventually request to go for a ride through the park, he would see some person in a harrowing state of life he had not yet learned about, and it would cause him to reflect on the suffering which befalls everyone who is born. The first sight was the old man. The second sight was a sick man, lying in his own piss and shit. The third sight was a dead man.
Eventually, the prince asked to go on a fourth trip to the park. This time, however, he saw something different: a renunciant. His head was shaven and he wore the saffron robe of one who had abandoned worldly concerns. Vipassī was taken aback by this man's appearance - clearly, he was different than other people he had met. He asked the charioteer about this man, who explained, "He is a renunciant, one who has 'gone forth' from the world. He follows Dhamma, lives serenely, performs good deeds, avoids doing harm, and cultivates compassion for living beings."
"Incredible!" said the prince. "Take me to him." Vipassī asked the renunciant about himself, and he repeated what the charioteer had said.
Vipassī was so impressed that he decided to follow in the man's footsteps, right then and there. He told the charioteer to return to the palace. He shaved his head and his facial hair, and put on saffron robes.
Word of the beloved prince's going forth spread quickly through the city of Bandhumatī. "If our great prince has been convinced to leave his royal life by some sort of teaching, it must really be something special! Why don't we follow his example?" 84,000 people shaved themselves, put on saffron robes, and left the lay life behind for holy homelessness. For some time, the prince travelled throughout the realm, accompanied by this great crowd, begging for alms as holy men did.
One day, in solitude, he realized that it was not befitting of a newly-renounced mendicant to travel with such a massive following. He resolved to live and practice the holy life alone, and he and the 84,000 separated.
With his newfound solitude, Vipassī revisted the despair he felt after those first three outings when he was a prince. "This whole world is gripped by suffering. After being born, we all grow old, we die, and will be reborn. When will an escape be found?"
Vipassī, disciplined as he was, did not give in to sorrow. He applied his mind to the problem. "Because of birth, there is old age and death. Birth is caused by continued existence.17 Continued existence is caused by clinging. Clinging is caused by craving. Craving is caused by feeling. Feeling is caused by contact. Contact is enabled by the six sense-bases. The six sense-bases are caused by mentality-materiality. Mentality-materiality is conditioned by consciousness; at the same time, consciousness is conditioned by mentality-materiality. They condition one another.18 This is how someone is born, grows old, and dies."
He went back over the process in reverse order, from its beginning - the mutual conditioning of consciousness and mentality-materiality - to the continued existence which leads to birth, old age, death, and the entire process of suffering. The word "origination" reverberated in his mind. Without the aid of a teacher, Vipassī had realized the doctrine of Dependent Origination. Vision, knowledge, wisdom, realization, and light arose in the bodhisatta. Empowered, he continued to reflect:
"How does one bring this process to an end?" Once again applying his mind, he realized: "If birth ceased, there would be no old age and death. If continued existence ceased, there would be no birth. If clinging ceased, there would be no continued existence. If craving ceased, there would be no clinging. If feeling ceased, there would be no craving. If contact ceased, there would be no feeling. If the six sense-bases ceased, there would be no contact. If the mutual conditioning of mentality-and-materiality ceased, there would be no six sense-bases. This is the path to freedom from suffering!"
Again, he went back through the process in reverse order, beginning with the cessation of the mutual conditioning of mentality-and-materiality and consciousness, leading to the cessation of the continued existence which leads to birth, old age, and death. In this way, he discovered the way to bring the cycle of suffering to an end. The word "cessation" reverberated in his mind. Without the aid of a teacher, Vipassī had realized the truth about escaping suffering. Vision, knowledge, wisdom, realization, and light arose in the bodhisatta.
Later, Vipassī applied his mind to the arising and passing of the Five Clinging-Aggregates - form, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness.19 With this, the bodhisatta attained awakening, and became a fully-enlightened Buddha.
The newly-perfected Vipassī Buddha considered teaching this Dhamma. However, he reached the conclusion that these doctrines were too deep, too difficult, and too far beyond the comprehension of people, so blinded by clinging, greed, and hatred. He realized teaching doctrines that would only fall on deaf ears would disturb his newfound tranquility. He resolved to simply live out the rest of his final lifetime, taking his insights with him to the grave.
However, a Great Brahmā detected these thoughts in Vipassī's mind. Understanding what a great loss this would be, he jumped to action. He manifested before Vipassī, arranged his robe over his shoulder, knelt on his right knee, and hailed the Buddha before him. "Lord, please teach the Dhamma! There are those alive now whose vision is not so clouded - however, they have no chance of escaping suffering if they do not hear the Dhamma. Please know that there are those ready to receive your message!" Vipassī explained his reasoning, but the Great Brahmā continued his plea. After he asked three times, Vipassī once more considered the possibility. He looked on the world with the power of a Buddha's vision, filled with compassion, and he saw that what the Great Brahmā said was true; although many people were too blinded by clinging, greed, and hatred, there were also plenty of people filled with good, ready to be taught. He saw the world like a lotus pond - some lotuses bloom underwater, mired in the mud. However, other lotuses reach the surface and stand unstained by mud or water.
The Great Brahmā realized what Vipassī Buddha had seen, and he was delighted. In verse, he proclaimed: "Go forth, hero! Victor of the battle, head of the convoy, wander through the world unchained by obligation! May the Blessed One spread the Dhamma! It will be received!"
Vipassī responded in verse: "The doors to the deathless state are open! Let those capable of hearing be faithful!" The Great Brahmā bowed, circumambulated Vipassī Buddha, and returned to his realm.
Vipassī Buddha thought to himself, "Khanda, my half-brother, and Tissa, the son of the High Priest, are wise. I'll teach them first; they'll learn the doctrines quickly. He manifested in the royal capital Bandhumatī, at the deer-park named Khema (Sanctuary). He found the park's groundskeeper, and told him, "Friend, go to the city and find Khanda and Tissa. Tell them that I, Vipassī, the fully-enlightened Buddha, wish to see them." When they arrived, they bowed and sat down to the side.
He gave them a "gradual teaching," beginning with generosity, then ethics, then the heavenly realms. He explained the dangers of sensual pleasures, and the benefits of renouncing the world.20 In this way, their minds were made ready, freed from the hindrances, joyful and calm. He gave them the special doctrine of the Buddhas: the Four Noble Truths - the truth of suffering, the origin of suffering, the fact that suffering can be brought to an end, and the path which leads there. The two men attained the Dhamma-eye, realizing: "All things which arise must pass away." All doubt was removed from them. They praised Vipassī and ordained then and there. Vipassī Buddha gave them one additional teaching, demonstrating the dangers of conditioned things, and the benefits of enlightenment. Their minds were made free from defilements, as a result of overcoming clinging. The two men became arahants.
Word of this spread quickly through Bandhumatī. A crowd of 84,000 gathered and decided that they would like to get in on the action - they all went to Khema Park and bowed to Vipassī Buddha. They received the same treatment as Khanda and Tissa, and achieved the same results.
After this, the previous group of 84,000 renunciants - those who initially followed Vipassī after he renounced the world, before he decided to live in solitude - heard what had been happening in the deer park. They went to see Vipassī once again, and they joined the ranks of Khanda, Tissa, and the other group 84,000 people.
Vipassī's newly-established sangha was now 6,800,000 strong. Eventually, while he was in solitude, he thought to himself: "The monastic order in Bandhumatī has grown so large... I believe it's time to spread out the sangha. I will tell my disciples to wander with compassion for the benefit of both gods and humans. No two disciples should travel the same road. They will spread the Dhamma to those who are ready to hear it. However, the sangha should reconvene in Bandhumatī after six years to recite the monastic code together."
A Great Brahmā21 detected this thought, and manifested himself before Vipassī. He hailed the Blessed One, and cheered, "Yes, lord! This is fantastic! Please go forward with this idea. I will even offer my help; I will personally see that the order reconvenes in six years to recite the monastic code." He bowed and circumambulated Vipassī Buddha, then returned to his own world. That afternoon, Vipassī instructed his disciples to carry out his plan. Most of them set out immediately.
84,000 monasteries came to be established across all of Jambudīpa. At the end of each year, the gods would call out to the disciples, "Venerable ones, one more year has passed!" and they would remind them how many years were left before the time to reconvene in Bandhumatī. After the sixth year, the monastics returned to Bandhumatī. Some used their own psychic powers to manifest there, while others were brought to the capital by the gods.
Vipassī Buddha began to recite the monastic code when everyone had gathered. The passage in the sutta is poetic, but here's the basic idea:
1. Do not hurt another person. 2. Do no evil. Embrace what is righteous. 3. Purify your mind. 4. Speak no ill, cause no harm. 5. Practice restraint in accordance with the monastic code. 6. Eat moderately. 7. Live in solitude. 8. Commit to attaining the higher mind.
As the Buddha told the monks earlier in the sutta, in addition to his ability to recollect the past lives of the Buddhas gained through insight - he was also informed about these events by the gods. After concluding his story about the communal recitation of Vipassī's sangha, he told them about the time the gods spoke to him about these things.
"Once, monks, I was staying in the Subhaga Forest near the town of Ukkatthā.22 In solitude, I realized something: throughout all of my lifetimes, and out of all the worlds which exist, I had never been to the Realms of the Pure Abodes.23 I decided to finally pay a visit to the gods who reside there. After manifesting in the Aviha realm, many hundreds of thousands of Aviha gods bowed before me, and began telling me what they remembered about Vipassī Buddha. [The Buddha repeats the information about Vipassī given earlier in this sutta.] They told me that they attained the fruit of the non-returner under Vipassī's guidance, and when they died, they were reborn in the Aviha realm."
Most translations greatly shorten the rest of the Buddha's statement. In brief, he went on to say that many subsequent groups of gods approached him, proclaimed the name of the Buddha under whom they attained non-returnership, and recounted details about that Buddha's life. Some of them even proclaim Gautama himself as their Buddha. Afterwards, with all the gods from the Aviha realm, he began speaking with gods from the higher realms of the Pure Abodes (Atappa, Sudassa, Sudassī, and finally, Akanittha). In each case, he was accompanied by all of the previous gods.24
The Buddha concluded, "This, monks, is how I am able to recall the past Buddhas - as a result of my insight, and because the gods have spoken with me." The monks were pleased with this discussion.
This text has several parallel versions: an individual Chinese translation (not taken from a larger collection); DĀ 1 from the Chinese Canon's Dirgha Āgama, preserved by the Dharmaguptaka sect; and a fragmented Sanskrit copy from a collection preserved by the Mūlasarvāstivāda sect.
In his translation of the Pali version, Piya Tan mentions an interesting difference between the Pali and Chinese/Sanskrit versions of this scripture. In the Pali version, when the Buddha decides to visit the sphere of the non-returners, he is depicted as visiting only the first of the Pure Abodes - the Avihā realm - where all of the other deities from the other abodes descend to visit. He goes to each successive group in the company of the previous groups.
The Chinese and Sanskrit recensions, however, depict the Buddha as travelling to each new dimension of the Pure Abodes to visit the non-returners who reside therein, rather than them descending to Avihā.
Anālayo analyzes the different ways these versions present the 32 Marks. The individual Chinese version only mentions the marks, with no further details given. The Pali version is more detailed, and DĀ 1 especially elaborates the visual imagery of these marks. It seems to have been heavily influenced by later trends in aniconic art. In the section about Vipassī's birth, it describes his feet as "radiant, which Anālayo identifies as a tell-tale sign of a text's lateness. Other details which betray an influence from artistic developments are: a focus on descriptions of his mother's right side (from where he was said to have been born); a description of his mother hanging on to a hanging tree limb during birth; the presence of four gods at the moment of delivery. He points to these features as signs that the Dirgha Āgama version was finalized relatively late in the evolution of the scriptural traditions.
In all versions except the Sanskrit copy, the marks are not included as "dharmatā." This implies that the possession of the 32 Marks is not a necessary feature of a Buddha. In other words, although someone who possesses the 32 Marks will necessarily become a Cakkavatti or a Buddha, a Buddha (and presumably a Cakkavatti as well) need not possess the 32 Marks. The Sanskrit version from the Mūlasarvāstivādins, however, does include the marks as dharmatā. This could reflect a deliberate choice in doctrine by the Mūlasarvāstivādins, or it could simply be the result of corruption in the oral preservation of the text. The latter possibility is strengthened by the fact that this version also includes "the father named Bandhumatī" as dharmatā, meaning that the father of every Buddha would have that name - something the text itself clearly contradicts. According to Anālayo, this also betrays the lateness of this version.
So: although this text likely originated relatively late in the pre-sectarian period, the Pali version seems to be the oldest, most conservative version of the discourse.
I believe it is also worth pointing out that the Chinese canon makes this text - which is quite an atypical selection from the suttas - as the first scripture in its canon. There is room to speculate if this reflects a special interest in other Buddhas and celestial figures, which also manifests itself in the wider Mahāyāna tradition. I must admit that this is my own speculation, and I don't really have anything particularly insightful to add regarding this idea.
 I want to use this first endnote to discuss two points: A) The title of the sutta, and B) the dating of this sutta. This is going to be long, so if you simply want the "tl;dr" take-away, it's this: there is plenty of evidence that suggests this sutta was composed after the Buddha's death.
A) The precise meaning of the word "apadāna" is complicated, but in a scriptural context, it should usually be understood as "great acts" (as translated by Piya Tan) or "legend/life story" (as translated by Walshe). In later texts, it was used to describe hagiographies of enlightened people. We find examples of this scriptural genre in the Khuddaka Nikāya under the chapter titled simply "The Apadāna," which is certainly among the latest additions to the Pali Canon.
B) This raises a question: is this sutta likewise a late addition? Walshe states quites plainly, "the sutta as it stands is clearly a late one, though with some earlier elements." Piya Tan, on the other hand, insists several times that the sutta is a relatively early work.
He declares that this sutta is unique among canonical texts in the way it uses the word "apadāna." This text is both a sutta, with a sermon delivered to an audience, as well as as an apadāna, consisting of biographical details of Buddhas (especially Vipassī). Generally, apadāna texts are distinct from suttas. This is fair enough, but puzzlingly, he claims that this text is also unique in that it is an "apadāna" focused on a Buddha. He insists that - as a rule - apadāna stories focus on monks and nuns instead of Buddhas, and that this sutta is "likely... the only time that the word is so applied, and after that time, apadāna is used specifically as a genre for past stories of [arahant] disciples of the Buddha." This, he states, indicates that DN 14 is "a relatively old sutta, compiled during the Buddha's own life-time or [within a few centures of his death.]"
This claim simply doesn't hold up. Within the Apadāna collection of the Khuddaka Nikāya, there is an entire section called the "Buddha-apadāna" which focuses on past Buddhas, much like this sutta does. There is also the "Paccekabuddha-apadāna," which focuses on "Paccekabuddhas" or "solitary Buddhas" - individuals who achieve enlightenment in an age where no proper Buddha has yet arisen, but decide not to teach the Dhamma. It is true that the section on monks, the "Thera-apadāna," is by far the largest of the Apadāna's sections, but to suggest that DN 14 is the only instance of the term "apadāna" being used for a hagiography of a Buddha is wrong. His claim is made all the more confusing because Piya Tan himself discusses the Buddha-apadāna and the Paccekabuddha-apadāna elsewhere in his essay, demonstrating he is aware that the term "apadāna" being applied to Buddhas is not exceptional in this sutta. As such, we can easily dismiss this point as potential evidence of the sutta being an early one.
Another piece of evidence Piya Tan presents is the way that later stories detailing Gautama's background strongly resemble Vipassī's story in this sutta. He states that the parallels are so close, we may assume the story of Vipassī here served as a template for the detailed account of Gautama's life. This may be true, but the most we can extrapolate from this resemblance is that this sutta is simply earlier than those later stories. This does not necessarily mean that this sutta is an early piece of the canon as a whole.
Again, Piya Tan himself notes that the earliest texts which discuss the life of Gautama contradict the details given in this very sutta. Elsewhere in his essay, he declares that the story of Gautama's royal family - which we find mentioned in this sutta - is likely a late legend which has been inserted into the scriptures. Details found in earlier suttas depict his homeland of Sakya as a republican vassal state under the dominion of the Kosalan kingdom ruled by King Pasenadi.
Piya Tan provides several examples of this: in the Aggañña Sutta (DN 27), the Buddha tells a Brahmin that the Sakyans are vassals of King Pasenadi. The Pabbajjā Sutta (Sn 3.1) depicts the Buddha introducing himself to King Bimbisara as coming from a nation "inhabited by Kosalans" (or, as translated by Sujato, "led by one loyal to the Kosalans"). The Dhammacetiya Sutta (MN 89 - Piya Tan mistakenly cites it as the Dhammadāyāda Sutta, which would be MN 3) tells of a time when King Pasenadi himself calls the Buddha a "fellow Kosalan." It is worth noting that MN 89 takes place when the Buddha was eighty years old, which tells us that any narrative claiming the Buddha hailed from an autonomous kingdom is certainly from a time after the Buddha's death. Piya Tan also notes that the earliest account of the Buddha's pre-enlightenment background is likely found in the Pāsarāsi Sutta (MN 26), and he cites Jonathan S. Walters in pointing out that it lacks any mention whatsoever of his royal parents, or any of the details found in later stories. In the light of all of these examples, the story given in DN 14 betrays its relatively late origin.
Another piece of evidence presented by Piya Tan is that the formula of Dependent Origination found in the account of Vipassī contains only 10 links, as opposed to the more commonly-found 12 link formula. He speculates that this is an earlier scheme which was concerned with the function of dependent origination within a single lifetime (since the two links of "ignorance" and "kammic formations" are missing - two links which are commonly interpreted to represent forces from past lives).
I have two issues with this: first, the 10-link formula as it is presented here in DN 14 is given when Vipassī is considering how to bring the process of birth to an end. It also includes the term "bhava," a term which contains connotations of kammically-produced "continued existence." In other words, even in this 10-link formula, there is an implicit presence of concerns extending beyond "a single lifetime."
Secondly, in the suttas there are actually many different formulas for Dependent Origination, each with different numbers of links in different orders. Some lists name links which are not found in the others. Even a precusory glance at the breadth of examples is beyond the scope of this endnote, but let it suffice for me to say this: trying to dig through these different formulas and determine which one is the earliest is mostly a matter of guesswork, and it ignores the way that these different formulas serve different purposes. The Buddha seems to have utilized the different lists in different contexts to emphasize one point or another when it was relevant to do so. I don't find the presence of the 10-link formula in this sutta to be a convincing argument for any preservation of early material, especially in the light of all the evidence for this sutta's late composition.
Finally, there is one more piece of evidence put forward by Piya Tan that I want to address: he points out that, in Vipassī's narrative, the god who makes contact with him is simply called "Mahā Brahmā," where the god in Gautama's parallel narrative (found in various points in the canon) is called "Brahmā Sahampati." This, he argues, may indicate that this sutta is older than the ones which mention Brahmā Sahampati.
There is one major problem with this assumption: in Buddhist cosmology, "Mahā Brahmā" is not an individual deity, but a title or station which is held temporarily by a being during a particular state of rebirth. In Buddhism, even the highest god is subject to death, and in the cycle of time many different beings will be "Mahā Brahmā." It is almost certainly the case that the suttas expect us to understand the "Mahā Brahmā" of Vipassī's time is not the same god as Brahmā Sahampati from Gautama's time. Again, I am puzzled, because Piya Tan acknowledges this elsewhere in his essay. I see no reason that this would lead someone to the assumption that DN 14 is older than texts which mention Brahmā Sahampati.
In closing, I should grant that there is reason to suspect this sutta is not among the absolute latest additions to the Pali Canon. After all, it has parallel versions preserved in the Chinese canon as well as fragmentary Sanskrit manuscripts, so this scripture was almost certainly canonized before any major sectarian split of the sangha, which is generally used as a mark of qualification for "early Buddhism." As such, I feel comfortable concluding that the majority of DN 14 comes from a time after the Buddha's death, but before the sangha had split into rival sects with their own unique scriptures. I would also like to wrap this note up by acknowledging that Piya Tan is an excellent source of knowledge regarding the Dhamma - surely the degree to which I rely on his essays is evident in these webpages of mine. I do not mean to disparage him or pretend that I know more than he does. I simply disagree with him saying that this sutta is from the Buddha's lifetime.
 For more information about this, see the first endnote for DN 9.
 "Dibba-sota," or "clairaudience" - the ability to hear any sound, near or far. This is one of the mental powers which can be achieved through samadhi after practicing the four jhānas.
 Of course, because he heard what they said with the "divine ear," he knew good and well what they were talking about - this was simply the Buddha's way of entering the conversation smoothly. This is something he does several times throughout the suttas.
 This list of seven Buddhas occurs at a few points in the suttas. An in-depth analysis of this doctrine isn't appropriate here, but in Piya Tan's essay on DN 14 he explores some possibilities for the origins of the sevenfold list of Buddhas - in short, it was possibly influenced by Jain and Brahmin lineages of esteemed sages and mythical foundational figures. This is not to say that the idea of other Buddhas besides Gautama is a late innovation, but nitty-gritty specifics such as the ones found here are possibly later embellishments. In any case, nothing found here is inconsistent with the framework of Buddhist cosmology as found elsewhere in the suttas, so even if these are later additions, it isn't particularly problematic.
DN 26 adds Metteyya, the future Buddha, to the Sutta Pitaka's list of Buddhas. Later texts in the Pali Canon begin to inflate the number of Buddha-figures discussed, from 8 (in the suttas) to 28 (in the Buddhavamsa). As pointed out by Piya Tan, the three "earliest" Buddhas discussed (from the perspective of the canonical chronology) in the Pali Canon were possibly influenced by the Jain idea of the "Tīrthankaras," or "ford-makers" - all three of these Buddhas have names containing that same suffix "-kara."
Outside of the Pali Canon, the selection of Buddhas grows even wider, with some early-ish Sanskrit texts naming up to 100 Buddhas. Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism eventually flourished and embraced the idea that there were infinite Buddhas, and there survives a giant "pantheon" (so to speak) of many Buddha figures.
A final point here: it should be understood that these are not past lives of Gautama Buddha. Other suttas discuss previous incarnations of Gautama before he attained enlightenment, but these Buddhas are their own distinct "lineages" or "streams" of kammic rebirth (brought to an end through their enlightenment). Likewise, the being who will become Metteya in the next Buddha-aeon is unrelated to Gautama in terms of rebirth.
 "Aeon" is a common English translation used for the Pali term "kappa," perhaps more commonly known by the Sanskrit "kalpa." This is a technical term used in Buddhism to refer to an unfathomably long period of time. Kappas serve as abstract units of measurement when discussing the periods of cyclical time. SN 15.5 describes the length of a kappa as longer than the amount of time it would take for a giant mountain to be completely eroded by being gently wiped with a cloth once every century.
 In Buddhist cosmology, human lifespans are said to be correspond with the general moral quality of the people who live in a particular aeon. The suttas depict this lifespan diminishing as time goes on, affected by a gradual moral decline. For an example of this mythology, see DN 26.
 A "fortunate" aeon is one in which at least one Buddha was born, meaning that living beings had the opportunity to encounter the Dhamma and begin the path towards enlightenment. Kakusandha, then, marks the beginning of the "fortunate aeon" in which we now live.
 See note  for a discussion of why the royal nature of the Buddha's family is likely a late legend.
 What I have rendered here as "comprehended the laws of reality" is from the Pali "dhammadhātu suppaṭividdhā." Literally, this means something to the effect of "[has] penetrated the Dhamma-element." Obviously, this is philosophical jargon, so translating it is difficult. Sujato translates it as "has clearly comprehended the principle of the teachings." Walshe translates it as "understands these things by his own penetration of the principles of Dhamma."
Piya Tan notes the nuances of the term "dhammadhātu" in its varied usages, and sheds light on how to best understand it in the context of its usage here in DN 14. It's not necessary for me to go into the details, so let this suffice: here, "dhammadhātu" is best understood as "the inherent nature of things," almost like scientific laws. So, the Buddha is telling these monks that, through the power of his mind he became able to understand the subtle workings of reality in such a way to enable him to recall the details of the lives of these previous beings. This will be explained in a following passage and its corresponding end-note.
 The word bodhisatta means "being of perfect knowledge" or "enlightenment-being," though it should be made clear that in early Buddhism the term explicitly refers to a being who will become enlightened, but has not yet achieved nibbana. The suttas do not deeply explore the idea of the bodhisatta, most often using the term simply to refer to Gautama before he achieved nibbana, or his previous lifetimes.
The suttas, as far as I'm aware, only discuss one bodhisatta at a time for any particular aeon, though technically any being on track to become a Buddha eventually could be called a bodhisatta as well. In their penultimate lifetime, they are depicted as residing in the heavenly realm of Tusita - the realm of joyous gods - until their alloted lifespan ends, at which point they are reborn as a human. That human lifetime will be their final birth, since they will finalize their kammic journey as a fully-enlightened Buddha.
Later Buddhist traditions greatly elaborated the idea of the bodhisatta - or "bodhisattva" in Sanskrit - and elevated the term to a title for a fully-enlightened being that more or less serves as a Buddha who remains in the cycle of birth and death after becoming enlightened (something which would be considered impossible in early Buddhism, since enlightenment necessarily entails the cessation of "bhava," or "continued existence"). These traditions teach that bodhisattvas do this out of their fathomless compassion for living beings, inspiring them to delay their own nibbana until they are able to help all other beings achieve nibbana for themselves.
 This, to me, reeks of late Brahminical influence. Brahmins had a preoccupation with ritual purity that is noticeably absent from other Buddhist ideas, such as graveyard meditations.
 For a detailed exploration of the ideas of the Great Man, his 32 Marks, and the Cakkavatti, see this page.
 For my own musings on the "Wheel-Turning King" as a political ideal, see my essay on the subject.
 Walshe notes that the name is related to the word "vipassanā," or insight. This dimension of the prince's name makes sense, given the following passage.
 If you are familiar with legends about the life of Gautama Buddha, this story of the prince making four outings and encountering four sights probably seems familiar. This narrative structure, in time, became associated with the life of Gautama - however, the suttas make no such claim about our own Buddha's life story. The idea of a princely bodhisatta encountering four sights which lead to his eventual renunciation seems to have originated here with the story of Vipassī. Later, post-canonical accounts projected this story onto Gautama.
 "Continued existence" is translated from "bhāva," which is a nuanced term. It conveys a mode of existence where one is producing kammic formations which will lead to rebirth.
 For more on Dependent Origination, see my essay on the Four Noble Truths. It's worth pointing out that Walshe and Piya Tan interpret this passage, which uses 10 Links instead of the usual 12, as being strictly concerned with one lifetime (as opposed to the cycle of numerous births and rebirths). Sujato's translation, however, conveys what I personally believe: this passage implicitly suggests a concern with multiple lifetimes. After all, why would Vipassī be motivated to understand the cause of "birth" if he did not believe in subsequent births? If he did not believe in subsequent rebirths, death would simply be an end to the problems caused by birth. Furthermore, the term "bhāva" (continued existence) implies the workings of kamma beyond one's present existence. Interpreting the doctrine of Dependent Origination within the confines of a single lifetime requires an unwarranted amount of doctrinal wrestling, when it's much more sensible to just acknowledge that the idea necessarily rests in the context of rebirth.
 Again, for more info, see my essay on the Four Noble Truths.
 Piya Tan notes that this is called "the progressive talk," elsewhere called "the gradual discourse" or "step-by-step teaching," and is a pericope found throughout the suttas. It describes the way the Buddha taught laypeople who were especially receptive to the Dhamma, often preparing them for more serious teachings.
 Presumably, this is the same Mahā Brahmā who convinced Vipassī to teach the Dhamma, but the sutta is vague on this point.
 This town is also mentioned in DN 3. It was in the kingdom of Kosala, and had been given to the Brahmin Pokkharasāti by King Pasenadi.
 This is because the Pure Abodes (Suddhāvāsa) are inhabited exclusively by gods who are reborn from "non-returners" - people who attain a level of awakening which enables them to attain one final rebirth in a realm of the Pure Abodes, where they will attain enlightenment. A Buddha's final lifetime takes place in the human world, so a bodhisatta will never be born in the Pure Abodes.
 Piya Tan states that the Pali version of this sutta says all of the gods from the higher abodes descended to the Aviha realm and visited the Buddha.
 "Buddhapada and the Bodhisattva Path" by Bhikku Anālayo
 "Mahāpadāna Sutta Notes" by Piya Tan