MAITREYA . Among the pantheon of Buddhist personages none offers such a complex array of incarnations as does Maitreya. His first and most important role is that of successor to Śākyamuni as a buddha who achieves the ultimate state of enlightenment after having been born as a human. The notion of Maitreya as the future Buddha is found within the traditions of all Buddhists, although there is no universal agreement about his life history or about the way in which he will realize the destiny set forth by his position as the next Buddha.
A survey of the literature provides us with some indication of the ways the Maitreya story has developed and increased in importance. The Pali canon, the source of much of our information on the early teaching, does not give Maitreya much significance, mentioning his name in only one of the early texts, the Cakkavattisīhanāda Sutta. In the noncanonic literature, two works are devoted primarily to Maitreya, the Anagatavaṃsa and the Maitreyavyākaraṇa, but the origin of these works and their precise dating are not known. An expanded version of the Maitreya story can be found in the Divyāvadāna of the Mūlasarvāstivādin school. Among this collection of tales is a story of a bodhisattva who wishes to perform an extreme act of ascetic practice and donate his head to a brahman teacher as a sign of his sincerity to pursue truth. But a deity, watching over the garden in which this scene occurs, attempts to save the bodhisattva 's life by keeping the brahman at a distance. The bodhisattva pleads with the deity to allow him to proceed because it was in this very garden that Maitreya had previously turned away from his desire to sacrifice his life for his teacher, thus failing to fulfill his highest aspirations, a flaw that should not be repeated.
The Mahāvastu, a text from the Mahāsāṃghika sect, provides a list of future Buddhas, placing Maitreya's name at the top. In this early account we find the name Ajita used to refer to Maitreya in his past lives. Later, Theravādins became quite interested in Ajita, and the story of his life was the focus of much attention by the fifth and sixth centuries. Ajita's identification as the son of King Ajātasattu of Magadha allowed the saṃgha to determine exactly where and how the bodhisattva will make his appearance when he achieves buddhahood. According to a section on Maitreya's life in the Mahāvaṃsa, a well-known history of Sri Lanka, Maitreya will reside in Tuṣita Heaven before descending to his earthly birth and maturation. The timing of this event is noted clearly. After Śākyamuni's parinirvāṇa, the world will enter a period of social and cosmological decline; five thousand years after the last buddha, the teaching will have fallen to a low ebb, and the human life-span will have been reduced to ten years. At this time the cycle will be reversed: life will improve until the length of an average life-span on earth will be eighty-thousand years. In this world of long life and an environment that will be conducive to the teaching of the Buddha, there will be a ruler, a cakravartin, who will provide for the welfare of the people and promote the teachings of the Buddha. When this paradise is ready, Maitreya will descend from Tuṣita Heaven, realize his full potential as a buddha, and teach the Dharma to advanced beings. Mahākāśyapa, one of the major disciples of Śākyamuni, will arise from the trance state he entered after the parinirvāṇa of his former teacher to once again serve a buddha and hear the teaching of the enlightened one.
This millenarian view of Maitreya is still held in the Buddhist areas of South and Southeast Asia, and in northern Myanmar (Burma) there is a belief that a contemporary teacher known as Bodaw was a universal king as well as the future Buddha Maitreya. The identification of Maitreya with leaders and founders is found consistently throughout Buddhist Asia.
Scholars have suggested that the idea of the future Buddha may be derived from the Iranian concept of the savior Saoshyant. In this light, Maitreya would represent the establishment of a world in which there is peace and abundance and where the Dharma will be taught and fully understood. Others, however, take the position that these ideas were already present in India at the time of Śākyamuni. The Buddhists, as well as the Ājīvikas and Jains, taught that there would be new tīrthaṃkaras, jinas, and Buddhas in the future. P. S. Jaini suggests that the source for the Maitreya development was within the Mahāsāṃghika school. Whereas the Theravāda paid little attention to Maitreya, giving only one canonic reference, the Mahāvastu of the Mahāsāṃghikas devotes a number of paragraphs to Maitreya, noting his name as Ajita, detailing events from his past lives, and telling of Śākyamuni's prediction of buddhahood for him. Thus, there is ample material to justify the study of Maitreya as a part of the Indian cultural and religious domain, without having to rely on a diffusionist theory of external influences to account for the notion of the future buddha.
The Mahāyāna tradition has given much attention to Maitreya, and we find in the literature many references to his life and activities. Since the Mahāyāna has emphasized the career and development of the bodhisattva, it is understandable that it would place Maitreya in this honored group. As with the earlier tradition, all Mahāyāna groups believe that Maitreya will follow in the footsteps of Śākyamuni. In the pantheon of bodhisattva s, Maitreya is not always given the highest place; he shares with such bodhisattva s as Mañjuśrī and Avalokiteśvara the esteem of the community of believers. In the Prajñāpāramitā texts, Maitreya is involved in dialogue with the Buddha and a group of disciples made up of bodhisattva s and arhats. The arhat s, even the famous followers of Śākyamuni, are ranked far below the bodhisattva s in terms of their level of understanding. Thus the Prajñāpāramitā literature depicts Maitreya as ranking above an arhat such as Śāriputra. But Maitreya is not always portrayed so flatteringly in Mahāyāna literature. For example, in an account from the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra, Mañjuśrī tells Maitreya that in the past, when he had taught the Dharma to Maitreya, Maitreya was a slothful student more interested in fame than understanding. Thus, in this meeting with his old teacher, Maitreya still needs answers to his questions. The question of whether Maitreya and Śākyamuni had ever met in any of their former lives also arises in Mahāyāna literature. The Mahākarmavibhaṅga states that the Buddha had indeed met Maitreya and praised him for his desire to live as a bodhisattva.
The Tantric tradition of later Mahāyāna seems to have had little interest in Maitreya. This tradition's dismissal of Maitreya may be seen in the Guhyasamāja Tantra, in which Maitreya is described as afraid and upset when he hears the Vajrayāna teaching. Because he is of limited learning, he is not able to comprehend this advanced instruction. The same questioning of Maitreya's level of comprehension is found in the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, in which Maitreya is unable to give a proper response to the layman Vimalakīrti, who challenges the prediction of buddhahood by questioning whether the three times (past, present, and future) can be accepted as real. If they are not real, asks Vimalakīrti, in what sense can one say that a past prediction will result in future events? Unable to respond, Maitreya is reduced to silence. Thus the Mahāyāna texts present a varied view of this bodhisattva, showing him as destined for a great position in the future but still lacking the training necessary for a full understanding of the highest teaching within the tradition.
A much more glorified depiction of Maitreya occurs in the Gaṇḍhavyuha Sūtra. Here, Maitreya appears as a teacher of the young Sudhana, who travels about searching for answers from more than fifty teachers. Upon entering Maitreya's palace, Sudhana experiences, through the power of Maitreya, a trance in which he has visions of important places in the life of the future Buddha, including the place where Maitreya achieved the trance called maitra ("kind, amicable") that is the basis for his name. Sudhana then witnesses a long line of incarnations of Maitreya, including the life in which the bodhisattva was a king and another in which he was the king of the gods. Finally, Sudhana sees the Tuṣita Heaven, where Maitreya's rebirth will occur just prior to buddhahood. Maitreya tells Sudhana that they will meet again when the final birth has been accomplished. Even the texts that teach the superiority of the Pure Land of Amitābha and are usually considered affiliated with a school that was in competition with the Maitreya cult indicate that Sudhana is one of the privileged ones who have the ability to see the realm of Amitābha.
The practice that has grown up around the figure of Maitreya goes far beyond the aspects that have been noted in the canonical and popular literature.
When Buddhism arrived in China (c. first century ce), there was considerable interest in Maitreya, in part because of the Daoist belief in the ever-possible appearance of a sage capable of giving salvation to an elite band of devotees. As early as the Eastern Jin dynasty (317–420), Buddhist cultic life was directed toward Maitreya. Indeed, one of China's most famous monks, Daoan, took a vow to be reborn in Tuṣita Heaven in order to be near Maitreya and with him when he descends to earth. In the succeeding centuries, the Northern Wei (386–535) carved two great cave complexes, the first at Yungang and the other at Longmen. At Yungang, the earlier of the two sites, the Maitreya figures are prominent, and even today visitors can see him depicted in a number of poses. The caves at Longmen also contain many Maitreya figures, most dating to the first part of the sixth century. Tsukamoto Zenryū, who charted the number of images made in Longmen, has shown that although Śākyamuni and Maitreya were the chief models in the early days, by the seventh century attention was centered instead on Amitābha and Avalokiteśvara. (See his Shina bukkyōshi kenkyū: Hokugi-hen, Tokyo, 1942, pp. 355ff.)
Interest in the Pure Land teaching reached a high level during the seventh century and continued to have support throughout the Tang period (618–907); consequently, Maitreya's image was hardly ever depicted. But while Maitreya was no longer a popular subject for cave paintings or court-sponsored projects, he was not forgotten. At this time the Chinese people transformed him into a folk deity of great importance. Although majestic images of Maitreya carved in the caves disappeared from the repetoire of artists, a new form of Maitreya—as a fat, laughing, pot-bellied person—emerged in the Song dynasty. There is evidence that this vision of Maitreya was based on a popular historical figure, a tenth-century wandering sage. He is said to have been a native of Zhejiang and to have carried a hemp bag wherever he went. Children were especially attracted to him, and he is often depicted surrounded by them. Many stories arose about his miraculous abilities, including one that tells of the discovery of a third eye on his back. Because of the eye people called him a buddha, even though he begged them not to spread the word about his characteristics. Such stories led to the belief that this wanderer was none other than Maitreya himself, who had come down to earth and taken this unlikely form, attracting people through his wisdom and loving patience. Today, the figure of Maitreya in this guise is placed at the main entrance of Chinese monasteries, where he is revered by all laymen who wish for good fortune and pros-perity.
Because he was conceived as a future Buddha who will come at a time when a great king rules, Maitreya was often used by those who wanted to secure political power or give themselves a legitimate basis for ruling. As early as the seventh century, Chinese rulers and would-be leaders were declaring themselves his incarnation or claiming they were destined to prepare the nation for the advent of the new Buddha. In 613, for example, Song Zixian, calling himself Maitreya, planned a revolt against the dynasty; later, during the Tang, Empress Wu made the same claim when she came to power. The Song dynasty (960–1279) saw the emergence of secret societies oriented to the notion that Maitreya was already in the world or that the world needed to be changed to accommodate him. The political use of Maitreya by those who challenged established authority may be one reason for the decline of royal patronage of artworks using this bodhisattva as a theme.
In Chinese cultic life Maitreya came to be associated with the three stages of cosmic time; he is the herald of the last age. In baojuan ("precious scroll") literature, which reflects the attitudes and beliefs of folk religion, we find the notion that he is a messenger who comes to earth during the last age as an ambassador of the Great Mother in order to save the sinful. A seventeenth-century baojuan text describes Maitreya as the controller of the heavens during the third age, which is symbolized by the color white. He sits on his throne, a nine-petaled lotus blossom, and waits for the time when he will rule for 108,000 years.
Maitreya was an important part of Chinese Buddhist development, in part because many millenarian movements could make full use of him without considering that he was anything but a Chinese deity; his foreign origin was forgotton. An example of the way in which motifs can spread from one culture to another is the case of Doan Minh Huyen, the charismatic Vietnamese leader who preached in regions devastated by the cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century. Doan advocated the founding of communities of believers who would teach followers and lead them to a state of spiritual perfection, thus ensuring that they would be protected from the upcoming holocaust. According to Doan, Maitreya would descend from Tuṣita Heaven to the mountains near Cambodia to preside over the Dragon Flower Assembly and bring about a new era.
The more orthodox Buddhists among the monastic and lay community were interested in Maitreya because they faced the uncertainity of living in a time when the "true teaching" was thought to be disappearing. In Maitreya, the Chinese found a deity that met their needs at many levels, and they did not hesitate to invest him with a variety of costumes, abilities, and cultic functions.
Another East Asian nation, Korea, has also paid much attention to Maitreya, in part because Buddhism was introduced on the peninsula at a time when the Maitreya cult was at the pinnacle of its importance in China. Since Maitreya practice was one of the first to be introduced, Korea held it in high esteem and continued to do so long after Chinese interest in the traditional aspects of Maitreya had died. The belief in Maitreya came to Korea from the Northern Wei and the kingdoms that followed it, and we can see him depicted in triad compositions from both the Paekche and Koguryŏ periods. Some scholars maintain that Maitreya practice in Korea was divided into two distinct approaches. Under Paekche rule, believers assumed that the nation had to prepare a proper environment for Maitreya before he would descend. During the Silla kingdom, on the other hand, it was thought that Maitreya would descend to the world and operate within it even if the times were troubled.
During the Three Kingdoms period (late fourth century–668), a semimilitary organization of young men, known as Hwarang, came to have a special relationship to Maitreya. Their association with Maitreya may be rooted in a sixth-century story about a monk who wished to have Maitreya reborn in the world so that he could pay homage to him. During a dream he discovered that Maitreya had already come into the world and had taken the form of a hwarang ("flower boy"). Identification of the hwarang with Maitreya was widespread, and it may be that the images of the bodhisattva that depict him as a pensive prince with one leg crossed over the knee of the other are visual representations of this association. During the Koryŏ period, there was much interest in the three periods of the teaching, and many believed that the final period, in which the true teaching would disappear to be replaced with a misunderstood one, had approached. Since the sūtras taught that this era would be reached fifteen hundred years after the parinirvāṇa of the Buddha, the Koreans assumed that the evil age was to start in the year 1052. There was much in subsequent centuries to justify the notion that an evil time had indeed come, and during these times of social disorder many understandably longed for the appearance of Maitreya in his role of protector. Even in the present, believers look to Maitreya for protection and assistance. Local people in Korea still approach statues of Maitreya to pray for good fortune, the birth of a son, the cure to an illness, and for protection in times of trouble.
The most distinctive images of Maitreya in Korea show a large platform secured to the top of his head, with either a tiered or a rounded form placed upon it. This headpiece may represent the stupa that Maitreya characteristically wears on the head.
The role of Maitreya in fertility cults is most easily seen in the practice now found in Korea's Cheju Island, in the northern East China Sea. At one site on the island an image of Maitreya has been placed next to a phallic stone; women come to the spot to touch the stone in the hope that this act will result in the birth of a son. When one takes an inventory of the objects toward which prayers for sons are directed, Maitreya is found alongside the Dragon King, the Mountain Spirit, and the Seven Stars. Of all the figures in the Buddhist pantheon, Maitreya was the one thought to be most able to answer particular prayers for children. This may explain the fat belly and surrounding children found in the Chinese form.
Maitreya also appears as a major element in the messianic groups that have arisen in Korea. One of these is a new religion founded in the late nineteenth century known as Chungsan-gyo, whose followers believe that a disease is present in the Kunsan area that, if not controlled, could spread throughout the world and bring destruction to the human race. Chungsan, the founder of this sect, taught that he alone had the magical spell necessary to control the disease. His followers believe that he was an incarnation of Maitreya and that he had descended to earth and for thirty years lived within an image of Maitreya. A more recent group, which has grown up around Yi Yu-song, teaches that Hananim, the primordial deity of Korean epics, the ruler of Heaven, will descend to Korea in the form of Maitreya Buddha.
Korean Buddhists continue to recognize Maitreya; twenty-seven major images of him in his majestic standing position have been constructed. Although the Chogye order of monks and nuns pays little attention to this bodhisattva, the laypeople of Korea, like those of China, refuse to let Maitreya fade from their religious practice.
The Japanese received the first information about Maitreya from Korea, a transmission that included images of the bodhisattva. Most of the monasteries said to have been founded by Shōtoku Taishi (574–622) contain statues of Maitreya in the pose of the pensive prince. It is probable that the Japanese viewed Maitreya as a kami, able to bring long life and prosperity, and thus rituals directed toward him were similar to those performed for indigenous spirits. During the later Heian period (794–1185), many felt that the time of the false teaching had been reached and found solace in the thought that Maitreya would soon descend to the earth and preach three sermons under the Dragon Flower Tree. Among those who hoped to see Maitreya was Kūkai (774–835), the founder of the Shingon sect, who proclaimed on his deathbed that he would be born into Tuṣita Heaven, where he would spend thousands of years in the presence of the future Buddha before descending with him to the world.
Later developments of the Maitreya cult can still be seen in Japan. In Kashima, for example, it is believed that the rice-laden Ship of Maitreya will one day come from a paradise out in the sea. During the Edo period (1600–1868) the Kashima area was the site of Maitreya dances in which the priestess of the shrine gave an oracle that foretold the coming year's fortune. In this capacity she reached out to the world of Maitreya, a paradise of abundance.
Some groups expect that Maitreya's future appearance will take place in Japan, on top of Kimpusan, where the Golden Land will be established and Maitreya will teach his three sermons. Followers in each of the major Buddhist areas in Asia have put forth the belief that Maitreya will be born within their own region and thus can be considered as one of their own rather than a foreigner.
Many of those who, by virtue of their membership in a Maitreya group, consider themselves an elite hope to remain on earth until Maitreya descends. In other cases, devotees believe that he has already appeared. For example, in 1773 a group known as Fujikō claimed that Maitreya had manifested himself on top of Mount Fuji. The leader, a priest named Kakugyō, announced the advent of the World of Maitreya. Later, Kakugyō sealed himself in a cell, drinking only water until his death, which his followers believe is but a stage of waiting for the new age with the future Buddha. The Fujikō articulated the hopes and aspirations of agrarian communities of the time. During the peasant rebellions of the Edo, large numbers of the group went on a pilgrimage called eejanaika, making the Ise Shrine the focus of their attention. Dancing themselves into ecstatic states, the pilgrims proclaimed that Maitreya would bring abundant harvests.
The twentieth century was a time of great interest in the "new religions" (shinkō shūkyō ), which manifested the continuing thread of belief in the future Buddha and his appearance in the world. The Ōmotokyō, for example, have close ties with Maitreya. In 1928, Deguchi Onisaburo declared himself an incarnation of Maitreya. This proclamation was made during the year of the dragon, which the oracle had described as the year when great changes would take place. Another new group, the Reiyūkai, was founded by Kubo Kakutarō and his sister-in-law Kotani Kimi, who was renowned as a faith healer and called a living Buddha by her followers. After her death the sect established a mountain training center in which her teachings are the center of attention. The identification of Kotani with Maitreya can be seen in the name of the retreat, Mirokusan, or Maitreya's Mountain.
Maitreya has been a significant figure in Buddhist thought wherever the religion has found support. For lay followers, the Maitreya cult was one method of creating good karma (Skt., karman ) for themselves and of assuring that the future would be one of bliss. The element of hope for the future is a crucial part of the idea that Maitreya will or has appeared to lead humankind toward a better time. Since the story of Maitreya has yet to be completed, he can play a part in an infinite variety of scenarios, each established to meet the requirements of a specific time and place.
Amitābha; Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, article on Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Korea; Cakravartin; Dao'an; Korean Religion; Mañjuśrī; Millenarianism, article on Chinese Millenarian Movements; Ōmotokyō; Reiyūkai Kyōdan; Saoshyant.
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Lewis R. Lancaster (1987)
Maitreya is the bodhisattva anticipated by all Buddhists traditions to become the next buddha of this world, Jambudvīpa. Currently dwelling in the Tusita heaven, Maitreya awaits rebirth at that time in the distant future when Śākyamuni Buddha's dispensation will have been completely forgotten.
Depicted as both bodhisattva and future buddha, Maitreya is frequently portrayed sitting Western-style with legs pendant, sometimes with ankles crossed. Another distinctive iconic attribute is a miniature stŪpa or funerary mound placed at the front of his head, recalling the legend that Śākyamuni Buddha's disciple MahĀkĀŚyapa remains suspended in meditation beneath a stūpa, awaiting Maitreya, to whom he will present Śākyamuni's robe and alms bowl, thus establishing the transmission of authority from one buddha to the next. East Asian Buddhists also recognize Maitreya in a particularly graceful form as the bodhisattva appearing in the lovely "pensive prince" pose and also as the "laughing buddha" ubiquitously encountered in the entryway of Chinese monasteries (and restaurants), the latter form based on the semihistorical sixth-century monk Putai, who was especially loved for his kindness to children.
A devotional cult focusing on Maitreya developed very early in India, later becoming especially prominent in Central Asia and China during the fifth and sixth centuries. Devotees sought to secure rebirth in Tusita, first to benefit from Maitreya's teaching there, and later to join him during his tenure as the next buddha. Although eventually eclipsed in East Asia by the more popular AmitĀbha cult, anticipation of Maitreya's golden age continued to erupt periodically in millenarian movements that were intensely devotional and occasionally political as well.