Millenarianism and Millenarian Movements

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Like most religious traditions, Buddhism has an understanding of time, both cyclic and linear, and a developed tradition of thought concerning the eventual end of the world. Within Buddhism, this tradition centers around the person of Maitreya bodhisattva, who was identified early on as the future successor to Śākyamuni Buddha. Particularly in the MahĀyĀna tradition, Maitreya came to be viewed as a messianic figure. In East Asia, the arrival of Maitreya was linked both to the apocalyptic end of the current epoch and the initiation of a future epoch in which the world would be transformed into a paradise. Historically, the worship of Maitreya has served as the seed both for general utopian longing and armed movements meant to usher in the millennium.

Judeo-Christian and Buddhist millenarianism

Millenarianism is a branch of utopianism, one specifically concerned with the arrival (or return) of a divinely portended messianic figure and the subsequent establishment of an earthly kingdom of peace and plenty. The term itself derives from the Christian belief in a thousand-year reign of Christ preceding the final judgment, leading to anticipation that the apocalypse would occur in the year 1000 c.e. For most Western readers, the concept of millenarianism is closely connected to the Judeo-Christian tradition, both the Jewish belief in the arrival of a messiah and the related Christian belief in Armageddon and the return of Christ Triumphant as described in the Book of Revelation. There is an inherent danger in relying too heavily on these conceptions of the millennium to understand similar ideas in Buddhism. The scriptural portents given by prophets of the Old and New Testaments provide a very specific picture of the arrival of the messiah and the nature of the judgment, reward, and punishment, none of which fits precisely with those of Buddhism or has much significance for millenarian movements in Buddhist history.

At the same time, however, certain elements of Judeo-Christian millenarianism are conceptually similar to those seen in other traditions (including what might be termed political millenarianism, such as the anticipated return of a mythical ruler), suggesting that millenarian thought and movements involve certain universal themes. The first such element is a system of reckoning cosmic time. In most traditions, time is composed of three parts: epochs of the mythical past, the current age, and the distant future. These three epochs are separated by events of cosmic significance in which the old order is destroyed or altered completely, and thus the recorded history of humankind falls primarily inside the second age. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the pivotal event that marked the commencement of the age of humans was the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Human history progresses in a linear fashion from that point, reaching its culmination in the arrival or return of the messiah, at which point humankind as a whole will be subjected to its final judgment.

The second element is the conception of the post-millennial paradise, which is depicted in very physical, earthly terms. Jewish messianism has historically produced a wide spectrum of ideas and movements, but is most fundamentally predicated on the physical return of the Jews to Palestine. The Christian Book of Revelation, as well, emphasizes the physicality of the millennium, with resurrection of the body and the founding of the Kingdom of God on earth. This type of millenarianism, which is predicated on the arrival of a sacred figure from heaven, is referred to as the descending motif. It is distinguished from belief in a postmortem paradise, often described as a place where purified souls await the final apocalypse. The ascent of souls to this heavenly kingdom marks this as the ascending motif.

Maitreya in South and Central Asia

Millenarian thought and devotion to Maitreya have appeared in almost every manifestation of the Buddhist tradition and may reflect pre-Buddhist themes. The arrival of a messianic and triumphant figure is based on the Indian ideal of the cakravartin, a virtuous universal monarch who is divinely destined to unify the earthly realm. Both the Buddha himself and Buddhist political figures such as King AŚoka and the Japanese prince ShŌtoku were identified with this monarch. Early contact between Buddhism and Zoroastrianism (from Iran and Bactria) may have influenced this belief with the addition of beliefs concerning Mithra, a deity associated with apocalyptic change, and the image of Saošyant, a divine savior who would appear on earth at the end of twelve cosmic cycles, purge the world of sin, and establish an immortal material paradise. Scholars are undecided as to the exact relation of these traditions to the development of Buddhist millenarianism and Maitreya worship.

Maitreya is not discussed in any of the canonical South Asian texts and is mentioned only tangentially in the canonical literature of the TheravĀda, but he catapults to prominence in the MahĀvastu (Great Story), a central text of the MahĀsĀṂghika school. This text, which outlines the theory of bodhisattvas as supernatural beings, places Maitreya at the head of a list of future buddhas. The Mahāyāna sūtras continue in this line, portraying Maitreya as a worthy monk, who spent lifetimes developing in wisdom and preaching the dharma before being reborn as a bodhisattva in the Tuṣita heaven, where he awaits his incarnation as the buddha of the next epoch.

This latter event, however, is spoken of in relatively vague terms, and it is destined to occur only in the very distant future (five billion years, by some accounts), according to cycles of growth and decay. An early Buddhist idea says that the universe oscillates between growth and decay in cycles called kalpas. All things, from the dharma to human life span (which can be as long as eighty thousand years or as short as ten) depend on this cycle, which is currently in an advanced state of decay, a phenomenon known as the decline of the dharma. Once the nadir of this cycle has passed, the universe will again begin a period of growth, and as it approaches its peak, a cakravartin king will appear to usher in Maitreya's advent and the Maitreyan Golden Age.

This formulation is significant because it placed the return of Maitreya in the distant future and says that the human world must first pass the nadir of the cosmic cycle before this can happen. Because things would get worse before they got better, people placed their hopes on the ascending motif of individual salvation, such as rebirth in the Pure Land or Tuṣita heaven, rather than the millennium.

Buddhist millenarianism in China

It was in China that the worship of Maitreya and tradition of longing for a distant golden age evolved into millenarian movements. This transformation happened for three reasons. First, when Buddhism took root in China during the first few centuries c.e., it encountered a well-established tradition of Daoist millenarianism. This tradition encompassed many of the elements that would come to be associated with Buddhist millenarianism in East Asia, such as the tripartite division of sacred time. The Daoist millenarian tradition was focused on the immanent return of a transcendent manifestation of Laozi called Lord Lao on High (taishang laojun), who would establish a millennial kingdom called the Great Peace (taiping). From the second through fourth centuries c.e., this belief served as the seed for a number of sizable rebellions, including one that was able to establish a viable, although short-lived, state in the mountainous southwest.

The second innovation was the restructuring of the theory of cosmic rise and decline so as to place the enthronement of Maitreya Buddha at the nadir of the cycle, rather than at its peak. These ideas were developed in Chinese apocryphal sūtras from the sixth century, which discussed the arrival of Maitreya as a vast cleansing that would see a cosmic battle between bodhisattvas and demons, following which a pure and perfect world would be created. This reinterpretation not only made the arrival of the millennial event more immanent, it also located it at the lowest point of human suffering. This new eschatology was especially appealing during times of demographic crisis, such as war or famine, which were now felt to portend the end of the age. Although such crises also fueled the ascending motif of Buddhist utopianism, the belief that the individual soul would find postmortem salvation in the Pure Land, Maitreya soon came to be distanced from this vision and closely associated with the descending motif of the apocalypse. This belief also provided inspiration for those who would take action to hasten along the millennium by causing the destruction that marked the end of the cycle.

The third innovation was the participation of Chinese political actors in worship of Maitreya and reinterpretation of the cakravartin, not as a precursor to the arrival of Maitreya, but as Maitreya himself. In part, this was facilitated by the pre-Buddhist belief in the divine significance of Chinese rulers as beneficiaries of the "mandate of heaven." As early as the fourth century, rulers of the Chinese Northern Wei dynasty (386–534) were identified as Buddhist deities, first as tathĀgatas and later as Maitreya. The most famous instance occurred in the late seventh century, when the empress Wu Zhao (625–705) revealed her identity as Maitreya Buddha in order to bolster her highly contested claim to the throne.

This politicization of Maitreya worship was soon turned against its masters, and came to take on the distinctly antistate stance that it has held ever since. The earliest known instances both occurred in the year 613, when two separate individuals each proclaimed themselves to be Maitreya Buddha and raised the flag of rebellion. In the eighth and eleventh centuries, large-scale uprisings were mounted under the slogan of ending the decaying epoch of Śākyamuni and ushering in the arrival of the new buddha. Finally, in the early fourteenth century, a collection of religious societies devoted to the Maitreyan vision rose in rebellion against the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), and the leader of one of these groups, Zhu Yuanzhang (1328–1398), founded the Ming (meaning "bright," an allusion to the Buddhist ideal of divine kingship, the vidyārājas; Chinese, ming wang) dynasty in 1368.

White Lotus sectarianism

The Ming dynasty brought organized Buddhism under close state control, while lay devotion became increasingly integrated into a syncretic mixture of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism known as the Three Teachings. Particularly during the Ming and Qing dynasties (mid-fourteenth through early twentieth centuries), this mixture took shape in a tradition of popular teachings known collectively as White Lotus sectarianism.

Although the White Lotus encompassed a number of independent teachings, the tradition as a whole developed through a medium of scriptures known as "precious scrolls" (baojuan), which were composed by the hundreds over the course of these six centuries. The earliest known text, dating from 1430, expounds a basic version of the White Lotus eschatology, including a tripartite division of sacred time, punctuated by periods of apocalyptic calamity between epochs, and the role of Maitreya as the buddha of the millennial third epoch. However, although Maitreya is occasionally mentioned in these scriptures in connection with the change of epoch, he is not the primary figure. Rather, the characteristically sectarian contribution to this scheme is a supreme deity called the Eternal Venerable Mother (wusheng laomu), from whom all life emanates, and who has sent a series of teachers to earth in order to save humankind from its own wickedness. This must be accomplished before the end of the second epoch, at which point, those of her human children who have cultivated goodness and purified themselves will be called to join the Dragon Flower Assembly and invited to dwell in a millennial paradise ruled over by Maitreya and the Eternal Venerable Mother.

As was the case with later Maitreyan millenarianism, the eschatological vision of the White Lotus sect sees the decay and destruction of the human order as precursors of the epochal change. Moreover, this process can be hastened by human action in the form of armed rebellion. Thus, the White Lotus tradition was strictly banned, most energetically by the Ming emperor who himself had ridden just such an uprising to power. The most notable period of White Lotus activity was during the nineteenth century, when a number of such teachings, such as the Eight Trigrams (bagua) and Primal Chaos (hunyuan) teachings, rose in rebellion, often spurred on by the claim of a leader to be the reincarnation of Maitreya. Such claims persisted well into the middle of the twentieth century, when groups such as the Way of Pervading Unity (yiguandao) prophesied that a Communist victory over the Nationalist forces would prompt the early arrival of the millennium. Even among those groups active during this period with no organizational or doctrinal ties to the White Lotus tradition, such as the mid-nineteenth-century Taipings or the Boxers five decades later, the themes of millennial world renewal are easily linked to the larger tradition of Maitreya worship.

Agrarian utopianism in Japan

In Japan, as well, native utopian ideals promised a coming age of peace and plenty. As had been the case in China, Buddhist millennialism in Japan grafted onto an extant tradition, restructuring elements so as to incorporate Buddhist terminology and figures such as Maitreya. However, in the Japanese tradition, this millennium was not premised on epochal change or the violent destruction of the world order, and as a consequence, did not serve as the inspiration for revolt as often as it did in China.

One characteristic of Japanese belief was the location of the promised land on earth, either on a mountaintop or across the sea. The pre-Buddhist cult of mountain worship was taken up and transformed by various sects of Japanese Buddhism, who established sacred mountains as the home of Maitreya and the location of the millennial paradise. The deathbed utterance of KŪkai (774–835), the deified founder of the esoteric Shingon school, that he would descend to earth with Maitreya, has prompted the belief that he remains alive and in deep meditation on Mount Kōya. This and other sacred mountains, such as Fuji and Kimpu, became regarded as gates to the Pure Land, and were the home of ascetics known as yamabushi, who dwelled between heaven and earth. Similarly, another tradition prophesied the arrival of Maitreya by ship, prompting a tradition of popular folk worship in anticipation of the triumphal arrival of Maitreya in a ship laden with rice.

See also:Apocrypha; Cosmology; Monastic Militias; Nationalism and Buddhism; Politics and Buddhism; Pure Land Buddhism; Sanjie Jiao (Three Stages School); Syncretic Sects: Three Teachings


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Thomas DuBois