The Bodhisattva Maitreya seems to be often misunderstood by Westerners, and even in Buddhist countries, and this leaves people vulnerable to charlatans who claim to be Maitreya, or that Maitreya spoke to them. Worse yet, this gives Buddhism a bad image, and confuses it with the New Age movement.
So in an effort1, let me try to clarify what Maitreya is, and why you should disregard anyone who claims they are Maitreya.
Buddha Shakyamuni, who founded Buddhism, was a prince named Siddhartha Gautama, and through his own insight he became a Buddha, a fully-awakened one. But the term Buddha is misunderstood by Westerners. The term Buddha is really just a title like the Pope, or the President. The proper term is actually sammā-sambuddho, or fully and self-awakened one. This refers to the fact that before the Buddha, there was no Buddhist religion or anyone to teach him the truth; he just discovered it through his own talents.
In Buddhism, it is believed that the institutionalized teachings of the Buddha will decline over time, since all things in existence are subject to change and decline. The Buddha knew this, and taught that in the early era, many beings would become Enlightened easily because they were so close to a Buddha, but in later ages, it would become more and more difficult.
It’s not that the truth would decline, but people would not be able to put it into practice. They become so far removed in place and in time from the Buddha, the teachings become obscured and so people can no longer put Buddhism into practice. This is the concept of Dharma Decline.
But now things get interesting. The Buddha also taught that this process is cyclical, and that before him, other beings reached Enlightenment without anyone to help them and became Buddhas.2 Different sutras record slightly different numbers, but generally dozens of fully, self-awakened beings have existed, preached the truth, and their teachings faded over time.
A Buddha is said to appear when the Dharma has thoroughly faded, and becomes utterly unknown to society, and there can only be one such being in existence at one time.
With that said, the Buddha, both in the Theravada Pali Canon and in Mahayana sutras predicted that the next Buddha who would emerge, when his teachings had utterly vanished, would be Maitreya (Metteya in the Pali Canon). In the Pali Canon, Maitreya is only mentioned once in the Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta (DN 26) where Buddha describes his coming:
[The Buddha:] And in that time of the people with an eighty-thousand-year life-span, there will arise in the world a Blessed Lord, an arahant fully enlightened Buddha named Metteyya, endowed with wisdom and conduct, a Well-farer, Knower of the worlds, incomparable Trainer of men to be tamed, Teacher of gods and humans, enlightened and blessed, just as I am now.
As people do not have an “eighty-thousand-year” life-span at this time, it’s likely the Buddha that Maitreya is a long, long way off from coming.
Currently, Maitreya is said to dwell in the heavenly realm of Tuṣita (Tushita), where he awaits his time to be reborn in our existence. Thus, many statues of Maitreya, such as the one above, show him seated in thought, with one foot on the ground. This implies he is awaiting his time to return to the world as a Buddha (like the historical Shakyamuni Buddha), and preparing.
In the Shingon Buddhist tradition in Japan, Kūkai, the founder was reborn into the Tuṣita realm and waits upon Maitreya. So some Shingon followers who devote themselves to Kūkai or Maitreya hope to regain birth there in their next life. Also, Buddhist art featuring Maitreya will often show him sitting, but with one foot down (ready to step into the world) and looking downward in contemplation.
In Shingon Buddhism, the mantra used to represent Maitreya is:
On maitareiya sowaka
Om Compassionate One hail!
Maitreya (弥勒菩薩, miroku bosatsu in Japanese, mireuk posal 미륵보살 in Korean) also figures prominently in Mahayana Buddhist texts, such as the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life, where the Buddha lectures him on how to be virtuous and to be a proper Bodhisattva. During this time, Maitreya existed as a Bodhisattva (almost a Buddha), and stayed among the Buddha’s disciples to learn all that he could. Other Bodhisattvas such as Kannon spent time with the Buddha as well, which gave rise to teachings such as the Heart Sutra.
Maitreya as a Bodhisattva is also one of the main characters in the Lotus Sutra as well, where he asks the Buddha pointed questions about his own existence among other things.
What’s clear in Buddhism though is that Maitreya would not be reborn in this existence until long after Buddhism the religion ceased to exist. In the Buddhist texts, he is studying under the Buddha, learning everything he can, preparing his next rebirth, etc, but the sutras state over and again that the rebirth of Maitreya here would be eons from now. Some texts say he would return 5 billion years from now, others say 500,000 years from now, but in either case, it would be a long time.
Another sammā-sambuddho cannot exist until everything we know that is Buddhism has utterly disappeared. That right there means that anyone now claiming to be Maitreya is a fake, because Buddhism, although declining, is still strong and vibrant.
Throughout history, there are plenty of cult leaders and crackpots who claimed that they were Maitreya, but these people twist and distort Buddhist theology to suit their own sense of ego. Maitreya is simply another fully-awakened being in a long succession of beings who have existed far back into the mists of time, and after Maitreya, other Buddhas will emerge when the time is right.
Maitreya is a very, very long ways from appearing in the world, so please be careful when you hear claims of Maitreya’s imminent arrival, or that he has already come. With Maitreya so far in the future, a wise Buddhist will focus on the teachings that exist now, that were given by the present Buddha Shakyamuni.
P.S. For a better explanation of what a Buddha is, listen to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Dharma Talk on the life of the Buddha.
P.P.S. Repost from previous blog, but somewhat edited and expanded.
1 – Sitting on my chair at home while doing laundry.
2 – Amida (Amitabha) Buddha is considered one of the Buddhas of the past. Before becoming a Buddha himself, he had been inspired by the teachings of yet another Buddha named Lokesvararaja (world-sovereign in Sanskrit), who was the 53rd Buddha to have ever existed.