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Bodhisattva as future Buddha

Shakyamuni Buddha predicted that his disciple Maitreya would become the next buddha in the distant future. Awaiting his destiny as the future buddha, the bodhisattva Maitreya now sits nearby in Tushita Heaven, one of the blissful meditation domains, contemplating how to save all suffering beings. He also may appear in our world, incarnated as a bodhisattva. He awakens our hopes for the future and our responsibility to future generations.

The legend of Maitreya has a long, elaborate history. After Shakyamuni himself, Maitreya was the first bodhisattva to be venerated and recounted in Buddhist sutras. Maitreya (Metteya in Pali) is documented in the Pali suttas of the Theravada tradition as well as in the Sanskrit Mahayana sutras. Maitreya is transliterated Milo in Chinese, Miroku in Japanese.

Maitreya, whose name means "loving one," has a caring and generous character. The metta, or "loving-kindness," after which Maitreya (Metteya) is named, is a traditional Buddhist mindfulness practice in which the practitioner emanates good wishes and loving thoughts toward particular beings. Although the eventual aim of such practice is to mentally bestow blessing on all beings, beginners are advised to start with family and other intimates, for whom loving thoughts are already present. Gradually these thoughts can then be extended to unknown beings and finally, perhaps, even toward one's supposed enemies. Such generous, loving wishes (generally more directed and focused than Avalokiteshvara's immediate compassion, and less deliberate than Samantabhadra's intentional efforts in the world) are central to the Maitreya archetype.

Iconography of Maitreya

As Maitreya's images circulated in central Asia, he was thought of as a patron of missionaries, who were actively spreading the Buddhist teachings there. Huge stone statues of him were built along the trade routes in central Asia and northwest China, often on borders, to show that the new country would become a future buddha field. The two huge stone buddha statues in Afghanistan that were destroyed by the Taliban government in 2001 were Maitreyas dating back to the third and fourth centuries.

Maitreya often is depicted as a bodhisattva in Tushita Heaven contemplating suffering beings. He is usually sitting on a throne, with one or both legs down, in what is sometimes referred to as Western style, fingers to his chin as if in thought. The Japanese images in this form are among the most famous Buddhist statues in the world.

Perhaps the most famous example of this contemplative Maitreya is the statue at the Koryuji Temple in Kyoto, one of the earliest Buddhist temples in Japan. Near this famous, serene Maitreya sits a smaller statue called Weeping Maitreya, sitting in the same pose, with fingers to cheek, but leaning forward and clearly crying over the suffering of beings in this age before his arrival in the world as a buddha.