Maitreya, whose name is derived from the Sanskrit word for “loving-kindness,” is revered in all Buddhist traditions as the future buddha. In some of the Buddha’s discourses, he is known as the bodhisattva Ajita, which means “unconquerable” or “unsurpassed.” He will take birth thousands of years from now and teach the Dharma anew when the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni (commonly known as Prince Siddhartha, born in the sixth century BCE) have disappeared from this world.
Buddhist scripture provides a rich description of Maitreya’s commitment to benefit others: Many eons ago, he was born as one of the thousand sons of a great world ruler. Each vowed to achieve complete spiritual awakening and are known as the 1,000 Buddhas of this current eon. Maitreya will appear at a time when humankind, seduced by luxury and leisure, will have very long lifespans and little inclination to practice virtue or compassion. His teachings will benefit countless beings and were prophesied by Buddha Shakyamuni to last thousands of years longer than his own.
As the successor of Buddha Shakyamuni, Maitreya currently resides in Tushita, the celestial realm where all buddhas reside before taking birth in our world to achieve awakening. Before Buddha Shakyamuni took birth as Prince Siddhartha, he, too, resided in this realm and empowered Maitreya as his regent.
Embodiment of the Bodhisattva Path
Like all buddhas, Maitreya spent countless lifetimes dedicated to benefiting others, progressing on the bodhisattva path. Essential to the bodhisattva path is the intention and practice of bodhicitta—the heart of awakening. In the Ornament of Clear Realization, Maitreya taught that aspiration bodhicitta is desiring complete, perfect enlightenment for the sake of others. As explained by Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche, a bodhisattva’s intentions continuously translate into actions to help all beings recognize the limitations of and suffering in samsara (the cycle of rebirth and death), and the possibility of transforming that experience into the bliss of liberation and enlightenment.
Maitreya emphasized meditation on loving-kindness as a practice for both himself and others. It is said that those who simply met him would awaken loving-kindness toward others. In this way, Maitreya is a noble example for us in these difficult times.
Teachings of Maitreya
Although Maitreya is known as the future buddha, his teachings are accessible to practitioners right now, as they were recorded by the fourth-century Indian master Asanga. A student of the Mahayana discipline, Asanga spent twelve years meditating on Maitreya, hoping to see him face to face, but saw no result. Discouraged, he left his retreat and encountered a dog whose body was covered with maggot-infested sores. Filled with compassion, Asanga sought to help the dog but not harm the maggots; he thus attempted to remove them from the dog’s body with his own tongue. As he bent down, he closed his eyes and extended his tongue, but his tongue hit the earth instead. Surprised, he opened his eyes to see Maitreya, radiant in glory. Asanga asked Maitreya why he had not appeared during the twelve years he practiced with diligence and devotion. To which Maitreya replied, I was there the whole time, but your love and compassion was not strong enough until now.
For the next fifty years, Maitreya bestowed teachings to Asanga, who transcribed them into a collection of works known as the “Five Treatises of Maitreya,” which are widely studied in Buddhist monasteries to this day. These texts are titled: The Ornament of Clear Realization; The Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras; Distinguishing the Middle from the Extremes; Distinguishing Dharma and Dharmata; and The Sublime Continuum. These teachings include a description of the entire bodhisattva path, as well as an extensive explanation of buddha nature—the pure essence inherent in all beings that, when temporary obscurations are cleared, manifests as complete buddhahood.
Maitreya in Sacred Art
Through the centuries, Maitreya appears as one of the earliest figures depicted in sacred Buddhist art. Keeping with tradition, the Maitreya statue that will grace the main hall of the Maitreya Center will feature the future buddha seated on a throne in royal posture, with his feet resting on a lotus at the base of the throne. His hands are at his heart in the hand gesture of teaching the Dharma, holding the stems of two lotuses that flower at either side of him. On the lotus to his left is a sacred vase filled with nectar, satisfying the needs of all beings and pacifying their suffering. On the lotus to his right is the Dharma wheel, representing the teachings to come in Maitreya’s time.
Inspiration for Universal Community
By providing a place to study and practice the bodhisattva ideal embodied by Maitreya, the Maitreya Center offers the unique opportunity to cultivate skills to bring about positive change in this world. The practices of a bodhisattva—generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditation, wisdom, and, most of all, loving-kindness—are genuine antidotes to suffering and its causes.
For inspiration to undertake and sustain this commitment, we look to the four-line prayer recited daily by Mahayana Buddhists around the world:
May all beings be happy and have the causes of happiness.
May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May all beings never be without the supreme bliss that is free from suffering.
May they abide in the great equanimity, free from attachment and aversion.