Table of Contents
From the outside, Buddhism can seem quite complicated. Different schools in different countries, each citing different numbers of Buddhas, all with different names. Yet, there’s one name you’ll see in nearly all Buddhist schools of thought and that’s Maitreya – the current bodhisattva and the next person to one day become the Buddha.
What Exactly is a ‘Buddha’?
Right of the bat, we need to clarify that the Buddha is both a title and a reference to a particular historical person. The term “Buddha” is a title that means “the Awakened One” or “the Enlightened One.” It is given to a person who has achieved enlightenment (Bodhi) through their own efforts, without a teacher, and who has then shared that understanding with others.
The most well-known Buddha is Siddhartha Gautama, who is often referred to simply as “the Buddha.” Born into a royal family in what is now Nepal around the 5th or 6th century BCE, he renounced his royal life in search of understanding and a solution to human suffering. His enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, after years of seeking and rigorous practices, and his subsequent teachings form the foundation of Buddhism.
However, in Mahayana Buddhism, there are multiple Buddhas and bodhisattvas (beings who are on the path to Buddhahood), all of whom have attained or will attain enlightenment. Each is considered a Buddha in their own right. This includes Maitreya, who is prophesied to be a future Buddha.
Who Is Maitreya?
Maitreya is mentioned in several ancient texts, most notably the The Lotus Sutra (Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra). This is one of the most important and revered texts in Mahayana Buddhism. It prophesies the future arrival and enlightenment of the bodhisattva Maitreya. However, there are other texts from different Buddhist sects that also mention Maitreya.
Maitreya is one of the oldest bodhisattvas in Buddhism. His name comes from maitrī in Sanskrit, meaning friendliness or more precisely, loving friend. Other Buddhist sects have different names for him such as:
- Metteyya in Pali
- Milefo in traditional Chinese
- Miroku in Japanese
- Byams-Pa (kind or loving) in Tibetan
- Maidari in Mongolian
Regardless of which of Maitreya’s name we look at, his presence can be seen in Buddhist scriptures as far back as the 3rd century AD or some 1,800 years ago. As a bodhisattva, he is a person or a soul who is on the road to becoming Buddha and is just one step – or one reincarnation – away from it.
While there are many bodhisattvas in certain sects of Buddhism, just like there are many Buddhas, only one bodhisattva is believed to be next in line to becoming Buddha and that’s Maitreya.
This is one of those rare few things that all Buddhist schools agree on – once the time of the current Buddha Guatama is over and his teachings start fading away, Buddha Maitreya will be born to once again teach the people dharma – the Buddhist law. In the Theravada Buddhist sects, Maitreya is even seen as the last recognized bodhisattva.
Like all bodhisattvas, Maitreya is characterized by great compassion and loving-kindness (maitrī in Sanskrit, hence his name). He is considered a friend to all sentient beings, dedicated to leading them to enlightenment.
Maitreya is expected to teach the “true dharma” and guide beings to enlightenment. His teachings are anticipated to bring about a new era of enlightenment and understanding.
There are traditional depictions of Maitreya, often portrayed as either a monk or a princely bodhisattva. In many Buddhist art traditions, Maitreya is often shown with certain distinguishing iconographic characteristics. For instance, in Buddhist statues, he is sometimes shown seated with his legs either pendant or crossed, often holding a lotus, a wheel, or a vase.
People Who Have Claimed to be Maitreya
Throughout history, there have been several instances of people claiming to be the Maitreya Buddha, either for personal gain or as a spiritual statement.
These claims are often associated with new religious movements, and their leaders can amass followers through such assertions. For example, in the 5th century, a monk named Budai claimed to be Maitreya.
In the modern era, people like Jiddu Krishnamurti (in his early life, before he renounced the claim) and the Scottish artist Benjamin Creme have been associated with claims of being the Maitreya or heralding his coming.
These claims are typically met with skepticism or opposition, and most Buddhists don’t recognize these individuals as the prophesied Maitreya.
The Fifth Buddha of the Current Age
Different Buddhist sects will cite different numbers of Buddhas in human history. According to Theravada Buddhism, there have been 28 Buddhas and Maitreya will be the 29th. Some say 40+, others say fewer than 10. And it mostly seems to depend on how you count them.
According to most Buddhist tradition, all of time and space is divided into different kalpa – long periods of time or eons. Each kalpa has 1000 Buddhas in it and each Buddha’s reign lasts thousands of years. In fact, the rule of each Buddha can be divided into three periods according to the Theravada Buddhists:
- A 500-year period when the Buddha comes and starts to turn the Wheel of Law, bringing people back to following the dharma
- A 1000-year period during which the people gradually stop following the dharma as vigilantly as they did before
- A 3000-year period when people have completely forgotten the dharma
So, if each Buddha’s rule lasts thousands of years and each kalpa has a thousand Buddhas, we can imagine just how long such a period is.
The Current Kalpa
The current kalpa – called bhadrakalpa or the Auspicious aeon – is just beginning too as Maitreya is about to be its fifth Buddha. The previous kalpa was called vyuhakalpa or the glorious aeon.
The last few Buddhas to predate Maitraya from both vyuhakalpa and bhadrakalpa were as follows:
- Vipassī Buddha – The 998th Buddha of the vyuhakalpa
- Sikhī Buddha – The 999th Buddha of the vyuhakalpa
- Vessabhū Buddha – The 1000th and final Buddha of the vyuhakalpa
- Kakusandha Buddha – The first Buddha of the bhadrakalpa
- Koṇāgamana Buddha – The second Buddha of the bhadrakalpa
- Kassapa Buddha – The third Buddha of the bhadrakalpa
- Gautama Buddha – The fourth and present Buddha of the bhadrakalpa
As for when exactly bodhisattva Maitreya will become Buddha – that’s not exactly clear. If we follow the 3-period belief of the Theravada Buddhists, then we should still be in the second period as people still haven’t completely forgotten the dharma. That would then mean that there are still a few thousand years left to go of Gautama Buddha’s reign.
On the other hand, many believe that Gautama’s period is close to its end and Maitraya will soon become Buddha.
Even though we can’t be sure exactly when bodhisattva Maitreya is about to become Buddha, the scriptures have left us some clues. A lot of them seem quite impossible from today’s point of view but it remains to be seen whether they are metaphorical, or whether, how, and when they’ll come to be. Here’s what’s expected to happen before and around the arrival of Buddha Maitreya:
- People would have forgotten the dharma taught by Gautama Buddha.
- The oceans will have shrunk in size, allowing Buddha Maitreya to walk through them as he reintroduces true dharma to the whole world.
- Maitreya will be reincarnated and born at a time when people will live about eighty thousand years each on average.
- He will be born in the city of Ketumati, present day Varanasi in India.
- Ketumati’s king at the time will be King Cakkavattī Sankha, and he will be living in the old palace of King Mahāpanadā.
- King Sankha will give his castle away when he sees the new Buddha and will become one of its most fervent followers.
- Maitraya will attain Bodhi (Enlightenment) in just seven days which is the fastest possible way to manage this feat. He’ll accomplish it so easily thanks to the thousands of years of preparation he will have had beforehand.
- Maitreya Buddha will start his teachings by re-educating people about the 10 non-virtuous deeds: Murder, theft, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, abusive speech, idle speech, covetousness, harmful intent, and wrong views.
- Gautama Buddha himself will enthrone Maitraya Buddha and will present him as his successor.
Buddhism is a cyclical religion with reincarnation and new life constantly replacing the old. And Buddha is no exception from this cycle as every once in a while a new Buddha attains Enlightenment and emerges to lead the world by showing us the dharma law. With the time of Gautama Buddha drawing to its end, the time of Maitreya Buddha is believed to be coming.