Maitreya (Pal. Metteya; Chn. Mile [彌勒]; Jpn. Miroku; also Cishi [慈氏], The Compassionate One) is prominent in virtually all Buddhist traditions as a buddha of the future, the next buddha in this world, to succeed Śākyamuni. However, as is the case with some other figures, such as Amitābha, the origins of his cult are uncertain. The cult of devotion to Maitreya takes a variety of forms, with one important distinction being that contrasting the devotion directed toward him in the present in the haven in which he currently dwells as a bodhisattva, Tūsita (兜率天) – er is, there but now – to that of the devotion which aspires to one's future rebirth in this Sahā world, into which Maitreya shall, after an extraordinarily long period, descend as the next buddha – that is, here but in the future (Nattier, 1988, 25). This directionality is reflected also in the titles of some of the scriptures devoted to Maitreya, which speak, respectively, of ascent to his realm or of his descent to earth (see below).
The name Maitreya/Metteyya in Sanskrit and Pali, respectively, is easy to understand as derived from maitrī (Pali mettā), and its Tibetan translation, Byams pa, is a transparent rendering of this sense, namely “loving-kindness,” as is the Chinese Cishi. The Chinese rendering Mile, however, is somewhat more elusive, and points deeper into the name's history. As Karashima (2013, 177-178) discusses, Chinese 彌勒 represents a medieval pronunciation something like mjiei [:] lǝk, in which in particular the final k is not represented in the attested Sanskrit and Pali forms (this k is visible in some pronunciations of the Chinese characters, such as Korean Mirŭk and Japanese Miroku). Karashima notes the Bactrian coin legend Mετραγο Βουδο (Metrago Boudo; see below), the textual form Maitreya well attested in Sanskrit, and Tocharian forms Maitrāk and Metrak, and hypothesizes that “the Bactrain form *Mετραγα (*Metraga) was sanskritised to Maitraka on the one hand, [and] Gāndhārīsed to Metreya, Metrea on the other. From these Gāndhārī forms, [Buddhist Sanskrit] Maitreya [and Pali] Mettey[y]a were coined.” Rejecting for historical reasons the etymological connection with maitrī, Karashima goes on to conclude, “[t]he original meaning Mετραγα or Metreya is unknown, while its relationship with the Vedic Mitra and Avestan Mithra has not been clarified as of yet. It is possible that a god or hero, who had been worshipped in the Gandhāra region, was at some point introduced into Buddhism.”
Indeed, as Karashima also points out, there is no evidence for Maitreya as such in the very earliest strata of Buddhist literature, although he does appear in one sutta of the Pali canon (the Cakkavattisīhanādasutta), and its Chinese parallels (the only other occurrence in canonical Pali is in the Buddhavaṃsa, in the chronologically late final verse; Norman, 1983, 93). It seems likely that, historically speaking, the need for a buddha of the future would only have arisen once Śākyamuni was himself recognized as a figure of the past (for some thoughts on the background, see Anālayo, 2010b, 95-128). The idea of six buddhas of the past, with Śākyamuni as the buddha of the present, was relatively early (→Buddhas of the Past: South Asia). On the gateways to Sanchi Stūpa No.1, carved around the end of the 1st century BCE, are lines of seven bodhi trees (Marshall & Foucher, 1940, vol. I, 200, vol. II, pls. 21, 45), with Śākyamuni as the seventh buddha. Conceptually speaking, this set the stage for the notion of future buddhas as well, and indeed, although “not particularly early,” at the Gandharan site of Takht-i-bahi we find a striking image of the seven past buddhas with Maitreya as the eighth (Behrendt, 2014, 30). This arrangement is also evident in the eight seated buddha figures, belonging to the 3rd century CE, unearthed at the site of Kanaganahalli (Karnataka, India). The buddhas are seated cross-legged on pedestals, inscribed with their names, including Maitreya, here called Ajita (spelt Ayita; on Ajita, see below) (Poonacha, 2011, 328-334, 459-461; Nakanishi & von Hinüber, 2014, 75-80). As a buddha of the future, Maitreya is technically still a bodhisattva in the present age of the world, and often portrayed ichnographically as such, although sources also often assume his Buddhahood in advance, so to speak, as shown at Kanaganahalli.
Finally, it should be noted that the bodhisattva/buddha Maitreya may be, but is not always traditionally, considered distinct from the Indian Yogācāra scholastic author named likewise Maitreya (→Asaṅga; the name Maitreyanātha more properly belongs to the late Tantric master Advayavajra, on whom →Indian Tantric Authors), and there are interesting connections between Yogācāra schools and Maitreya worship (see below).
Many of the sources for the study of the development of the Maitreya legend come in the form of visual representations, but this ubiquitous figure also appears in a wide range of literature, and a number of important literary works are specifically devoted to him and to the Tuṣita heaven. These begin in India, but along with his cult, such works continued to be produced throughout Buddhist Asia. In addition to the perhaps rather late Maitreyavyākaraṇa, preserved in a variety of languages (for Skt., Lévi, 1932; Ishigami, 1989; Hartmann, 2006; Karashima, 2010, 464-466; Li & Nagashima, 2013 Tib. In P 1011; Chn. See below; the text was known even in Persian translation: Jahn, 1956, 115-120; Schopen, 1982, 228-235), six sūtras are considered as a set in Chinese (on translation status of several of these, see Legittimo, 2008):
(1) Guan Mile pusa shangsheng doushaitian jing (觀彌勒菩薩上升兜率天經, Sūtra on Visualizing Maitreya Bodhisattva's Ascending to be Reborn in the Tuṣita Heaven, T.452) traditionally (but erroneously) ascribed to Juqu Jing-sheng (沮渠京聲; du.u.), Marquis of Anyang (安陽侯) in 455 (see also Fujita, 1990, 155-161).
(2) Mile xiasheng jing (彌勒下生經, Sūtra on Maitreya's Descending to be Reborn, T. 453), traditionally (but erroneously) attributed to Dharmarakṣa (竺法護); long known to be paralleled by *Ekottarikāgama 48.3 (T. 125 [II] 187c2 – 789c27) (Sakaino, 1935, 427-428; Hayashiya, 1945, 141-215; Boucher, 1996, 279-280; Anālayo, 2010a, 7n45; Zürcher, 1982, 13n16); trans. Watanabe in Leumann, 1919, 245-254.
(3) Mile xiasheng chengfo jing (彌勒下生成佛經, T. 454), a “retranslation” of the above ascribed (probably incorrectly) to Kumārajīva (鳩摩羅什) (T. 2145 [LV] 22b27; Sakaino, 1935, 425-427, Zürcher, 1982, 12n16; Demiéville, 1935); trans., Iida & Goldstone, 2016; Watanabe in Leumann, 1919, 227-236.
(4) Mile xiasheng chengfo jing (彌勒下生成佛經, T. 455) trans., by Yijing (義淨) of the Maitreyavyākaraṇa, dating to 703; trans. Watanabe in Leumann, 1919, 237-244.
(5) Mile dachengfo jing (彌勒大成佛經, T. 456), trans., Kumārajīva in 402; trans. Watanabe in Leumann, 1919, 255-280.
(6) Mile laishi jing (彌勒來時經, T. 457), an anonymous translation dated to the Eastern Jin (317-420) in the present canon (but to the Western Jin by Hayashiya, 1945, 146, 209-210; 1941, 532-533).
All but the first of these texts are known as “decent” Sūtras, since they describe how Maitreya will descend into this world from the Tuṣita Heaven as buddha some time in the far distant future. He will teach the Dharma at three assemblies “under the dragon-flower tree” (longhua sanhui [龍華三會], T. 453 [XIV] 422b29-c11; T. 456 [XIV] 431b10-432c12), that is, under his own bodhi tree, the nagā tree (or nāgapuṣpa, understood in East Asia as “dragon-flower,” [龍華]; this is usually identified as the ironwood tree, but such identifications are notoriously problematic; on the plant, see Syed, 1990, 345-362). Especially in this world of decline, in which Śākyamuni's teaching is under threat, something at all times perceived as a guarantee that in the future the Dharma will be revived in all its glory. In this perspective, the object of the devotee may be to strive to be reborn in this world at that time, and to benefit from Maitreya's salvific teaching. It is this notion of future security and salvation in this world that led, particularly in some Chinese contexts (and in Southeast Asia; Ladwig, 2014), to an identification of Maitreya as a messiah and a millenarian figure, whose advent will overcome the present turmoil and trouble.
On the other hand, the one “ascent” sūtra among the group, the Guan Mile pusa shangsheng doushuaitian jing, advocates that believers, either prior to or after death, may ascend into the Tuṣita Heaven, where they will be guided to awakening by Maitreya. Although it is almost certain that his text, like other “guan [觀] ” or “visualization” sutras, was in fact compiled in Central Asia, it proved to be the more influential in East Asia, as a whole, and its approach made access to Maitreya not something for the distant future but proximately accessible, albeit not here in this world.
To this list of texts must minimally be added a number of Mahāyāna works, either devoted principally to Maitreya, or in which he pays a major role, although a huge number of texts mention him in one way or another (as one example, see Conze & Iida, 1968, for Maitreya as the Buddha's interlocutor in a Prajñāparamitā sūtra; a good survey of Chinese sources is given by Anderl, 2016). Among the more central texts are the Maitreyaparipṛcchā (T. 310 , D 85; trans. Liljenberg, 2016a), found also in a Tibetan translation of the Chinese translation (P. tib. 89;; Li, 2016), and in an earlier Chinese version ascribed to Dahrmarakṣa, the Mile pusa suowen benyuan jing (彌勒菩薩所問本願經, T. 349). A very short text called the Maitreyaparipṛcchādharmāṣṭaka (T. 310 ; T. 349; D 86; trans. Liljenberg, 2016b) may be of interest principally because an Indian commentary is associated with it, the extensive Mile pusa suowen jinglun (彌勒菩薩所問經論, T. 1525); also important is the Maitreyamahāsimhanāda (T. 310 , D 67), a portion of which has Maitreya as the Buddha's interlocutor. Finally, a crucial text in which Maitreya plays a very important role is the Gaṇḍavyūha, the culmination of the massive Buddhāvataṃsaka (→BEB I: Buddhāvataṃsaka). Here Maitreya and his miraculous tower (vairocanavyūhālaṃkāragarbhamahākūṭāgāra; see Granoff, 1998), in which are displayed wonder after wonder, form the final substantial stop of Sudhana's spiritual pilgrimage (Suzuki & Idzumi, 1949, 466-529); trans. from Chn. in Cleary, 1993, 1452-1502.
For its part, the Pali tradition, although among the oldest textual witnesses to the figure of Metteya, as mentioned above transmits only two references to him in the core of the Tipiṭaka (Collins, 1998, 350). He is, however, more frequently discussed in the later aṭṭhakathā and ṭīkā commentaries. Still more extensive textual traditions devoted to Metteya developed in Southeast Asia, most significantly in works circulating under the tile Anāgatavaṃsa (“Chronicle of the Future”; Dimitrov, 2016, 2017; Skilling, 1993, 111-117; ed. Minayeff, 1886; ed. and trans. Saya U Chit Tin & W. Pruitt, 1992; ed. Kyaw Hlaing, 2000; trans. Collins, 1998) and its commentaries (Filliozat, 1993), including versions of the Amatarasahdārā (ed. and trans. Stuart, 2017) and Samantabhaddikā (ed. Kyaw Hlaing, 2000; Khin Lin Myint, 2005). A large quantity of other Southeast Asian Pali texts – for example, the Dasabodhisattauddesa (Martini, 1936), Dasabodhisattuppattikathā (Saddhatissa, 1975), Dasavatthuppakaraṇa (Ver Eeche, 1976), and Sotatthakī (ed. Ñāṇ, 1928; Derris, 2000), and Phra Malai-related tales (→Phra Malai in Thailand and Southeast Asia) – also treat Metteyya in varying degrees of detail and narratives related to him are frequently represented in vernacular genres (see, inter alia, Kyaw Hlaing, 2000; Bamphen, 1992) and, extensively, in the iconographic repertoire (→Buddhas of the Past and Future in Southeast Asian Buddhism).
Some Versions of the Story
Like Śākyamuni (but unlike Amitābha, for instance), Maitreya is given a life story, and this life story is, moreover, linked to that of Śākyamuni (in the following, emphasis is placed on Sanskrit and Chinese sources, while Pali and vernacular Southeast Asian sources are less closely examined). Unlike the kṣatriya Shakyamuni, Maitreya will be born in this last life as brahmin, for some texts in the north of India, in Varanasi (T. 452 [XIV] 419c14-15), for others in the south (as in the Gaṇḍavyūha, which places him in Mālaṭa, in a village called Kūṭa; Suzuki & Idzumi, 1949, 527:8-9 [dakṣiṇāpathe mālaṭeṣu janapadeṣu kūṭagrāmake]; Cleary, 1993, 1501). He has, of course, undergone a long cycle of rebirths. The Maitreyaparipṛcchā refers to a former life in which Maitreya was the brahmin Bhadraśuddha (the name is attested in a Sanskrit fragment, Matsumura, 1993, 144, r4), under the buddha Jyotivikrīḍitābhijña. In fact, the tradition makes it clear that Maitreya began his path toward Buddhahood before Śākyamuni did. The Maitreyaparipṛcchā says that he began 42 eons earlier (D 85, dkon brtsegs, cha, 111a7; in Chinese 40 eons: T. 310  [XI] 629c21; this agrees with a passage of the Mahāvastu and its parallels, Tournier, 2017, 191). The arithmetic actually does not work out, nor do the sources try to make it do so, but these sources do agree that while the path usually takes 100 eons, Śākyamuni accomplished this in 91, because of his selflessness, becoming a buddha before Maitreya.
A past buddha named Puṣya (Tiṣya) had two disciples, Śākyamuni and Maitreya. The tradition, preserved in many sources, has it that while Maitreya was ready for buddhahood, his disciples were not ready for conversion, while the opposite was the case for Śākyamuni. Because, according to some versions, Puṣya thought that it would be easier to change the mind of one man than of many, he created the opportunity for Śākyamuni to adore him, thus saving nine eons of his effort toward buddhahood (extensive references in Lamotte, 1944-1980, vol. I, 252-253; La Vallée Poussin, 1928; Tournier, 2017, 169-174). For the Maitreyaparipṛcchā, although Maitreya did not engage in the sort of extensive giving undertaken by Śākyamuni (perhaps most evocatively as Vessantara), he attained complete awakening through skillful means (upāya) – the text narrates this as if it has already taken place, although Maitreya is nominally a “future buddha” (D 85, dkon brtsegs, cha, 113b7-114a1 ≈ T.310  [XI] 630a12; notes, however, that the same text also speaks of Maitreya's attainment of Buddhahood in the future [D 85, dkon brtsegs, cha, 115a7-b2]).
Indeed, Maitreya's buddhahood lies in the future. This is already extensively predicted even in relatively early texts (DN III.75-76, and elsewhere; Lamotte, 1988, 701). There will be a king in Ketumatī (present day Varanasi, where, as above, these texts predict Maitreya's birth) named Śaṇkha. He will have as minister Brahmāyus (Subrāhmaṇa), whose wife will be Brahmāvatī. Maitreya will be their son. Pali texts speak further of his wife (Candamukhī) and son (Brahmavaḍḍhana) (Ver Eecke, 1976, 126:24, 133). In this very fortunate age humans will life for 80,000 years. Although things are happy, and the land paradisiacal, there will still be sufficient stimulus for Maitreya to realize the fundamentally unsatisfactory nature of existence. According to some versions of the story, Śaṇkha will have a huge jeweled pillar (yūpa), but is will be destroyed (how his happens differs among versions). When Maitreya witnesses that even this splendid edifice is impermanent, he enters the forest and that very same day attains awakening (Cowell & Neil, 1886, 61:9-12; trans. Rotman, 2008, 126; T. 454 [XIV] 424b23-27; trans. Iida & Goldstone, 2016, 18; Anāgatavaṃsa vs. 66; cp. T. 1  [I] 42a17; trans. Anālayo, 2014, 15; see also Kumanoto, 2002, 7).
Maitreya and Mahākāśyapa
As pointed out particularly by Granoff (2010), the yūpa in the narrative outlined above forms a clear link, expressed both textually and visually, between Śākyamuni and Maitreya. One of the most vivid further links between the present dispensation and that to come is portrayed through the encounter of Maitreya with Śākyamuni's disciple →Mahākāśyapa. A story popular in earlier Buddhist literature recounts that kāśyapa, when his time in this world came to an end, entered a mountain to await the coming of Maitreya. When Maitreya comes, Kāśyapa will pass on to him a robe entrusted to him by Śākyamuni, thereby emphasizing the connection and continuity between the two teachings (Sakurabe 1965, 38-39), since the robe functions as a symbol or emblem of Śākyamuni's teaching (T. 125 [48.3] [II] 788c28-789a21 = T. 453 [XIV] 422b12-c4; Deeg, 1999; references in Silk, 2003, 181, n. 18, which also discusses in detail stories of Kāśyapa's acquisition of the robe from Śākyamuni, on which see also Tournier, 2017, 323-333). One Maitreya text (T. 456 [XIV] 433B19-22) has it that Kāśyapa “will take Śākyamuni Buddha's saṃghāṭi robe and give it to Maitreya, saying: '[t]he great teacher Śākyamuni, the Tathāgata, Arhat, Samyaksambuddha conferred this upon me at the time of his final nirvāṇa, commanding me to give it to the Blessed One [you, Maitreya].'” In other texts, however, Maitreya receives Śākyamuni's robes from Mahāprajāpatī (T. 202  [IV] 434a6-25; T. 203  [IV] 470a15-22), or even from Śākyamuni himself (T. 26  [I] 511b1-5; T. 44 [I] 830B26-29; T. 1545 [XXVII] 894A17-28; other variations are detailed in Silk, 2003). In yet other versions, it is not a robe but only Kāśyapa's supernaturally preserved (avikopita) skeleton that Maitreya encounters, with or without his robe (T. 190 [III] 870a24-b25; Cowell & Neil, 1886, 61:22-29).
In the future age of Maitreya, beings will not only have extremely long lifespans, but also be physically enormous; Maitreya's own body is described in such terms. This permits him, upon encountering Kāśyapa's body, to take it into his hand. The sight of the disciple's body is critical in the liberation of Maitreya's assembly (Cowell & Neil, 1886, 61:20-26; trans. Rotman, 2008, 126; Silk, 2003,200). The enormous size of Maitreya's body has been connected by some scholars with the many monumental sculptures (see below). The Anāgatavaṃsa commentary states that when, after his extremely long life, Metteyya attains nirvāṇa (nibbānadhātū) without leaving any physical remainder (that is, no body produced as a result of karmic actions, vipākakammajarūpa) (Saya U Chit Tin & Pruitt, 1992, 24).
Maitreya's relation with Ajita (阿侍多，阿耆多, etc.) is complex. At first, the names Maitreya and Ajita seem to have referred to two different individuals, Ajita being a codisciple with Maitreya under one or another teacher. One of the earliest known references is in the “Pārāyaṇavagga,” the fifth chapter of the Suttanipāta (vss. 967-1149), in which two figures, Ajita and Tissa-Metteyya, make an appearance along with 44 other students of the bramin Bāvari, who introduces them to Śākyamuni (Lamotte, 1988, 702-707). In the Chinese translation of the Dharmapada, the two figures also appear together (Chuyao jing [出曜經], T. 212 [IV] 643B29): “[o]f the sixteen brahmacārins with naked bodies, fourteen entered parinirvāṇa and two did not: Maitreya and Ajita.” (Lamotte, 1988, 705). In the much later Xianyu jing (賢愚經, T. 202 [IV] 436a1-2), the pair again appear as different figures, as they do in a passage in the Mahāvastu (Senart, 1882-1887, vol. III, 330:7-9; Karashima, 2018, 182 n.7). As mentioned above, Maitreya is depicted as the son of the minister to the ruler of Varanasi, who is entrusted to the tutelage of Bāvari. Śākyamuni then predicts that he will be born to a brahmin family, attain awakening as Maitreya, and preach three sermons (in the abovementioned three assemblies). On the other hand, the predication for Ajita is that he will become a cakravartin king called Śaṅkha, but as a result will “experience a very long time ever clinging to saṃsāra” (T. 202 [IV] 436a-4). Similarly, in Madhyamāgama 66 (中阿含經, T. 26 [I] 509C1-511A28) and the Gulai shishi jing (古來世時經, T.44 [I] 830b23-24), Maitreya is rewarded with a future as a tathāgata, while Ajita is questioned as to why he would want to continue being treated like an ignorant being (Karashima, 2018, 184-185). In other sources, such as the various versions of the Maitreyavyākaraṇa, the name Ajita is absent.
Despite this evidence that the two names often referred to separate figures, at some stage the names coalesced to produce Ajita-Maitreya, or Maitreya the Invincible, with Ajita often being used as the personal name. In the Mahāvastu (Senart, 1882-1887, vol. I, 51:5-7, new ed. Tournier, 2017, 428-429), in relation to the proclamation, by every buddha, of his immediate successor understood as the crown prince (yuvarāja), it is said: “[j]ust as I am now, the tathāgata has predicted the bodhisattva Ajita: '[a]fter me, he will become a buddha in the world, with Ajita as his personal name (nāmena), Maitreya as his family name (gotreṇa), in the capital [named] Bandhumā.'” The same text (Senart, 1882-1887, vol. III, 246:13 Karashima, 2018, 182) says, “Ajita of a brahmin family … will become Maitreya in the world in the future.” In the Anāgatavaṃsa, the Buddha informs Sāriputta that “[i]t is not possible for anyone to describe completely Ajita's great accumulation of merit. In this auspicious world cycle (bhadrakalpa), in the future, in a crore of years, there will be an Awakened One named Mettayya” (vss. 4-5, in Norman, 2006; the same combination is found in vss. 55-57 of the text). When Maitreya appears in the Sukhāvatīvyūha (Fujita, 2011, 67:6, and elsewhere) and the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka (Kern & Nanjio, 1908-1912, 309:1-2; Karashima, 2018, 189-190), the Buddha always addresses him as Ajita. The two names appear together also in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāparamitā (Wogihara, 1932-1935, 734:14-18; Karashima, 2018, 189), and other Mahāyāna scriptures (Karashima, 2018, 189-192).
The title Maitreya the Invincible led to the suggestion that his origins lay in Northwest India, and in particular with the Iranian god Mithra (comp Sol Invictus) (Przyluski, 1929, 1931; Lévi, 1932; Filliozat, 1950). The theory of a non-Indian source, although not universally accepted, is not without merit. The huge mural on the ceiling of the alcove of the eastern buddha at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, thought to belong to the 6th century, is composed of the Sun god Mithra, flying through the sky with two goddesses armed with bows, arrows, and shields in a chariot drawn by four thoroughbred horses with wings (Rowland, 1938; Grenet, 1993; Miyaji, 2016). According to Xuanzang's (玄奘; 60/602-664) Datang Xiyu ji (大唐西域記), the eastern buddha at Bamiyan was Śākyamuni (T. 2087 [LI] 873B15-17). The western buddha, however, thought to have been completed around the beginning of the 7th century, has a vault ceiling mural centered upon a seated bodhisattva Maitreya, surrounded and praised by the bodhisattvas and gods of Tuṣita Heaven. Described by Xuanzang as “sparkling gold in color and outfitted with blinding jewels” (T. 2087 [LI] 873b14), this is argued by some to be an expression of Maitreya Buddha of the “descent” tradition (Miyaji, 2004,90).