Maitreya: The Future Buddha

Avalokiteśvara is obviously an important deity in the Mahayana world, but there are others too. I want to mention a few others. One of these is the celestial bodhisattva Maitreya.

Waiting In Heaven

Maitreya is venerated throughout the Mahayana world and Theravada countries as well as the future Buddha, the next in the line. He is waiting in a heaven called “Tusita Heaven”, a name that simply means “the pleasurable heaven”. He is waiting until the situation is right in this world for him to come and to start the teaching of Buddhism all over again.

Since he is up there in heaven, it’s possible for us to invoke his aid. In fact, in some respects, he may be closer to us than other kinds of celestial bodhisattvas and Buddhas. You can find remarkable stories of devotion to Maitreya, specially in China, where he seems to play a particularly important role.

The Story of Xuanzang

A story that I’m particularly fond of is the story of Xuanzang, an important Chinese Buddhist monk who visited India in the 7th century. When he came down into India, he traveled like other travelers. He was floating down the Ganges on his way to visiting a monastery in the Southern part of the Ganges basin and his group was attacked by pirates.

The pirates grabbed the pilgrims and brought them to the shore, they stole all of their goods and then, as it turns out, these pirates where devotees of the goddess Durga, who in this period used to recieve human sacrifices. They saw this fat and attractive Chinese monk and they thought: “A-ha, this is the guy we need to sacrifice to Durga”.

A New Kind of Meditation

As the story is told, they formed a little mud altar there at the shore of the Ganges, they tied up Xuanzang and got ready to sacrifice him. He asked them to give him a moment to prepare himself for passage into the next life.

He sat down and he meditated. Instead of calming his mind, the way we have talked about, he visaulized Maitreya in heaven. In an imaginative process, he ascended out of this world into Maitreya’s throne room and payed homage to him. He engaged in an act of visualization of Maitreya in his heaven.

At that moment, a great storm came and blew out the waters of the Ganges into great waves, it knocked the pirates’ boats out and wiped them away into the river. The pirates bowed down and asked him to convert them to Buddhism.

How much of that story can we have confidence in I don’t know but one thing that we can take from it is that it gives us a glimpse of visualization practice. This is a different kind of meditation. Visualization here is associated with the figure of Maitreya, a celestial bodhisattva who is capable of stepping right into this world and save somebody from trouble. We can see that this is a powerful new form practice in Buddhism that has a lot of influence in the way the tradition will develop.

This article is part of the series about Mahayana Devotion.

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