In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Maitreya

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Question of Iranian or Indo-Greek Influence
  • Decline of the Dharma and the Legend of Kāśyapa Awaiting Maitreya
  • Maitreyan Millenarianism
  • Iconography and Art History

Buddhism Maitreya
Alan Sponberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0078


The Sanskrit epithet Maitreya, or “The Benevolent One” (Pali Metteya; Sinhala Maitrī; Tib. Byam-pa = Jam-pa; Ch. Mi-le; Kor. Mireuk; Japan. Miroku), refers to the next Buddha of our world, perhaps the most protean figure in the Buddhist pantheon. Revered both as a bodhisattva and a buddha, he is encountered across virtually all of Asia, appearing in various forms, always with benevolence, to meet the needs and expectations of Buddhists of widely divergent cultures. It is thus hardly surprising that he appears as such a multivalent figure in Buddhist literature, cult practice, and art. Whether depicted standing or, more often, sitting “Western style” on a throne-like chair with legs pendent and ankles sometimes crossed, he presents a pose strikingly different from the more typical images of Buddhist iconography. While his characterization, his role, and his popularity as a cult figure have varied, sometimes significantly, from text to text, culture to culture, and century to century, his basic position in the Buddhist pantheon throughout the history of the tradition was consistently anchored in his identification as the anticipated successor to Śākyamuni, the historical Buddha of this world system. He is thus anomalously imagined and venerated in some instances as Maitreya Bodhisattva in his role as “Buddha-to-be,” currently residing in the Tuṣita Heaven, and in other contexts as Maitreya Buddha, in anticipation of his eventual rebirth as the next Buddha for this world system. He thus becomes the focus of a pan-Asian devotional cult in which aspirants seek in their next rebirth to join him in the Tuṣita Heaven to await subsequent rebirth later on earth at the time he assumes his role as the next Buddha. A major theme in all traditions of Buddhist art, he is also credited as the divine inspiration for and, according to some accounts, even as the heavenly author of key philosophical works of the Yogācāra school. In other parts of tradition, he appears in quite a different guise as the focus of popular millenarian movements, sometimes expressing purely spiritual aspirations, but often also advocating an explicit politically revolutionary agenda. Over the last century, moreover, a scholarly controversy has emerged around the question of whether his legend is of purely South Asian origin or whether it might represent the Buddhist assimilation of Central Asian messianic motifs associated with the Indo-Greek Mithra and the Zorastrian Saošyant.

General Overviews

The place of Maitreya in Buddhist culture has a long and complex history, making an initial comprehensive overview a prime desideratum for anyone seeking to pursue any more specific aspect of his many manifestations. Lancaster 2005 is at present the best place to start, providing a concise yet comprehensive general introduction covering the most important topics. Perhaps the most substantial scholarly overview of the field, however, is Demiéville 1951, while Lamotte 1958 also provides a thorough review of earlier scholarship. Kitagawa 1988 offers a broad history of religions’ perspective, noting parallels in other world religions. Sponberg and Hardacre 1988 is a good if selective introduction to the range of contemporary Maitreya scholarship. Of particular note in that collection of articles is Jaini 1988, which charts the evolution of Maitreya’s role in the earliest South Asian sources, and Nattier 1988, which offers a typological paradigm for understanding variations in the way Maitreya has been perceived and venerated at different times in the various cultures of Buddhist Asia, while also discussing the complex relationship between the various sources for the Maitreya narrative. A rather differently focused introduction is offered in Kim 1997, where the primary concern is to trace the iconographic development of Maitreya in South Asia, contrasting the cultural context behind the Greco-Indian images of the Gandhāra in modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan with those from further south in India. Looking more widely across the rest of Central and East Asia, we encounter Maitreya perhaps most typically as the focus of a devotional aspiration to be reborn in his Tuṣita Heaven, an ideal realm where the devotee can abide awaiting Maitreya’s future earthly rebirth as the next Buddha, when the Buddhist goal of enlightenment will become far easier for all. This form of Maitreya cult-practice very likely anticipated and influenced at least some aspects of the later and even more popular Pure Land devotionalism focused on Amitābha, the celestial Buddha of the West. Matsumoto 1911 provides the most comprehensive study of the textual and historical sources for the development of Maitreyan devotionalism, although Matsumoto has been criticized for overplaying the influence of Pure Land devotionalism on the Maitreya-focused devotion.

  • Demiéville, Paul. “La Yogācārabhūmi de Sangharaksa.” Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient 44.2 (1951): 339–436.

    DOI: 10.3406/befeo.1951.5178

    This masterful summary and study of one of the earliest surviving Yogācāra manuals includes substantial sections summarizing Demiéville’s careful and extensively researched conclusions regarding Maitreya’s depiction in the Indian and Chinese sources; see especially “Maitreya l’inspirateur” (pp. 376–387) and “Le paradis de Maitreya” (pp. 387–395).

  • Jaini, Padmanabh S. “Stages in the Bodhisattva Career of the Tathāgata Maitreya.” In Maitreya, the Future Buddha. Edited by Alan Sponberg and Helen Hardacre, 54–90. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    Survey of the surviving South Asian literature on Maitreya, plus a useful analysis of the four-stage career by which a bodhisattva becomes a buddha, as recorded in the Mahāvastu 1.46; good bibliography.

  • Kim, Inchang. The Future Buddha Maitreya: An Iconological Study. Emerging Perceptions in Buddhist Studies 7. New Delhi: D. K. Printworld, 1997.

    Useful initial orientation to the Indian background, with an introductory chapter surveying the legend of Maitreya, the origins and development of the Maitreya cult, and the nature of its devotional expressions.

  • Kitagawa, Joseph M. “The Many Faces of Maitreya: A Historian of Religions’ Reflections.” In Maitreya, the Future Buddha. Edited by Alan Sponberg and Helen Hardacre, 7–22. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    Useful reflections on the various guises in which Maitreya appears; includes some comparisons to other religious traditions.

  • Lamotte, Étienne. Histoire du bouddhisme indien. Louvain, Belgium: Publications Universitaires, Institut Orientaliste, 1958.

    The chapter “Le Messie Maitreya” (pp. 775–788) provides a balanced survey of Maitreya scholarship in the first half of the 20th century; the original edition has been reprinted several times and is now also available in a competent English translation.

  • Lancaster, Lewis. “Maitreya.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion. 2d rev. edition. Vol. 8. Edited by Lindsay Jones, Mircea Eliade, and Charles J. Adams. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.

    Excellent introductory survey introducing the most important historical and cultural dimensions of Maitreya across all of Asia.

  • Matsumoto Bunzaburō. Miroku jōdo ron. Tokyo: Heigo Shuppansha, 1911.

    Comprehensive study of the theme of rebirth in Maitreya’s “Pure Land,” written by one of Japan’s most eminent turn-of-the-century Buddhologists; a classic of critical textual scholarship that analyzes the East Asian transmission of traditional sources and practices related to Maitreya, but with a distinct Pure Land bias; recently republished by Heibonsha.

  • Nattier, Jan. “The Meanings of the Maitreya Myth: A Typological Analysis.” In Maitreya, the Future Buddha. Edited by Alan Sponberg and Helen Hardacre, 23–47. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    Very useful “ideal-type” analysis of four distinct expressions of the human aspiration to encounter Maitreya; includes a wealth of detail, identifying, for example, key features distinguishing Maitreya from earlier earthly and celestial bodhisattvas and concluding with insightful reflections on “The Origins of the Myth”; rich notes and bibliography.

  • Sponberg, Alan, and Helen Hardacre, eds. Maitreya, the Future Buddha. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    Twelve substantial articles offering wide-ranging recent scholarship; organized both thematically and geographically with substantial introductions, this single volume offers a good demonstration of the many manifestations of Maitreya’s complex role in Asian culture. Rich bibliographies in most chapters, and a helpful cumulative index for the book as a whole.

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