Presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Saturday, October 11, 2014.
The present “Buddha-eon,” age, or kalpa in the Buddhist historical reckoning has reputedly seen four Buddhas, beginning with Kakusandha, followed by Konagamana, Kassapa, and Gotama. Gotama was of course the historical Buddha who flourished about 440 BCE. According to one calculation, the duration of an age is equal to the time it takes for the longevity of human beings (not necessarily Homo sapiens) to devolve from 80,000 to 10 years and then evolve back to 80,000 years. This is called an antarrakappa, and its duration varies greatly in the literature. However, according to the earliest sutta in which this concept first appears, the Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta (DN 26), or Lion’s Roar on the Turning of the Wheel, the lifespans are reported to devolve and evolve at the rate of half of the previous lifespan per generation. This corresponds to about 240,000 years or three periods of 80,000 years, corresponding to stable, descending, and ascending arcs (see paras. 14–22).
Since there will have been five Buddhas in this eon, the average interval between them is about fifty thousand years. In a later work, the non-canonical Nidanakatha commentary, this calculation is inflated to one year per century, perhaps to compete with the enormous Indian chronologies, which works out to about 16 million years.
Gotama will be succeeded by a Fifth Buddha, who is given the name Maitreya or, in Pali, Metteyya; Jampa in Tibetan. This name means “loving,” “kind,” “friendly,” or “merciful,” from metta, love, and mitra, friend. Currently he resides as a bodhisattva deva in the Tusita “contented” or “joyful” world, four planes above our own, where the lifespan is 576 million years.
Bahá’u’lláh (1817–1892) is claimed to have been Maitreya. Others include:
- Xiang Haiming, who claimed the imperial title and identified himself with Maitreya in 613. So far, this is the earliest example I have found.
- Wu Zetian (624–705), the only female emperor in the history of China, and the founder of the Second Zhou dynasty. She had a penchant for cutting off the arms and legs of her opponents and putting them in jars.
- Budai (907–923), a Chinese monk of the Liang dynasty, who inspired the familiar Laughing Buddha statue that is often associated with Maitreya.
- Gung Ye, a Korean warlord and king of the short-lived state of Taebong in the tenth century. His servants eventually murdered him.
- Lu Zhongyi, the 17th patriarch of the Yiguandao, a Chinese religion that emerged from the White Lotus movement of imperial China during the 1930s. His followers believe him to be the first leader of the era of the apocalypse. The sect has 900,000 followers in Taiwan and is spreading covertly in China.
- Peter Deunov (1864–1944), the founder of a school of Esoteric Christianity.
- Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895–1986) was proclaimed as Maitreya and the “World Teacher” by the Theosophical Society, and was raised as such from childhood but, to his credit, Krishnamurti renounced the Maitreya claim in 1929, at the age of 34 [sic], although he still allowed himself to be introduced as “the World Teacher” when he gave a speech at the United Nations in 1985.
- Ron Hubbard (1911–1986), the founder of Dianetics and Scientology.
- Samael Aun Weor (1917–1977), founder of the Universal Christian Gnostic Movement.
- Claude Vorilhon (b. 1946– ), also known as Raël, the founder and leader of the UFO religion known as Raëlism.
Some Muslim scholars, but not Mohammed himself as far as I know, have claimed that Mohammed fulfilled the prophecies concerning Maitreya. Members of the Ahmadiyya Community, founded in 1889 in India by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, believe that their founder also fulfilled the prophecy of Maitreya.
Another modern figure is Benjamin Crème, a follower of Alice Bailey, who claims to have received messages from Maitreya since 1975, and who publishes purported “Maitreya sightings.” Crème, who also “channels” Maitreya, claims that Maitreya took bodily form in 1977, is bicorporeal, and (at least one of him) is living secretly in London, England!
A Buddhist monk, Jonathan Condit, recognized Franklin Jones (1939–2008), a.k.a. Adi Da, as Maitreya in 1984. Although I haven’t found any confirmation that Da himself made such a claim, the video in which Condit makes this statement is published on the Adidam website, so one might regard that as a confirmation.
Scientology, Raelism, and Adidam are documented cults.
In the Tibetan tradition, there are numerous references to emanations of Maitreya. There are also Mahayana sutras purportedly inspired by Maitreya.
The first Buddhist reference to Metteyya appears in the Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta, called the Lion’s Roar on the Turning of the Wheel. This is an unusual sutta in that, whereas most suttas record a question and answer session between the Buddha and a questioner, whether a visitor or a monastic, this sutta is represented as an unsolicited sermon by the Buddha, while he was staying at Matula in the Magadhan territory.
This sutta describes the progressive devolution of the human race over time because of the disappearance of the Wheel Treasure, a clear metaphor for the dharma. Because of bad government, unwholesome qualities proliferate such as poverty, theft, violence, killing, lying, adultery, gossip, wrong views, and loss of respect for seniors, accompanied by a progressive decrease in human longevity, at the end of which time people will live like animals.
This will culminate in a time called the “sword interval,” when human society will break down completely in a kind of apocalypse and human beings will murder each other, leaving only a small remnant of survivors. Interpreted literally, this will only take a week (interestingly, this only became technically possible since the invention of the atomic bomb in 1945). Because of the devastation, the survivors will decide to pursue wholesome ways, opposite to those that prevailed before, and with each subsequent generation, the life span will double.
The sutta says, “in that time of the people with an 80,000 year life span, there will arise in the world a Blessed Lord, an Arahant fully enlightened Buddha named Metteyya, endowed with wisdom and conduct, a Well-Farer, Knower of the worlds, incomparable trainer of men to be tamed, Teacher of gods and humans, enlightened and blessed, just as I am now” (DN 26.25). The text goes on to state that Metteyya’s sangha will be ten times more extensive than the sangha of the Buddha. This is the only mention of Maitreya in the Pali Canon. Later traditions will describe him as a World Ruler. He is also associated with Shambhala, which will appear on earth in 2424 according to the Kalachakra.
A common statement that one reads in the popular literature is that a Buddha appears at the nadir of human civilization, when he is most needed. However, although Gotama appeared when the human lifespan was about 120 years, Maitreya will appear when the human lifespan is about 80,000 years. Consequently, this statement is not supported by the suttas. Of even greater interest is that this story encodes a precise period that we can use to predict the advent of Metteyya, regardless of whether we interpret this mythos of human longevity literally or not. Note the precise language of the text: during each generation the life span is reduced by intervals of half down to 10, then increases by doubling back up to 80,000 years, with a seven-day interval at the reversal point, corresponding to the “sword interval” or “age of science” (satthantarakappa). The suttas also state that the human lifespan at the time of the Buddha was 120 years. It is also clear that we are on the descending arc. It is a simple procedure to add up these numbers.
Starting at 100 and working down to 10, then up again to 40,000 (bringing us to the lifespan of 80,000 years), and ignoring the relatively short seven-day interval, the antipode of the eighty thousand year lifespan, the total time interval implied is nearly eighty thousand years. That is the earliest time that Maitreya could appear, and he could appear any time in the subsequent eighty thousand years. Therefore, up to 160,000 years.
A similar scheme is found in the Nidanakatha, the introductory text to the Jatakas, except that the progression is from 10 to 84,000 years and back again and is equated with one year per century, corresponding to an antarrakappa or “intermediate cycle.” This work represents the fully worked out chronological system of Pali Buddhism. Given a current lifespan of 120 years, this scheme works out to 8.4 million years. The one year per century formula appears to be an amplification, since if we work it out at a rate of one year per year, it works out to eighty or 84 thousand years. In any case, a period of about 80,000 years is implied. However, 80,000 and 84,000 appear to be metaphors for “an arbitrarily large number” (e.g., 84,000 teachings or “dharma doors,” etc.; see Sang-jin Park, Under the Microscope (2013), p. 62), and need not be interpreted literally, similar to the number 40 in the Bible. Perhaps the best we can say therefore is that a period of thousands of years is implied.
According to the Surangama Sutra, a Mahayana sutra translated in the eighth century, the Buddhadharma will be forgotten after 5,000 years from the Parinirvana, i.e., about 4600 CE. Similarly, the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhismrefers to an early tradition that Maitreya will appear 4,500 years after the Buddha (op. cit., s.v. Maitreya, p. 517). Other traditions say 10,000 years. There is also a 10,000-year interpretation of the Kali Yuga. According to a tradition preserved in the Pali suttas, the Buddha said that the sangha would disappear after 1,000 years, i.e., c 600 CE, but he never connected this with the appearance of Maitreya as far as I know. No tradition puts the complete forgetting of the dharma sooner than 4,500 or 5,000 years in the future. Since this is a precondition for the appearance of a Buddha, none of the current or historical claimants can assert their identity with Maitreya based on Buddhist criteria.
“In that time of the people with an 80,000 year life span, there will arise in the world a Blessed Lord, an Arahant fully enlightened Buddha named Metteyya, endowed with wisdom and conduct, a Well-Farer, Knower of the worlds, incomparable trainer of men to be tamed, Teacher of gods and humans, enlightened and blessed, just as I am now” (DN 26.25). The An[a]gatavamsa also predicts that Metteyya (Skt. Maitreya) will appear before the end of the age (a vast but incalculable period). This sutta also refers to five disappearances: of attainment, conduct, learning, outward form, and finally the disappearance of the relics that constitutes the last stage referred to above. As we are now in the middle of the third millenium of the Buddhist era, according to this schema we are in the age of learning, which will last for almost another 600 years approximately (to circa 2600 CE). Corrupt government, secularism, climate change, environmental degradation (also predicted in the Book of Revelation), the decline of the sangha, and the gradual disappearance of dharma from the world will characterize this stage or age. Other sources put the coming of Maitreya between 4,500 and 5.67 billion years after the Buddha (Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, s.v., Maitreya, p. 517).
The prophecy concerning the longevity of human beings when Maitreya appears is fascinating in view of current scientific efforts to extend human life. Far from being a pipe dream, biologists and other scientists who are currently working on life extension point out that it is only necessary for a human being to add a single year for each year of life lived in order for functional immortality to be achieved. Already we have sophisticated prostheses, artificial skin that can be “printed” on a dot matrix printer, and synthetic organs that have been produced on 3D printers. This technology is only going to advance in the future. Technologist and inventor Ray Kurzweil expects major breakthroughs in this regard beginning in the 2020s.
String theorist Michio Kaku, certainly one of the most intelligent people on the planet, has predicted that there are children alive today who will live to be a thousand years old. Kurzweil has suggested that functional human immortality may be achieved by 2045. However, in order for functional immortality to be achieved, genetic manipulation will be required that can turn the gene that kills us around 115 years of age off. Eventually, the human brain will have to be reverse engineered and replaced by a synthetic brain. President Obama has already announced funding for a plan to develop just such a brain, and a similar project is already underway in Europe. According to Scientific American (Nov. 2011), IBM’s Blue Gene supercomputer has succeeded in simulating all of a cat’s brain and hopes to have the hardware requirements to simulate a human brain by 2019. Is it possible that the latter will overlook some vital aspect of human neurobiology, resulting in the loss of the capacity for or perhaps interest in spiritual development? In this way, the dharma may actually be engineered out of existence, thus fulfilling the Buddhist prophecy that the dharma will be forgotten by all but a few.
A number of claimants, including the Bahá’ís, have based their claims on this 5,000-year cycle, but dated from the advent of the Kali Yuga on January 14, 3102 BCE rather than the Parinirvana of the Buddha in or about 400 BCE, even though the 3102 BCE date of the advent of the Kali Yuga is not intrinsically Buddhist and was not identified before 500 CE by the astronomer Aryabhatta, and therefore was not known to the Buddha. This is, of course, deliberate obfuscation. The Buddhist concept of the Buddha eon is far more ancient than the Kali Yuga. Even more esoteric is the Mayan Long Count Calendar of 3114 BCE. The Kali Era (KE) year 5000 corresponds to 1899. The Mayan Long Count Calendar year 5000 was 1887. The year 2500 of the Buddhist Era (BE) was 1956, based on the erroneous Theravada calculation. This period – 1887–1956 – was characterized by intense interest in spirituality at in the dawn of the original New Age movement that led in turn to the 1960s counterculture and the proliferation of Buddhism in the West.
The 5,000-year cycle is cited in the Brahma-vaivarta Purana in relation to the Kali Yuga. As is well known, the Mayan cycle is 5,125 years and ended in 2012.
The Surangama Sutra states that Five Disappearances will precede the end of the age of dharma: the disappearance of attainment of nirvana, the method, learning, symbols, and relics. While one might argue that the attainment of nirvana has disappeared, the method, learning, symbols and relics are all at least partly known, remembered, and indeed experiencing something of a revival today. Therefore, these criteria have yet to be met. Even though one might argue that Buddhism is degenerate, it is certainly far from true that it has been forgotten.
In Buddhist Mahayana Texts. there is in fact a footnote in which F. Max Muller quotes the Mahasannipata-sutra as follows:
After my Nirvana, in the first 500 years, all the Bhikshus and others will be strong in deliberation in my correct Law. … In the next or second 500 years, they will be strong in meditation. In the next or third 500 years, they will be strong in “much learning,” i.e. bahusruta, religious knowledge. In the next or fourth 500 years, they will be strong in founding monasteries, &c. In the last or fifth 500 years, they will be strong in fighting or reproving. The pure (lit. white) Law will then become invisible.
Muller adds, “The question therefore amounts to this, whether in that corrupt age the law of Buddha will still be understood? And the answer is that there will be always some excellent Bodhisattvas who, even in the age of corruption, can understand the preaching of the Law.”
No one accepts the accuracy of the Theravadin Buddhist Era any more, the preferred date of the Parinirvana now lying between 420 and 380 BCE approximately or, in round numbers, 400 BCE. Thus, the last 500-year period referred to, during which the Buddhadharma is overtaken by corruption, sectarianism, and dissension, corresponds to the period from 1600 to 2100 CE and is about to be superseded by the disappearance of popular institutional Buddhism and the “appearance,” if that is the word, of esoteric or “invisible” Buddhism.
If one looks at the matter syncretically, it seems that there is no doctrinal basis whatsoever for the claim that Maitreya is alive and well in the world today, while there is some scriptural basis for the view that the 21st century represents a decisive moment in the global transmission of dharma which may indeed come to be associated with an emanation in the appearance of one such as Padmasambhava, if not Maitreya himself.
Let us summarize what we have learned.
- Gotama is not the first Buddhist, and he will not be the last. He was a reformer, not an originator. Gotama is the fourth Buddha of five that will have appeared during the present historical eon, at average intervals of about fifty thousand years. The fifth Buddha is called Maitreya, which means “the Compassionate One.”
- Human beings were originally very long-lived and are in the process of devolving, after which they will evolve again. Thus, every kalpa has ascending and descending arcs. Note that “human” does not necessarily imply Homo sapiens or even any terrestrial species of Homo, of which fifteen are known. Longevity is a characteristic of the devas and, as I discussed in my talk, “Near-Earth Realms, Fallen Angels and Human Beings in Buddhist Cosmology,” the original humans were devas inhabiting the realm of the radiant devas (abhassara), when they fell into progressively more material and sensual worlds. Finally, we are born into the bodies of animals, which paradoxically undergo a period of evolution as a result.
- Gotama was not a theist because he denied the reality of the personality and the personality of reality.
- There have been many dicey Maitreya claimants, culminating in the late 19th/early 20th century dawn of the New Age movement. Maitreya also inspired a number of Mahayana sutras.
- Human degeneration originates in the loss of dharma by the rulers of society, which subsequently fail to uphold the government in accordance with dharmic principles. This initiates a descent into animality. Human devolution will end in a catastrophe whereby civil society falls apart and a remnant reactively resolves to follow the path of wholesomeness, and reestablishes society on this basis. It appears from the sutta that this cycle repeats indefinitely. We know for a fact that Homo sapiens has actually experienced this type of catastrophe before, in which the total number of people was reduced to about ten thousand (Toba catastrophe theory). This occurred about seventy thousand years ago.
- Most traditions posit the appearance of Maitreya in the distant future, ranging from thousands to millions or more years. It appears that this number was inflated over time.
- Buddhas may also appear at the zenith of human evolution as well as at the nadir.
- There are traditions of a 5,000 and a 2,500-year cycle. The latter will culminate about 2100 CE.
- Longevity may also be created technologically, and Shambhala is explicitly described as being extremely advanced in terms of science and technology.
- Human science and technology might also cause the dharma to be forgotten, either because of changes to the brain or simple disinterest as people surrender to their samsaric lives overwhelmed by increasing sensory input.
- The dharma has not in fact disappeared, so the prophecy of Maitreya cannot be fulfilled now or at any time in the past.
- According to the 2,500 cycle, we have been in the last 500-year cycle of dharma degeneration since 1600 CE, the final millenium of which began about 1100 CE.
- The next 500-year cycle of Buddhism, which will culminate in the appearance of Shambhala, is “invisible” or esoteric dharma. We are entering that stage now. However, there is no association with Maitreya, but a so-called “second” Buddha (like Padmasambhava or Seongcheol) might appear on the world stage, perhaps as early as 2045.
- One might speculate that Maitreya will be associated with Shambhala, which will manifest on earth in 2424, which elsewhere I have shown to be the start of the Age of Aquarius so-called, based on the accepted ayanamsa and the association of Aquarius, the sign of the eleventh house, with Friendliness and Compassion.
Other dates concerning the coming of Maitreya
Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion: 30,000 years (p. 217)
Ultimate Extinction of the Dharma Sutra: 10 million years
Sutra of the Total Annihilation of the Dharma: tens of millions of years
Yoshiru Tamura: 5,670,000,000 years (Introduction to the Lotus Sutra (2014), p. 85)
Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism: 5.67 billion years
Infinite Life Sutra: 5,706,000,000 years
- Tibetan tradition ascribes the following works to Maitreya: The Ornament of Clear Realization, the Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras, the Ultimate Continuum of the Mahayana, the Distinction Between the Middle and Extremes, and the Distinction Between Phenomena and Their Nature. These works constitute part of a set of thirteen classic Indian texts that make up the core curriculum of sutra studies in many of the monastic colleges of Tibetan Buddhism. These are all in the course of being translated and published by Shambhala. These sutras are attributed to Asanga, the 4th century CE arhant, born in what is now Pakistan. Asanga, or Vijnanavada, as he is also known, founded the Yogachara school, along with his half-brother, Vasubandhu. According to his biographer, Paramartha, Asanga would travel in the mental body to the Tushita realm at night, where he received teachings directly from Maitreya. The next day he lectured on these teachings to his disciples.
- This sutta also contains important teachings on the one refuge, in which the Buddha equates dhamma with self-knowledge or “mindfulness”; meditation on the body, feelings, mind, and mind-objects; overcoming the power of Mara through the accumulation of merit; the Road to Power, consisting of the concentration of intention, energy, consciousness, and investigation accompanied by an effort of will; and metta meditation.
- Thus, each Buddha appears at the nadir of the descending arc of human civilization, and proclaims the dharma, which triggers an ascending arc, which expands, peaks, and reverses course into a new descending arc, and so forth. This also appears to be the view of the Lotus Sutra. However, the picture that emerges in the Pali suttas differs somewhat. The ascending and descending arcs occur by themselves; the ascending arc is triggered rather by an interval of destruction; golden ages and pratyekabuddhas arise of themselves, without any reference to dharma; and a Buddha can appear at any point in this process, or even not appear at all. Yet those universes in which dharma never manifests still experience ascending and descending arcs as well as pratyekabuddhas.
- The Mahapadana Sutta (DN 14.1.7) gives a slightly different progression, from 80,000 years (Vipassi) to 20,000 years (Kassapa), at intervals of 10,000 years, followed by 100 years (Gotama), but it is not possible to calculate a time interval from this progression as the rate is not given.
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