Presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Saturday, October 11, 2014.
The present age, “Buddha-eon,” 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. The duration of a Buddha eon 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 of age. 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, 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 a period of 318,710 years. Interestingly, according to current archeological research 300,000 to 400,000 years ago fire was first used by Homo erectus, who also used rafts to traverse large bodies of water for colonizing large bodies of land. Since there will have been five Buddhas in this eon, the average interval between them is 63,742 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, and 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.
A few weeks ago, an attendee at one of these talks recommended I read The God of the Buddha, by one Jamshed K. Fozdar (1995), in connection with my remarks concerning Buddhism and theism. Jamshed K. Fozdar is a Bahá’í. Today I will be speaking partly to this book, partly to the Bahá’í view of Maitreya, and partly to the traditional Buddhist view of Maitreya, in what I hope will be a free-ranging and entertaining essay.
Some Buddhists – very few – believe that the Buddha was in fact a theist, in the Semitic sense of a “supreme being,” as distinct from his belief in devas or higher, “luminous” or “shining” beings.
They base this view on some very exacting parsing of references to the Brahma world, which they hold to refer to Brahma, or God, and to the Buddha’s recommendation that it was useful to aspire to union with Brahma or rebirth in the Brahma realm. Virtually no Buddhist scholar accepts this view, based on the overwhelming evidence of the Pali Canon when it is considered as a whole. Once again, ones see the importance of not focusing exclusively on selected passages that suit our own preconceptions or prejudices.
However, this book makes a different argument, based on a reference in the Udana to “an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed.” Similarly, theists assert that God is self-created, without predecessor or equal, and logically prior to his creation. However, to me this is a flimsy basis on which to assert that the Buddha believed in God, as the word is understood in the Semitic traditions, for in these traditions God is far more than an impersonal “Causeless Cause” – he is a personality with a mind, distinct characteristics, intention, and will, who communicates with men in an articulate and deliberate way, has a plan, and prefers some individuals based on obedience to his intention, will, and plan while rejecting and punishing others. One can pray to God, be heard, and receive a reply. One can have a personal relationship with Him. I think Jews, Christians, and Muslims – the three major monotheistic religions from which Baha’ism also derives – would recognize this description as true of Adonai (Yahweh), “Papa,” or Allah, while rejecting the Hindu doctrine of Brahman precisely because it is impersonal.
The Buddha did not deny the existence of beings like this, but he definitely denied their ultimate nature, thus contradicting the basic premise of theism. Of course, one can play any games one likes with words, but this is merely semantics.
The Buddha rejected the notion of a supreme creator being because it involves an infinite regression: if there is a supreme creator being, who created him? Note, moreover, the male personal pronoun. God even has gender; although many theists deny it, they all refer to “he” and ‘him,” never “she” or “her.” God is very much a father figure. To refer to Adonai, Papa, or Allah as a “she” is palpably absurd, a clear rewrite of history to pander to modern notions of fairness. This is the theological root of patriarchy.
The Semitic answer to the origination question is that God is self-created from eternity. The Buddha replies that one can simply posit reality as self-existent from eternity. There is no need to posit a creator God. For this reason, it really is odd to read of the Buddha as a “Manifestation of God” in the Baha’i worldview! Such an attempt to bring Buddhism into the mainstream of theism is quite an innovation, reminding one of the Hindu attempt to make the Buddha an avatar or incarnation of Vishnu.
In researching this book, I came upon the Baha’i interpretation of Buddhism as one of the nine religions so-called, which in turn led me to examine their view that Bahá’u’lláh is Maitreya, the Future Buddha prophesied in the sutras as the successor to the Buddha, so I thought today I would segue into a discussion of the canonical view of Maitreya, since there is a great deal of misunderstanding concerning him as well.
Bahá’u’lláh is not the only one to have claimed to be 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 uncovered.
- 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 Maitriya 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 1984 or 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 so 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. Da also claimed to be God, hinted at in veiled terms by Condit, along with Bahá’u’lláh and others, but that is a different talk!
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. However, these claims are of a different order and I will not discuss them here.
Maitreya or, in Pali, Metteyya is, of course, just a name. One is free to use it for any purpose one likes, but if one is going to use this name to refer to the Fifth Buddha described in the Buddhist canonical writings, then perhaps it would be best to find out what these writings actually say. Otherwise, one is simply appropriating the name for one’s own purposes.
The first Buddhist reference to Metteyya appears in the Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta, #26 of the Digha Nikaya, 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, stealing, violence, killing, lying, wrongful sex, gossip, false opinions, and loss of respect for parents and elders, accompanied by a progressive decrease in human longevity from 80,000 to 10 years, 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 kill each other, leaving only a small residue of survivors. This will only take a week (interestingly, this only became technically possible since 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, from ten to twenty, to forty, to eighty, and so on, up to 80,000 years again. We will be discussing this time progression in more detail later.
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.
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, Gotama appeared when the human lifespan is 120 years, and Maitreya will appear when the human lifespan is 80,000 years. Consequently, this statement is not supported by the suttas. Of even greater interest is that this story encodes a precise period of time 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, the only exceptions being that they jump from 2,500 to 1,000, 250 to 100, and, by implication, 25 to 10, with a seven-day interval at the reversal point. 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 disregarding the seven-day interval, the total time interval implied is 79,610 years. That is the earliest time that Maitreya could appear, and he could appear anytime in the subsequent 80,000 years. Therefore, up to 160,000 years – an interesting number, as we shall see.
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 8.41 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 84,100 years. If we take the original maximum of 80,000 years at this rate, it works out to 80,100 years – very close to the original 79,610 years. In any case, a period of about 80,000 years at least 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 parnirvana, i.e., about 4600 CE. 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 become decadent after 1,000 years, i.e., ca. 600 CE, but he never connected this with the appearance of Maitreya. Therefore, with a single exception, which I will discuss, no tradition puts the forgetting of the dharma sooner than 5,000 years into 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.
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.
String theorist Michio Kaku, certainly one of the most intelligent people on the planet, has suggested that there are children alive today who will live to be 1,000 years old. Technologist and inventor Ray 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. 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 claim 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. As I have already shown, 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 5000 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.
The 5,000-year cycle is cited in the Brahma-vaivarta Purana in relation to the Kali Yuga, but as is well-known, the Mayan cycle is really 5,125 years and ended in 2012.
In order to make the Maitreya prophecy work for Bahá’u’lláh, the Baha’is must reinterpret the Buddhist 5,000 year prophecy with reference to the Kali Yuga instead of the parinirvana. They must also reinterpret the prophecy concerning the forgetting of the Buddhadharma to mean the degeneration of the dharma. However, Buddhism itself recognizes and makes a definite distinction between degeneration and forgetting! 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 and 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, as this talk testifies.
Finally, I will discuss the claim of one Moojan Momen, a Baha’i, author of “Buddhism and the Baha’i Faith” (1995), who writes as follows:
In Mahayana sources there are many more prophecies relating to the Maitreya Buddha. One of these is that found in the Mahasannipata sutra (Ta-tsi-king, see Cowell et al. 115-6n), in which it is prophesied that the Maitreya Buddha would come after five epochs of five hundred years each from the time of Gautama Buddha. This period of 2,500 years was completed in 1956 C.E. according to the traditional Buddhist calendar.
As it happens, I have a copy of the book Mr. Momen refers to, Buddhist Mahayana Texts. F. Max Muller, not Cowell, translated the particular text he refers to, although another translation of Cowell’s does appear in this book. On pp. 115-116 there is in fact a footnote in which 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.” THERE IS NO REFERENCE WHATSOEVER IN THIS NOTE TO THE COMING OF MAITREYA, AS STATED BY MOMEN.
As I have mentioned in previous talks, 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 religious or ecclesiastical Buddhism and the “appearance,” if that is the word, of esoteric or “invisible” Buddhism.
Perhaps the most telling judgement of all on the nature of the assertion that Baha’u’llah is Maitreya is the nature of Baha’u’llah’s teachings themselves. Baha’u’llah was a theistic prophetic figure in the Semitic tradition whose teachings revolve around his own person and moral and ethical teachings concerning the advent of a new world order based on those teachings. Nowhere in Baha’u’llah’s extensive teachings is there any trace of a concept of spiritual development involving meditation and other techniques of self-perfection culminating in the attainment of an ultimate, indescribable state of perfect enlightenment that transcends all deistic and theistic conceptions. In fact, a Baha’i of my acquaintance sincerely told me that meditation is a waste of time as it involves an attempt to come into a relationship with the presence of perfection and that this has already been realized for the world in the person of Baha’u’llah. This statement represents complete incomprehension of the Buddhist view of the nature of the Buddhist spiritual path. Moreover, Baha’ism decisively repudiates the doctrine of rebirth, without which Buddhism makes no sense at all.
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. If one wishes to appropriate this name for one’s own purposes one can do that of course, but no such claim has any basis in Buddhadharma. From a Buddhist perspective, none of the historical claimants passes muster.
This has been a surprisingly wide ranging discussion, so let’s summarize what we’ve learned from this talk.
- 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 60,000 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 both an ascending and descending arc. Note that “human” does not necessarily imply Homo sapiens or even any terrestrial species of Homo, of which 15 have been identified. Longevity is a characteristic of the devas, and as we 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 undergo a period of evolution. This must have occurred about 160,000 years ago, according to the original Buddhist chronology. Interestingly, 160,000-year-old fossilized skulls uncovered in Ethiopia are the oldest anatomically modern humans! This interpretation reconciles the Buddhist and the scientific worldviews and means that we are now at the midpoint (“middle”) of a 320,000 year cycle of human evolution.
- 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 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 law. This initiates a descent into animality. Human devolution will end in a catastrophe whereby civil society falls apart and a remnant spontaneously resolves to follow the path of wholesomeness. It appears from the sutta that this cycle repeats forever. We know conclusively that Homo sapiens’ has experienced this type of catastrophe before, in which the total number of humanity were reduced to about 10,000 (toba catastrophe theory). This occurred about 70,000 years ago.
- Most traditions posit the appearance of Maitreya in the distant future, ranging from thousands to millions or more years.
- 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 given current understandings concerning the date of the parinirvana.
- Longevity may also be created technologically, and Shambhala is explicitly advanced in science and technology.
- Human science and technology could also cause the dharma to be forgotten, either because of changes made to the brain or simple distinterest as people surrender to their temporary existences overwhelmed by sensation.
- 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 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 about 2045.
- One might speculate that Maitreya will be associated with Shambhala, which will manifest 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 and Friendliness, the sign of the 11th house. I intend to research this topic further.
Other dates concerning the coming of Maitreya
Yoshiru Tamura: 5,670,000,000 years (Introduction to the Lotus Sutra (2014), p. 85)
Infinite Life Sutra: 5,706,000,000 years
Sutra of the Total Annihilation of the Dharma: tens of millions of years
Ultimate Extinction of the Dharma Sutra: 10 million years
Sutra of the Total Annihilation of the Dharma: tens of millions of years
- Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Shinto, and Sikhism, and Bahai’ism itself.
- 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 arhat, 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. However, the picture that emerges in the suttas differs somewhat. The ascending and descending arcs occur 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.
- 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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