Does millennialism have a place in Buddhist thinking?
Buddhist interpretations of history, like those of Hindu tradition generally, are relatively unconcerned with notions like beginnings, progress, and endings. Time is so much grander than any human mind can fathom. Unimaginably large cycles give way to more of the same. But just as Hindu explanations of cosmic cycles can include a sense of expectation, so Buddhist tradition also makes room for a kind of “adventist” thinking. Buddhists call the spiritual person or power whose future coming holds hope for all believers Maitreya, “the Benevolent One.”
Five thousand years after the death of this age’s Historical Buddha, the one originally called Siddhartha Gautama, Maitreya will enter the world of time and change. At present Maitreya lives as a Bodhisattva in the Heaven called Tushita (“contented ones,” the celestial realm reserved for future Buddhas). Both Theravada and Mahayana traditions give Maitreya an important role, but devotion to this Bodhisattva is much more developed in several Mahayana denominations. Classical Chinese teachings regarded Maitreya as a savior figure, but the cult of Amitabha gradually displaced that of Maitreya. Tibetan tradition holds that Maitreya will arrive in thirty thousand years to teach all people.
This Bodhisattva has a long history of popular devotion in Korea and Japan under the name Miruk or Miroku. Colossal statues of Miruk stand on Korean hillsides and in temple compounds, some visible for several miles. And in Japan, Kyoto’s ancient Koryuji temple enshrines an exquisite sixth-century statue of Miroku. Gazing down on all who enter, the beautiful and very feminine-looking Miroku radiates compassion. Moving from the sublime to the deliberately ridiculous, a comical figure called Mi-lo in China and Hotei in Japan represents another facet of Maitreya altogether. Hotei is depicted as a fat, jovial, scantily clad character. He is actually a Chinese Zen monk named P’u-t’ai who claimed to be a manifestation of Maitreya.