In Buddhist tradition, Maitreya is the Buddha of the future and the prophesied successor to Siddhartha Gautama. It’s believed that he will incarnate at some point in the future, specifically a time where the Buddhist teachings will have been completely forgotten, at which time he will achieve enlightenment and spread the Buddhist teachings in their pure and unaltered form. Maitreya is generally seen as a messianic figure who will save humanity and lead them into a new age of enlightenment and peace.
I suppose I should begin by answering the central question: are Mithras and Maitreya related? The name Maitreya is derived from the Sanskrit word “maitri” (meaning “loving-kindness”), and that word is said to be derived from the noun “mitra” (meaning “friend”). That noun is associated with the Vedic deity Mitra, whom you may remember is a deity associated with friendship and the Vedic Indian predecessor of both the Iranian Mithra and the Roman Mithras. This idea is at the center of the specultion that the Buddhist Maitreya was based on Mitra or Mithra. However, apart from the apparent connection between their names, the two entities seem largely unrelated, and any connection between them seems to be a stretch, entirely extrapolated from the connection between their names.
Maitreya’s first appearance is in a text called the Cakkavatti Sutta, in which Siddartha Gautama speaks of the future time wherein the Dharma (or Buddhist teachings) will have been completely forgotten. In this state, it is said that mankind will war with itself, a few people will take shelter in the wilderness, and the majority of mankind will be slaughtered while the few that remain will emerge out of their shelters to seek a virtuous life. Gautama states that at this time a future Buddha will be born among them, eventually attain enlightenment, and have a Sangha (community of ordained monks and nuns) numbering in the thousands. It is believed that Maitreya currently resides in the inner court of the Tushita heaven – the heavenly realm of contentment. This realm was also believed to be the domicile of Siddartha Gautama before his incarnation as the historical Buddha, and it is believed that Maitreya will descend from this realm at the time of his incarnation in order to assume his role as the next Buddha. It is also believed that the proper time of Maitreya’s incarnation on Earth would not come to pass for millions of years, and that he will remain in the Tushita realm for all that time until then, when he would be needed.
At this point, it seems obvious that the two entities have pretty much nothing to do with each other. Maitreya’s principal role is to appear at a time where Buddhist teachings are forgotten in the world and spread the teachings to those who will listen. He shares no roles and no attributes with Mitra, Mithra, or Mithras. Even the idea of one of those deities bringing salvation seems shaky, or is at least different from the role that Maitreya is said to play. He’s just a future Buddha, not a deity of justice, covenants, friendship, or light – let alone the Sun (in Buddhism, the solar Buddha is Vairocana).
You may or may not recognize a statue of a fat Buddha who is depicted as smiling, laughing, and full of joy. That Buddha is named Budai – commonly identified as the Laughing Buddha – a popular Chinese Buddhist icon sometimes revered in the name of wealth, and having the power. He is also considered an incarnation of Maitreya. This identification seems to have spawned from tales of a Ch’an (Zen) monk known as Pu Tai. Pu Tai wondered around his native province of Zhejiang where he begged for food, gave advice and tought those who cared to listen, and collected many things to put in his sack. He had no home to call his own and no temple in which to find sanctuary, but he was always in a cheerful mood. He was also purported to be very good at telling people’s fortunes and predicting the weather. When he was about to die, his last words were said to be “Maitreya, the true Maitreya, has billions of incarnations. Often he is shown to people all the time; other times they do not recognize him”, and this is said to be the source of his identification with Maitreya.
In China, Maitreya has also served as the inspiration for various messianic rebellions conducted against the imperial government by followers of a revolutionary interpretation of the Maitreya prophecy. During the Sui dynasty, three different people proclaimed themselves (or were proclaimed by their followers) as Maitreya Buddha and led insurrections against the dynasty between 610 and 613 CE, but all three were vanquished by the imperial government. Similar declarations of the arrival of the new Buddha and rebellions inspired by Maitreya would emerge in dynasties afterwards, right up to the Qing Dynasty. One notable player in these rebellions was a sect called White Lotus, an unorthodox Buddhist sect who rebelled against the Yuan and Qing dynasties in the name of Maitreya as well as the “Manichaean King of Light”. There were also similar rebellions inspired by the arrival of a “new Buddha” before the Sui dynasty, including one rebellion known as the Mahayana Rebellion, whose leader was a monk who managed to convince his followers that they would become bodhisattvas by killing a certain number of enemies. Because Maitreya’s incarnation wasn’t supposed to happen for millions of years, it can be safely assumed that the rebellious sects had reinterpreted the Maitreya prophecy which was more conducive to the mentality and goal of revolution against the imperial government.
In Japan, Maitreya is known as Miroku Bosatsu and he assumes much the same role as he does outside of Japan. Miroku Bosatsu is also considered one of the most prominent and beloved bodhisattvas in Japanese Buddhism, alongside other beloved icons such as Jizo Bosatsu, who vowed to remain on Earth to do good deeds until Miroku’s incarnation. At one point Miroku also became very popular in Shingon Buddhism, which believes that Miroku Bosatsu will become a Buddha and appear on Earth to save those who have not yet attained enlightenment in order to bring universal salvation. The sect was founded by a monk named Kukai, who travelled to China in order study and impart esoteric Buddhist teachings. There are some legends about Kukai that state that he is was reborn in the Tushita realm and is with Miroku or waiting upon him, or that he is not actually dead and is waiting for Miroku on Mount Koya in an eternal state of samadhi. Budai also appears in Japanese Buddhism as Hotei, who is identified as a deity of contentment and happiness, the guardian of children, the patron of bartenders, and one of the Seven Lucky Gods.
Outside of Asia, Maitreya is referred to in the teachings of Theosophy, where he is believed to be a high-ranking member of a hidden spiritual hierarchy whose function is to assist humanity in its evolution. In this hierarchy, he is said to hold the “Office of the World Teacher”. Helena Blavatsky linked the arrival of Maitreya with the return of Jesus of Nazareth, along with the arrival of other “ascended masters”. In the early 20th century, a Theosophist named Charles W. Leadbeater declared that Maitreya and Jesus were the exact same person, that said person lived somewhere in the Himalayas, and that his coming was imminent. In 1909, Leadbeater discovered a young Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom he regarded as a vehicle for Maitreya to reveal himself through. With that idea in mind, Krishnamurti was trained for that purpose, and the Order of the Star in the East was created to prepare the world for Maitreya’s arrival. Krishnamurti became the head of this organization until 1929, when he dissolved it. In 1975, a man named Benjamin Creme claimed that to have received telepathic communications from Maitreya and that Maitreya revealed that his return to Earth would be earlier than the year 2025. He later claimed Maitreya had already incarnated on Earth and had been living in the Himalayas as of 1977 before moving to London where he lived in secrecy. He made all sorts of claims regarding Maitreya, none of which have proven true, and he since become a source of ridicule because of it.
There have been individuals other than the various leaders of messianic insurrections in China who claimed to be Maitreya incarnate, or are believed to be so. L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, once claimed that he was Maitreya – or rather Metteya. Claude Vorilhon, also known as Rael, was also believed to be Maitreya. Samael Aun Weor seems to refer to himself as an avatar of Kalki – the tenth avatar of Vishnu – whom he identifies with Maitreya, and Maitreya Buddha Samael seems to be a title he accepts for himself, though he interprets the title of Buddha to refer to one’s own state of having achieved self-realization or “Christification”. There is also a man who appeared in Nairobi, Kenya in 1988, who was referred to as Maitreya – people in the area also referred to him as Jesus Christ, while Benjamin Creme seemed to comment that the man was in fact Maitreya (who was viewed as being the same as Jesus). Even more bizarre, some people have even claimed that Maitreya is actually the Antichrist. Today, these people usually consist of the same type of conspiracy theorists who have claimed that every US president since Ronald Reagan is the Antichrist. So, go figure I guess.
Maitreya seems to be another one of those savior figures that people tend to cling to, but also one of those savior figures that seem to have inspired strong belief in him, even to the point of messianic delusion – much like how far belief in Jesus of Nazareth has been shown to go. Given Maitreya’s role as a figure who would appear on Earth at some point, it’s not hard to see why he would be compared with figures such as Jesus. However, as I have already written, Maitreya isn’t really related to the same deities that people have claimed he is.
Click here for Part 1.