Shortly before the end of his earthly life, the Buddha said to Ananda (his disciple):

"I am not the first Buddha to come upon earth; nor shall I be the last. In due time, another Buddha will arise in this world, a Holy One, a Supremely Enlightened One, endowed with wisdom, in conduct auspicious, knowing the universe, an incomparable leader of men, a master of devas and men. He will reveal to you the same Eternal Truths which I have taught you. He will proclaim a religious life, wholly perfect and pure; such as I now proclaim."

Ananda then asked how we will recognize this future Buddha, to which the Buddha replied:

"He will be known as Maitreya which means kindness or friendliness."

Buddhists sometimes wonder when will Maitreya finally arrive. After all, the time is probably quite ripe. When Gautama Buddha was around, the world was in Bronze Age, and he taught people according to their level of understanding. Nowadays, we are in the Information Age. Many of the things the Buddha taught 2,500 years ago make more sense to us with our knowledge of modern physics as well as psychology. So how much more could we learn from a Buddha who would restate the dharma in a modern way.

To answer the question of when, we must be reminded that a Buddha is not some Avatar sent by some deity when the time is ripe. A Buddha is a person who has decided to come to a full understanding of the nature of reality, and then spent many lifetimes working on that understanding (see the Bodhisatta node for more on that).

Hence, Maitreya will come when Maitreya is ready to come, not necessarily when we decide it was about time for Maitreya to come. Indeed, he (or she - there is no reason why the next Buddha could not come as a woman) can be any one of us. Since the Buddha is not sent "from above," Maitreya will come when someone seriously decides to become a Buddha and starts working on it. Let's just hope that someone already has decided and is working on it, though there certainly is no reason why you or me could not make that decision.

Traditional Buddhist teaching has a fair amount to say on the subject of Maitreya (called Maitteya in Pali).

First and foremost is the belief that Maitreya is already alive- simply not on this earth. Traditional Buddhst beliefs hold that before being born in the world, a Buddha passes one last life as a deva, among the gods of the Tushita heaven. Traditional sources describe Maitreya as dwelling in Tushita heaven even now, awaiting his rebirth in the world of form.

When Maitreya will be reborn is a matter of cosmology. To be called a 'Buddha', a being must rediscover from scratch that path that all previous Buddhas have taught- the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. In order for this path to be rediscovered, it must first be lost; Buddhist tradition holds that Maitreya will be born only after the Dharma has declined to a point where it is forgotten by human beings, and no trace of the previous Buddha and his teachings can be found. This period of decline and contraction is described in the Lotus Sutra and other sources, and is often compared to the decline that Hindu belief terms the Kali Yuga.

While the memory of the Buddha Shakyamuni remains in the world, some believers feel that enough time has passed that the true path to enlightenment has been lost. This belief commonly recurs when Buddhism is threatened by an external force, such as a war or the persecution of the Sangha. Buddhists who subscribe to the belief that the true teachings have been lost believe that the best that one can do is to make merit and perform virtuous acts, in the hope of being reborn in the future with the opportunity to hear the Dharma from Maitreya. The prayer 'come Maitreya come' is sometimes found scrawled on boulders or carved into ritual objects in Tibet and other Buddhist areas.

Contrary to whizkid's words above, traditional Buddhist beliefs hold that a Buddha must by necessity be male. This requirement is specified in a number of sources, including descriptions of the marks of a Cakkravardin ("Wheel turning Monarch"), as well as in jataka tales and their commentaries, and a few other predictions and prophecies. Mahayana Buddhism introduces wrinkles into this idea, presenting occasional images of enlightened females (such as the devi in the Vimalakirti Sutra), but Theravada Buddhism presents similar images in the Therigatha ('Verses of the Elder Nuns'). While maintaining that awakening transcends all bounds of form and gender, Mahayana Buddhsim does not ever go so far as to claim that a Buddha can be female with any clarity. Keep in mind that a Buddha is distinct from other awakened beings; both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism acknowledge the possibility of female awakened beings, but both claim that male birth is a prerequisite for Buddha-hood.

Maitreya is a figure that is found in both Theravada and Mahayna scriptures. In the Pali Canon, he is mentioned primarily in connection with his future birth in suttas in the Digha Nikaya and elsewhere. In the Mahayana canon, he gets a bit more coverage, putting in a personal appearance in the Lotus Sutra and a few other scriptures. However, it is likely that Maitreya is best known for being present in Chinese restaurants all over the world. Folk lore holds that the Chinese monk Po Tai (transliteration may be incorrect; his name means 'hemp sack') was an incarnation of Maitreya. Po Tai, sometimes called the 'Chinese Santa Claus', was a jolly, chubby, lovable monk known for giving toys to village children from his bottomless sack (from which his name was derived). At his death, Po Tai revealed himself as an aspect of the Bodhisattva Maitreya. His beloved figure- palatable to both Buddhist and Confucian values- became a fixture in Chinese culture, giving rise to the 'fat Buddha' that one sees in restaurants and other settings.

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