​Buddhist stories concerning Maitreya


In the Mahavastu account the Buddha Sakyamuni narrates to Mogallana his countless previous births during which he served thousands of Buddhas. In the middle of this narration, there is a reference to Maitreya. While speaking about a Buddha called Suprabhasa, Sakyamuni says:

“Suprabhasa was the name of the Tathagata when bodhisattva Maitreya, as the universal king (cakravartin), Vairocana, was aiming at the perfection of enlightenment in the future, and thus first acquired the roots of goodness. And when Suprabhasa was the Tathagata (Teacher), the measure of man’s life was greater, in terms of quality and divinity and morality and so forth. Then, my dear friend, when the cakravartin King Vairocana had seen the exalted Suprabhasa, he experienced a supreme thrill, ecstasy, joy and gladness. For many years he honored the wisdom of that man…. Then he conceived the thought: ‘May I become in some future time a Tathagata … as this Exalted Suprabhasa now is. Thus may I preach the dharma . . . as the Exalted Suprabhasa now does.’”

Normally, such a resolution made in the presence of a Buddha brings forth a prophecy such as the one that the brahman Sumedha obtained from the Buddha Dipankara regarding his future Buddhahood (as Buddha Gautama Sakyamuni). In this case, however, the Buddha Suprabhasa did not respond to the wish of the cakravartin Vairocana. As if he were explaining this strange phenomenon, Sakyamuni adds, “Even so, Mogallana, there is something to add to this, for it was after forty-four kalpas that Maitreya conceived the thought of enlightenment.” 

Whatever the reason for the long delay, it is clear from this statement that Maitreya’s generation of the intention for universal enlightenment lasted at least from the time of his meeting with the Buddha Suprabhasa until his conception of the spirit of the perfect Buddhahood. The Mahavastu does not specifically mention the name of the Buddha who accepted his vow for Buddhahood and confirmed it by a prophecy concerning its fulfillment. This event probably occurred at a much later time, under the Buddha Ratnasikhi, as described in the Divyavadana.
Pali Canon continues the theme with a similar motif. According to this text, Maitreya was born in the past in the kingdom of Kurus, in the city of Indapatta, as a cakravartin king named Sankha. He was the first cakravartin to appear in that eon, and the Buddha of that kalpa had not yet appeared. The cakravartin proclaimed that he would give away is kingdom to anyone who would bring him the good news of the appearance of a Buddha in the world. In the course of time, there appeared the Buddha Sirimata, and he arrived within the kingdom of Sankha. A poor man informed the cakravartin of the arrival of the Buddha in his kingdom, and after relinquishing his throne to him, the cakravartin started out on foot to meet the Buddha. 

Lord Sirimata, knowing the aspirations of the cakravartin, decided to appear before him. He took on the guise of a young man riding a chariot, drove to where Sankha was walking, and asked him to mount the chariot. When they arrived at the assembly, the Buddha miraculously appeared before Sankha, seated in full glory. The Buddha then gave a sermon on nirvana, and Sankha, wanting to worship the Buddha with the best gift that he could give, cut his head off at the neck with his bare nails and presented it to the Buddha with the words, “May this gift of mine result in omniscience.” 

With this heroic deed he fulfilled the perfection of giving and was born in the Tusita Heaven, where he was known as Sankha Devaputta. The Anagatavamsa, the Theravada text on the lineage of the future Buddha, only casually mentions that Maitreya had served under four Buddhas, namely, Sumitta, (a former) Maitreya, Muhutta, and Gautama.

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