According to some traditions, the period of the Buddhist Law is divided into three stages: a first period of 500 years is of the turning of the Wheel of the Law; a second period of 1,000 years is of its deterioration, and the third period of 3,000 years is the one during which no one practices the Law. After this, Buddhism having disappeared, a new Buddha will appear who will again turn the Wheel. This future Buddha is known as Maitreya. It is believed that Gautama himself enthroned him as his successor.
The word 'maitreya' is derived from the Sanskrit word for friendliness. Thus this bodhisattva is fundamentally said to embody the qualities of amiability and an attitude of well-meaning sympathy.
Maitreya may be considered either as a bodhisattva, according to the sutras, or as a Buddha, according to the tantras. In his iconographic representations, he is shown seated, but the legs, instead of being locked, are pendent. He is the only divinity in the Northern Buddhist pantheon represented seated in this European fashion. He has the signs of a Buddha such as long earlobes, the urna (the auspicious mark between the eyebrows, signifying superhuman qualities), and the ushnisha (cranial bump on the head, symbolizing wisdom), and he wears the robes of a monk.
Maitreya, also known as the future Buddha, who has still to come, is now thought to be waiting in Tushita Heaven for the right time to come down to earth. Tushita heaven is one of the thirty-three heavens over Mount Meru and is considered the special field of Maitreya. Tibetans believe that if someone chants the mantra "The Promise of Maitreya Buddha" in front of his image, that person will be reborn in Tushita Heaven after death.
Shown with an extremely sweet and gentle countenance, Maiterya here holds in his right hand the stem of a lotus flower. The bloom of this blossom supports the Buddhist wheel of spiritual instruction. His left hand similarly bears a vase at the shoulder level, signifying immortality. Maitreya’s throne is tapering and edged; his feet resting on a lotus base. The folds of the dhoti clinging to his legs are rendered realistically.
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