Mile Fo (彌勒佛), Maitreya, is a Chinese popular deity which originates from Buddhism. His surname Mile is a transliteration of the Sanskrit word Maitreya which is derived from the word maitrī meaning loving and kindness. Though Fo (佛) means Buddha in Chinese, Maitreya is not a Buddha at present but a bodhisattva who will be the successor of Śākyamuni (釋迦牟尼), the founder of Buddhism. In Chinese, Mi le Fo is called the Future Buddha (未來佛), or the Will-Be-Venerable Buddha Mile (當來下生彌勒尊佛) also.
One important aspect of Mile Fo’s idea is about the eschatology. Regarding to some Buddhist scriptures, once Maitreya comes to this world and enlighten as a Buddha, this world will be a wonder land or a paradise. All the people are long-lived, tall, and handsome or beautiful. There is no any disease and famine. It is a brand new era. Maitreya will preach the dharma three times and enlighten billions of people. This new era’s image is so brilliant and attractive to Chinese in Six Dynasties and the following dynasties. As a result, the belief on Maitreya’s coming becomes very popular in China from that time. Both the men of political ambition and the leaders of various cults took the image of Maitreya and his new world as an important ideology on propagating their ideas about their new world and promises to people. Many rebellions aroused in the name of Maitreya’s coming. Then the cult of Maitreya’s became an archetype of political-religious rebellion. The Whit-lotus cult (白蓮教) in Yuan dynasty (元朝
, 1271-1368) is a typical example. All the imperial authority keeps an eye on this kind of cult.
However, there is still another thread about Maitreya in Chinese popular religions and Buddhism. According to Mahayana Buddhism, all live include bodhisattva will reincarnate in saṃsāra forever until become a Buddha. In other words, as a bodhisattva, even Maitreya incarnates as well. Chinese Buddhists believe that one incarnation of Maitreya is Fu Xi (傅翕, 497～569) who is a friend of emperor Lian Wu (梁武帝, 464?-549) . Another one is more famous than Fu Xi. He is a monk whose religious title is Qici (契此) in Five dynasties (五代, 907-960). He traveled around the Zhejiang (浙江) province, carried a sack all the time, and begged for a living. Qici’s words were few and each time when he was speaking, he was going to die. Strangely, every time people thought he was dead already, they would find he was still alive elsewhere. Qici was a thaumaturgical monk. Chinese thought that he is Maitreya’s incarnation and call him monk Budai (布袋)and set statue for him. Budai means cloth sacks in Chinese. As it mentions above, he always carried a sack. Besides, some Chinese popular sectarian thought their masters were Maitreya’s incarnation too. Such as I-Kuan Dao (一貫道
), it’s members thought that Lu Zhongyi (路中一, 1849-1925), the seventeenth Patriarch of I-Kuan Dao, was the last Maitreya’s incarnation.
As the incarnation of Maitreya, Monk Bu-Dai’s image influences profoundly Maitreya’s image in China. Originally, the status of Maitreya was Greek style. Referencing to Greek aesthetics and myth, the status is slender and wears a corolla. It is because of Alexander the Great invading India and founding some Indo-Greek kingdoms. However, in China, Maitreya’s image was changed during Song Dynasty. Maitreya’s image became having a fat face with smile and a big stomach. These new image’s elements means he is open-minded and tolerance. As a result, Maitreya becomes a Cai shen (財神),a fortune god, now. In Taiwan, there are many shops or stores enshrining Maitreya. However, there are few Buddhist temples enshrining Maitreya. Most of the huge Maitreya statuses are settled by I-Kuan Dao, and Maitreya is majorly enshrined by the disciples of Yi-guan Dao. People even forget his Inido identity sometimes. Maitreya is one of the Buddhists figures who really come to term with Chinese culture.
Keywords: Maitreya, the Future Buddha, Monk Bu-Dai