June 05, 2013

Consider the Source: Why Was Maitreya Too Fat to Sit in Full Lotus?

Andy Ferguson

In the great Buddhist grottos at Dunhuang, the unequalled repository of Buddhist statues and art in China’s far west, certain Buddha figures do not sit in full lotus as one might expect. Nor do they stand erect, another common posture. Instead, they sit with their legs crossed at their ankles, a puzzling, rather uncomfortable looking position. The Chinese scholar Gu Zhengmei argues that this posture is a sure sign that these statues represent Maitreya Buddha, the “Buddha to Come” who is said to appear in the world when all have forgotten the dharma. He claims that it is consistent with discoveries of Maitreya images not just at Dunhuang, but also in Greek-influenced Gandhara, where the first icons of the Buddha were found.

MET_MaitreyaBut why does Maitreya sit with his legs crossed at the ankles, instead of in full lotus? It may be because the kings who commissioned these buddha images intended them to represent the kings themselves. By claiming to be the very incarnation of Maitreya, kings could command ultimate religious status, and thus control the spiritual aspects of their subjects’ lives. By and large, kings enjoy diets that are not conducive to sitting in the lotus position—when kings who claim to be buddhas cross their legs, they’d prefer to do so at the ankles, not at the thighs! So the Maitreya statues depict kings sitting in a chair, their crossed ankles suggesting their holy status with only a half-hearted nimbleness.

Certain rulers can be connected with this phenomenon, all of them key links in the importation of political Buddhism into China.  One was the emperor Kanishka of the mid-2nd century AD Kushan Empire, whose domain included much of present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. The empire’s artistic culture was deeply imbued with Greek and Buddhist influence; statues of Kanishka depict him in this telltale crossed-ankles pose. Another was the first king to create Buddhist icons at Dunhuang, Meng Sun of the Northern Lian Dynasty, who is also portrayed in Dunhuang’s first caves as Maitreya, sitting with ankles crossed.

Kings using religion to help them reign and employing holy icons for their own aggrandizement are ploys as old as rulers and religion. Buddhism was as susceptible to this as any other teaching. Despite its original ideal of the “home leaver” who left the polluted world behind, the religion was quite thoroughly sucked into the vortex of politics in ancient China. These statues of Maitreya may be one slightly comical result.

—Andy Ferguson


Image: Photograph by Andy Ferguson. An exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC shows a presiding buddha in the tell-tale crossed ankles posture. This monument was likely commissioned by Emperor Taiwu of the Northern Wei.


This post is part of author and scholar Andy Ferguson's new “Consider the Source” series. As an old Chinese saying goes, “When drinking water, consider the source.” In the coming weeks, Ferguson will ask and answer seemingly simple (but in the end, profound) questions about the “source” of East Asian Buddhism, weaving a tale of both spiritual inspiration and political intrigue.

This fall, Tricycle will be traveling to the source itself, China, in a special pilgrimage led by Ferguson and abbot of the Village Zendo Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. Want to come with us? Click here for more information.

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safwan's picture

I find the article's explanation of how a king may have influenced the sculpture of Maitreya - quite interesting:
"So the Maitreya statues depict kings sitting in a chair, their crossed ankles suggesting their holy status with only a half-hearted nimbleness".

The Maitreya concept was used by kings (and even temples) authorities to subdue ordinary people into believing the authroities connection with a "future Buddha". But the concept in itself is self-defeating Buddhism, (predicting the failure of the Dharma, demise of Buddhism before Maitreya's emergence.
The mythology of Maitreya undermines the validity of Shakyamuni's Buddhahood, implying that his Buddhaood could not produce a reliable teaching for people to practice, and that Shakyamuni has failed to teach a reliable Dharma because all his Buddhism will disintegrate! This is a shared view in - perhaps - all Mahayana schools except for the Lotus Sutra, which teaches the universal Dharma of Cause and Effect (Myoho Renge Kyo). It teaches that Buddhahood is inherent within life, a state not limited by time or space, and predicts that ordinary people will emerge as Buddhas (manifest their Buddhanature).

In other words, one's Buddhanature does not depend on Maitreya or the king or anything. It's existence is inherent. Maitreya will not have any new teaching to deliver - which are not contained in the practice of the Lotus Sutra.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Maitreya is one of the bodhisattvas who participate in the Ceremony in the Air described in the Lotus Sutra. He is predicted to be reborn 5,670 million years after Shakyamuni's death, practice the Law and attain Buddhahood, and proceed to teach the Law to those of his time and place.

safwan's picture

Nichiren regards Maitreya as a function supportive to the Bodhisattvas of the Earth:
“The name Maitreya means ‘Compassionate One’ and designates the Votaries of the Lotus Sutra” (Orally Transmitted Teachings p 143). After Shakyamuni entrusted the Law to the Bodhisattvas, there is no meaning to name a practicular "successor" - as all ordinary people can reveal their Buddhanature through practicing the Lotus sutra (Gohonzon). T

he future of Buddhism is not 'decline and desintegration' (as the mythology of Maitreya requires) but;
“If Nichiren’s compassion is truly great and encompassing, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo will spread for ten thousand years and more, for all eternity”. WND1 p 736

jasondcrane's picture

I read this piece earlier today. Then, this afternoon, I started watching the cheesily wonderful martial arts film Descendant Of The Sun. At 15:20, the hero assumes this pose: http://jasoncrane.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/sun.jpg