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Bodhisattva as the not-yet Buddha: awakening the future

Maitreya is defined as the bodhisattva who is not yet a buddha. As such he embodies the unfulfilled aspect of the bodhisattva. He is caught in not yet being what everyone knows he is promised to become. He is a mere shadow of his future self.

Furthermore, there can be no prophecy of something that does not already exist, nor can there be any personal, private attainment of a truly perfect enlightenment. A buddha's enlightenment is the realization of all beings, who attain ultimate liberation simultaneously with a buddha. Enlightenment is all-pervading, like the vastness of space. So the notion of Maitreya alone attaining such a state in some imagined future time is simply nonsensical. To establish discriminations about an enlightenment as existing in a future, or actually existent at any "when," is a delusion. Vimalakirti warned Maitreya not to mislead the heavenly beings who listened to him with false notions about enlightenment. Silenced by this discourse, Maitreya was unable to respond to Vimalakirti's challenge.

Vimalakirti's position in this argument, refuting conventional views of time (as well as any view of enlightenment itself), is only one of a number of complex theories of time and history implied in Buddhist philosophy and literature. As a bodhisattva representing and sponsored by the future, Maitreya invites us to re-envision and re-inhabit time itself. Buddha's view of time sees all times as included in the immediate present, here and now. Just as the bodhisattva path includes all beings, it includes all times in the present time of being. But Maitreya forces us to consider the historical as well as the existential future, and the relationship and implications of the future to our present situation. Maitreya calls us from the promise of the future to revitalize our concern for future generations (as well as for our own future rebirths).

Maitreya has always inspired hopes and dreams for the future and therefore has drawn attention to the inadequacies and frailties of the present.