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East Asia

The future Buddha, at present living as a bodhisattva in Tushita Heaven. In India Maitreya, ‘the one who is yet to come’, played a minor role, and only after he was introduced into China did he become a major figure. Devotees prayed for rebirth in his paradise, but the Pure Land of A-mi-t'o-fo, Amitabha, eclipsed his refuge during the seventh century. When the cult of Mi-lo was revived 600 years later, the appearance of the bodhisattva had quite changed. He took the form of a fat, jovial man, and he was referred to as the Laughing Buddha. It seems that this alteration was based on legends surrounding the life of a tenth-century Chinese monk with a wrinkled forehead and a mountainous belly. For the inhabitants of K'ai Feng he acted as a barometer for the weather. They could be sure of a fine day whenever he slept on the market bridge, but when he gathered up his loincloth and waddled for cover, they could expect a downpour. Added to Mi-lo's new rotund image was a bevy of children, a feature reflecting the Chinese ideal of a large family.

In Japan Maitreya, as Miroku-bosatsu, is usually portrayed in a thoughtful attitude. He sits with his head bent forward on his right hand, while with his other hand he is holding his right ankle raised above the knee of his left leg. Sometimes he carries a miniature stupa, a reliquary shrine.

Subjects: Religion.

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