Sit. Think. Wait—for the isolation to end, for a future where things will be better.

For many of us, COVID-19 has made this a daily routine. You might be surprised to find out that we share this in common with one of Buddhism’s most important bodhisattvas: Maitreya, the Future Buddha.

While Buddhism eventually came to have Buddhas as countless “as the sands of the Ganges” throughout the entire cosmos, there is only one Buddha at a time in any given place and age. Buddhists believe the appearance of a Buddha is an exceptional event for those happy few who get to experience it. This is thought to have already happened over two millennia ago in this world, and unfortunately now is a time of decline between Buddhas, when the teachings of enlightenment slowly degenerate and then disappear. Becoming a Buddha is no easy feat, and it takes an unimaginable number of lifetimes of training and sacrifice, during which one is known as a bodhisattva. The bodhisattva Maitreya has completed all of the stages leading to enlightenment, and now he resides in a spiritual realm, watching and waiting for the moment when the experience of suffering is such that people will be able to understand his teachings and he can appear as the next Buddha.

Maitreya rose to prominence in the region approximating modern Pakistan and Afghanistan, around the first century A.D. His popularity was immediate, and can be gauged by the vast numbers of images surviving from this period, second only to those of the historical Buddha Gautama, the “Sage of the Shakya Clan” (Shakyamuni). Maitreya can be identified in these early works by the rich jewelry with which he is decorated. This symbolizes the fact that bodhisattvas maintain a certain amount of attachment to stay in the world and help people, unlike Buddhas, who as fully enlightened beings are unadorned. He is also usually shown standing, to distinguish him from Gautama, who sits in meditation.

Maitreya spread east with Buddhism, through Central Asia to China, and from there to Korea and Japan. Along the way, his appearance changed many times. One form in particular took a strong hold in East Asia during the sixth and seventh centuries, and resulted in some of the loveliest sculptures ever made: the Pensive Bodhisattva. In this form, Maitreya is shown seated, with one leg crossed over the other, leaning slightly forward to gaze upon the world, with a finger raised to his cheek in contemplation (one might see a resemblance with Rodin’s Thinker, in which the pose reemerged more than a millennium later). The Pensive Bodhisattva motif was already present in earlier Central Asian art, but it became especially popular in China during the sixth century, and HoMA’s relief sculpture of the subject in our Buddhist Gallery is a representative example. The fluid lines of drapery, more suggestive of calligraphy (which was emerging as the most respected art form in China at the time) than sculpture, are characteristic of the time, and give the sculpture an energetic presence despite its small size. Within the following hundred years or so, the Pensive Bodhisattva spread to Korea, and it was there that the true masterpieces of the genre were created, two magnificent bronze sculptures that are today considered Korea’s greatest treasures (they can be found on the National Museum of Korea’s website, National Treasures number 78 and 83). Two equally impressive sculptures also survive in Japan, one at Kōryūji in Kyoto, and one at Chūgūji in Nara (both of which can also be readily found online).

At a time when people accepted with deadly seriousness the idea that the world was degenerating into an inevitable apocalyptic end, and that the teachings of enlightenment were already becoming inaccessible, Maitreya had a powerful political and cultural resonance. Rulers associated themselves with Maitreya (or even identified themselves as his manifestation on earth), as did rebels, and charismatic religious leaders attracted followers to millenarian cults, becoming political forces in their own right. HoMA’s sculpture reflects some of this tension between different social classes, which was already evident in the early sixth century. Many of the first cave chapels in China in which such carved images appeared were sponsored by emperors (with clear implications identifying both the deity and the emperor as objects of worship). Over time, though, as further caves were opened, groups of people would join together to sponsor a chapel, and each of them would commission one small image such as HoMA’s Pensive Bodhisattva. This resulted in spaces of a fundamentally different character, not with one unified iconographic program reflecting the priorities of the state, but rather with dozens of more or less independent smaller niches and icons, often squeezed together in a haphazard fashion, each reflecting the hopes of an individual or family. In this sense, Pensive Bodhisattva is of profound interest in offering a window into personal belief beyond the official state practices otherwise dominating historical sources.

These personal beliefs, relevant to our own so many centuries later, were centered on patience (sit), reflection (think), and hope (wait). The hope that, however bad things might sometimes seem, the future will inevitably be positive.

– Shawn Eichman, Curator of Asian Art

Pensive Bodhisattva
China, Northern Wei dynasty, early 6th century
Gift of Mrs. Carter Galt, 1954