And in that time of the people with an eighty-thousand-year life-span, there will arise in the world a Blessed Lord, an arahant fully enlightened Buddha named Metteyya, endowed with wisdom and conduct, a Well-farer, Knower of the worlds, incomparable Trainer of men to be tamed, Teacher of gods and humans, enlightened and blessed, just as I am now.
— The Long Discourses of the Buddha
In Korea, the most commonly found Buddha image is that of the Mireuk Bosal, the Korean name for the Maitreya Bodhisattva (Metteyya in Pali), the future Buddha.
I'd sort of just figured he was a creation of Mahayana Buddhism, but this passage from the Pali Cannon showed me otherwise.
The way I've seen it explained on temple information panels, it sounds pretty assuring. In a few million years, or something, a great Buddha will come and rescue all the sentient beings who haven't yet found their way to Nirvana.
What the Buddha described, which the panel left out, though, is what to come between now and Metteyya Buddha.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu sums up the sutta ;
In the past, unskillful behavior was unknown among the human race. As a result, people lived for an immensely long time — 80,000 years — endowed with great beauty, wealth, pleasure, and strength. Over the course of time, though, they began behaving in various unskillful ways. This caused the human life span gradually to shorten, to the point where it now stands at 100 years, with human beauty, wealth, pleasure, and strength decreasing proportionately.
In the future, as morality continues to degenerate, human life will continue to shorten to the point were the normal life span is 10 years, with people reaching sexual maturity at five. "Among those human beings, the ten courses of action will have entirely disappeared... The word 'skillful' will not exist, so from where will there be anyone who does what is skillful? Those who lack the honorable qualities of motherhood, fatherhood, contemplative-hood, & priest-hood will be the ones who receive homage... Fierce hatred will arise, fierce malevolence, fierce rage, & murderous thoughts: mother for child, child for mother, father for child, child for father, brother for sister, sister for brother."
Ultimately, conditions will deteriorate to the point of a "sword-interval," in which swords appear in the hands of all human beings, and they hunt one another like game. A few people, however, will take shelter in the wilderness to escape the carnage, and when the slaughter is over, they will come out of hiding and resolve to take up a life of skillful and virtuous action again. With the recovery of virtue, the human life span will gradually increase again until it reaches 80,000 years, with people attaining sexual maturity at 500. Only three diseases will be known at that time: desire, lack of food, and old age. Another Buddha — Metteyya (Maitreya) — will gain Awakening, his monastic Sangha numbering in the thousands. The greatest king of the time, Sankha, will go forth into homelessness and attain arahantship under Metteyya's guidance.
There are a couple things about this that make me uncomfortable. I like to humor myself with the idea that I'm on some sort of linear path to enlightenment and if it doesn't happen in this life, then maybe not too many later. I tell myself, if I practice well, then it'll at least carry over, again and again. I didn't image a time when the teachings would be totally forgotten. I don't know exactly what part of "me" it is that will be reborn but what ever part it is, I can tell 'ya, it's not looking forward to the dark time prophesied, even if it means I'll have a chance to meet Metteyya Buddha.
This single mention of the Metteyya Buddha in the Pali Cannon was all I was able to come up with searching online, but there is much more attention given to him in Mahayan Buddhism. I'm curious if this stems from a possible connection between the Future Buddha and the Bodhisattva Vow. I also wonder how the Bodhisattvas will fair during the darkest times or if they just may be able to maintain a degree of light despite the prophecy. In the here and now, none of that really matters, though, except as an admonition to practice. The one time the Buddha did mention Metteya was while explaining the strength of the merit created by skillful action.