Messianic Warriors of the Future Buddha

Some months ago when I called Nichiren (1222-1282) the original face of Buddhist terror, I was probably being unfair. He wasn’t the original, in the sense of being the first, that dubious distinction may belong to a man named Faqing who lived in China during the 6th Century CE. I had forgotten about him.

However, calling Faqing a terrorist is not quite accurate. He was a messianic cult leader who waged a large scale rebellion. A cross between Jim Jones and Mao Zedong.

It started around the year 515 CE when, according to the History of the Wei Dynasty*, “the sramana Faqing from Jizhou started to propagate strange and illusive things.” Faquing married a Buddhist nun and then started a new sect that he called Dacheng, or Mahayana (Great Vehicle), not particularly original considering the northern branches of Buddhism had been calling themselves Mahayana for a few centuries already. Evidently, Faqing not only took the title Dacheng to refer to his own person, but he also identified himself as Maitreya, the “future Buddha.”

Maitreya, whose name is derived from the Sanskrit words maitri (Pali: metta) meaning “loving-kindness” and mitra (Pali: mitta) or “friend”, is a mythical Bodhisattva scheduled to appear on earth at some future time to complete his enlightenment, preach the “true” dharma and lead all people to salvation. In other words, a Buddhist Messiah. Maitreya is first mentioned in the Pali canon, and by the time of Faqing in the 6th century, the “future Buddha” had long been a popular figure and had spawned a number of cults. Belief in Maitreya often coincided with belief in the “end of dharma” or Mappo (“The Latter Day of the Dharma”), a baseless notion about an age when dharma becomes degenerated and Buddhist practitioners can no longer liberate themselves through their own efforts, but must rely on, have faith in, some external Buddha or mystic law to be saved.

In Buddhism in China, Kenneth Chen writes:

Maitreya statue in South Korea.
Maitreya statue in South Korea.

The popularity of Maitreya is easy to understand. During the Northern Wei period there already existed a large number of sutras in Chinese devoted to a description of Maitreya as the future Buddha . . . Such faith in Maitreya had a twofold aspect. First there was devotion to the deity as a bodhisattva, waiting in the Tushita heaven to be reborn on earth as the next Buddha. As part of this there was the earnest wish to be reborn in that heaven so that the devotee might be able to meet Maitreya face to face. Then there was belief in Maitreya as the future Buddha here on earth. As part of this there was the earnest wish to be reborn on this earth at the time when Maitreya makes his descent, so that the individual might hear the teachings from him and benefit from the peace, security, and prosperity that he was to bring on Earth.”

Faqing was so successful in convincing folks he was Maitreya, or at the very least an emissary of the future Buddha, that he was able to attract a large number of supporters and then amass an army of 50,000 soldiers.

He told his soldiers that any man who killed just one man would become a bodhisattva of the first stage, and if he killed ten men then he would ascend to the tenth bodhisattva stage (the Bodhisattva bhumi, is a traditional teaching that involves ten “stages” of the bodhisattva path to awakening). He also gave his followers drugs. The History of the Wei Dynasty reports that “As a result, the minds of his followers became disturbed such that fathers, sons, and brothers did not recognize each other and had nothing in their mind but killing.”

Few of Faqing’s soldiers were monks. Most were common folk duped into his fanatic crusade. His second in command was a man called Li Guibo, whom Faqing named “Demon Pacifying General” and “King who establishes the Han.” It seems that Faqing’s rebellion was based on his religious ideology, as his army’s maxim was “A new Buddha has entered the world; eradicate the demons of the former age!” No doubt another motivation was Faqing’s feeling that he’d make a better emperor than the one on the throne, and assuredly, he suffered from whatever psychological disorders plague individuals who commit genocide.

Faqing and his army murdered scores of magistrates and other government officials, ravaged a number of provinces, slaugtered monks and nuns, destroyed monasteries, and defeated several government expeditionary forces. Eventually, a general named Yao, supported by a force of a hundred thousand men, crushed the rebel army, and Faqing and his wife were beheaded.

Some 100 years later, Gao Tangcheng, who also took a Buddhist nun as a wife and called himself “Great Vehicle”, started a similar rebellion. Once again, belief in the mythical Maitreya inspired people to commit terrible atrocities.

Curiously, Maitreya, the future Buddha, is sometimes confused with Eddy Maitland, the future Bubba.

There have been other would-be Maitreyas since that time, and today, there are at least two cult-leaders who call claim to be Maitreya (Benjamin Creme, Ronald Spencer). As well, there seems to be no shortage of others who claim to Buddhas, along with Buddhist “teachers” who inspire fanatic followers.

These sort of teachings all have in common a variation of end-time theology, faith rooted in something greater or outside the life of the individual (a buddha, a god or mystic law), and a conviction that the end justifies the means. The latter is what makes these groups potentially dangerous. In the modern age, an individual doesn’t need an army of 50,000 to kill a lot of people, as we have seen from Jonestown to Aum Shinrikyo. These groups have a tendency toward paranoia, often see themselves as victims, and have a urge to paint those who do not belong to the group or who disagree with their agenda as heretics who need to be shown the error of their ways, if not completely destroyed.

Eric Hoffer, the American philosopher who wrote a book that is still a definitive work on fanaticism, The True Believer, once said, “Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.” Absolute faith becomes absolute power when that faith is placed in a person who claims to be a supernatural being or the sole representative on earth of such a being, or in a mystic force of the universe. Most groups like this are rather benign, but as they are able to convince followers to surrender reason in favor of the cause, or take advantage of those feel isolated and lack adequate feelings of self-worth, there is the potential for harm, not only for the individuals involved but also society. That’s why we need to shine a light on their histories, beliefs and activities.

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* Hubert Michael Seiwert, Popular Religious Movements and Heterodox Sects in Chinese History, BRILL, 2003

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