Christians have Jesus, the Jews the Messiah, Muslims the Mahdi, and Buddhists Maitreya. All these names are applied to someone who will, at some time, appear on earth as a representative, regent or successor of the principal object of religious veneration.
Maitreya is believed to be the successor of Gautama or Buddha Sākyamuni, a bodhisattva (someone in an advanced enlightened state who wishes to attain Buddhahood in order to bring benefit to the human race), who will one day come to earth at a time when dharma, the law of the universe, has been neglected and almost forgotten. Maitreya, we are told, has so far held himself back from complete attainment of nirvana, the final state of enlightenment, in order to help other people find their way back to the dharma. The present text was revealed by Maitreya in a dream to Arya Asaṅga (c300-370 CE), a prolific and distinguished scholar-saint from Peshawar, who duly wrote it down as The Five Treatises of Maitreya.
It’s worth noting here that such dream-visions and revelations have their parallels in other literatures; the earliest English poem, nine lines in praise of the Creator, was said to have been dictated by an angel to the sleeping Caedmon, and Piers Plowman was claimed by its author William Langland to be the result of a dream-vision experienced by its eponymous narrator. We might also mention Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae, perhaps the most famous of all dream-vision literature outside the Revelation of St. John the Divine. Here the divine spirit of philosophy makes an appearance to Boethius, rather like Maitreya did to Asaṅga and dictates the book. In this case, what we have is a commentary on an established text revealed in a dream; Maitreya’s commentary expounds on the Mahayana Sutras, which we may understand as the canonical texts of Mahayana Buddhism.
The book begins with Maitreya’s “root verses” as they were revealed to Asanga; these constitute the base text of Maitreya’s commentary as revealed to Asaṅga. Then follows the commentary on each one of the verses; this is Jamgön Mipham’s Feast of the Nectar of the Supreme Vehicle, in which, he says, he will provide a “clear, easy-to-understand explanation of the extraordinary scriptural text,” and he delivers just that in over six hundred pages. Jamgön Mipham (1846-1912) was an eminent scholar of the Nyingma School, one of the oldest of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism (its name means “ancient”) and a member of the Rimé Movement, which collected various works of Tibetan Buddhism and made them available in print.
Mipham based his commentary on the earlier standard one written by the Indian Buddhist monk Sthiramati (c475-555), which runs to over a thousand pages and which Mipham admitted to have proved difficult reading. Thus we have his attempt to shorten and simplify, though not slavishly epitomize, the extensive work of Sthiramati, given to us in a fluent, lively and respectful translation by the members of the Padmakara Translation Group. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche calls the work “this shining text,” which
covers all that is necessary to know of the paths and stages of the bodhisattva’s way of life … we are shown how the essence of saṃsāra [the cycle of birth, life and death] is enlightenment itself.
The objective of this work, as its second chapter suggests, is “establishing the Great Vehicle as the Buddha’s word.” As Maitreya succinctly observes,
there is no other vehicle than the Great Vehicle, for it is utterly
profound, and it is concordant
… teaching a variety of things.
It does not mean exactly what is said, for the Lord’s intention is
hence the need for exposition and explanation. Maitreya notes that “The wise begin by listening, and on that basis they reflect.”
The Great Vehicle, or Mahayana Buddhism, is the form of Buddhism practiced by about three-fifths of Buddhists, and, as we see in this work, it emphasizes the idea of the bodhisattva, a person who takes as his mission the enlightenment of living creatures, which will help them free themselves from suffering and rebirth (bodhichitta) and hence obtain nirvana. Mahayana Buddhism is also, theoretically, a tolerant belief-system which accepts anything which leads people to spiritual maturity. Unlike other, more philosophical forms of Buddhism, it includes various deities, and there are many bodhisattvas as well as Buddhas, all of them projections of an ultimate, all-encompassing, impersonal power or force, quite opposite in nature to the god of the Christians, and indeed not itself a “god” at all. Maitreya, as we have noted, is understood as the immediate successor of the Buddha, and by revealing his thoughts to Asaṅga he is fulfilling his role as a bodhisattva, and it might be said of Mipham that he himself, in presenting readers this commentary, is also one, as his stated objective is to explain Maitreya’s exposition via Asaṅga and Sthiramati to modern readers, in other words an updated synthesis of commentaries.
Essentially, what Mipham does is explain each “chapter” of Maitreya’s dictated poem, examining almost every phrase and word in great detail, always with the objective of clarifying its meaning for the student. Maitreya brought together all the salient points of Mahayana scriptures (sutras) into a poetic distillation which itself becomes the authority for what readers need to know about bodhisattvas, or, as Yongye Mingyur Rinpoche states, it is “guidance for the entire journey to awakening, from the beginning all the way to buddhahood itself.” Mipham’s commentary is divided into five parts, beginning with What is to be Established: Establishing the Great Vehicle as the Buddha’s Word (Mipham’s italics) and ending with The Approach to Enlightenment, which itself concludes with “consummation”, the end-product. “The result,” Mipham writes, “is that one has become the very best of all sentient beings and is without peer.”
It would take more than a short review like this to properly evaluate the importance of this book to students of Buddhism and to people who simply want to know more about the life of a bodhisattva. As Maitreya says,
In summary, bodhisattvas have much interest,
Investigate the teachings, explain them,
Practice accordingly and receive
The perfect instructions and follow-up teachings.
It’s a very long and formidable read and it no doubt will prove immensely useful to anyone who wants to understand in great detail the profound truths which are believed to be expressed in Mahayana Buddhism.
The commentary by Mipham is obviously the result of consummate scholarship and years of devotion to the study of Mahayana Buddhism, and, as far as this reviewer can determine (as I’ve noted before, I am not a scholar of Buddhism nor do I read Tibetan), it is incorporated in a book which could really help readers in the understanding of Maitreya’s revelation, couched as it is in fairly simple if sometimes impenetrable verse, replete with a plethora of nuanced meanings, as can be seen from Mipham’s clarifying interpretations.
Making this particular work available in accurate, readable and fluid English is a great accomplishment of the Padmakara Translation Group, and it should find its share of readers among serious English-speaking students of Mahayana Buddhism, who can now read this classic text in a fluent and accessible translation as well as in an attractive, well-designed format. For these students, this book will be a veritable treasure, as the text, although sometimes appearing deceptively simple in nature when read too literally or superficially, contains profound thinking which often needs to be teased out with the help of commentary, or else, as it is noted in the second chapter,
If one understands the words literally,
One becomes proud and one’s intellect declines.
And a little later on, we are told,