Decline of the Dharma

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The first of the "three marks of existence"—anitya (impermanence), anātman (no-self), and duḤkha (suffering)—holds that all conditioned (that is, causally produced) phenomena are transitory. With striking consistency, most Buddhists over the centuries have believed this to imply that Buddhism itself—as a historically constructed religious tradition flowing from the life and teachings of a particular individual—must also have a finite duration. While the truth about the nature of reality (dharma) propounded by Śākyamuni and other buddhas before him is considered to be unchanging, particular expressions of that truth, and the human communities that embody them, are viewed as conditioned, and thus impermanent, phenomena. According to this widely held understanding, each buddha discovers the same truth about reality as that realized by his predecessors, and then he teaches it to a community of followers. After a certain period of time, however (commonly ranging from five hundred to five thousand years), this truth will be forgotten, thus necessitating its rediscovery by another buddha in the future.

In addition to this general assumption of transitoriness, Indian Buddhists have shared with their Jain and Hindu counterparts the idea that the present age is part of a cycle of decline. The entire cosmos, and with it the moral and spiritual capacity of human beings, is viewed as being on a downward cycle, with each succeeding generation being less spiritually adept than the last. In this context it is not surprising that Buddhists have anticipated a gradual erosion both in the quality and quantity of the transmitted teachings and in the karmic character of their practitioners. Such expectations have been recorded in a wide range of prophecies of the decline and eventual disappearance of Buddhism found in Buddhist canonical texts.

Timetables of decline

The earliest tradition offering a specific figure for the duration of the dharma predicts that Buddhism will endure for only five hundred years. This prophecy, found in the vinaya texts of several different ordination lineages (nikāya) and dating from perhaps a century or so after the Buddha's death, is generally intertwined with the claim that Buddhism would have survived for a full one thousand years were it not for the fateful decision made by Śākyamuni to ordain women as well as men. As a direct result of the presence of nuns within the monastic community, the life span of the Buddhist teachings will be cut in half.

Early in the first millennium c.e., however, as the Buddhist community became aware that this initial figure of five hundred years had already passed, new traditions extending the life span of the dharma beyond this limit began to emerge. A 1,000-year timetable seems to have been especially popular in Sarvāstivāda circles, appearing in a wide variety of literary genres (including sūtras, vinaya texts, and avadĀna tales, as well as in scholastic works) associated with this lineage. The figure of 1,000 years also appears in several MahĀyĀna texts, including the Bhadrakalpika-sūtra and a commentary on the larger Prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra) preserved only in Chinese (Da zhidu lun).

With the passage of time even this extended number proved insufficient, however, and still longer timetables were proposed. Later Mahāyāna scriptures offer figures of 1,500 years, 2,000 years, and 2,500 years, of which the latter became especially influential in East Asia. In TheravĀda circles a still longer timetable of 5,000 years was adopted; this timetable has been known since at least the fifth century c.e., when it appeared in Buddhaghosa's commentary on the Aṅguttaranikāya. The figure of 5,000 years has also become standard in Tibetan Buddhism, drawn perhaps from the Byams pa'i mdo (*Maitreya-sūtra), which survives in two Tibetan translations. A slightly different figure of 5,104 years is also used by Tibetan Buddhists, calculated on the basis of an apocalyptic prophecy found in the Kālacakra Tantra.

According to all of these traditions, after the requisite time has elapsed Buddhism will completely disappear from this world. Only at the time of the next buddha, Maitreya (commonly calculated at 5.6 billion, or sometimes 560 million, years from now), will the truth discovered by Śākyamuni and prior buddhas be made available again. In East Asia, however, calculations of the life span of the Buddhist religion took a different turn, based on the development of a system of three periods in the history of the dharma. According to this system, the third period in the life span of the dharma was generally described as lasting for 10,000 years—a number that implies "infinity" in East Asia. As a result, for East Asian Buddhists the life span of the dharma has been radically extended, even as this final period is described as one of decadence and decline.

The periodization of decline

Texts predicting that the Buddhist religion will last only five hundred years do not subdivide this figure into smaller periods. With the advent of longer timetables, however, Buddhists began to identify discrete stages or periods within the overall process of decline. A wide range of periodization systems can be found in Indian Buddhist texts, ranging from two 500-year periods (in the Mahāvibhāṣā) to a 1,000-year period followed by a 500-year period (in the Karuṇāpuṇḍarīka-sūtra) to five 500-year periods (in the Chinese translation of the Candragarbha-sūtra). Clearly there was no consensus among Indian Buddhists on the total duration of the dharma or its periodization once the initial agreement on a 500-year life span had been left behind.

Amid this great variety, however, a twofold periodization scheme came to be widely influential in Indian Mahāyāna circles. According to this system (which seems to have been formulated early in the first millennium c.e.), after the Buddha's death there would first be a period of the true dharma (saddharma), followed by a period of the "semblance" or "reflection" of the true dharma (saddharma-pratirūpaka). During the first period, the Buddhist teachings are still available in their full form, and liberation can still be attained; during the second, at least some elements of the Buddhist repertoire remain available, but conditions for spiritual practice are far less propitious. The term saddharma-pratirūpaka has sometimes been wrongly translated into English as "counterfeit dharma," a concept that does appear elsewhere in Buddhist literature, though not in the context of this two-period scheme. It is quite clear, however, that Buddhist writers viewed the period of the "reflected dharma" as a time when access to genuine Buddhist teachings was still available, albeit in a diluted and rapidly disappearing form.

The distinction between saddharma and saddharma-pratirūpaka appears to have been most useful as a conceptual bridge between the older system of five hundred years and longer systems, and as the expected duration of the dharma moved beyond 1,500 years to still longer figures, this twofold periodization system seems to have gone out of use. Though references to the saddharma and the saddharma-pratirūpaka continued to appear occasionally in other Mahāyāna texts (for example, in the Lotus SŪtra, where they play a prominent role), longer periodization schemes for the duration of the dharma that were formulated in India, including the 5,000-year system now used in the Theravāda world and the comparable 5,000-year system employed in Tibet, generally proceed without reference to these terms.

In East Asia, however, these expressions played a central role in calculations of the duration of the dharma. The concepts of saddharma and saddharma-pratirūpaka appeared in China by the third century c.e., where they were translated as zhengfa (correct dharma) and xiangfa (image [or semblance] dharma), respectively, by DharmarakṢa (Zhu Fahu, fl. 265–309 c.e.). Combining these neatly parallel Chinese terms with a third expression, moshi (final age; used to translate the Sanskrit paścimakāla, "latter time"), subsequent generations of Chinese thinkers constructed a three-part periodization scheme consisting of the "correct dharma" (zhengfa), "semblance dharma" (xiangfa), and "final dharma" (mofa). This third and final period, which is unknown in Indian sources, was understood as a period when Buddhism is still known, but human spiritual capacity is at an all-time low. In China this third and final period was commonly calculated as having begun in 552 c.e.; in Japanese sources (drawing on different translated scriptures) the more common date for the onset of mofa (Japanese, mappō) is 1052. In both cases, however, it was expected to endure for the foreseeable future, a period regularly described as lasting "10,000 years and more."

Causes of decline

On one level, the decline and eventual disappearance of the dharma is viewed in Buddhist sources as automatic, simply resulting from the principle of the transitoriness of all conditioned things. On another level, however, Buddhists have sought to identify specific factors that may contribute to—or conversely, that may inhibit—the ongoing process of decline.

As noted above, the earliest tradition points to the presence of women in the monastic order as the critical factor in Buddhism's early demise. Other explanations soon appeared, however, many of which point to internal causes—that is, the conduct of members of the Buddhist community themselves—as bringing about the disappearance of Buddhism. These include lack of respect toward various elements of the Buddhist tradition, lack of diligence in meditation practice, and carelessness in the transmission of the teachings. Other accounts point to sectarian divisions or the appearance of false teachings as the cause of decline. Finally, excessive monastic association with secular society also regularly appears as a contributing cause.

Other accounts, however, link the decline of the dharma to forces impinging on the Buddhist community from without. Modern secondary sources have often blamed declining Buddhist fortunes on persecutions or foreign invasions, but when Buddhist scriptures point to external causes it is generally not persecution or conquest but excessive patronage of the Buddhist community that is blamed for its decadence and decline.

Responses to the idea of decline

Though most Buddhists before the modern period have shared the idea that Buddhism is in the process of decline, responses to this idea have varied widely. In Sri Lanka, for example, the steady decline of the dharma spelled out in the writings of Buddhaghosa is associated with an emphasis on the importance of preserving the written teachings, and it also harmonizes well with the widespread assumption that it is no longer possible to attain arhatship in this day and age. In Tibet, by contrast, where the dharma is also expected to last for 5,000 years, there is far greater optimism about the possibilities for practice and attainment in the present age, due in part to the assumption that tantric practice offers a short-cut to enlightenment.

In East Asia the concept of mofa effectively over-shadowed worries about the eventual disappearance of Buddhism, leading instead to a focus on the challenge of practicing Buddhism during this prolonged and decadent final age. In China concern with mofa appears to have peaked in the sixth and seventh centuries c.e., when it inspired such figures as Daochuo (562–645) and Shandao (613–681) to emphasize the necessity of relying on the Buddha AmitĀbha in this difficult time. Xinxing (540–594), founder of the Sanjie jiao (Three Stages school), by contrast, held that even greater efforts were needed in order to make progress in such a decadent age. After the seventh century, attention to mofa appears to have receded in China, and it is of relatively little importance (except as a rhetorical flourish used in critiques of the monastic saṅgha) in most of East Asia today.

In Japan, however, mappō has remained a central and governing concept, above all for members of Pure Land schools and the Nichiren school. Zen Buddhists, by contrast, have often dismissed the relevance of the idea, claiming that what could be accomplished in Śākyamuni Buddha's time is equally accessible today. Though agreeing on little else, Pure Land and Nichiren Buddhists share the idea that the age of mappō constitutes a new dispensation requiring an easier and more universal religious practice.

See also:Dharma and Dharmas


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Durt, Hubert. Problems of Chronology and Eschatology: Four Lectures on the Essay on Buddhism by Tominaga Nakamoto (1715–1746). Kyoto: Scuola di Studi sull' Asia Orientale, 1994.

Hubbard, Jamie. Absolute Delusion, Perfect Buddhahood: The Rise and Fall of a Chinese Heresy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001.

Nattier, Jan. Once upon a Future Time: Studies in a Buddhist Prophecy of Decline. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1991.

Stone, Jacqueline I. "Seeking Enlightenment in the Last Age: Mappō Thought in Kamakura Buddhism." Eastern Buddhist 18, no. 1 (1985): 28–56 and 18, no. 2 (1985): 35–64.

Jan Nattier

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Decline of the Dharma

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