A Criticism of Dharma Decline in Buddhism

George Romney’s “A Procession of the Damned”, courtesy of Wikipedia

In broad tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, there is a concept called “Dharma Decline”, or “The Age of Dharma Decline” or other such names. A few sutras in the Buddhist canon (out of literally hundreds) allude to this concept, but starting with the medieval period in Asia, it became a hugely influential idea that persists even today.  Dharma Decline is vaguely reminiscent of the End Times beliefs in Western religion, though considerably less dramatic.

The idea is based on the earliest Buddhist teachings that the appearance of Buddhas, that is to say a fully-awakened being capable of teachings others the Dharma, is super rare but occurs in a somewhat cyclical manner.  Ancient Indian thought believed the world to be very old and would come and go in cycles.  In the same way, there would be periods of enlightenment and decline.  This influenced Buddhist thought in that the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni (e.g. Siddhartha Gautama), was one of a long line of Buddhas to have appeared in the world.

This model doesn’t fit very well with the geological history of the Earth, since humans have only been around at most 2.5 million years, but it is what it is.  🤷🏼‍♂️

This notion was only mentioned in a few obscure sutras in the Pali canon, but was expanded further in Mahayana literature, such that world history would be divided into 5 phases (often conflated into 3) that in brief summary were:

  • The appearance of a Buddha, a period of great spiritual awakening and enlightenment. (e.g. the “turning of the wheel of the Dharma”).  People are wise, live long, healthy lifespans, etc.
  • After the Buddha dies, the “wheel” starts to slow down more and more over time and the teachings of the Buddha become less and less potent.  Quality of life gradually diminishes.
  • At some point of no-return, the wheel basically stops and the Buddha’s teachings fades and are corrupted so badly that society breaks down.  Life at this point is short, brutal and saturated by ignorance.

The final period, also known as the Age of Dharma Decline, was the closest thing that Buddhist literature and culture had to an apocalypse.  There was no dramatic sounding of trumpets, but the quality of life would worsen, life spans would be shorter, and no one would be able to practice the Dharma anymore for tens of thousands of years until another Buddha appeared.

In medieval Japan, the end of the Heian period was marked by terrible strife, warfare, famine, and by the time of the Kamakura period the social order had been totally upended when warlords seized power away from the Imperial family and the aristocrats in Kyoto.  As a result, Buddhist thinkers at the time such as Honen, Shinran, Nichiren and others quite literally interpreted Japan as being in the end-times.  This was a period of time, where monks would frequently interpret Buddhist sutras literally, just a Honen, Shinran and Nichiren all did. As described in the sutras, at some point the Buddhist teachings would no longer work, except perhaps this teaching or that.  Take for example the ending of the Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life:

The Buddha further said, “I have expounded this teaching for the sake of sentient beings and enabled you to see Amitāyus and all in his land. Strive to do what you should. After I have passed into Nirvāṇa, do not allow doubt to arise. In the future, the Buddhist scriptures and teachings will perish.”

But, out of pity and compassion, I will especially preserve this sutra and maintain it in the world for a hundred years more. Those beings who encounter it will attain deliverance in accord with their aspirations

translation by Professor Charles Muller

The Lotus Sutra references the Age of Dharma Decline as well, for example in the 23rd chapter:

“If in the last five hundred year period after the Thus Come One has entered extinction there a woman who hears this sutra and carries out its practices as this sutra directs, when her life here on earth comes to an end she will immediately go to the world of Peace and Delight where the Buddha Amitayus dwells surrounded by the assembly of great bodhisattvas and there will be born seated on a jeweled seat in the center of a lotus blossom….For this reason, Constellation King Flower, I entrust this chapter on the Former Affairs of the Bodhisattva Medicine King to you. After I pass into extinction, in the last five hundred period you must spread it abroad widely throughout Jambudvipa and never allowed to be cut off….

translation by Professor Burton Watson

In light of all this, Buddhist teachers at the time actively sought that one thing that would they could still rely on in the dark age when everything else had fallen apart. For Honen/Shinran it was reliance on the Buddha Amitabha, for Nichiren it was the Lotus Sutra (and his innovative chant in praise of it).  

This literal interpretation of the Buddhist texts also tended to favor exclusively Mahayana teachings at the expense of older teachings, since some early Mahayana sutras (cf. the Virmalakirti Sutra) tended to trash the “old guard” Buddhists.  In the same way, Kamakura-Era Buddhism also tended to trash the old monastic establishment, which admittedly had grown pretty corrupt thanks to an unhealthy association with political power at the time.

The focus of these Buddhist sects was mass-appeal. The more venerable Buddhist teachings no longer worked due to the condition of the times (not the teachings themselves), and in line with Mahayana-Buddhist compassion towards all beings, these thinkers, among others like Ippen, tried to spread any teaching they could that would help the masses escape a terrible fate being reborn over and over in a world of strife and danger.

But what about other Buddhist sects in Japan at the time? In various degrees, the fear of Dharma-Decline affected them all, but some more than others. The old-guard sects like Tendai and Shingon Buddhism accepted the notion of Dharma-Decline, especially Tendai Buddhism.1 Genshin’s influential Ojoyoshu was a Tendai-centered treatise on the importance of seeking the Pure Land in the Age of Dharma Decline.

Zen was not above Dharma Decline either.2 One one article on JSTOR,3 quotes Eisai, founder of Rinzai Zen, wrote:

The Praj&ntilds;ā, Lotus and Nirvana Sutras all teach the meditational practice of zazen for the last age. If it did not suit the people’s capacity in these latter days, the Buddha would not have taught this. For this reason, the people of the great Sung [Dynasty] nation avidly practice Zen. They err, who, in ignorance of zazen, hold that Buddhism has fallen into decline.

Having said all that, Pure Land, Nichiren and Zen sects have gone on to flourish in Japan in ways the “old-guard” Buddhist sects didn’t especially overseas, and that’s what most people see when they encounter “Japanese Buddhism” in this day and age.

However, I think that there are some problems with the premises of Dharma Decline. This is *not* a criticism of Buddhist sects and teachers, but Dharma Decline itself.

First, the situation in Japan at the time that spurned Dharma Decline was based on specific historical events and the cultural environment at the time, but obviously this doesn’t apply to the rest of the world at the time. Where Japan saw societal decline, other societies probably prospered. Eisai’s comment about Song Dynasty China is interesting since the Song Dynasty was near its zenith, so tying Dharma Decline to political/historical events probably doesn’t make much sense anyway. Basically, it was a pretty subjective world viewpoint.

Second, as alluded to above, Dharma Decline, if taken at face-value, relies on a specific world-view in ancient India that doesn’t fit well into modern notions of historiography and geology. For example, lifespans are typically _longer_ than before, and humans haven’t been around long enough for a series of Buddhas to appear across the eons (kalpas). The quality of life is arguably *better* than before, not less, and the Buddhist community still has good Buddhist teachers, both famous and more local. Dharma Decline hasn’t really panned out as predicted in old Buddhist literature.

However, one can argue that since the appearance of Shakyamuni Buddha, there is a more general sense of decline, and this may very well be true.

The stock, five periods of increasing decline are too formulaic to realistically apply to anything, but the idea of things declining is very Buddhist. Afterall, all condition phenomena are inherently empty. Buddhism as a religious institution (not the Dharma itself) therefore would be subject to the same changes and decline.

Which leaves us with an awkward question: are Buddhist teachings based on Dharma Decline even relevant anymore?

It’s fair to say that Buddhism now is pretty different than it was in 5th century BCE India, but is it realistic to try and wind back the clock to that era? Are all the “cultural accretions” and innovations that have come since a bad thing? Or do they reflect Buddhism as a continuously evolving religion rather than a moribund one?

On the other hand, at what point does the religion change and evolve that it loses its original essence, that it doesn’t really reflect the Buddha’s teachings anymore.

This is just one layman’s opinion, but if I had to distill the Buddha’s teachings, it involves three facets:

  • Moral conduct – Buddhism has various “lists” of precepts, but they all tend to follow the same pattern: a blameless life of dignity toward oneself and others.
  • Cultivation – The Buddha definitely did not want followers being idle. Buddhism wasn’t meant to be a mental exercise. Everything from the precepts to meditation practices were meant to be training on some level or another.
  • Wisdom – The Buddha placed heavy emphasis on the importance of insight, not beliefs. Cultivation and moral conduct were both meant to facilitate this.

So, I suppose that if we’re looking for a measuring stick of various Buddhist teachings today, they need to be able to conform (again, just my opinion) to these general guidelines in order to still be a genuine continuation of the Buddhist tradition.

A literal reading into some of the Buddhist sutras (need I remind readers that none of them were written anything less than 400 years after the Buddha, some much later) isn’t really a good use of one’s time, but reflecting on them in the light of the general Buddhist principles outlined above helps put them into context, while still keeping on grounded here and now on one’s path.

But at the same time the tradition, warts and all, is important to Buddhism and shouldn’t be tossed out with the bath water. Nor need we be bound by it though.

1 Ironically, teachers like Honen, Shinran, Nichiren and Ippen were all former Tendai monks.

2 Contrary to what modern Zen Buddhists tend to think.

3 Stone, Jackie. “Seeking Enlightenment in the Last Age: Mappō Thought in Kamakura Buddhism: PART II.” The Eastern Buddhist, vol. 18, no. 2, 1985, pp. 35–64. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44346128. Accessed 26 Feb. 2020.

Having been a Buddhist more or less since 2005, I’ve come to realize that there is no “magic” teaching or practice that you can follow to fruition and become a fully-awakened Buddha.  Of course, it’s natural to start with one teaching/practice as your starting point, but in the end Buddhism is a holistic religion. Anything that interprets Buddhism otherwise is a doctrinal house of cards.

The quotation I posted above illustrates what I think is a more balanced approach to Buddhism whereby one’s goal is fixed on awakening, and different “tools” are employed toward that end. Because of the depth and breadth of Buddhism, many such tools exist, and sometimes what works at one point in life might not work in another. Further, these tools are not mutually exclusive.


Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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