Monday, September 14, 2009

The three Dharma ages

I will explain in this article, the teaching about the three Dharma ages by using various quotes from the last chapter of Shinran's Kyogyoshinsho.
These quotes are Master Shinran's own words or passages from sutras and commentaries that he himself used in his explanations.

Generally speaking, the doctrine of the Three Dharma Ages refers to the gradual decline of the capacities of beings to practice the Dharma and attain realization through it. Thus there is a difference between the time when the Buddha was in human body and influenced directly through His example and energetic field (Buddha field) those gathered around Him and the periods far away in the history when only the teaching remains, but not the Teacher.

What a great chance it is to meet a Buddha in flesh and bones and receive instructions directly from Him, being constantly in His presence and influenced by His Buddha field. How quick and safe the spiritual development can be, just by seeing His face and having devotion for Him every day, not to mention the constant checking and support He gives to your practice.
Also if you live in the period close to the physical death of a Buddha, His influence is still felt and active through the working of His closest disciples or the disciples of these disciples.
As it is stated in the Sutra of Mahamaya:

"During the first five hundred years after the Buddha's parinirvana, seven holy monks, sages all, including Mahakasyapa, will uphold the right dharma in succession so that it does not perish. After five hundred years, the right dharma will become completely extinct."

The first period of 500 years after the physical death of the Buddha (parinirvana) is called the right Dharma age.
It is an age characterized by correct understanding and practice of the Dharma in all its aspects (meditation, wisdom and precepts) with often attainment of emancipation.

The second Dharma age is called the semblance Dharma age, which lasted 1000 years after the previous one.
It is characterized by gradual decadence in the determination by which practitioners, both monks and lay, practice the Way. Self indulgence slowly takes place and fills the minds and hearts of the followers. The breaking of precepts becomes more and more common among monks and nuns and "only a few attain the fruit of Enlightenment".

The third and last Dharma age lasts for 10.000 years after the second age. In it "only the verbal teaching remains", while nobody is capable of observing the precepts and of truly practicing meditation or other Buddhist methods based on self power.
Words like, "the right Dharma will become extinct" or "the teaching will be stored in the naga's palace", which can be found in Mahamaya Sutra, Benevolent King Sutra and others, means that although one can still find the written texts of the Buddhist teaching, the Dharma of personal power teachings and methods is as good as non-existent or practically non-existent because nobody can attain Enlightenment through it.
The requirements of the paths of self power within the Buddhist teachings do not accord anymore with the capacities of beings.

Also even if we read about precepts in the sacred texts, nobody can actually observe then. So it is said that in this period there are no precepts. If there were people who at least have the capacity to observe precepts in an imperfect manner, we could say that there is a breaking of precepts, but since people can't observe precepts at all, it is said that precepts do not exist anymore. The capacities of beings are so low that no requirement is made to them, hence there are no precepts (1). It is the same with having no pretention of healthy behavior from a terminally ill person with a chronic disease.

The matter of accordance between the teaching and the beings to be taught and also the time in which they live in - close or far from the physical presence of the Buddha - is extremely important.
Master Tao-ch'o said that:
"if the beings, the teachings and the times were not in accord, it would be difficult to perform practice and difficult to attain Enlightenment."

A person living in the presence of the Buddha or close in time to it, can easily follow the paths of self power practice in comparison with someone living 2500 years far from the Buddha. The requirements and practices cannot be the same for them because their times and capacities differ.
Master Shinran explained this:

"With regard to the Dharma, there are three ages, and among people, there are three levels. The instruction imparting the teaching and precepts flourishes and declines according to the age, and words of condemnation or praise are accepted or rejected depending on the person...

...the wisdom and enlightenment of beings of the five five-hundred year periods after the Buddha's demise differ. How can beings be saved by only one path?"

"How can beings be saved by only one path?" - how can beings living in the last Dharma age attain Enlightenment through the means and practices given to those living in the presence of the Buddha or in the right Dharma age who have a different environment and different capacities.
"It is like rubbing green wood to build a fire; fire cannot be made, for time is not right", said Master Tao-ch'o in a well suited comparison.

Also Master Shinran said it very clear:

"Truly we know that the teachings of the Path of Sages were intended for the period when the Buddha was in the world and for the right Dharma-age; they are altogether inappropriate for the times and beings of the semblance and last Dharma-ages and the age when the Dharma has become extinct. Already their time has passed; they are no longer in accord with beings."

Thus the Great Collection Sutra states:

"Out of billions of sentient beings who seek to perform practices and cultivate the way in the last Dharma-age, not one will gain realization."

Master Tao-ch'o comments on this last quote by saying:

"This is now the last Dharma-age; it is the evil world of the five defilements. This one gate - the Pure Land way - is the only path that affords passage."

The Jodo Shinshu path alone doesn't discriminate between the capacities of beings and doesn't depend on the time they live in, wether it is the period when the Buddha was in the world, the right, semblance and the last Dharna ages, or the time when the Dharma becomes extinct, because it is the path that brings all to perfect Enlightenment, not through personal power which is changeable and not reliable, but through the Power of Amida Buddha.

I also reccomend you to read this article on the same topic:
Jodo Shinshu, the only effective path in this last Dharma age

(1) No requirement in terms of precepts it doesn't mean that people of the last Dharma age should make no efforts in having a moral life or living in harmony with other beings, but their trying cannot be called observation of precepts, anymore. They are not required to attain Enlightenment through leading a pure life because precepts and observation of precepts is exactly this - a method combined with the development of wisdom and meditation as a mean to attain Enlightenment.

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