Revised post including a discussion on the incorrect English translation – ‘Age of Dharma Decline’- often used for the original term rendered in Chinese (末 法) and Japanese (mappo)…
TEXT IN KYOGYOSHINSHO
末 法 時 代
In his wonderful exposition on The Pure Land Way, Master Shinran, quoting from the writings of Master Tao-Cho of China wrote….
Further, The Great Collection Sutra states:
In the Dharma Ending Age
Out of billions of sentient beings practicing to cultivate the Way
Not one will attain Enlightenment.
We are now in The Dharma Ending Age
It is the evil world of the five defilements
The Pure Land Gate is the one and only path that affords passage.
Dharma Ages are broad time periods starting from Shakyamuni Buddha’s Parinirvana. They define the distinctive characteristics of sentient beings and their spiritual capacities in practicing the lifetime teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. It should be pointed out that The Buddha Dharma itself, being absolutely everlasting and imperishable, does NOT change at all through the Ages. Rather, it is the nature, understanding and abilities of Buddha Dharma followers born into this world that have changed. Thus, the classification of the Dharma Ages is just a chronological progression describing the moral and spiritual degeneration of beings engage in the practice of The Buddha Dharma.
The sole purpose of The Buddha’s appearance in this world as a human being in mortal flesh about 2600 years ago, is to teach us about this dreadful, cyclical existence of pain and suffering and how to put a permanent end to this unsatisfactory, relentless torture we have been experiencing in this samsara, at long last.
Suffering beings like us do not know why we are born here – in a perishing environment attached to greed, hatred, ignorance jealousy and pride – living perhaps for only a short period of a 100 years and then blindly leaving this world in agony for another unknown existence of continued pain and suffering. How painfully foolish and blind we are, not making use of this precious human birth.
With boundless compassion for the suffering multitude, The Buddha taught for 45 years, showing individual persons or groups – in accordance with their natures and spiritual capacities – appropriate means on how to escape from samsara. Through His countless discourses, He also dispenses the appropriate Dharma medicines for those spiritually less endowed, foolish persons, during His lifetime and for future generations.
In the Right Dharma Age (正 法 時 代) which lasted 500 years from His Parinirvana, The Tathagata’s strong presence and Buddha-field enabled persons of different capacities to use the self-power methods He taught them to obtain emancipation. Shakyamuni Buddha tells us in The Great Collection Sutra that during the Right Dharma Age his disciples will be resolute in acquiring wisdom. Disciples of The Buddha born during this Age were morally resolute with excellent spiritual faculties and due to their good karma from the past, appeared in the immediate energetic influence of a True Living Buddha, A World-honored One, Teacher of gods and humans.
Thus, the self- power practices of the difficult moral disciplines and meditations taught by The Buddha were fully in accord with the strong spiritual capacities and natures of these followers on this Path of Sages – mainly for monks and those who are spiritually well-endowed. Thus, countless persons gained various levels of emancipation, practicing strictly and truthfully in accordance with the methods He taught and many were permanently freed from the firm clutches of samsara.
The Semblance Dharma Age (像 法 時 代) that followed lasted another 1000 years. During this period self-power practitioners of the Buddha Dharma were resolute in meditations and the performance of difficult Buddhist practices. However, most of them, not understanding their own natures and influence of the Dharma Age they were in, failed to gain permanent freedom from samsara, having been unable to practice strictly in accordance with the teachings and difficult disciplines.
It is called Semblance Dharma Age, simply because most of the followers of The Buddha Dharma at that time, still thought they had the same spiritual capabilities as their counterparts on the Path of Sages in The Right Dharma Age, though they were only practicing a semblance of The Right Dharma. Their emancipation was denied by their own egoistic clinging to self-power practices which were simply beyond their actual abilities.
On the other hand, those counted as foolish persons, truthfully admitting their low spiritual capabilities and relying on the other-power teachings of Amida Buddha and His Pure Land, flourished. Thus, many followers during the Semblance Dharma Age, relying on the power of Amida Buddha’s 48 Vows were freed from samsara at the end of their lives.
The Dharma Ending Age (末 法 時 代) followed after the end of the Semblance Dharma Age, 1500 years after The Buddha’s Parinirvana. This Dharma Ending Age will continue until all forms of practices of The Buddha Dharma taught by Shakyamuni Buddha become extinct in this world. This is the Dharma Age in which followers of The Buddha Dharma are resolute in building towers and temples, practicing meritorious conduct, repentance and other self-power Buddhist practices without regard for their own innate capabilities.
Conflicts and strife amongst followers of the Buddha Dharma, become widespread with the proper practice of the good Dharma that gives practicers a method of permanently ending pain and suffering at the end of their lives, becoming practically impossible. The time for achieving the enlightenment that extricates us out of samsara through self-powered practices in this life, has already passed in this Dharma Ending Age.
Master Shinran in his original Classical Chinese text quote above, confirmed that we are now deep in The Dharma Ending Age, in a world consumed by the five defilements of greed, hatred, ignorance, jealousy and pride. His true intention for specifically highlighting this Dharma Ending Age (末 法 時 代) was clearly to differentiate it from the other Dharma Ages. However, many followers not understanding its significance, have translated this term into English as ‘Age of Dharma Decline’ which is incorrect. He further wrote:
“Truly we know that the teachings of the Path of Sages were intended for the periods when the Buddha was in this world and for the Right Dharma Age; they are altogether inappropriate for the times and beings of the Semblance and Dharma Ending Ages and the Age when the Dharma has become extinct. Already their time has passed; they are no longer in accord with beings.
The true essence of the Pure Land Way compassionately draws all the innumerable evil, defiled beings to enlightenment without discrimination, whether they be of the periods when the Buddha was in the world, of the Right, Semblance or Dharma Ending Ages, or of the time when the Dharma has become extinct.”
This is the Dharma Age in which no sentient being is able to escape from samsara by their own efforts. Those who think they could are, simply put, too egoistic and unrealistic about their own nature and spiritual capabilities as they continue to struggle in vain to achieve emancipation, till the end of their fleeting lives.
Shakyamuni Buddha has firmly revealed to us that the main purpose for which He came to this world was to preach Amida Buddha’s Vow of Boundless Compassion which promises to save all mundane foolish persons (凡 夫, bombu), good or evil, irrespective of their gender, social status, and intelligence or living environments and the Dharma Ages they are in. This was especially so in The Semblance Dharma Age and particularly effective in this latter Dharma Ending Age when The Pure Land Gate is the one and only viable escape route out of samsara.
In this Dharma Ending Age, human beings are absolutely incapable to practice strictly according to Shakyamuni Buddha’s lifetime teachings to obtain enlightenment by their own self-power, strict discipline, difficult practices. The Buddha, out of great compassion for all suffering beings, exhorts all His disciples like ourselves who truly do not have the capacity for these practices, to sincerely entrust themselves single-mindedly to Amida Buddha and His fulfilled Primal Vow which is a sure way of breaking free from the vicious cycle of samsara at the end of this life in mortal flesh.
Understanding the enormous impact of The Dharma Ending Age, let us not struggle in vain with self-power practices which are totally useless to us in our plight to get out of samsara at the end of this terrible existence. May we become True Disciples of Buddha by Listening Deeply to what The Buddhas have taught, truthfully acknowledging our persistent shortcomings and accordingly rely solely on Amida Buddha and The Primal Vow.
In deep gratitude to Amida Buddha for having saved us and freeing us from all pain and suffering at the end of our lives, we Say The Name (Namo Amida Butsu 南 无 阿 彌 陀 佛) endowed with infinite virtues and embodied in The Primal Vow.
Thus, we have Truly Heard:
The Call of Boundless Compassion
Namo Amida Butsu 南 无 阿 彌 陀 佛
Namo Amida Butsu 南 无 阿 彌 陀 佛
Namo Amida Butsu 南 无 阿 彌 陀 佛
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