The Rise and Fall of the Dharma – according to the Buddha
The simplistic spiritual ideology of being in the here and now obscures the opportunity to step out of the here and now to explore causation in the long period. The belief in the self-existence of the now, as something supreme and ultimate, has become an obstruction to clarity and vision.
We need to give attention to a long term exploration of influences that fashion the future. The Buddha did not hesitate to cast his mind’s eye over the future to look centuries ahead. We are now 26 centuries after the life of the greatest son of India. It is worthwhile to see what he predicted and whether there is weight to these predictions.
The Buddha addressed application of the Dharma (teachings and practices for awakening), past present and future. In his teachings, he directed mindfulness towards past circumstances, especially recent ones leading up to the formations of experiences and events arising in the present. He also addressed what arises in the present and relationship of the present to the future. He said causes and conditions yielded consequences in the field of time.
He acknowledged long-standing past influences in the process of becoming that the Buddhist tradition generally interprets as the impact of past lives upon the present or latent DNA in scientific language that we bring with us into the world. Equally, the Buddha turned his attention to the future addressing the larger perspective, as much as the personal one.
‘Downfall of the Dharma’
In various passages among the 10,000 discourses established in the suttas, he looked at the conditions that bring about the ‘downfall of the Dharma.’ He did not find blame with external circumstances such as wars, political decisions and social upheavals but stated that the primary responsibility for sustaining the teachings and practices rests completely with the Sangha. He said he did not see anything in the nature (earth, air, heat and water) that causes the Dharma to disappear but pointed the responsibility primarily to spiritually deluded people (mogha purisa) who cause the Dharma to disappear. (S 16.13)
The Buddha emphasised with unwavering conviction the significance of exploration of Awakening (Buddha), Dharma and Sangha.
He warned against clinging to views, divisions among practitioners and the arising of sectarianism and cults within the Sangha. The Buddha also realised the dangers of ego making claims about spiritual attainments and the impact of praise and blame upon teachers and practitioners. He encouraged practitioners to be mindful of secular and religious institutions that can affect their quest for awakening and liberation.
He said the teachings would definitely decline due to neglect or deterioration in ethics, meditative concentration and wisdom. If teachers neglect the depth of exploration and identify with unhealthy or unclear views, this also would add to the decline and disintegration of the Dharma. The Buddha knew that the teachings would last a long time as long as the wise and liberated men women continued to emerge.
The Role of Women
The Buddha sanctioned the rights of women to leave any confinement of the householders’ life, whether a daughter, sister, wife or mother, and enter into a nomadic way of life with the exploration of love, intimacy with nature and liberation at the heart of the lifestyle.
This endorsement showed a radical initiative in patriarchal ancient India. He agreed to the ordination of women despite initially refusing the request three times to a woman, Gotami, a householder and three times a request from Ananda, his attendant. Crying, Gotami pleaded with Ananda to speak to the Buddha about his resistance to the ordination of women.
The Buddha said “Enough….” He did not want to hear any more requests. Then Ananda asked him if women could attain full realisation and full liberation as women in the nomadic life. The Buddha agreed and thus had to drop his resistance to women. He famously introduced some extra rules for women and claimed that allowing women to join his wandering Sangha, would mean the teachings would endure for only 500 years rather than 1000 years (AN. IV 276). It is very uncharacteristic of the Buddha to express such precise time periods about the long term future.
Time has shown that the Dharma has endured for 2600 years with, sadly, tiny numbers of ordained women in the ordained Sangha. There is a suspicion that conservative monks added to the texts this single passage on the Buddha’s fear about the future of the Dharma and the extra rules for women, so they remained subservient to male Sangha. If the texts are an accurate report, then they reveal the conservative mind-set of the Buddha in such matters while taking radical steps to support women’s liberation.
The Theragatha records the essential experiences and insights of women who diligently practised the Dharma and came to deep realizations. They express their insights through poems, prose and the uplifted voice of happiness and attainment. They share the same voice of realization with men. You cannot find in the texts statements by any men in the Sangha of disbelief or rejection of women’s realizations during the time of the Buddha.
The Buddha made clear that women and men have equal opportunity for full awakening if the depth of teachings, social and environmental support is present. Sadly, after the death of the Buddha, the old patriarchal system of religion gradually infected the Sangha. For example, if you go to Bodh Gaya today, you will see thousands of ordained monks sitting chanting and meditating in front of the Bodhi tree with handfuls of women confined to the distant margins. Famed Buddhist leaders and Abbots of monasteries may make a few politically correct utterances about equal opportunity but do nothing to develop a religious culture of equal opportunity for both genders.
Warnings to the Sangha of practitioners
The Buddha exhorted dedication to Dharma practice without any delay, to attain the unattained
(Vinaya Cullavagga 10.1.6). The Buddha stressed ongoing and dedicated practise rather than any procrastination. He told the Sangha to dedicate themselves to practice (Dharmaguptaka Vinaya 11) before the body reaches such a state of old age “that it would not be easy to turn to the teachings and practices while living in the forest or in a solitary dwelling.”
He told the Sangha to remind themselves: “Before old age comes to me, let me attain the unattained, so that I will dwell comforted even when I am old,”
The Buddha said the same thing with reference to health. Sickness can descend upon a person at any time so attainment will give support during such difficult times. He said the time might come when no food is available, when there are threats and the desire for safety. Practices and realisations will enable comfort and peace to be established rather than living in fear.
If the order of practitioners finds itself tearing itself apart through conflicts and divisions at some point in the future, it will also make it difficult to attain that not yet attained.
The Buddha also placed much responsibility on Dharma teachers to reach the highest level of wisdom and realisation. If teachers fail to develop their practice to reach the highest level of ethics, development of the mind and wisdom, they will only be able to pass on to practitioners a low-level training and insight, he warned.
The Dharma explores a way of life free from definition in terms of religious or secular beliefs. There are a growing number of seniors in practice (in wisdom, not years) who make reference to the ‘watering down’ of the teachings. It is not always the case. Some practitioners begin with some small steps, such as those listed below. From these small steps, they dive deeply into the expanse of the Dharma to address every area of life. They then explore the adventure endorsed with the teachings and and meet fully with the wide-ranging practices.
There are those who naively believe the teachings and practices boil down to:
In alphabetical order
being in the here and now
belief in secular Buddhism
belief in religious Buddhism
belief in the tradition
developing good karma
experience of oneness
learning to accept ourselves
living mindful lives
living with impermanence
not being attached
observing precepts (sila/vinaya)
reduction of stress
watching the judgemental mind.
Practitioners of the Dharma could apply all of the above and still remain stuck as novices in the Dharma towards awakening and liberation. All of these teachings belong to a much larger sense of the Dharma of awakening. Any isolation of such explorations establishes a self-existence and self-importance to the theme. Those who think that they follow the Dharma by adhering to such single approaches find themselves in the kindergarten of development. Such practitioners will remain in the kindergarten if the mind stays enclosed around one or two or more priorities.
The Buddha listed five dangers that would lead to the destruction of the Dharma including lack of development in ethics, body, discernment, discipline (of turning away from the unwholesome) and living in luxury. A 5.79.
“Without practices leading to higher teachings, the practitioners will fall into dark teachings.” Without understanding, they will fall into dark Dharma (teachings). He said practitioners will forsake practice, forsake solitary dwelling, move into urban areas and engage in unhealthy activities. Through neglect of practice, people will pursue expensive clothes, desire certain foods and accommodation and get caught up in socialising that distracts from the dedication to the Dharma.
He said four things lead to the decline and disappearance of the Dharma (AN IV 160).
A poor understanding of the teachings and poor interpretation
Practitioners who have become difficult to teach
Those who do no arouse the energy to realise the unrealised
Those with wisdom who decline to teach others
“One must stay mindful and resolute to attain the unattained and to realise what has not yet been realised. (A 5.80). He appreciated the different modes of practice for different people. For some,
practice is slow and painful
practice is slow and pleasant
practice is direct and painful
pracice is direct and pleasant. (AN IV 161).
He employed the simile of the young untrained horse who displays ‘contortion, writhing and vacillation’ until he is trained. After training, the horse becomes peaceful and also can run at the highest speed.
Destruction of the Teachings
In one of his most important prophetic talks, the Buddha pointed to the warning signs of the decay leading to the disappearance of the authentic Dharma:
the elders are no longer forest dwellers,
nor almsfood eaters,
no wearers of simple clothes,
nor are they with few wishes,
nor are they content,
nor do they love solitude
nor are they aloof from society,
nor are they exertive or energetic,
nor do they speak in respect of these qualities.
The same principle of sustainable living, a lifestyle of moderation, detached from consumerism, knowing contentment with a love of solitude gives support to the continuity of the Dharma and the capacity to attain the unattained. Our contemporary society offers an equal degree of freedom to householders, travellers, communities, monks and nuns to know a fully realised way of life. Few develop the conditions for deep realisations and the opportunity to live daily with wisdom and love. Some employ association with religious forms to develop their practice while others lean towards a secular approach or both or neither.
People will support teachers who remain dedicated to the practices and service of the Dharma as well as create and support dedicated centres offering teachings. Servants of the Dharma will receive the necessary requisites for support, such as food, clothing, accommodation and medicine, if needed. The Buddha said that those dedicated to the Dharma will inspire others to emulate the same way of life
The Buddha warned of the opposite effect as well. “Kassapa, one would be speaking rightly to say: ‘The spiritual life can be ruined by those who teach the spiritual life and ruin the way of life for themselves.'” Never impressed with power and privilege, the Buddha did not mix his words when he told a certain Prince Payasi that he was a “dung carrier” because of his views and then bluntly added:
“You will come to ruin and destruction if you foolishly and unwisely seek in the wrong way. Those who think they can trust anything they hear are heading for ruin and destruction. Do not let your views cause you misfortune and suffering for a long time.’
The Buddha addressed dedication to the Dharma on one side with corruption (taints) on the other side. He knew the danger of attraction towards personal success, wealth, status and personal goals.
Kimbila asked the Buddha: “What is the reason the Dharma does not last long after the passing of the Buddha?” The Buddha gave his reasons as lack of respect for the awakened teacher, Dharma and Sangha lack of training of one another, lack of concentration on the Dharma, lack of practice, lack of heedfulness and lack of hospitality. (A 5.201). Spot on!
“The Dharma will grow and prosper through mutual respect in these areas for men and women, householders and those in the (nomadic) Sangha.”
Kassapa, an austere yogi, asked a sharp and challenging question: “What is the reason that formerly there were fewer-training rules but more practitioners were established in liberation while now there are more training rules but fewer are established in liberation?”
The Buddha said he introduced ethics and training in conduct when corruption set in through desire for worldly gain, desire for fame, pursuit of information and reputation. He said when such corruption (taints of the mind) become manifest in the Sangha, he establishes rules to ‘ward off’ such a downward direction.
The Buddha replied: “That’s the way it is. Just as gold does not disappear, so long as counterfeit gold has not arisen in the world, even so, the Dharma does not disappear so long as a misleading (or watered down Dharma) does not arise in the world.”
He said the misguided no longer give attention to the teachings and do not listen with ‘eager ears.’ He added that the noble ones, who have realised truth and freedom, know liberation and have gone ‘beyond training’ while abiding in the noble path of ethics, mindfulness and wisdom.
The Buddha said the realised ones are worth of gifts, hospitality and respect
Practice. Practice. Practice. Don’t fluff around. Dedicate your whole being to love and liberation.
Practice is not just about you. Your practice will inspire the Sangha to practice.
You will inspire other men, women and children to practice.
You will inspire institutions and society to practice.
You will inspire our species and give support to all species.
You will contribute to sustaining the Dharma, probably the most precious teaching for humanity available on this Earth.
Don’t settle for anything less than the best.
You can see beyond the rise and fall of the Dharma.
There is truth to be found.
There is reality to be known.
There is full awakening to love and liberation.
May all beings live an awakened life