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Some Thoughts on Dharma Decline


Many of these blog entries have concerned my main research in political philosophy, intellectual property and technology. Now for something a little different, I thought I would write up some thoughts on another area of interest: Buddhism. For those who don't know, I've taught courses in Buddhism since I began teaching, having learned a great deal from my undergraduate advisor, Donald Hanks, and Ashok Aklujkar, a now-retired professor of Indian languages, literature and philosophy for whom I served as teaching assistant during my time at UBC. Thanks to their instruction, I developed a solid knowledge of the Indian Buddhist tradition, and I've used what they taught me to deepen and develop that knowledge to improve my teaching and my personal meditation practice.

While I don't want to write a full tutorial on Buddhist thought, I would like to discuss a notion that prevails in some traditions, and that discussion will require one to know a few basic ideas. At its core, Buddhist doctrine is directed at the liberation from suffering through a proper understanding of reality. According to the Buddha, one must investigate the causes of suffering, and once those causes are understood, one comes to understand that suffering can be prevented. There is much more to say about just these ideas, but the key thing to understand here is that the Dharma, as Buddhists refer to the Buddha's teachings, provides a roadmap to achieving these goals. The elimination of suffering can be achieved by anyone, and it does not require anything more than one's faculties of observation and analysis, strictly and carefully applied.

That being said, some Buddhist traditions contain discussions of a phenomenon known as “Dharma Decline.” The idea is fairly simple; achieving liberation (or Nirvana) is more difficult now than it was at the time of the Buddha. The argument is likewise simple. While the Buddha was alive, those who heard him and joined his assembly received instruction directly from him. He had a thorough understanding of reality and the difficulties encountered in achieving liberation, so he was capable of correcting errors in his followers. Here, the principal error is reliance on formula or ritual rather than strict observation and analysis. This error is a key concern in the Theravada tradition. Nirvana is not won through sitting a certain way of performing certain exercises alone. Instead, liberation is achieved through active critical engagement with perception, feeling, and thought. The Dharma provides exercises and encouragement to assist this engagement, but one cannot expect to simply sit and meditate in a certain way enough times and suddenly achieve liberation.

The problem is that the Dharma itself is a formula, a system. It is very easy to confuse the system for the solution, become frustrated with the practice or too absorbed in the minutia of particular exercises, and in the end fail to actively and critically analyze phenomenal reality, the reality of our experiences. While alive, the Buddha was able to steer his followers away from such errors, but after his death the assembly had to rely on those who had received direct instruction from the Buddha. Once that circle of followers had likewise died, that keen instruction and understanding is lost. Over time, as the teachings become codified, organized, and systematized, Buddhism becomes a tradition, and traditions are, in many ways, composed of forms, formula, and ritual. Followers then confuse the actual Dharma, the truth about reality and the elimination of suffering, with the rituals and traditions that accrue around the central truths. As the tradition persists, the risk grows, and the only ones capable of correcting the error are fully liberated teachers who reach the same level of understanding as the Buddha. Unfortunately, these teachers grow more rare as more time passes and the tradition becomes better established. As a result, we now live in an age of extreme Dharma Decline where fully liberated teachers are rare because only a few exceptional individuals can successfully distinguish between the formula and the truths at which the formulas are supposed to gesture.

That's the concept, and, as I said, it is endorsed by some strains of Buddhism. Notably, the Pure Land tradition teaches that Dharma Decline has become so problematic that the only route to liberation involves being reborn in the Pure Land, a special place created by the compassion of the Bodhisattva of Infinite Light (Amitabha). To be reborn in the Pure Land, one must do nothing more than call upon Amitabha for assistance.

Interestingly, Dharma Decline is an old idea in the Buddhist tradition, and it is not universally accepted. Personally, I don't think the notion of Dharma Decline holds too much water, and I'm in good company. One of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, the Diamond Cutter Sutra, contains a few pointed references to Dharma Decline. In that sutra, Subhuti, the Buddha's interlocutor, repeatedly asks the Buddha whether people “in the last 500 years” will be able to understand the teachings presented in the discourse. For the most part, the Buddha simply dismisses these concerns, but in one place, he gives a concrete reason. The Buddha says people in latter times “have not strengthened their root of merit under just one Buddha, or two Buddhas, or three, or four, or five Buddhas, but under countless Buddhas; and their merit is of every kind.”

I adore the Diamond Cutter Sutra, and I often tell my class that it is my favorite Sutra in the Buddhist tradition. As such, I've read that line many times, but I recently came to a clear understanding of it. In that passage, the Buddha denies the reality of Dharma Decline not because his teachings will persist, but because the Dharma will be realized by others. Liberated teachers will leave behind their instructions, their philosophy, their views on the Dharma. As more time passes more and more of these teachings will be built up, recorded, and passed along. In the time of the Buddha, only a small set of the human population had access to his teachings (for obvious reasons). Today, anyone seeking the elimination of suffering has the benefit of the Buddha's teachings as well as the teachings of Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Hui Neng, Dogen Zenji, Hakuin Ekaku, Alan Watts, Jack Kornfield, Ajahn Chah, Thich Nhat Hanh, and countless other wise and dedicated Buddhist teachers. In addition, we have improved our ability to communicate with one another and increased our knowledge of other cultures and their mystics. As such, we also have the benefit of Rumi, George Fox, Lao Tzu, Confucious, and countless other mystics, philosophers, and teachers of compassion, peace, and critical introspection. Contrary to the expectations of Dharma Decline, those who pursue the elimination of suffering have the benefit of so many teachers that they may more easily recognize the truths at the heart of the Dharma. At least, that's how I read those lines. I leave the rest to you.

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