Dharma Decline or mappō (末法) is a big concept in East Asian Buddhism that comes up a lot. The idea, based on a number of sutras1 but in particular the Sutra of the Great Assembly, is that after the Buddha passed into Pari-nirvana (e.g. “totally unbound”), the Buddhist institution would gradually decline, just like all things. The underlying truths that Buddhism teaches were immutable, but in the above sutra, over a period of five 500-year eras those truths would become more and more obscure. In other words, the Dharma would lose momentum and it would get harder and harder for people to become enlightened.
Some Buddhist sects are practically built around this notion: for example Japanese Pure Land Buddhism (e.g. Jodo Shinshu and Jodo Shu) teaches that the Buddhist institutions have already passed the point of no-return and that the only remaining option is to rely on the compassion of Amitabha Buddha. Meanwhile, Nichiren Buddhism has a similar teaching, but instead entrusting oneself to the Lotus Sutra is the most suitable option for people of latter-days of Buddhism. You also see it regularly in Chinese Buddhist literature too, particularly those of Pure Land persuasion.2
But what about Zen? I always assumed that Zen didn’t really take the Dharma Decline theory too seriously, since I couldn’t find any reliable sources. Then, while reading a book called The Essential Dogen, I found the following quotation:
Reflect quietly and rejoice that although we live in the last five hundred years [of the three periods of five hundred years after the time of Shakyamuni Buddha] in a faraway island of a remote country, as our wholesome karma from the past has not decayed, we have authentically received the awesome procedure of ancient buddhas, practice it, and realize it without staining it. (pg. 120)
This is an interesting quote in that Dogen is showing a somewhat nuanced approach: he acknowledges Dharma Decline (probably owing to his Tendai Buddhist monastic training, just like Nichiren, Honen and Shinran), but feels that it still depends somewhat on one’s karmic background: if one has planted wholesome seeds in the past, one can be born in a situation where they can encounter, and train under “authentic” Buddhism. At least, this is how I interpret the quote.
This quote is certainly obscure, and Dharma Decline is not something you really find in Zen today, but it is just something historically interesting I wanted to share. 🙂
1 The Lotus Sutra, the Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life, and older Pali Canon sutras.
2 Some of the free Chinese Buddhist literature and sutras I own will include a forward that talks about Amitabha Buddha, making vows to be reborn there, and allude to Dharma Decline. This is regardless of the content of the literature itself (i.e. Theravada Buddhist literature where Amitabha Buddha isn’t found).