Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism

Harold Stewart

Three Ages of the Dharma

The Pure Land teachings hold that the real purpose of Shakyamuni's historical incarnation in this world was to deliver the good news of Amida's Forty-eight Vows and their fulfilment and to preach the liberating and enlightening power of that Buddha's Name. This message was announced by Shakyamuni in the Sambukyo, or Three Sutras, which are therefore considered the basic scriptures on which the Shin sect, the Jodo sect, and the other Pure Land schools are founded.

When Shakyamuni founded his monastic order in the sixth century B.C., he prophesied that, as all compound things are transitory, the Sangha along with his Doctrine and Method would prove to be no exception and would slowly decline and die out. This downward course of Buddhism is usually divided into three periods, the Dharma becoming extinct during the fourth age. In descending order they are known as Shoboji, the Period of the True Dharma; Zoboji, the Period of the Outward Semblance of the Dharma; and Mappoji, the Period of the Decay of the Dharma. Their duration is said to be of five hundred years, one thousand years, and ten thousand years respectively, but these numbers are clearly symbolical not chronological and so should not be taken too literally. The Buddhist theory of cycles, like the Four Yugas of Hinduism and the Graeco-Roman Four Ages, is to be understood as applying not only chronologically but simultaneously, not only horizontally along the historical time-spiral but also vertically, referring to the spiritual state at any given moment in relation to analogous states on higher or lower cycles of the total Cosmic Helix. Thus a jivanmukta, or sage liberated during this lifetime and in his human body, like Sri Ramana Maharshi, really lives in the Golden Age, while the other inhabitants of the twentieth century are living in the Iron Age. For no matter in what age they may be born, the worldly are always imprisoned in the Kali Yuga.

But there is an alternative time-scale that can be taken more literally. In the copious and invaluable notes to their monumental translation of Shunjo Hoin's biography of Honen (entitled in English Honen the Buddhist Saint: His Life and Teaching) Coates and Ishizuka inform us that in the seventeenth chapter of the Mahisannipitacandragarbha-sutra (Japanese: Daishagatsusuzo-kyo) Shakyamuni says: 'During the first five hundred years after my Nirvana, my disciples will be sure of attaining Deliverance according to the Right Law; in the second five hundred years, they will be sure of attaining samadhi; in the third five hundred years, of reading and reciting the sutras; in the fourth five hundred years, of building temples and pagodas; and in the fifth five hundred years, of being at variance among themselves and bringing the Right Law to ruin'. As historical evidence has now irrefutably established that Shakyamuni died in 483 B. C., we are at present in the fifth period of five hundred years. As the Fourth Patriarch of the Pure Land School, Tao-ch'o (Japanese: Doshaku) said: 'The present age belongs to the latter days of the Law and is full of the five corruptions'. But even after the extinction of the Dharma during this period, the Nembutsu will continue still to offer a way of Rebirth in the Pure Land for one hundred years more. Thus those who believe in and practise the ideas and attitudes of the twentieth century are already living in this one-hundred-year period after the disappearance of Buddhism, when the Name is still available to all but when most ignore or reject it. The followers of the Shin sect and the other Pure Land schools still live in Mappoji; but those who keep up only the external observances remain in the Age of Form, while those alone who have placed their sole reliance on Amida and so have reached the Right Established State really live in the Age of the True Dharma.

According to the scriptures of most of the great Traditions, including the Mahayana, a Great Conflagration will destroy the present world at the end of the last kalpa. Lest any reader should lightly dismiss this as 'mere mythology', let him remind himself that atomic physics as misapplied to warfare by the grim frivolities of power politics has now made this Great Kalpa Fire an ever-impending probability. Indeed, it is little short of miraculous that human malice, carelessness, or imbecility has not already made it an actuality. Since man is ever ready to place his cleverness at the service of his folly, I am left in sceptical confusion and doubt about the efficacy of Amida's Vows and Name for curing the mass psychoses of the modern world.

Reflections on the Dharma - Harold Stewart

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