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The First Challenge: The Buddha’s Death

Despite having prepared his disciples for his demise as being consistent with the primary teaching of impermanence, the Buddha’s death was, nonetheless, a great challenge for his disciples to deal with. For example, Ananda, one of the chief disciples of the Buddha and the Buddha’s attendant, lamented in the following way.

“Alas, I remain still at the stage of a learner, one who has not yet realized the state of an arhat. And the World-Honored One is about to abandon me and enter nirvana. When shall I be able to attain emancipation? After his passing away, for whom should I fetch water every morning, prepare the couch every evening; whose face and whose feet should I wash?”

Thus thinking to himself, Ananda raised his arms, clung to a branch of a tree and wept from the depths of his heart.

Buddha and Ananda

Expressing his grief over the impending death of the Buddha, Ananda wondered if he would ever be able to achieve Enlightenment. He was worried about several issues: if he could not reach enlightenment while the Buddha lived, did this mean that the door to enlightenment was forever closed to him? Did impermanence make it impossible to talk about a timeless truth? Would truth become an elusive goal that changed over time?

There was an immediate difference between a world with a Buddha and one without. That shift was recorded almost immediately following the Buddha’s death.

There was a disciple called Subhadda who joined the path in his old age and whose mind was not very bright….At this time, observing other disciples in grief, he said, “O Brethren, when the World-Honored One was alive, he always admonished us, saying, ‘This you may do, that you many not,’ so that we could not do whatever we wished to. Since he is gone now, we can do whatever we like. This is much better.” Having heard this, Maha-Kassapa was pained. “Only seven days have passed since the World-Honored One’s demise, and this man speaks such words. The flower of the true Dharma will soon be scattered by this kind of man, like unstrung flowers that are easily blown away by the wind.

This episode, found in the Nirvana Sutra, was perhaps foretelling the future. Predicting the effects of the fundamental principle of impermanence, Buddhist thinkers developed the idea of a degenerative propagation model. This postulated that over time following the Buddha’s death, it would become growingly difficult to access the Dharma, and the degenerative process would occur over three distinct time periods. This idea would become particularly important in the development of the Pure Land traditions of Buddhism to which Jodo Shinshu belongs.

The degenerative process was said to affect the three pillars of teaching, practice and enlightenment. The first period known as the True Dharma Age was a time that allowed access to all three pillars. The second or Semblance Dharma Age was a period that still allowed access to the teaching and practice, but where enlightenment became unachievable. The third, Final Dharma Age was a period where only the teaching survived. During this period, practice becomes so difficult for the practitioner that it cannot be performed successfully.

Different theories exist in determining the length of each time period, and because of this there are differences of opinion as to what time period we are currently in. Shinran Shonin chose the theory of a 500-year True Dharma Age, a 1,000-year Semblance Dharma Age, and a 10,000-year Final Dharma Age. In his work Kyogyoshinsho he writes:

Considering the teachings concerning the three dharma-ages, we find that the date of the Tathagata’s parinirvana falls on the fifty-third year (the year water/monkey) of the reign of King Mu, the fifth emperor of the Chou dynasty. From that year of water/monkey to the first year of our Gennin era (the year wood/monkey) it is 2,173 years. Based on the Auspicious Kalpa Sutra, the Benevolent Kings Sutra, and the Nirvana Sutra, we find that we are already 673 years into the last dharma-age.

Shinran Shonin

Shinran Shonin clearly saw himself as a person in the Final Dharma Age. At this stage, Buddhism was reduced to a mere teaching and no longer functioned as a path that led towards Enlightenment. If this was the only meaning to the Final Dharma Age, then the only conclusion possible was that he was a man born at the wrong time; he had been born too late. is world, people of virtue and those of diligent practice will all come together to worship the World-Honored One; they will be able to listen to the Dharma and cultivate merits. If, however, the World-Honored One passes away now, those people will not come. What then are we to do?”