Friday, April 13, 2012

How long will the Dharma survive?

(Dhamma Musings); edited by Wisdom Quarterly
The Buddha's passing into final nirvana (

There is a curious but persistent belief amongst some Buddhists that the Dharma (Pali, Dhamma) will soon disappear. Although this belief is usually in the background, it comes to the fore at those times and in those people who have a heightened awareness of the many inevitable inadequacies in Buddhist institutions. Is there any truth in this belief?

Firstly, let us be clear about what we mean by Dharma.
  • (1) The dharma is the "Truth" about the nature of reality.
  • (2) The Dharma is that truth as "Doctrine" realized and described by the Buddha and made known in his many discourses and dialogues.
  • (3) The Dharma is the "practicing" and applying of that truth/teaching by those who call themselves Buddhists.
In this first sense dharma (true nature, qualities, conditional phenomena) cannot disappear any more than space, energy, or time can. For as long as anything exists, dharma exists because dharma is the nature of reality.

  • The dharma, an ancient Sanskrit word with at least a dozen meanings, most frequently refers to one's social obligation, duty, or role in society. The "Buddha Dharma" in India simply referred to what the Buddha taught. To distinguish the Teachings from other meanings of the word, it is capitalized as the Dharma and generally translated as "the Doctrine" or "Buddhism."
In the second and third senses, the Dharma will eventually disappear. This is because ALL compounded things (samkhara), including the Buddha’s formulations of the Truth and human understanding and conduct, are subject to change (anicca).

Having disappeared, it will sooner or later be rediscovered by a new buddha and proclaimed to the world again. [It may take between 5,000 years to aeons between buddhas.] The Buddha-to-come in the next era will be named Maitreya ("friend").

So how long will the Dharma survive?

The historical Buddha was once asked what would lead to "the obscuration and disappearance of the good Dharma" (saddhammassa sammosaya antaradhanaya).

He replied that there would be two things. "When the letters are wrongly pronounced and there is wrong interpretation of their meaning. For when the pronunciation is wrong, the interpretation will also be wrong" (A.I,59).

Here the Buddha was referring to his words as they were remembered (memorized and rehearsed in the oral tradition) by his immediate disciples and later committed to writing. We have them today in the Doctrine's "Three Divisions" (Tipitaka: Sutras, Vinaya, and Abhidharma, or "Discourses," "Monastic Disciplinary Code," and "Higher Teachings").

With printing, books, and electronic media, it has never been more available or more widely read.

Buddha under the blue sea, Bali, Indonesia (Robert Scales/

On another occasion someone put a similar question to the Buddha: "What is the cause, what is the reason why the good Dharma does not last long after the Tathagata (the Buddha, the welcome teacher) has attained final nirvana?"

The Buddha replied, "It is because the Four Foundations of Mindfulness are not developed and cultivated that the good Dharma will not last long" (S.V,174).

Here the Buddha was saying that for as long as people continue to purify and clarify their minds through meditation and the development of liberating insight the Dharma will endure. On this same issue the Buddha also said: "Earth, water, fire, or wind cannot make the good Dharma disappear. But foolish people right here will make it disappear" (S.II,224).
So this is the answer to the question of how long the Dharma will last. The Dharma does not have any set lifespan nor is it predetermined to disappear at any particular time.

It will endure and flourish for as long as those who call themselves Buddhists practice it with commitment, sincerity, understanding, and love, and "foolish people" (mogha purisa) remain in the minority.

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