As far back as our sources can take us, Buddhism has taught that all things that emerge in time and consist of separate components (in technical terms, all “conditioned” phenomena) are subject to eventual destruction. And with remarkable consistency, Buddhists have applied this general theory not only to mundane things but even to the duration of their own religion. Within a century or two after the death of the Buddha, detailed accounts began to emerge predicting not only the eventual “death of the dharma” but also the cause and the approximate time of its destruction. Some of the accounts grew into full-fledged prophecies, of which the story found in the text translated here (a ninth-century Tibetan text) became one of the most influential.
What could have led Buddhists (for there is no doubt that this prophecy was composed by Buddhists and not their opponents) to write a scripture predicting the demise of their own religion? One possibility, suggested by the complete text, is that it is addressed to an all-too-prosperous Buddhist community whose very comfort and complacency can lead to the watering down—and in fact, the eventual extinction—of the dharma.
In his response to a question put to him by the bodhisattva Candragarbha, the Buddha says:
“After I have attained nirvana, during the first five hundred years there will be many living beings who will practice my teachings and attain liberation. During the second five hundred years there will be many who will practice meditation (samadhi). But even though kings and ordinary people will believe in and practice the true dharma, eventually such people will become few. During the third five hundred years there will appear many teachers who instruct people in the true dharma, serve as leaders for living beings, and cause them to attain liberation. But shravakas and arhats will become few. Kings, ministers, and ordinary people will be reduced to merely listening to the teaching; they will not take it to heart and practice it, nor will they exert themselves, and their faith will decrease. The protectors of the true dharma will be displeased, and the power and influence of those who do not believe in the true dharma will increase. The kings of this world will lead armies to and fro in battle against one another, and the forces of evil will increase.
“Then, as to the fourth five hundred years, during the first three hundred years the protector beings who live according to the true dharma—the gods, nagas, and the rest—will not stay in this world, but will go elsewhere to spread the true dharma. And even those beings who do practice the dharma will not do so according to the basic dharma texts. Because their efforts are small, their attainments will be few. The four primary colors and their derivatives will decline, and the sense of taste and the rest will diminish. And epidemics, animal diseases, and famine will appear.
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