On Proper Dharma
by You-Bin Chen
Excerpted from "A Discussion of Venerable Master Hsuan Hua's Contribution to Buddhism" by You-Bin Chen - Vajra Bodhi Sea Monthly Journal from June, 1966 to October, 1997.
What is Proper Dharma? The Buddhadharma divides into three periods which are the Proper Dharma Age, the Dharma Image Age, and the Dharma Ending Age. The period of time that the Venerable Shakyamuni's Dharma abides varies according to the different Sutras, but most of the virtuous ones of old set the Proper Dharma period at 500 years, the Dharma Image period at 1000 years, and the Dharma Ending period at 10,000 years. During the Proper Dharma period ("proper" meaning "certifying"), although the Buddha entered Nirvana, the Dharma and deportment had not yet changed. There was teaching, practice, and certification to sagehood. That's the meaning of the Proper Dharma Age, which is also called the period "strong in Chan Samadhi." During the Dharma Image Age ("image" meaning "the appearance of things"), there was also teaching and practice, but by that time there was very little certification lo the levels of sagehood. It is also called the period "strong in building temples and monasteries." During the Dharma Ending Age ("ending" meaning "insignificant"), the Dharma is regarded as unimportant and there is only teaching. There's no practice, how much the less any certification to the levels of sagehood. It is also called the period "strong in fighting." This is the usual explanation of "proper, image, and ending." But the Venerable Master's definition of the Proper Dharma is this:
In fact the Master puts it even more simply:
Well, what is the Dharma Ending Age? According to scroll 5 of the Commentary on the Dharma Flower: "[The Dharma] becoming insignificant and unimportant is what is meant by the Dharma Ending Age." In scroll 6 of the "Profuse Meanings Section" of the Collection of Great Vehicle Dharmas it is stated: "Having only the teaching and nothing else is called Dharma Ending." However a much more detailed description of the demise of the Dharma appears in The Large Compilation from Great Vaipulya Sutra in the Ywe Zang Section and in The Ultimate Extinction of the Dharma Sutra. A later reference to the Dharma Ending Age appeared in the Northern Chi Chi dynasty (550-377 A.D.) in the vows of Chan Master Sse of Nan Ywe. Chan Master Hui Sse (Wise Consideration) himself recorded that he was born in the 82nd year of the Dharma Ending Age and, having written out the entire Prajna Sutra and other texts, vowed to transmit the Dharma until Maitreya Bodhisattva came into the world. During the Sui dynasty (589-618 A.D.) Chan Master Xin Xing advocated "three-step teaching" with the One Vehicle being the first step, the Three Vehicles being the second step, and the Universal Dharma (the entirety of the Buddha's teachings) as the third step. During the Tang dynasty (618-905 A.D.) Great Master's Dao Cho (Generous in the Way) and Shan Dao (Wholesome Guide) said that the time they lived in was already the Dharma Ending Age and advocated "meshing the teaching with the times," exhorting people to cultivate the Dharma door of being mindful of the Buddha, in general, the Dharma Ending Age is bound to come, but in scroll 49 of the Ten Recitations Vinaya the Buddha brings up five things that can prevent the Proper Dharma from becoming extinct. Those Five are:
1. Respect the Proper Teachings : This means that Bhikshus rely on only the proper teachings in their cultivation and slay far away from the one-sided explanations of the Small Vehicle and the deviant explanations of externalists. In that way they can prevent the Proper Dharma from becoming extinct.
2. Put a Stop to Anger and Evil: This means that Bhikshus always practice patience; do not get angry; and become well-know for their virtue which causes people to return to and look up lo them. In that way they can prevent the Proper Dharma from becoming extinct.
3. Respectfully Serve Elders: This means that Bhikshus venerate and compliantly serve great virtuous ones who are elder and diligently seek the essentials of Dharma from them. In that way they can prevent the Proper Dharma from becoming extinct.
4. Cherish the Proper Dharma: This means that Bhikshus cherish a deep regard for the wonderful Dharma they hear from their elders and they delight in offering up their conduct according to it. In that way they can prevent the Proper Dharma from becoming extinct.
5. Explain Well to Those Who are Just Beginning to Study: This means that Bhikshus expediently speak the Great Vehicle Dharma in order to enable those who have just begun to study to have standards on which to base themselves as they progress in their practice of the Way. In that way they can prevent the Proper Dharma from becoming extinct."
In the Dharma Ending Age living beings are continually unable to distinguish the proper from the deviant. to the extent that a lot of people get involved in the wrong kind of practices under the name of Buddhism. That is all because they lack the "Dharma Selecting Eye." Although during the Dharma Ending Age there are a lot of cases of "mistaking fish eyes for pearls" even within Buddhism, still, the Master's vow-power is decisive:
Although the Buddha mentioned the Dharma's demise many times, still, the fact that the Buddha tried to curtail the demise of the Proper Dharma is clearly evident in such passages as the one in the Nirvana Sutra where he said "During the Dharma Ending Age there will be 120,000 Great Bodhisaltvas who will uphold the Dharma and keep it from extinction." From that we should be able lo recognize the Master's "not permitting the Dharma's demise''-isn't that really the great kind and compassionate mind of the Thus Come Ones?
The Master made an even more painful remark:
In Buddhism there can't be just 99%. if even one part of Buddhism is false, then it is no longer "Proper Dharma." And so we must distinguish clearly, because in temples there are both "deviant dharma and externalists." There's a saying in Buddhism: "I would rather not get reborn for a thousand years than lo enter the paths of demons for a single day." If we lack the wise vision found in the Four Clear Instructions on Purity, we may join the retinue of demons without even realizing it.
This student will take this opportunity to present seven points that are essential in distinguishing the proper from the deviant.
1. A religious teacher who promotes swapping marriage partners, promiscuity, and perverse practices as bait to entice disciples and as means to save the world is deviant.
2. A religious teacher who appeals to people's greed by claiming that he can employ talismans, incantations, and gods of wealth to make them rich is deviant.
3. A religious teacher who advocates direct or indirect killing of beings and eating of their flesh and who claims he can save the souls of the creatures being eaten by means of talismans and incantations is deviant.
4. A religious teacher who tries to impress people by practicing all kinds of weird asceticism and passing it off as undergoing suffering for the sake of living beings is deviant.
5. A religious teacher who uses special psychic and spiritual powers and miracles to attract curious people is deviant.
6. A religious teacher who distorts the stages of Buddhist practice and gives a twisted interpretation of the meaning of faith, understanding, cultivation, and certification, setting himself up as a religious authority, is deviant.
7. A religious teacher who sets himself up as the leader of his own sect without any authentic basis in the principles of Buddhism is deviant.
Section One: Proper Dharma and Dharma Ending
Once a disciple made this inquiry, "The Master often says:
And so why is the Master always openly criticizing others in Vera Buddha Sea (the monthly journal of the City of Ten Thousand Buddha's)? Isn't that a case of saying one thing and doing another? The Master answered:
From the above passage we can recognize the depth of the Master's compassionate mind, which couldn't bear to see living beings suffer. The so-called great kindness and compassion that borders on being harsh is actually an expedient used to teach and transform living beings. The Master once wrote a verse that clarifies his determination:
Elder Master Hsu Yen said imperial scholars are Confucian criminals; monks are Buddhist criminals. He also said, "The demise of the Buddha dharma is wrought by its own disciples, not by any other teaching. What defeated the Six States was the Six States themselves, it wasn't the State of Qin. What finished the State of Qin was Qin itself; it wasn't the Six States."
These various manifestations of the Sharma's decline can be perceived everywhere-such things as monks with wives, precepts sashes turning into secular clothing, laypeople ascending the high seat, and so forth. There's also Upasaka Ouyang Jingwu who, based on his own opinions, wrote A Discussion of the Many Spurious Aspects of the Shurangama, which is an attack on the Shurangama. Dharma Master Yuan Tsan says that the Avatamsaka. the Perfect Enlightenment, the Lotus and other sutras as well as the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana are all fraudulent. These are signs of the Dharma Ending Age.
The Master repeated his instructions about protecting and supporting the Proper Dharma many times:
In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha said to the Venerable Kashyapa:
The Dharma itself isn't Proper, Image, or Ending; these are merely distinctions that exist in people's minds. The Master's view is that any time people work hard at cultivation is a time when the Proper Dharma abides. If no one cultivates, if no one reads, recites, and memorizes the Shurangama Sutra, then that's the Dharma Ending Age. That's because the Shurangama Sutra's "Four Clear Instructions on Purity" which discuss killing, stealing, lust, and lying and its "Fifty Skandha-Demon Stales" that expose the very bones of all the heavenly demons and externalists, both say flat out that when people don't hold the precepts, then that's the Dharma Ending Age; whenever there are precepts, there is Buddhadharma. In 1990, in a serious talk given at the Labor Hall in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, the Master said that the Dharma Ending Age results from the laity singling out individual left-home people to protect and support. What did he mean? The Master said:
The Master is certainly not opposed lo building temples. It's just that nowadays everyone is too comfortable and so they forget that they should be using the "meanings in the Dharma and the principles of education" to rescue living beings. All they understand is using "big temples" to save beings and come up with ways to get famous and rich. The Master's view on building temples is this:
I hope Buddhism will take these words to heart and not continue to "plug up its ears while stealing a bell"-cheating all of humankind. Ac present the signs of turmoil in Buddhism are alarmingly serious. But no one dares to stand up and shout. Everyone just stands by and watches while Buddhist followers race toward their demise. Three steps and a hermitage; five steps and a big temple-they run around having Dharma Assemblies, crossing over souls, anointing crowns, transmitting dharmas, and setting up temples. They never stop to realize that they should be propagating the teachings and explaining their meanings-instructing and guiding living beings in how to end birth and death.
The fundamental intent of the Buddha's teaching is education - to cause everyone to develop wisdom and the Dharma selecting eye, so that they recognize cause and effect, cut off evil, and do good. The intent is not to focus on building monasteries and setting up temples. One wonders how much blood, sweat, and tears are hidden behind this stern instruction by the Master.
As it's said, such a one "only wants the light of the torch he's holding to shine as far as possible; he's never concerned about getting burned." "Despite the odds, I will stick to my intentions." This is the best description of the Master.