Monastic Life – Chapter 36: Living in the Degenerate Age

The Buddha had said that, whether or not buddhas appear in the world, the nature of the dharma remains the same. He also said, however, that the dharma would disappear. These two statements are not contradictory. The first would seem to mean that the nature of reality is unchanging, regardless of whether buddhas appear in the world to reveal (or, perhaps more accurately, rediscover) that reality. The second would seem to refer to the duration of the specific teachings given by a buddha Numerous predictions of the dharma’s decline and disappearance appear throughout Buddhist literature. Among the most famous is the Buddha’s prediction that, as a result of his decision to admit women to the order, his dharma will last for only 500 years.

Discussions of the disappearance often include descriptions of the sad state of Buddhist practice. Sometimes these descriptions take the form of prophecies about future decline and prescriptions of how to avoid them; scholars regard many of the prophecies as rhetorical devices in which the author is, in fact, criticizing contemporary monks, but couching the criticism in terms of a prediction. Other descriptions are more straightforward laments about just how bad things have become since the time of the Buddha. The poem below is such a work.

Accounts of the Buddha’s teachings are replete with reports that, after hearing a single sermon, any number of people attained some level of enlightenment. With the passing of the Buddha there must certainly have been a sense that it would now be more difficult to complete the path, and a certain nostalgia for times now past. It is no longer possible to sit at the Buddha’s feet and receive his instruction. The Buddha is also no longer present to monitor the life of the sangha, and laments about the present state commonly include ridicule of lazy monks who do not keep their vows and who care only for their own pleasure, disgracing the dharma.

In the work below, an ascetic living in the woods recalls the discipline and dedication of the original followers of the Buddha, who cared little for their own comfort, living simple lives in which all of their energies were devoted to the destruction of the asavas, the contaminants that pollute the mind. Such monks annihilated the asavas, and annihilated rebirth and suffering in the process. They have now achieved their goal and passed into nirvana. But with the passage of time (it is unclear whether the author is referring to a distant past or a time of recent memory), the virtues that they embodied have also been lost, and the Buddha’s teaching has been destroyed. Noting that a remnant of the true dharma remains for those devoted to a life of seclusion, the author then begins an extended diatribe against the indolent monks who care only for worldly pleasures, making no attempt to maintain the discipline of the sangha. The poem ends on a somewhat more hopeful note as the ascetic remembers that, despite the sad state of the sangha, it is still possible to attain the undying state of nirvana. He therefore does so, never to be reborn again.

The poem below appears in the famous Pali work the Theragatha (Verses of the Elders). It is a collection of 1,279 verses, collected in poems and attributed to 264 theras or senior monks, including many of the most famous disciples of the Buddha. Like some other Paliverse collections, it is organized by the length of the poem. Thus, all of the poems of one verse come first, followed by all those of two verses, etc. The title of the poem is the name of a monk, usually the monk to whom the verses are attributed. It is difficult to determine whether the words recorded were indeed spoken by these monks, but the evidence suggests that the Theragatha is an early collection, composed and compiled during the three centuries after the death of the Buddha. The poem below is assigned to a monk named Parapariya. It is not a first- person narrative, like many works in the collection, but is presented instead as the reflections of an ascetic living in the forest. A narrator provides the first and last verses, setting the scene in the first, and informing the reader of the ascetic’s attainment of nirvana in the last.

A thought came to the ascetic in the great wood, when it was in flower, when he was seated, intent, secluded, meditating.

The behaviour of the bhikkhus now seems different from when the protector of the world, the best of men, was alive.

[There was] protection from the wind, a loincloth as covering for their modesty; they ate moderately, satisfied with whatever came their way.

If it were rich food or dry, little or much, they ate it to keep alive, not being greedy, not clinging to it.

They were not very eager for the necessities of life, for medicines and requisites, as they were for the annihilation of the asavas.

In the forest at the foot of trees, in caves and grottoes, devoting themselves to seclusion, they dwelt making their aim,

devoted to lowly things, of frugal ways, gentle, with unstubborn minds, uncontaminated, not garrulous, intent upon thinking about their goal.

Therefore their gait, eating and practices were pious; their deportment was smooth, like a stream of oil.

Now those elders with asavas completely annihilated, great meditators, great benefactors, are quenched. Now there are few such men.

Because of the complete annihilation of good characteristics and wisdom, the conqueror’s teaching, endowed with all excellent qualities, is destroyed.

This is the time of evil characteristics and defilements, but those who are ready for seclusion possess the remainder of the true doctrine.

Those defilements, increasing, enter many people; they sport with fools, I think, as demons do with the mad.

Those men, overcome by defilements, run here and there in the divisions of defilement, as if their own private battle [with Mara] has been proclaimed.

Having abandoned the true doctrine they quarrel with one another; following after false views they think, ‘This is better.’

Having cast aside wealth and sons and wife they go forth; they cultivate practices which are not to be done, even for the sake of spoon-alms.

Having eaten their fill, they lie down, lying upon their back. When awake they tell stories that were condemned by the teacher.

Thinking highly of all the artisan’s crafts they train themselves in them, not being calm inside. This is ‘the goal of the ascetic’s state’.

They present clay, oil and powder, water, lodgings and food, to householders, desiring more [in return].

Tooth-cleaner, and kapittha fruit, and flowers, and food to chew, palatable alms, and mangoes and myrobalans [they give].

In medicines they are like doctors, in their various duties like householders, in adornment like courtesans, in authority like khattiyas [rulers].

Cheats, frauds, false witnesses, unscrupulous, with many stratagems they enjoy the things of the flesh.

Running after pretexts, arrangements, stratagems, aiming at a livelihood they accumulate much wealth by a device.

They cause the assembly to meet for business purposes, not because of the doctrine; they preach the doctrine to others for gain, and not for the goal.

Those who are outside the order quarrel about the order’s gain; being quite shameless they are not ashamed that they live on another’s gain.

Not applying themselves, in this way, some with shaven heads and wearing the outer robe desire only reverence, being bemused by gain and honour.

When various things have thus turned out, it is not now so easy either to attain the unattained or to keep safe what has been attained.

As one might go shoeless in a thorny place, if he summoned up mindfulness, so should a sage go in a village.

Remembering the former sages, recollecting their behaviour, even though it is the last hour, one may attain the undying state.

Thus speaking in the sal wood, the ascetic with developed faculties, the brahman, the seer, was quenched, with renewed existence annihilated.

From The Elders’ Verses I: Theragatha, trans. K. R. Norman, Pali Text Society Translation Series No. 38 (London: Luzac & Company Ltd, 1969), pp. 86-8.

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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