In traditional Buddhism there’s an idea of the various Ages that the world goes through.
In the time of the historical Buddha, we’re in the first Age, which lasts for about 500 years.In that time, it’s easy for people to be liberated. Following that there’s an Age that’s not quite so good.Liberation is much more difficult. Following that is an age that’s distinctly degenerate. Liberation is impossible. And following that agre, Buddhism disappears. We simply have to wait for the next Buddha to come along
But I wonder if there’s a different way of regarding these Ages.
You could say that all the ages are all there, all at the same time. But one has more prominence than the others. If you look at China, for instance, Chinese Buddhism doesn’t really acquire any of these distinctive characteristics until about 500 years or so after Buddhism first arrives in China.
At that point there is an incredible flowering of Chinese Buddhist culture, evidenced in, amongst others, the ‘Awakening the Faith in Mahayana’ and the writings the T’ien Tai school, the Huayan school, the Zen school, and the Pure Land school.
Similarly, in Japan, it takes about 500 years or so between the arrival of Buddhism and the flowering that it had in the 13th century of distinctively Japanese forms of Buddhism; specifically for us the Buddhism of Dogen but also Nichiren, Shinran and others that all appeared much about the same time.
It seems to me that when Buddhism first goes to a different culture, that’s its degenerate phase. It’s degenerate because the characteristic way that civilizations will deal with something new is that they’ll either imitate it or they’ll attempt to assimilate it to existing ideas.
We can see this very clearly in the West. In terms of imitation, we’ve all these people dressing themselves up as Asian monks and constructing dojos that purport to replicate medieval Japanese dojos and so on.
And we have assimilationists. Much [but not all] of the Mindfulness Movement would be in that category. They say well, this is Buddhism, but we can fit it within our ideas of wellness and individual development. We can get rid of all the historical barnacles that disguise that.
I think that we are not, at least on the surface, in a great stage of Buddhism. The degenerate stage occurs first and a long time into our future —hundreds of years perhaps, at that point, there’s the potential for us; both to take Buddhism seriously and to understand it; but also to have digested it.
So then what comes out of us is something valuable—something genuinely new.