How the Buddha’s teaching will disappear

Imagine a gigantic drum where if someone drums it, it can be heard for miles around, it is so awesome.

But suppose this drum, over time develops little cracks in the drum skin (the drum head) from being hit all the time.  So the cracks get repaired but the head of the drum is never the same – it’s like it’s got a scar where the skin has been cracked.

And over time from all the relentless drumming, more and more cracks appear.  As the skin gets repaired, more and more scars appear in it.  It finally reaches the point where when you bang on the skin of the gigantic drum, rather than a huge reverberation that can be heard miles around, only a dull thud that can barely be heard a few metres away.

This is an analogy of how the Buddha said that his teaching will start disappearing.  We are starting to see this happening right now.

People are taking the words of scholars, academics and authors to be what the Buddha said – so they are substituting scars for the real skin of the drum:

  • If the scholars, academics and authors are in accord with the Sutras, then there is no problem – because the Dharma remains pure.
  • However, if these scholars, academics and authors are not in accord with the Sutras – then they are substituting their own views and opinions for what the Buddha taught.

Then sooner or later, the awesome reverberation of the great drum, the lion’s roar of the Buddha will no longer be heard, but in its place, only a dull thud that can barely be heard behind a curtain.

Hence why, in the Ani Sutta, the Buddha said this:

Staying at Savatthi. “Monks, there once was a time when the Dasarahas had a large drum called ‘Summoner.’ Whenever Summoner was split, the Dasarahas inserted another peg in it, until the time came when Summoner’s original wooden body had disappeared and only a conglomeration of pegs remained. [1]

 

In the same way, in the course of the future there will be monks who won’t listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are being recited. They won’t lend ear, won’t set their hearts on knowing them, won’t regard these teachings as worth grasping or mastering. But they will listen when discourses that are literary works — the works of poets, elegant in sound, elegant in rhetoric, the work of outsiders, words of disciples — are recited. They will lend ear and set their hearts on knowing them. They will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.

 

“In this way the disappearance of the discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — will come about.

 

Thus you should train yourselves: ‘We will listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are being recited. We will lend ear, will set our hearts on knowing them, will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.

 

So what can we do to reverse this decline?  Read the Sutras and Suttas for ourselves, apply the knowledge, try and really understand the underlying meaning and principles behind the Sutras, try to gain mastery over the Sutras.  When opening a Sutra, this verse appears:

The unsurpassed, deep, profound, subtle, wonderful Dharma

In a hundred thousand million eons is difficult to encounter

Now that I’ve come to receive and hold it within my sight and hearing

I vow to fathom the Thus Come One’s True and Actual Meaning

So that’s the sort of respect that we should be regarding the words of the Buddha himself from the Sutras and Suttas.  The key is to study from the Sutras themselves rather than just reading from the thousands of Buddhist authors, academics and scholars – because they may all have differing opinions and you can easily confuse the heck out of yourself and get no where.  You can easily go buy and after having read them, still but none the wiser – as you’ll still be confused.  So go to the original source – the Master himself – the recorded words of the Buddha in the Sutras and Suttas.

This way, we keep it simple, we keep it pure and we keep it as close to original as possible.  If a writer or author says something that contradicts the Sutras, then no matter how well respected they are – we can easily say that the Buddha didn’t teach that, this writer has understood the teaching incorrectly.  It’s a very simple and effect way of approaching it.

And when reading the Sutras, try to understand the underlying meaning behind the Sutras and how they can be applied in real life – that’s how we should be trying to learn the Sutras.

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14 thoughts on “How the Buddha’s teaching will disappear

  1. Thank you for sharing this important teaching. I just heard of this Sutta a few days ago and find it very moving and timely. I am grateful to have been taught how to read the Suttas. I wish I could read them in Pali.
    Metta, Jill

      • Thank you for this reference to the Shurangama Sutra. This text seems to have a Chinese origin. I try to study the Theravadan texts (as close to the original as possible). This seems to be from the later Mahayana lineage. Please correct me if I am mistaken. Thanks, Jill

      • Jill,

        It’s fantastic that you want to look at the original texts, as close to the original as possible.

        Now as to which Sutras and Suttas are the most authentic, these texts were originally via oral transmission – so monks and nuns would memorize and chant these texts in a group regularly. And it was not until a few centuries after the Buddha entered Nirvana that the texts were written down. Scholars scan speculate about who wrote down what but in the end, it’s all just speculation – no one can be sure unless you were there to see it happening as they wrote these Sutras down.

        What we do know is that:

        – These texts in Pali have been considered Canon by the Theravada Sangha in South East Asia for years.
        – And we also know that these texts in Sanskrit have been considered Canon by the Mahayana Sangha in China and Tibet for years.

        A bit of history regarding Theravada and Mahayana:

        Back in the 2nd Council where the great Schism of the Sangha occurred, the Sangha split into 2 groups:

        1. The Mahasamghika (the Greater Order/Majority Order – which were later to become Mahayana) and

        2. The Sthaviravada (of which a sub, sub… school were later to become Theravada – so Theravada aren’t even the same as the Sthavirada). Presumably this occured because the Sthaviravada wanted to add some rules to the vinaya and the Mahasamghika refused – so the Mahasamghika vinaya is actually considered the oldest vinaya.

        In the end, it’s all complex and uncertain regarding the history. But I do place faith in the respective sanghas considering their own Sutras/Suttas canon for thousands of years.

        What you should do is read BOTH the Mahayana Sutras and the Pali Suttas and see for yourself. Here’s what I’ve found after doing that:

        1. The Pali Suttas give an excellent foundation

        2. The Sanskrit/Chinese Sutras and Pali Suttas actually help support and clarify each other

        3. The Sanskrit/Chinese Sutras do NOT contradict the Pali Suttas but expand upon them and giving them context

        4. The Sanskrit/Chinese Sutras also have a history of transmission, citing the translator, e.g., Kumarajiva, Paramiti, Hsuan Tsang etc… whilst the Pali Suttas have only recently started doing that like Bhikkhu’s Bodhi and Thanissaro.

        Ultimately, the bottomline is when you read the Sutta/Sutra and practice its methods and principles – does it benefit you (irrespective of where it came from)? Does it open your wisdom more, does it deepen your skill in the practice?

        I will also go on record as saying this – the Shurangama Sutra is one of THE most important Sutras in Buddhism because it gives people the foundation to understand the entire Buddha Dharma. In my own humble opinion, I have read many Pali Suttas and none of them come close to the Shurangama Sutra in the depth of wisdom that this Sutra reveals. This Sutra was considered a national treasure for well over 1000 years.

        Even prominent Theravadans like Ajahn Amaro, Abbot of Amaravati monastery in the UK (and former co-Abbott of Abhayagiri monastery in the US) praise this Mahayana Sutra because it actually helped guide them in their own meditation – does that tell you something? Because it tells of a practice that his teacher, Ajahn Sumedho practices, which is basically what Zen/Chan practices.

        The other thing is that when you read the meditation experiences of great Theravadan teachers like Ajahn Maha Boowa – he describes things that were elucidated in detail in the Shurangama Sutra. And in another talk, Ajahn Maha Boowa used the exact same analogy that is used in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra (even though he’s likely never read these Sutras). So when Theravadan teachers are teaching the same things as what’s in Mahayana Sutras, even though they’ve never read those particular Sutras, does that tell you something?

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