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:

You should cultivate honestly. Don't be fond of phony name and false profit. Don't be greedy for offerings, just that is the Proper Dharma abiding in the world. If every left-home person can hold the precept against possessing or touching money; if they can sit in Chan meditation, take only one meal a day at noon; wear their precept sashes all the time, and strictly uphold the precepts, then that is the Proper Dharma abiding in the world.

In fact the Master puts it even more simply:

If you don't fight, aren't greedy, don't seek, aren't selfish; don't pursue self-benefit; and don't lie, then that is the Proper Dharma abiding in the world.


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:

I am definitely going to revive the Proper Dharma. I will only allow Buddhism to have Proper Dharma and will not let there be any demise of the Dharma. Wherever I go, that place will have blessings and wisdom and there will be a diminishing of disasters and difficulties. That is my vow. Because of that, ignoring the limits of my capabilities, I go everywhere speaking the Proper Dharma and practicing the Proper Dharma.

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:

When the Dharma becomes extinct,

it is the Sangha itself that becomes extinct.

Virtue in the Way should be cultivated,

but people won't cultivate it.

Those who are honest and sincere are ridiculed.

Those who are false and cunning receive praise and precedence.


To make the entire world pure and fresh

and to awaken beings forever from their three-layer-deep stupor,

Diligently remind the young Sang Hans that

The spreading and flourishing of my teaching

depends on the Bishops.


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:

Truly recognize your own faults.

Don't discuss the faults of others.

Others' faults are just my own.

To be one with everyone is called Great Compassion.

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:

The one who will fall into the hells is me, not you. If what I say is true, then it's not gossip; if it's not true, then I will definitely fall into the hells. If someone says great cultivators are not -subject to cause and effect, then the retribution for that is 500 lives as a fox.

If I deny cause and effect-calling black white and white black, calling right wrong and wrong right-saying things that are not so, then I will go into the Hell of Plowing Tongues. If I haven't spoken incorrectly, then I have no offense. Manlius said: "I don't like to debate, but I have no choice. If the teachings of Yang (Zhu) and Mo (Zip) aren't put to rest, then the teachings of Kong Zip [Confucius) cannot flourish. "Why do I like to talk about what's right and what's wrong? It's because in Buddhism there are entirely too many rights and wrongs!

There's the black teaching, the white teaching, the yellow teaching, the red teaching - they’ve become all kinds of different colors that confuse the eye. It's gotten to the point that the blacks don't know they are black, and the whites don't know they are white. And so I like to say things that others don't dare to  say.  If any of you are offended,  it doesn't  matter - I'm  not concerned. I specialize in breaking through people's deviant knowledge and deviant views.

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:

If I speak the truth,

Then I'm not afraid of being beaten or scolded.

Kill me, I have no fear.

What inhibitions are there in liberation?

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 Buddhism all the Sutras are very important, but the Shurangama Sutra is even more important. Wherever the Shurangama Sutra is, the Proper Dharma abides in the world. When the Shurangama Sutra is gone, that is a sign of the Dharma Ending Age. When I explained the Shurangama Sutra, I said, "In the Dharma Ending Age, the Shurangama Sutra will become extinct first. Then gradually the other Sutras will also become extinct." The Shurangama Sutra is the true body of the Buddha; the sharira of the Buddha; the stupa of the Buddha. If the Shurangama Sutra is false, then I am willing to fall into the unintermittent hell, stay there forever, and never again come back to the world to see all of you. Whoever can memorize the Shurangama Sutra, whoever can memorize the Shurangama Manira, is a true disciple of the Buddha.

In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha said to the Venerable Kashyapa:

In the past when I was a king named Possessing Virtue, in order to protect the Proper Dharma, I went to war against those who wanted to destroy it, and I lost my life. After I died, I was born in Akshobhya Buddha's land and became his foremost disciple... Kashyapa! Those who protect the Proper Dharma receive such rewards of infinite merit and virtue. Because I protected the Proper Dharma, I now am endowed with all kinds of physical hallmarks and have perfected a vajra indestructible body.

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:

Left-home people go off to live alone in their own temple and act like kings, like dictators, like emperors. The laity lack the "Dharma-selecting eye" and go about protecting here and protecting there until they protect people right into the hells. In the Proper Dharma Age, everyone lives and cultivates together in large monastic complexes, in the Dharma Ending Age no one wants to live in large monastic complexes. It's one person per temple. You have your way of doing things, and I have mine. And this throws the laity into a real quandary. They see that a certain monk is good-looking and decide to protect his Dharma, so they set him up with his own temple. Then they notice another monk who's not bad and build a temple for him. Protecting here and protecting there, they cause the left-home people to get greedy for benefits to the point that they return lo lay life.

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:

 "Creating temples is not as good as creating human beings; creating human beings is not as good as creating Buddhas." I want to mold teachers; I want lo mold living Buddhas; to mold living Bodhisattvas; to mold living Patriarchs.  I want to mold living beings in this world so that they turn into living Buddhas. living Bodhisattvas and living Patriarchs.

 "What I'm demolishing are not large monasteries.  It's the small-town temples, the little-city temples, and the family-line temples. When chose who live in the small temples move to the large monasteries and cultivate together with everyone else, then the lifestyle of the large monasteries can be preserved. Why is life in a small temple so good? It's because of the total lack of restraints and  hindrances.  There's no need to "Contemplate At Ease." Rather, one can eat at ease, relax at ease, sleep at ease, travel at ease - it's really easy to forget all about cultivation. All day long is spent in climbing on conditions. Habits like that are the fatal wounds that will completely destroy Buddhism."

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.


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