In Buddhism, one of the most primary teachings is that all things are subject to decline (lit. “all conditioned dharmas are subject to arise and fade”), including Buddhism as an institution. It’s for this reason that when Buddhism utterly fades from existence that another Buddha (lit. a “samyaksam-buddha”, a self-awakened one) eventually appears and revives Buddhism again. This is known as the turning of the wheel of the Dharma. The Buddha for our current age is Shakyamuni, or “of the Sakya clan”. Of course, most people know him as Siddhartha Gautama.
In any case, the Buddha of our current age passed into Nirvana around 2,500 years ago, and since then many Buddhists over the ages have given thought to the decline of Buddhism. It’s not that the Buddha’s teachings weaken, but rather that society becomes less and less able to practice them. In some texts you see formulaic explanations. For example after 1000 years, the first age passes and Enlightenment becomes more remote, and after another 500 hundred it becomes more impossible. This third age, the Age of Dharma Decline (mappō in Japanese, 末法) is marked by extreme sectarianism and a breakdown of society overall. This is explained in such texts as the Sutra of the Great Assembly for example.
Honen, Shinran, Nichiren and other Buddhist thinkers in Japan were convinced that they lived in the Age of Dharma Decline, though technically they were a little off because they assumed the Buddha died earlier than he actually did. This sense of decline compelled them to teach new Buddhist doctrines that tried to reach out to many who would be left out of Buddhism. During their time, the old Imperial govt. was overthrown by their samurai retainers, who in turn fought a nasty civil war called the Genpei War. Also, the major Buddhist institution at the time, Mt. Hiei, had become too closely intertwined with the powerful Fujiwara Family, causing corruption and even the establishment of Buddhist armies.
However, despite all this, the interpretation of Dharma Decline by Honen, Shinran and Nichiren was somewhat subjective. Other parts of the world that were Buddhist had their ups and downs around this time. In China, the Sung Dynasty was approaching it’s end, but on the other hand, the Khmer Empire, another Buddhist society and culture in modern day Cambodia, was at its apex.
So, using dates or historical events to prove the notion of Dharma Decline doesn’t really work. Instead, I thought of a different example.
Suppose you have a certain group of friends, such as a D&D club or poker friends, whatever. At first, the same group of friends meet every Friday, party and have a great time. There’s a lot of energy, jokes are hilarious and people look forward to Friday nights a lot. However, if the circle of friends stays together long enough, things start to change. One friend might get a girlfriend and stop showing up, or someone moves out of town. If things continue long enough, new people start showing up, the old friends don’t come anymore, and the old inside-jokes aren’t quite as funny anymore (or the new people don’t get it). After a while, the group doesn’t resemble the old one after a while: it’s changed.1
When you think of Buddhism the institution this way, it kind of makes sense. It doesn’t mean Buddhism is worthless, but it’s changed irreversibly (like all things) and doesn’t resemble what it once did. I think Westerners who arrogantly proclaim that they follow Buddhism without all the “asian accretions” are just replacing the “superstition” they criticize with Western accretions. Instead, they should just accept Buddhism as it is, and make the most of it.
Lately, after something reader “Stephen” wrote jarred my memory I went back and read some more of Honen’s works this morning, and I think Honen and the Pure Land Buddhist movement weren’t trying to usurp the “Path of the Sages” as some contend, but instead just accepted that the Path of the Sages had changed over time, and lost its energy (like the circle of friends above). So, they sought a different path, hoping to keep Buddhism going.
This I believe is the origin of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism.
1 I used to work at the local University in the phone tech-support group there for the campus. This evolution mentioned above comes from direct experience (I am sure others know what I am talking about), though some of the old-timers I know still hang out through a certain campus email list someone created early on, even though almost none them work for the University anymore. Every time I subscribe to that list, they’re rehashing the same old conversations, and the same immature behavior that seemed funny in college, but now in my 30′s seems really sad.