Oh, in this evil world in the Dharma-ending age,
Sentient beings have little fortune and are hard to discipline.
Far away from the time of the sages, perverted views run deep.
When demons are strong and Dharma is weak,
fears and dangers abound.
When they hear the teaching of sudden enlightenment of the Tathagata,
They cannot but want to destroy it, to smash the tiles.
In these lines of verse, Yung-chia describes the behavior and attitudes of the people around him during the T’ang dynasty. Buddhist tradition divides the time after the Buddha into three eras. The first era, which lasted for five hundred years after the Buddha passed into Nirvana, is called the Period of True Dharma. The second era, which lasted five hundred years after the first, is called the Period of Counterfeit Dharma. The third era, beginning one thousand years after the Buddha entered Nirvana, is called the Dharma Ending Age.
The Dharma Ending Age began around the time of the six dynasties in Chinese history, before Yung-chia lived. Few people had good karmic roots, and most people had a difficult time accepting Buddhadharma. Yung-chia saw the decadence, and concluded that as time separates us from Sakyamuni Buddha, people sink deeper and deeper into perverted views; the strength of demons outweighs the strength of Buddhadharma.
At that time, Confucianists viciously attacked Buddhism. Furthermore, the ruling family of the T’ang Dynasty traced its lineage to Lao-tse, the founder of Taoism, and so it patronized Taoism, not Buddhism. Confucianism was adopted as the code of ethics and protocol, and Taoism was recognized as the official religion; therefore, Buddhism was attacked from all sides.
Nonetheless, Buddhism had loyal supporters and benefactors. Devoted patrons donated large sums of money, and because monks and nuns have few needs and lived simple lives, the wealth of monasteries grew rapidly. Confucianism did not receive donations because it had no clearly structured organizations, and because Confucian scholars lived and worked in society. The same, more or less, was true for the Taoists. Followers of these traditions envied the immense wealth of Buddhist monasteries and they influenced the government to persecute monks and nuns.
Detractors wanted to destroy Buddhism quickly and absolutely. In the following stanza, therefore, Yung-chia issued a warning.
That which acts is the mind, that which receives retribution is the body;
No need to put the blame on others.
If you want to escape continuous karma,
Do not slander the Tathagata’s wheel of right Dharma.
Master Yung-chia warns that those who harbor evil thoughts about the Dharma are harming themselves, because they will have to suffer the consequences of the bad karma they create. You are responsible for all of your willful thoughts, words and actions. If you wish to slander Buddhadharma, or harm anyone for that matter, it is your choice, but you should not blame anyone or anything if events turn against you. You reap what you sow, so be careful which karmic seeds you plant.
Unfortunately, in Yung-chia’s time many people did not heed the warning, and they took delight in slandering Buddhism; but through all the persecutions, Ch’an survived. Why did Ch’an flourish when so many other Buddhist schools died out? One reason is that Ch’an was already deeply rooted in Chinese culture. More importantly, however, is that it is hard to find a weak point in Ch’an. In fact, if you attack Ch’an, you will discover that there is nothing to lay your hands on. From a theoretical standpoint, there are no concrete tenets that one can identify and refute. From a practical point of view, Ch’an never singles out one specific style or behavior to which all followers must conform.
History records that the Chinese government tried to stamp out Buddhism at certain times during the T’ang, Sung, Ming and Ch’ing Dynasties; and the zeal of the communists’ persecution of Buddhists in this century was unparalleled in Chinese history. During these harsh times, monks and nuns were forced to return to lay life, and monasteries were confiscated or put to other uses. Some monuments survived, but many texts, records and icons were destroyed.
Even though Buddhism was not always welcomed in China, there was no other country, aside from India perhaps, where Buddhism developed such widespread cultural power and influence. Tibetan Buddhism remained remote and sequestered until recent time. The Southern Buddhist tradition also kept to itself. Most Buddhist material was written in China, and from there it spread to Korea, Vietnam, Japan and other parts of Asia. These countries relied heavily on the Chinese tradition, which in turn was most influenced by Ch’an Buddhism.
Ch’an survived during the worst of times. If Ch’an practitioners could not enter the cities, they stayed in the mountains. If they had to, they wore civilian clothes and let their hair grow. They did not care if they were told to return to lay life.
Appearances are not important. True practitioners are concerned only with their practice. In all other things they are flexible. There is a saying: “If you cannot get food from donations, plant your own.”
Ch’an has survived because of its invincible spirit. Ch’an would survive even if there were no sutras to read or temples to live in, because they are not essential to the practice. If one person practices, then another will practice with him, and it will continue and spread. It is that simple. Buddhism, especially Ch’an, is indestructible because it is flexible. It is formless.
There are no other trees in the sandalwood forest.
The lion lives in luxuriant dense thickets.
He strolls along in the quiet woods, All other animals and birds keep their distance. A crowd of animals follows the lion, Who can roar at the age of three. If a wild fox challenges the Dharma King, It is like a monster opening his mouth for a hundred years.
Persecution cannot destroy Buddhism because the essence of practice is inner cultivation, not exterior ritual. If a nun is forced to return to the laity, she can do so and still practice. If she is forbidden to transmit the Dharma, she will say, “That’s fine with me. There’s nothing to transmit.” Those who try to ruin Buddhism in debate run into a similar problem. Ch’an does not depend on language, logic and knowledge, thus it is impossible to attack. In the end, even the most stubborn detractor must give up in exasperation. Oppressing Ch’an is a waste of time and effort.
Analogies in the stanzas above illustrate this point. Sandalwood is precious. It can be used as a medicine or incense, and its wood can be crafted into fine furniture. Furthermore, sandalwood forests are rarely invaded or taken over by other types of trees. Buddhism and the Dharma are like a sandalwood forest.
The mature lion represents the Buddha, and the animals represent persecutors and practitioners of other traditions. The mature lion reigns supreme in the forest. Although animals run in fear from the adult, they cautiously welcome the younger, three year old lion ─ a Ch’an master ─ as a playmate. Practitioners of other traditions would not dare take chances with the Buddha himself, but they might have a go of it with a Ch’an master. The three year old, however, is still a lion. Even at that young age it can roar, and when it does, other animals are filled with fear.
In comparison to a Ch’an master, a Ch’an practitioner is like a tiny, baby cub. Yet, even though a practitioner is not a master, he is still a lion; therefore, he should not fear attackers.
Once, a cunning fox tricked other animals into fighting each other. At the end of the melee, the elephant was the victor, but before the dust could settle, the fox jumped on the elephant’s back and declared itself king. When the young lion saw the fox do this, it became upset and let out a thunderous roar. The fox was scared so badly it fell off the elephant’s back. When the fox got up it declared a new law, “It is okay to fight, but lions aren’t allowed to roar!” In the same way, if a Ch’an master utters even one sentence, attackers will stop.
When the great T’ang poet, Po Chu-i was an important official, he visited Ch’an master Niao-ch’ao, who was perched in a tree like a bird in its nest. Po Chu-i called to the meditating master, “Be careful, monk! It’s dangerous sitting up there!”
Niao-ch’ao answered, “Official, it is you who are in mortal peril.”
Po Chu-i was surprised by the answer, and he said, “I’m the administrator for this entire region. I have the army to protect me. How can I be in danger?”
Niao-ch’ao replied, “You are made of air, fire, water and earth, but the four elements are thieves. You’re in danger.”
Po Chu-i was struck by the master’s words. He realized that, whereas Niao-ch’ao was practicing hard, he was doing nothing, so he asked, “Do you have any advice that I can follow?”
Niao-ch’ao said, “Refrain from doing evil. Strive to do good deeds.”
Po Chu-i was offended: “Even little children know that.”
Niao-ch’ao answered, “A child of three might know it, but even an eighty year old can’t do it.”
Hearing this, Po Chu-i prostrated to the master.
At least Po Chu-i visited Niao-ch’ao with good intentions. Others have studied Buddhism with the intention of destroying the Dharma; but Buddhism welcomes people who begin with a strong determination to kill the Buddha intellectually. In the end, they usually become Buddhists. They are different from irrational people who want to destroy Buddhism for no apparent reason. Ignorant people have no desire to understand things. They act out of blind hatred. Fortunately, they cannot mount an effective offensive; they attack the external form ─ the monasteries. When they do this, the monks and nuns disappear. They let their hair grow and work the fields, but they go right on practicing. Practice is what is important, and it is indestructible.
— The Sword of Wisdom by Master Sheng-Yen (page 173-180)