Three Ages of Buddhism

The Three Ages of Buddhism, also known as the Three Ages of the Dharma, (simplified Chinese: 三时; traditional Chinese: 三時; pinyin: Sān Shí) are three divisions of time following Buddha's passing in East Asian Buddhism.

Three Ages

The Three Ages of Buddhism are three divisions of time following Buddha's passing:[1][2]

  1. Former Day of the Law—also known as the Age of the Right Dharma (Chinese: 正法; pinyin: Zhèng Fǎ; Jp: shōbō), the first thousand years (or 500 years) during which the Buddha's disciples are able to uphold the Buddha's teachings;[3]
  2. Middle Day of the Law—also known as the Age of Semblance Dharma (Chinese: 像法; pinyin: Xiàng Fǎ; Jp: zōhō), the second thousand years (or 500 years), which only resembles the right Dharma;[4]
  3. Latter Day of the Law—also known as the Degenerate Age (Chinese: 末法; pinyin: Mò Fǎ; mòfǎ; Jp: mappō), which is to last for 10,000 years during which the Dharma declines.[5]

In the Mahasamnipata Sutra, the three periods are further divided into five five-hundred year periods (五五百歳 Cn: wǔ wǔ bǎi sùi; Jp: go no gohyaku sai), the fifth and last of which was prophesied to be when the Buddhism of Gautama Buddha would lose all power of salvation and a new Buddha would appear to save the people. This time period would be characterized by unrest, strife, famine, and natural disasters.[6]

The three periods are significant to Mahayana adherents, particularly those who hold the Lotus Sutra in high regard, namely the Tiantai and Tendai and Nichiren Buddhism, who believe that different Buddhist teachings are valid (i.e., able to lead practitioners to enlightenment) in each period due to the different capacity to accept a teaching (機根 Cn: jīgēn; Jp: kikon) of the people born in each respective period.

Latter Day of the Law

Traditionally, this age is supposed to begin 2000 years after Gautama Buddha's passing and last for 10,000 years. During this degenerate third age, it is believed that people will be unable to attain enlightenment through the word of Sakyamuni Buddha, and society will become morally corrupt. In Buddhist thought, during the Age of Dharma Decline the teachings of the Buddha will still be correct, but people will no longer be capable of following them.


Buddhist temporal cosmology assumes a cyclical pattern of ages, and even when the current Buddha's teachings fall into disregard, a new Buddha will at some point (usually considered to be millions of years in the future) be born to ensure the continuity of Buddhism. In the Lotus Sutra, Visistacaritra is entrusted to spread Buddhist law in this age and save mankind and the earth. He and countless other bodhisattvas, specifically called Bodhisattvas of the Earth (of which he is the leader), vow to be reborn in a latter day to re-create Buddhist law, thus turning the degenerate age into a flourishing paradise. Gautama Buddha entrusts them instead of his more commonly known major disciples with this task since the Bodhisattvas of the Earth have had a karmic connection with Gautama Buddha since the beginning of time, meaning that they are aware of the Superior Practice which is the essence of Buddhism or the Dharma in its original, pure form. Ksitigarbha is also known for his vow to take responsibility for the instruction of all beings in the six worlds, in the era between the death of Gautama and the rise of Maitreya.[7] Teacher Savaripa would also live in the world to teach someone.[8]

Teachings of different groups

The teaching appeared early.[9][10] References to the decline of the Dharma over time can be found in such Mahayana sutras as the Diamond Sutra and the Lotus Sutra, but also to a lesser degree in some texts in the Pāli Canon such as the Cullavagga of the Vinaya Pitaka. Nanyue Huisi was an early monk who taught about it; he is considered the third Patriarch of the Tiantai.[11]

The Sanjiejiao was an early sect that taught about Mò Fǎ. It taught to respect every sutra and all sentient life.[12][13]

Late Buddhism in Central Asia taught the building of auspicious signs or miraculous Buddhist images.[14][15][16][17]

Pure Land Buddhism in China and Japan believe we are now in this latter age of "degenerate Dharma". Pure Land followers therefore attempt to attain rebirth into the pure land of Amitābha, where they can practice the Dharma more readily.[18][19][20][21][22][23]

Nichiren Buddhism has taught that its teaching is the most suitable for the recent Mò Fǎ period.[24][25]

Vajrayana Buddhism taught that its teaching would be popular when "iron birds are upon the sky" before its decline.[26][27][28] The Kalacakra tantra contains a prophecy of a holy war in which a Buddhist king will win.

Theravada Buddhists taught that Buddhism would decline in five thousand years.[29][30]

Some monks such as Dōgen and Hsu Yun had alternative views regarding dharma decline. Dōgen believed that there is no Mò Fǎ while Hsu Yun thought Mò Fǎ is not inevitable.[31][32]

Some Chinese folk religions taught that the three ages were the teaching period of Dīpankara Buddha, Gautama Buddha, and the current era of Maitreya.[33][34][35]


  1. Tzu, Chuang (2012). Fa Xiang: A Buddhist Practitioner's Encyclopedia. Buddha's Light Publishing. pp. 4, 5. ISBN 978-1-932293-55-5.
  2. Marra, Michele (1988). The development of mappō thought in Japan (I), Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 15 (1), 25. PDF
  3. Hattori 2000, pp. 15, 16
  4. Hattori 2000, pp. 15, 16
  5. Hattori 2000, pp. 15, 16
  6. Marra, Michele (1988). The development of mappō thought in Japan (I), Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 15 (1), 26-27. PDF
  7. The Earth Store (Treasury) Sutra
  8. Masters of Mahamudra: Songs and Histories of the Eighty-Four Buddhist Siddhas (Suny Series in Buddhist Studies)
  9. "初期大乘佛教之起源與開展20". Archived from the original on 2012-03-13. Retrieved 2012-10-17.
  10. 中國末法思想探微
  11. 釋性玄 (June 2009). 佛教末法思想在中國之受容與開展 (PDF) (master thesis) (in Chinese).
  12. "佛教末法觀之我思". Archived from the original on 2016-05-13. Retrieved 2019-04-25.
  13. 再論三階教的歷史定位
  14. 敦煌所见于阗牛头山圣迹及瑞像
  15. 釋迦牟尼如來像法滅盡之記
  16. "圣容瑞像之谜". Archived from the original on 2012-05-10. Retrieved 2012-10-17.
  17. 刘萨诃与凉州瑞像信仰的末法观
  18. “末法时期,净土成就”佛经出处考
  19. "道綽的末法觀念與淨土門的創立" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2009-10-15. Retrieved 2012-10-17.
  20. 溫金柯 (2006-04-18). "「末法」與「淨土念佛得度」考--由道綽《安樂集》衍生的重要觀念之檢討" (in Chinese).
  21. 仏教の「末法」キリスト教の「終末」
  22. Kyoshin Asano, The Idea of the Last Dharma-age in Shinran's Thought (Part 1), Pacific World, Third Series Number 3, 53-70, 2001 PDF
  23. Kyoshin Asano, The Idea of the Last Dharma-age in Shinran's Thought (Part 2), Pacific World, Third Series Number 4, 197-216, 2002 PDF
  24. 日莲心目中的《法华经》
  25. Asai Endo (1999). Nichiren Shonin's View of Humanity: The Final Dharma Age and the Three Thousand Realms in One Thought-Moment, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 26 (3-4), 239-240
  26. 上师阿弥陀佛修法极乐捷径讲记
  27. 晉美講記(上)
  28. 蓮師預言警世函 ( 附註解 ) 貝諾法王鑑定....
  29. Dicks, Andrew (May 2015). Enlightening the Bats: Sound and Place Making in Burmese Buddhist Practice. pp. 25-26 and 32-33. pp 25-26:Many of the Burmese Buddhists I spoke with referenced a five thousand year period of decline noting that the current sāsana of the Buddha Sakyamuni who lived in India during the 5th century BCE, is already half way towards its complete disintegration. As time passes after the death of a Buddha, the sāsana becomes increasingly opaque until it finally disappears. There may be a period with no Buddha, and then a future Buddha descends from the celestial abodes, is born, and restores the sāsana on earth once again. Burmese Buddhist historian, Alicia Turner, has identified multiple chronologies for the decline of the sāsana that range from one hundred to five thousand years (2014). In the time of decay, also known as the Kaliyuga, all traces of the Tipitaka and their supporting practices eventually vanish destabilizing the sāsana and triggering its dissolution. pp 32-33:The Angata vamsa (dating to roughly 13th century) specifically depicts five stages in the decline of the sāsana. The first stage articulates the loss of the ability for monks to reach the four stages of enlightenment: sotapanna (stream-enterer), sakadagami (once-returner), anagami (non-returner), and arahant (fully awakened). The second stage relates the loss of patipatti (practice). In this stage, monks lose the ability to meditate and maintain their precepts. The loss of pariyatti (textual study) is the third stage and depicts the disappearance of the Tipitaka. The fourth stage illustrates the loss of maintaining even appearances of piousness i.e. respectful speech, attire, work, and morals. In this stage, monks no longer behave as monks. They are illustrated as married and working people. The final stage illustrates the disappearance of the Buddha’s relics as they are returned to the location of the Buddha’s enlightenment and engulfed in flames (ibid.)
  30. By contrast, refer to Bhikku Bodhi : The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha - A Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya. Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi. 2012. p. 1805. cf Note 1747- And this expression 'a thousand years' is said with reference to arahants who have attained the analytic knowledges. Following this, for another thousand years, there appear dry-insight arahants; for another thousand years, non-returners; for another thousand years, once-returners; for another thousand years, stream-enterers. Thus the good Dhamma of penetration will last five thousand years. The Dhamma of learning will also last this long. For without learning, there is no penetration, and as long as there is learning, there is penetration.
  31. 佛教末法观的现代意义
  33. "清代教门惑众手法". Archived from the original on 2011-07-25. Retrieved 2010-01-31.
  34. "清代"邪教"与清朝政府- 正气网 清代"邪教"与清朝政府". Archived from the original on 2008-10-13. Retrieved 2010-01-31.
  35. 了道金船 三佛通书


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  • Hattori, Shōon (2000). A Raft from the Other Shore: Honen and the Way of Pure Land Buddhism. Jodo Shu Press. ISBN 978-4-88363-329-6.
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  • Marra, Michele (1988). "The development of mappō thought in Japan (II)", Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 15 (4), 287-305. PDF
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  • Stone, Jackie (1985). Seeking Enlightenment in the Last Age: "Mappō" Thought in Kamakura Buddhism: PART II, The Eastern Buddhist New Series, 18, (2), 35-64
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