On the 500-Year Lifespan of Buddhism (revised and expanded)

(NOTE: I wrote the bulk of this article way back in 2012, about a politically incorrect prophecy attributed to the Buddha, as recorded in the ancient Pali texts. Subsequent to that time, a few years ago, when I was in Burma last time in fact, I mentioned the strange case of the 500-year lifespan of Buddhism to a very intelligent Burmese monk named Sayadaw U Vimala, who gave an interpretation not included in the old essay, so I update it here. Venerable U Vimala’s interpretation may be the most attractive, or least unattractive, interpretation to many people over this controversial issue, so I suppose I should add that ingredient to the stew. Also I have made a few very minor stylistic changes, just because I’m fussy. Enjoy.)

     There is a very politically incorrect story in the Pali Buddhist texts, in the tenth chapter of the Vinaya Cullavagga, describing how the Buddha's aunt/stepmother Mahāpajāpati Gotamī approaches the Buddha and asks him for permission to become the first ordained Buddhist nun (bhikkhunī). She asks three times. The Buddha, evidently considering this to be a very bad idea, sternly refuses all three times. Mahāpajāpati Gotamī goes away weeping. Later she begins following the Buddha and standing outside his door with dust on her body and tears on her face, grieving because women are not allowed by the Buddha to be ordained as nuns. The Buddha's cousin and faithful attendant, the venerable Ānanda Gotama, who in the texts is often portrayed as having a tender spot in his heart for women, then remonstrates with the Buddha on Mahāpajāpati Gotamī's behalf. After being sternly refused like Mahāpajāpati was, he employs persuasive arguments that the Buddha cannot deny, for example that women are just as capable of attaining enlightenment as men are. Finally the Buddha relents, but gives Ānanda a sort of "OK, but now you've done it" speech:

“If, Ānanda, women had not gone forth from the home into homelessness in the Way and Discipline made known by the Tathāgata, then the Holy Life would last a long time; the true Way would last for a thousand years. But since, Ānanda, women have gone forth from the home into homelessness in the Way and Discipline made known by the Tathāgata, now, Ānanda, the Holy Life will not last for a long time; now, Ānanda, the true Way will last for only five hundred years.”

     The purpose of this article is not to discuss the controversial issue of the recent attempted revival of the Order of Theravada Buddhist nuns. I've already written some of my ideas on that subject in previous blog posts ("The New Bhikkhunis," published July 1, 2012 on the old Nippapañca Blog, and a few others after that). The main purpose of this article is to address the strange prophecy made by the Buddha in the above text, that Buddhism would survive for only 500 years—not 500 years from now, mind you, but 500 years from the time of the Buddha; and if that is the case, then Buddhism should have died out around 2000 years ago. There are a number of possible explanations for this prophecy, and I will consider some of the most obvious ones.

  1.    The commentarial explanation. According to the medieval commentaries, which happen to represent the official "party line" of orthodox Theravada Buddhist tradition, when the Buddha said that Saddhamma would survive for five hundred years what he really meant was that Saddhamma would survive for five thousand years. As far as I know, the commentator made no serious attempt to explain why the Buddha would say 500 if he really meant 5000. (This would be a rather misleading way of speaking to the venerable Ānanda, who of course would have no commentary to refer to for cases when the Buddha says X when he really means Y—the commentaries are indispensable for pointing out such cases.) This explanation may seem rather unlikely to Western Buddhists, but it is accepted without question by most Burmese Buddhists, for example, including most Burmese scholar-sayadaws. No doubt the commentator was faced with the dilemma of an old text which could not be doubted saying something which could not be believed, as the commentary was compiled and edited more than 500 years after the time of the Buddha. Theravadin tradition goes further with the legend of the 5000-year reign of the true Dhamma: at the end of this period all the relics of the Buddha enshrined in pagodas, etc., throughout heaven and earth will leave their places and assemble in midair over the site at Bodh Gaya where the Buddha first realized enlightenment, will assume the form of the Buddha, will perform the "twin miracle" of spraying water and fire simultaneously, and will deliver a final sermon—at the end of which the dispensation of Gotama Buddha will be at an end. The dispensation of Gotama Buddha will end with this sermon because no human will be present to hear it and be inspired by it—only gods and goddesses will attend. Thousands of years later another Buddha, Metteyya, will rediscover Dhamma and set the wheel rolling again.
  2.    The Buddha didn't really say it. This explanation would probably be the preferred choice for most skeptical Western Buddhists, and I must admit I prefer it also, although the notion that the scriptures are not 100% authentic and reliable is unthinkable for millions of faithful Asians, plus a fair amount of Western fundamentalists. One plausible theory is that the Order of nuns was not very popular with many of the monks in very ancient times, nor very well established, so the "prophecy" was added at an early Great Council as a moral lesson of some kind. If this theory is correct, then it is interesting that ancient Buddhist monks were so modest about the future popularity of the Buddhist system.
  3.    The Buddha did really say it, but was mistaken. This one also is a non-starter for millions of faithful Asians, plus a fairer amount of Westerners than with the previous one. The idea that the Buddha was omniscient at least to the point of knowing anything he wanted to know is accepted by most Buddhists; that he could say what is not true, deliberately or accidentally, is considered an impossibility. However, as I've pointed out before, there is evidence in the Pali texts themselves that enlightened beings, and even the Buddha himself, can occasionally be mistaken. And of course there is plenty of evidence from other traditions that great sages can make great errors in their predictions. Probably the most famous is the apparent belief of Jesus of Nazareth that the world would come to an end, or at least Judgement Day would come, very soon, probably within a few decades of his own time. The belief that the End is Near has been assumed as gospel truth by Christians ever since. It does not necessarily imply a logical contradiction for a fully enlightened being to say something that isn't empirically true; it may be that full enlightenment involves an awareness of Ultimate Truth that is not entirely relevant to the conventionally true mass delusion of Samsara. (See my post "Buddhism Meets Skepticism, July 28, 2012, on the old blog, for a slightly more detailed discussion of these points.) Even so, it does strike me as rather unlikely that the Buddha would predict that the existence of nuns would shorten the lifespan of Buddhism to only 500 years. It just doesn't sound convincing for some reason.
  4.    The Buddha did really say it, and was right. This strikes me as the most intriguing of the possible explanations—that the true Way, the Saddhamma, really did last only 500 years, and that what we've been calling Buddhism ever since has been some kind of cheap imitation. The Theravadins might derive some grim satisfaction from the idea that Mahayana arose about 500 years after the time of the Buddha, but still it would seem that virtually all Buddhists would prefer to believe that they themselves are following the "real deal" and not some pale shadow of the truth. (Incidentally, at least one Mahayana tradition has its own interpretation of the case—that there would be five 500-year periods of Buddhism: the first period being a time of genuine, pure Dharma; the second being a time of lesser purity but still strong practice; the third mainly being strong in Buddhist scholarship; the fourth degenerating into more superficial levels of practice and learning, and the fifth being characterized mainly by debate and dissension. If this is the case then we are at or very near the end of the last period.) Even if this fourth explanation were true, that real Buddhism no longer exists, it would not necessarily mean that people calling themselves Buddhists could not become liberated at all, as Buddhism does not necessarily have a monopoly on liberation. It would just suggest that they were not attaining this in the exact way that Gotama Buddha advised. Interestingly, a plausible variation on this theme has been stated by the not particularly Buddhist spiritual teacher Paul Lowe: according to him (and I do not know how he arrived at this idea), for 500 years after the time of the Buddha there was an unbroken lineage of enlightened teachers and disciples; that is, there was always at least one teacher with at least one enlightened disciple, with this lineage continuing all the way back to the Buddha himself. After 500 years the lineage was broken, although since then there have been other enlightened lineages arising and passing away. Possibly the amazing profusion of great Zen masters in medieval China would represent such a later resurgence of liberating wisdom. I could only begin to guess at what lineages, if any, are going strong nowadays. Among the Tibetans maybe? Perhaps some obscure Theravadin forest tradition?
  5.    The Buddha did really say it, but meant it only figuratively. This possibility was brought to my attention by a very intelligent Burmese monk who, although reluctant to disbelieve anything in the Pali texts, nevertheless was quite capable of critical thought, and of wanting things to make good sense. So his explanation was this: When the Buddha said his teachings would survive for a thousand years if bhikkhunis were not ordained, but only five hundred if they were, he simply meant that because of bhikkhuni ordination the teachings of Buddhism would last only half as long, with the actual numbers given being purely arbitrary. This is possible, I suppose, although if that were the case he could have said simply that it would last only half as long; and the fact remains that the actual passage in the Vinaya has him saying very clearly that Buddhism would last only five hundred years as a result of ordaining nuns. So I am skeptical of this explanation, though it at least has the virtue (to devout Buddhists at least) of not considering the Pali texts or the Buddha himself to be wrong, and thus may appeal to dedicated westerners with little use for the medieval commentarial tradition or the new western tradition of rejecting out of hand whatever doesn’t appeal to the western ultraliberal Buddhist mind.

     This issue of the strange prophecy leads to the interesting either/or dichotomy of Eastern and Western Theravada Buddhism: the Eastern Buddhists being psychologically compelled to accept it all, and the Western Buddhists casually dismissing any parts they don't want to believe. Another rather bizarre example of the former extreme is a case I came upon in Burma. There was a great and brilliant scholar-monk named Mingun Tipiṭakadhara Sayadaw, who I was told was in the Guinness Book of World Records for his prodigious memory: he had memorized by heart the entire 40-volume edition of the Pali Tipiṭaka, plus several other works like commentaries and Pali grammars. He knew the Pali texts inside and out, and had received a long list of ecclesiastical titles for his scholarship. So he well knew that, according to these texts, the Buddha was tall, but not phenomenally so; people would often meet the Buddha and mistake him for an ordinary monk, for example. But, the commentarial tradition asserts that Gotama Buddha was 4 1/2 times the height of an ordinary person, i.e. approximately 25 feet (8 meters) tall. Being exceedingly devout, the venerable sayadaw was not able to doubt even the commentarial tradition; consequently, also being brilliant, he came up with the following way of reconciling the data: According to him, people were more honest and virtuous in the Buddha's time than they are nowadays. Because of this, the gods loved humanity more. Thus the gods in charge of influencing the weather caused the rain and sun to occur more seasonably, yielding greater benefit to the crops in farmers' fields. The more greatly benefited crops were more nutritious...the result being that in the Buddha's time everybody was much larger than they are today, averaging somewhere around 20 feet in height. 

     At the other extreme, many Buddhists of the West reject not only talking animal stories, the theory of a flat earth floating on water, etc., but even such fundamental principles of Dhamma as the value of seeking out and examining unpleasantness, No Self, karma conditioning our reality, or even the possibility of realizing Nibbāna Itself. Dhamma can thereby become something completely integrated into worldly, materialistic Western culture. The result can be not only a pale shadow of Dhamma, but a pale shadow of a dismembered fragment of it.

     Consequently, some Middle Way between unquestioning dogmatism and casual rejection of the parts we don't like may be in order—the consideration of Dhamma not in terms of acceptance or rejection, belief or disbelief, but in terms of "I don't know. I'll consider it." So long as we adjust the box to fit Buddhism, as Easterners tend to do, or adjust Buddhism to fit the box, as Westerners tend to do, we are still stuck in the box of our own limitations, our own limited beliefs. The point is to get out of the box; and outside of the box is "I don't know." By accepting this universal "I don't know" we attain what ancient Greek philosophers called ataraxia, the peace of mind which comes from suspension of judgement. I think in Christianity it's called "the peace that passeth all understanding." But we can still use the box to keep our junk in.     


  1. So much history has been suppressed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xGqvEz73s-c

  2. Bhante,

    I'm inclined to believe that the true Dhamma died out and we're left with only a poor facsimile thereof.

  3. There is another explanation for the 500 years of Buddism. We have to be sure which buddha said that. Gautama or another one. Stories from many buddhas usually are combined in one story. Lets say that was Gautama. He said that if women were not to be nuns the real path would last for 1000 years. Why the longivity of the path depends on them? is ti good or bad? I think it is not bad but good! From many people could this considered as bad. The meaning is that another Buddha will come at that time after 500 years from him and will give another teaching supperior than his since the people will have been prepared erlier in 500 and not in 1000 years. This Buddha had really come and was Jesus and he was the Matreya Buddha. All descriptions for Matreya fit on Jesus. Buddhist scholars could not accept or understand this and made the 500 as 5000 years. But this is the explanation as I see. Theosophists also made a fictional Matreya who is supposed to come after 5000 years following the false ideas of scholars but Matreya has allready come and was Jesus.

    1. Obviously the quote is attributed to Gotama Buddha, as should be obvious from the context of the entire passage. And obviously the Buddha considered the ordination of nuns to be a very bad idea. His reasons for this are given in the Vinaya Pali, from which the quoted passage is extracted. And no, all descriptions for Metteyya or Maitreya do not fit Jesus. In fact I'd guess that most of them are radically different from descriptions of Jesus of Nazareth.


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