The spirit of Buddhism during the Middle Ages
It has often been observed by outsiders that the Buddhist culture takes the suffering and transitoriness of life very seriously. For example, Saicha, or Dengya-daishi (767-822), the patriarch of the Japanese Tendai school, wrote the following statement when he was about twenty years of age:
The phenomenal world, from remote past to distant future, is full of sufferings, and there is not room for peacefulness. The lives of all beings, tangled as they are with difficulties and complications, present only sorrows and no happiness. The sunlight of the Buddha sakyamuni has been hidden in the distant cloud, and we have not as yet seen the glimpse of the moonlight of the merciful future Buddha [Maitreya].
Likewise, many other Buddhists lamented the fact that they were destined to live during the period between the two Buddhas, yet their outlook on life was not so firmly negative. I might add that to the modern mind the Buddhist notion of karmic retribution resembles Josiah Royce’s idea of the “hell of the irrevocable,” which implies that “I can do good deeds in the future, but I cannot revoke my past deed.” In the Buddhist context, however, the order is reversed: “I cannot revoke my past deed, but I can do good deeds now for the future.” Such an understanding of karma offered a plausible resolution of a cluster of existential questions and problems for those who sensed the misfortune of living during the time between the two Buddhas. Moreover, the anticipation of the coming of the future Buddha Maitreya gave them grounds for optimism and hope.