The Death of the Dharma 

Liza Dalby's new book introduces yet another way in which the world might end.

Give most casual observers in the West a pop quiz about Buddhism, and they'd say it's about peace, stillness, serene-faced statuary, and (bonus answer) nonattachment. But end-of-the-world prophecies? A veritable Aum-a-geddon? No way, Grasshopper.

But yes. It's called Mappo, and characters strive to forestall it in Liza Dalby's Hidden Buddhas: A Novel of Karma and Chaos, which the Berkeley author will discuss at the Hillside Club (2286 Cedar St., Berkeley) on Tuesday, November 10. In one scene, a young priest-to-be experiences dazzling ecstasy while viewing one of Japan's hibutsu or "hidden Buddhas," statues considered so holy as to be displayed only once or twice a year. He suffers sudden agony as, right under his gaze, an evil power-sucking entity renders the statue an impotent husk. Later in the book, an American grad student falls for a Japanese artist who remains haunted by her aborted child as more is revealed about why hidden buddhas stay hidden.

The basic idea behind Mappo is that the Buddha ushered in an age of the true dharma — that is, dutiful observance of Buddhist law — but that, since his death in circa 480 BCE, "there has been a gradual deterioration," says Dalby, a Stanford grad and Fulbright scholar who sat zazen for six months at Kyoto's Daitokuji Zen temple and still meditates. "Ultimately, this world ends — Mappo literally means 'the end of the dharma' — and the Buddha of the Future will then appear to begin the cycle anew. Historically, talk of Mappo looms large during periods of great crisis and upheaval. The signs of the end of the dharma are things like wars, famines, earthquakes, genocide — no doubt melting glaciers and dying frogs as well."

Hidden buddhas "are mostly associated with the older, esoteric sects of Buddhism," Dalby says. "There are few if any in Zen temples. And they are found only in Japan. ... This process of hiding things, veiling them, or keeping them secret is utterly key to Japanese culture." While researching this book, her fifth, she visited the Guze Kannon at Nara Prefecture's Horyuji Temple. Hidden for over a thousand years, this six-foot statue was unwrapped in the late 19th century and is now shown only twice a year: "Very creepy, this one. Makes your hair stand on end." She was also given a private showing of a five-foot-high iron head in Tokyo: "I have to say it gave me a shiver, but there is also something very moving about this hibutsu."

Does knowing more about Mappo than most of us make her fear it more? "I think we live in precarious times, and I think that life in general is precarious. It is so important to pay attention to things, be aware, be as fully conscious as we can be — because it really could all vanish in an instant. I find the concept of Mappo to be quite convincing. It is a framework for dealing with all of the terrible things happening in the world, whether you are religious or not," Dalby says. "But I also believe that we largely make our own heavens and our own hells by the way we approach life. Mappo may be just a metaphor, but it's a pretty good one." 7:30 p.m., $6-$15.


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