The Impurity of Purity
by Dr. Francis H. Cook
Buddhism shares with other world religions a concern with purity. The Buddhism
of the first few centuries of its existence saw the whole spiritual path that
culminates in clear insight and liberation as a process of self-purification of
consciousness, thus betraying the influence of Hindu society which was its milieu.
A text such as Buddhaghosha's Path of Purification shows that meditation practices
were designed to first tranquilize or "anesthetize" (shamatha) the defilements
that cause impurity and then, in a second phase, to utterly destroy forever these
troublesome things. This phase was the practice of awareness or mindfulness (vipashyana).
When the last defilement was gone and could no longer obstruct clear insight,
the truth appeared before one and one was liberated.
A later form of Buddhism, the Mahayana, took a much less realistic approach
to such qualities as I purity, an approach some Western specialists have called
"idealistic." The various traditions such as Zen all agree that the
primary obstacle to spiritual progress is not such things as impurity but rather
is the way we perceive things. The problem, that is, is cognitive and epistemological
. Instead of trying to eliminate character flaws one by one, what we need to do
is purify our perceptor apparatus and realize that all dualisms such as pure and
impure, Buddhas and ordinary folk, sacred and profane, and so on, are delusions
that do not really exist. The source of this hew approach to the religious life
was the doctrine of "emptiness" (shunyata), which mainly criticized
all dualisms as false and nonexistent in reality but also denied the ultimacy
of any datum of experience. This new perception was the outcome of a radical transformation
of personality, and the only way this metanoia could take place is through those
mental technologies that we in the West call "meditation" (an inadequate
translation of such terms as dhyana, samadi and bhavana).
Zen is probably the one form of Mahayana that stresses meditation above all, as
its very name indicates. The focus is on the practical aspect of meditation rather
than philosophy or moral cultivation. Consequently, there is comparatively very
little discussion of purity in Zen literature .When it is encountered it is in
the form of a brief encounter between master and disciple where the whole issue
of purity is dealt with in a very highhanded , dismissive way. The disciple will
be reminded that his real problem is his tendency to see differences such as self
and other, sacred and profane, and is and is not, as real things, not character
flaws that need to be laboriously eliminated.
One of the gifts that Buddhism can offer in its dialogue with members of other
religions is its meditation practices, which are the most sophisticated of all
meditation practices. Zen sitting meditation can be practiced by anyone, Catholic,
Jew, Muslim, or atheist, because the meditation has nothing to do with creeds,
doctrinal positions, loyalties, allegiances, or commitments. Pace Cardinal Ratzinger!