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!