Original faces: Reflections on purification
Saccanama has heard Vajrasattva’s bell calling him to realize his own innate purity, and is on a return journey to reconnect with his own stainless nature.
At the beginning of the Purgatorio, the second great canticle of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Dante and Virgil emerge from the darkness of the Inferno to see “the tender tint of orient sapphire.” It is dawn, and Venus, “the lovely planet kindling love in man,” lights up the eastern sky. To the West lie the four stars of the four cardinal virtues. As they
proceed towards the mountain they are to climb on their pilgrimage, the two men stop:
When we had reached a place where the cool shade
allowed the dew to linger on the slope,
resisting a while longer the sun’s rays,
my master placed both of his widespread hands
gently upon the tender grass, and I,
who understood what his intention was,
offered my tear-stained face to him, and he
made my face clean, restoring its true color.
once buried beneath the dirt of Hell.
(translated by Mark Musa)
When they reach the shore, Virgil plucks a reed with which to gird his pilgrim and another springs up immediately in its place.
For anyone who has read the Inferno, or indeed suffered their own “torments of hell,” these images are a relief. They evoke the experience of emerging from great suffering. Dawn, the bathing of Dante’s grime-stained face in the early-morning dew, and the re-growth of the pilgrim’s reed set the tone for the next section of Dante’s great journey. For me they are also a western counterpart to the meditation on Vajrasattva, which like Dante’s epic, enacts a journey of purification.
My connection with Vajrasattva goes back to a time when I was staying at Guhyaloka, a mountain retreat center in Spain where I was preparing for ordination into the Western Buddhist Order. Part of the retreat focused on confession of breaches of the Buddhist ethical precepts. We spent our evenings reciting the chapter on confession in the Sutra of Golden Light and burning our confessions in front of the shrine, usually among fragrant cuttings of juniper bush. Such confession is a means of purification by which we can free ourselves of the influence of greed, hatred and unawareness, which obscure our true nature.
May the Buddhas watch over me
With minds attentive.
May they forgive my faults
With minds given over to compassion.
On account of the evil done by me previously,
Even in hundreds of eons,
I have a troubled mind,
Oppressed with wretchedness, trouble and fear.
With an unhappy mind,
I continually fear evil acts.
Wherever I go
There is no enjoyment for
I confess all the evil previously done by me.
And I confess all my present evil.
For the future,
I undertake to retrain
From all acts evilly done.
(‘Sutra of Golden Light’, trans. RE Emmerick)
We also chanted the 100-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva, and this took the experience of purification on to a deeper level. I had been ill before I arrived in the mountains but, following this period of purification, my health deteriorated further and my mind was assailed by unresolved issues from my past. Yet, through these difficulties, Vajrasattva seemed to preside over the valley, looking down on me with compassion, somehow guaranteeing a return to peace and purity if I could place my trust in him.
In the image of Vajrasattva, Buddhism teaches that an original, undefiled purity resides within our minds.
Vajrasattva is said to have a bond with all beings that connects us all to a state of beginningless, original purity. Indeed, Vajrasattva — the pure-white, 16-year-old prince, sitting on a pure-white lotus made of light — is an image of our own purity. In the image of Vajrasattva, Buddhism teaches that an original, undefiled purity resides within our minds.
Something in us remains untouched by our unethical actions because it has not entered the world of time and space, with its inevitable compromises and limitations. This undefiled essential nature is symbolized by the vajra, the diamond thunderbolt of reality, which resolves all opposites — in particular the opposition of the unenlightened and the Enlightened mind.
Deep within us is something as clear as diamond and as powerful as thunder. The vajra is also the essence of Vajrasattva, whose name means ‘the diamond-being’, and in his right hand, close to his heart, the young prince holds a golden vajra. Our own nature, like the vajra, is also non-dual.
To contemplate Vajrasattva, then, is to seek to realize this undefiled nature and return to a pure, immaculate state. But we must first hear the call of that state and so the prince holds a silver vajra-bell in his left hand that rings to awaken us from our slumber.
I have heard that bell several times in my life. I heard it at Guhyaloka in the shrine room with the burning juniper and the sound of the Vajrasattva mantra running through my mind. Before that, not long after I had fallen ill, I had dreamed I was bitten by a poisonous snake and was lying in bed in a pure white healing room. Sunshine streamed through the windows and a man and woman were looking after me. Although my life had been in danger, there was an atmosphere of safety and rejuvenation in the dream, which mirrored the coming months of my life as I recovered from my illness. Vajrasattva was there in the whiteness of the room.
Something in us remains untouched by our unethical actions because it has not entered the world of time and space…
I also heard the bell in an increasing awareness of my own lack of wholeness. There seemed no depth or meaning to my life and I felt alienated from all that was good. I was struck by the perennial Buddhist story of making a return journey. In the White Lotus Sutra a young prince who had been banished from his homeland slowly comes to realize that he is lost and, with help from his father, returns to his country and his royal heritage. In many ways, this is the underlying myth of Vajrasattva — the sense of making a return journey to discover the pure nature that lies deep within us.
This myth is enacted in the mantra of Vajrasattva. Indeed, the mantra tells the story of the return journey in concise form, starting with the bond that already exists between Vajrasattva and oneself. It praises him as the defender of mankind and the guarantor of our true nature, who stands beside us with a deep love for who we really are. As we realize Vajrasattva’s presence, we draw closer to him, purifying ourselves; and we begin to realize that we have never truly been defiled. A great shout of joy erupts from within. We are free. Fear and evil are banished and Buddhahood is ours.
Om! Bond of the Adamantine Being.
Protector of my essential nature.
May your unshakable wisdom be my surety,
Your diamond nature ever stand at the seat of my being.
Be strong for me in times of conflict and self-doubt.
Let me realize the joy of effort directed with a pure motive.
Let me realize the bliss of your unstained nature, which is no nature.
Let me realize great love which flows throughout the universe
Let auspiciousness attend all I do.
Let your perfect nature arise spontaneously within me.
Let there be no thought of separation or impurity.
Let the chain of past thoughts be broken forever.
Let my mind realize at once its perfect beginningless purity.
The laughter of the unchained mind echoes forever.
Everything is blessed with Buddha-mind.
Liberate me. O you diamond-centered and jewel-adorned.
Encompass me, O you who are beyond all space and time.
Believe in my sincere efforts
Destroy all doubt.
Dispel all ignorance and darkness with your diamond-centered light.
O Great Hero of the universal bond, let all fear be destroyed
(The 100-syllable Vajrasattva mantra, a free rendition by Dharmachari Ananda)
The return journey is also the pattern of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The three great canticles of the Comedy represent the three main stages of that journey. Firstly, as Dante awakens to find himself lost in a dark wood, there is the awareness of fragmentation and alienation and all the dreadful consequences of such a state. Secondly, emerging from Hell on to the slopes of Mount Purgatory, there is the journey to the Garden of Earthly Delights, in the course of which the pilgrim is progressively purified. Finally, in an ascent through the heavens, there is the fruit of purification, a deepening unification with one’s true nature in ever greater visionary experience and bliss. We can be alienated from our purest nature and act with increasing unskillfulness, or we can move towards it, purifying our minds of defilement. We can ultimately become united with it.
Vajrasattva is said to have a bond with all beings that connects us all to a state of beginningless, original purity.
The call to purity has also come to me through faces. I saw one such face at the heart of Roman Catholicism, even though its teaching of original sin is the antithesis of the Buddhist teaching of original purity. Amid all the grandeur and triumphalism of St Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican, there is a statue by Michelangelo: the Pieta. A life-size Madonna holds the body of the dead Christ in her arms, her face conveying a sense of utmost love and beauty. Looking at that face and knowing my own attempts to visualize the face of Vajrasattva, I felt that Michelangelo had possessed a vision of purity far beyond my own. I turned away as tears welled up in my eyes.
An old Zen koan asks: ‘What is your original face?’ There is no right answer to this question – that is the point of a koan. But one way of answering it might be to look through the love and beauty in the face of Michelangelo’s Virgin to Vajrasattva’s face. We might also look to Virgil, standing on the shores of Mount Purgatory, washing the tears and grime of the woe-filled world from Dante’s face, and restoring its true color with the early morning dew.
Contact with Vajrasattva can have this effect, too: restoring our beauty, making us pure and helping us to know our own true nature. With this vision and knowledge, our return journey will have finally been fulfilled.