purification

Anxiety, depression, anger… Paths to purification?

wolf looking fierce

Contrary to what you might think, negative emotions are not “bad” things we need to get rid of. Sunada sees them as gold mines – opportunities to learn more about ourselves and walk the path toward uncovering our innate purity.

Meditation is supposed to help us become calm, peaceful, and happy, right? But then when we sit, all this other stuff seems to get in our way – anxiety, worry, depression, irritation, hateful thoughts … So we try harder to get rid of them because, after all, meditation is supposed be about freeing ourselves of all these ugly states of mind, right?

Well, let me stop you right there. Meditation isn’t about willfully fighting and pushing our way to calm and peace. If you go back and read that last sentence, maybe you can sense the incongruity of the whole idea. It’s like going to war in order to enforce peace. There may be short term gains, but there will likely be long-term costs. Also, the struggle itself creates a negative sort of energy that feeds into the situation, making matters only worse.

The kind of unencumbered joy that we see radiating from people like the Dalai Lama doesn’t come about by battling with ourselves. It comes by accepting all of ourselves (yes, even the hateful sides!) with patience and loving-kindness, and giving them all the care and attention they need, so they become our peaceful allies and friends. OK, sounds nice you say, but how do we do that? The best teaching I’ve found on this comes not from the Buddha, but from Rumi, the beloved Sufi poet from the 13th century.

THE GUEST HOUSE

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

– Jelaluddin Rumi (Sufi poet, 1207-1273)

What would happen if you were to treat your anger or depression as an honored guest, as Rumi suggests? What if you imagined it not as an enemy that’s come to irritate and annoy you, but as a good friend who is feeling down and wants to talk? I suppose there are many different ways to interpret what Rumi means by a “guide from beyond,” but this is how I see it. Any time we feel those negative emotions come up, it’s a voice from deeper within ourselves asking to be heard. Somewhere inside, there’s a being that is crying out for love and caring, because it’s feeling hurt, afraid, lonely, or is just simply in pain. That suffering being is you. Why on earth wouldn’t you stop and listen? So next time one of those “guests” stops by, welcome him in. Give him the best, most comfortable chair in your house, and invite him to tell you all his troubles. You might be amazed by what you hear.

   Any time we feel those negative emotions come up, it’s a voice from deeper within ourselves asking to be heard.

And how do we do this “listening” on a practical level, you ask. Well, let’s take depression for example, since he’s been among my frequent guests in the past. When I sat with my depression, I started by observing what the physical experience of it was. As dispassionately as possible, and without passing judgment, I tried to observe how every part of my body and mind felt at the moment. So I observed that my body felt heavy, my chest felt tight, my breathing was shallow, my shoulders were slumped, my chest was caved in. My mind felt sluggish, fogged in, and dull. Doing this sort of careful observation in the context of a sitting practice is a great way to practice mindfulness. Sure, it’s unpleasant and no fun. But how else are we going to help our guest feel better, if we don’t fully understand what’s ailing him?

The next step after that would be to follow up when we’re off the cushion by reflecting on the situation. With a spirit of experimentation, we might try a few things and then mindfullly observe what effect it has. For example, what happens if I do some yoga or go for a walk and get my physical energies moving a bit? Does that make me feel better? If I listen to my favorite music or talk with a good friend, what effect does it have? Do I feel different at different times of the day? Different days of the week? Different seasons? How do different foods affect me? All of these information-gathering activities can help us learn to manage ourselves better and establish routines or activities that nudge us along slowly and gently in a happier direction.

Then we might reflect on some of the psychological factors affecting our moods. Perhaps we can trace our long-term emotional patterns to our childhood or family conditioning. Or we can examine some of our current habits and thoughts that might be contributing. For example, I noticed that I had a tendency to focus on what’s wrong with things. To some extent it was a professionally-trained skill that I gained in my former work as a project manager – it’s good to be able to foresee all the ways that plans might go awry and have contingencies for them. But as a way of living life in general, I realized that it contributed in a big way toward my seeing everything as a dark cloud.

All this sort of reflection is a purposeful, directed mindfulness practice that extends well beyond one’s time on the cushion. It’s also about listening ever more deeply to ourselves, getting to know our inner being intimately, and responding to its needs. And in this way we slowly dissolve the layers of negativity and pain we’ve been carrying around with us all our lives, and start allowing something else from deeper within to shine through.

So are you beginning to see how listening to our uninvited “guests” can be a gold mine for helping us to go deeper into understanding ourselves? Over time, I’ve come to see those guests as real treasures. On one level, they’re like warning alarms telling us that something in our life is out of balance and needs attention. But on a deeper, spiritual level, they open up a direct and authentic pathway for reaching out to that pure, lovely Buddha-being within each of us. As you might suspect, that being is much quieter and less assertive than the side of us that faces the world out there, so we need to be very still and patient. But at the same time, this being is infinitely wise and loving. If we take the time to listen and care for it, it will return the favor in more ways than you can imagine.

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“The Meditator’s Atlas: A Roadmap of the Inner World” by Matthew Flickstein

The Meditator's Atlas

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What is the Buddhist Path? Can we become spiritually awakened through meditation alone, or do we have to take a more rounded approach? If we’re already free, why do we need to follow a path anyway? Looking for answers, Tejananda, long-term Buddhist practitioner and meditation teacher, follows The Meditator’s Atlas on a spiritual road trip to purification.

The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) is Buddhaghosa’s classic commentary on the way to full awakening. Buddhaghosa was a fifth-century Indian exponent of the Theravada or “Doctrine of The Elders” school. The Theravada bases its approach on the Pali canon which contains some of the earliest extant records of the Buddha and his teachings.

See also:

While it’s an invaluable resource for meditators, the Visuddhimagga is a huge tome and it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. Matthew Flickstein’s “The Meditator’s Atlas” (formerly titled Swallowing the River Ganges and now totally revised) is a fairly short and clearly written commentary on the Visuddhimagga. It not only elucidates the nature of the path of insight according to Buddhaghosa, but also provides useful tools and meditations for every stage of that path, many of them based on the Satipatthana Sutta, the discourse on the foundations of mindfulness.

But what is the Buddhist path? In a telling passage right at the end of the book, Matthew Flickstein writes:

All paths, religions and spiritual practices are just more stories. There is ultimately nothing that we need to do or practice, since we are already free. And, again, the greatest freedom is freedom from the illusion that we are not already free – and all maps of the true spiritual journey lead us right to where we are.

So the question naturally arises “what stops us being where we are already?” Different Buddhist traditions have somewhat different approaches, different paths (including, naturally, the “path of no-path”) but all of them inevitably have to address the fundamental issue. We suffer because we unquestioningly believe that things are other than they actually are. This erroneous belief — delusion — leads us to fixate on what we take to be our “self” and we uphold this “self-view” by constantly engaging in stratagems of craving, grasping and aversion, and revulsion. The underlying delusion and these stratagems that arise from it — the “three poisons” — are what are preventing us from being “right where we are.”

Buddhaghosa outlines a “path of purification” leading to the eradication of the three poisons and the consequent realization of nibbana (nirvana). According to the author,

Although nibbana cannot be realized without having completed the purification process, nibbana does not arise as a result of the process. Nibbana is a self-subsistent reality that is not the result of anything. By following the path of purification, we merely eradicate the delusions and perceptual distortions that prevent us from discerning this ultimate truth.

The path –- and the book –- is structured round the fundamental “three trainings” of virtue, meditation and wisdom, subdivided into seven stages of purification. Acts that arise from craving or aversion — unethical behaviors of every kind – “sabotage the possibility of realizing the deeper states of spiritual purification.” Sitting meditation alone is not enough: “To reach the pinnacle of spiritual realization, we must align every aspect of our lives with that goal.” So the path begins with the purification of virtue (though it is never left behind). The author details the practice of the main precepts and the importance of “guarding the sense doors” against impulses of greed, hatred or delusion, while cultivating their opposites: generosity, loving-kindness and clarity of mind.

Then, “the purification of virtue manifests as states of mind unstained by thoughts or feelings of remorse.” This is the basis for the next stage, purification of mind, which is primarily about the cultivation of what the author (in common with many others) refers to as “concentration” of mind. It’s an unfortunate term, given possible connotations of furrowed brows; I think alternatives like “one pointedness,” “absorption,” or “integration” have much more helpful connotations. Nevertheless, whatever you call it, it’s a necessary quality, although, as the author points out, teachers differ greatly as to how much concentration is necessary for the cultivation of insight. Most of this section is, quite sensibly, devoted to one concentration practice –- mindfulness of breathing –- rather than the forty that Buddhaghosa outlines in the Visuddhimagga.

There are some useful observations in this section. For example, people sometimes comment that at a certain point the breathing “seems to disappear.” This can be taken as a “good sign,” or it can lead to anxiety and a loss of absorption. The author comments, “The reason we cannot perceive the breaths is because our concentration is not strong enough. If we keep our focus on the touch-point and make a concerted effort, we will be able to perceive the breathing process once again.”

A helpful emphasis of the book is that, although the author details the potential for deeper levels of absorption (jhana), he also brings out the potential for insight-cultivation on the basis of initial concentration. As he points out “unless we have an extended period of time to devote to the practice of serenity meditation, and have the proper environmental and teaching support, we face an extremely difficult challenge when we pursue the attainment of these jhanas.” If we believe that “insight meditation” can only be effective on the basis of extensive experience of the jhanas, we may hold back from insight reflections that we are perfectly ready for, and hinder our penetration into the essence of the Buddha’s teaching.

All paths, religions and spiritual practices are just more stories.

And it’s the path of insight (wisdom) that most of the rest of the book is about. The ways to insight that he describes are mainly around the contemplation of the impermanent, unsatisfactory and selfless nature of body, feelings, consciousness and dhammas (“phenomena”). But he covers a lot of ground, including all the stages of purification, and a lot of approaches, including elimination of the five “hindrances,” walking meditation, balanced effort and mindfulness of pain. Particularly helpful are the exercises and practical hints he provides for approaching each area of practice. For example, in the area of mindfulness of pain, he recommends sitting completely still for long enough that pains begin to appear. The issue with pain, he writes, “more than the unpleasant feeling itself is the fear of being overwhelmed by the experience” which leads to mental and physical tightening, intensifying the unpleasant experience. By softening and settling into the painful feeling, he suggests, we begin to see through our misperceptions about it. “We will then be able to … discover that there is no pain in the knee, back or other location as such. The place in which we feel the pain actually keeps shifting from moment to moment. Further, … between pulsations of pain, there is the absence of pain.”

The exercises, reflecting the Path of Purification itself, are carefully and progressively structured. Of course, when reading a book such as this, it’s always a temptation to skip the earlier and apparently less exciting stages. This is one reason why a book alone is not really enough without access to personal teaching or mentoring –- exactly as most books on meditation emphasize. However, any degree of penetration into the truths of the Dharma can have a revolutionary effect –- including what here appear to be preliminary exercises. If there is any area that is given slightly short shrift, it’s the place of positive emotions such as loving kindness in the path of insight, which Buddhaghosa does cover in some detail. But to deal with that adequately may have needed a much longer book. Overall, The Meditator’s Atlas is a helpful adjunct for those already practicing within a sangha (the general approach sits quite harmoniously with that taught in the Triratna Buddhist Community, in which I practice) and a good overview of the path for those new to meditation.

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The purity of no-self

Diamond Are we fundamentally sinful beings? Or fundamentally pure? Or somewhere in between those two extremes? Even within the body of Buddhist teachings there is a variety of ways of looking at human nature. Buddhist scholar and practitioner Justin Whitaker tries to bring some clarity to the murky area of purity.

The notion of purification can be a puzzling one for the modern Dharma practitioner. Am I impure? Is there something, somewhere deep inside me, that is bad or wrong and must be gotten rid of? Such questions ruffle my brow, yet it turns out that they point to one of Buddhism’s fundamental teachings. Like many Westerners practicing the Dharma today, I was born into a Christian society and attended church for much of my youth. Also, like many others, I felt uncomfortable with teachings of sin and guilt and rejected this aspect of my upbringing. In turn I looked to humanism and eventually Buddhism for what I took to be a more open and optimistic outlook. So when the Buddhist notion of purification is raised, I tend to put on my skeptic’s hat.

What does Buddhism have to say about purification? On the one hand is the anecdotal but telling story from a friend of mine who lives in Malta. The island was recently visited by a reputable Tibetan Lama giving teachings on Powa (‘pho ba, the Tibetan teaching on conscious dying). As the story goes, , during a question-and-answer period, one of the students asked the Lama, “is the goal of Buddhism that we purify ourselves, to become pure beings?” The Lama immediately and vehemently replied, “Nothing to purify! Already perfect pure!”

 …one often hears that we are enlightened already; all we need to do is realize it!  

Throughout Mahayana Buddhism, which encompasses Tibetan, Ch’an, Zen, Korean, Vietnamese, and influences most Western forms of Buddhism, there is this teaching of fundamental purity. Deep within us is an undefiled purity – as the Lama said, ultimately we are, “perfect pure!” The Sanskrit term for this deep purity is the Tathagatagarbha, the “womb of enlightenment.” Based primarily on this doctrine, one often hears that we are enlightened already; all we need to do is realize it!

On the other hand there are many teachings in Buddhism that suggest that the spiritual life is a path. This path leads away from our current greed, hatred, and delusion (a.k.a. samsara), and guides us towards calm, equanimity, joy, and swift responsiveness to the needs and sufferings of all beings (nibbana, nirvana). Foremost amongst these teachings is the Visuddhimagga, the Path of Purification.

This massive tome, written in the 5th century by the Theravadin monk Buddhaghosa, describes the path of virtue or morality, concentration, and wisdom. It suggests that these steps are sequential, first one perfects morality, then concentration, and finally wisdom. From this teaching we may surmise that there really are things within us that need purification. We are, as beginners, defiled by our wrong views, our lack of mindfulness, and our immoral deeds. So in a sense we are impure.

There seem to be two different teachings here: one saying that we are pure and just need to wake up to that, and the other saying that we are impure and need to follow the path laid forth by the Buddha to attain purity or our own awakening. Which is right?

 The absence of self is not merely an absence, but a connectedness, a fullness beyond description.  

Without going into too much metaphysical detail, I think we can see that both are correct. Deep down, all of Buddhism affirms our purity because all of Buddhism affirms the teaching of no-self. Sin is not at our core, but neither is some sort of pure being, or any thing that we just need to uncover. At the core is no-core. Very Zen, right?

Yet no-self is not a teaching of nihilistic self-denial or an abrogation of our responsibilities. One influential Mahayana text, the Avatamsaka (Flower Garland) Sutra, provides us with a useful image for understanding this, that of a celestial jeweled net. When we look closely into any jewel in the net, what we find is every other jewel reflected; likewise the more deeply we look within, the more deeply we see our fundamental interconnectedness with everything. The absence of self is not merely an absence, but a connectedness, a fullness beyond description.

But around the core which connects us to all beings is “us,” with all of our bad habits, mistaken ideas, and (most nefarious of all in Buddhism) our very concept of self. Asmi-mana is the Pali phrase, the “conceit I-am.” It refers not to the everyday usage of the words “I am.” The Buddha himself used these. It refers instead to the very deep psychological clinging to a separate identity, like trying to look at a jewel in that net without seeing the others. But that is the way we start out in this world and on the Buddhist path, feeling quite separate, as if our jewel were somehow so far away from the rest. The First and Second Noble Truths of Buddhism affirm the craving and suffering that follow from this feeling of separation.

The Third and Fourth Noble Truths, the “good news” of Buddhism, tell us that suffering can be overcome and provide a path for us to follow. Undertaking the practices of the path allows us to live the wisdom of no-self, to bring this realization into the flesh. Having the understanding of our already enlightened nature can serve as a great comfort and inspiration to begin and stay on the path. But it cannot substitute the steps of moral development, mindful cultivation, and learned inquiry that we find throughout the history of Buddhism in every school and sect.

So, according to Buddhism, we are pure. Impurity is an illusion, so too is the illusion of our separateness – in fact the two are intertwined. Waking up to our interconnectedness, looking within and seeing only infinite reflected jewels; this is goal of the Buddhist path. Yet how often can one simply do this? More often, when we look within we see only a tangled mass of thoughts, images, memories, hopes, and desires obscuring our pure nature. So we embark on the path, our journey through the tangled mass to the purity of no-self.

Justin WhitakerJustin Whitaker holds a Masters degree in Buddhist Studies from Bristol University, England and is currently a Ph.D. student in Buddhist Ethics at the University of London. He has practiced in several Buddhist traditions and is currently practicing with the Western Buddhist Order through the internet with his friend and teacher, Achintya, in Bristol, UK. He lives near Washington DC with his fiancée and (not so) secretly longs to return to his home state of Montana. His personal blog is americanbuddhist.blogspot.com.

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Søren Kierkegaard: “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”

Søren Kierkegaard

How do we find inner peace? How do we learn to overcome inner conflict? What is the guiding principle of our lives? Bodhipaksa takes a saying by the 19th century Danish theologian and philosopher, Kierkegaard, and looks at the Buddhist perspective on “willing one thing.”

“Purity of heart is to will one thing.”
– Søren Kierkegaard

This saying by Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish theologian and philosopher, suggests that a mind divided is a mind unable to be at peace with itself. When we desire contradictory ends there is no chance for the mind to find harmony; always there is inner strife, conflict, and confusion. When the mind pulls in two directions at once we inevitably suffer; we are forever restless, dissatisfied, and second-guessing ourselves.

To will one thing means to have a mind that is unified around an organizing principle that gives our lives meaning and purpose. I believe that we all attempt to find such an organizing principle. We choose one thing that is, for us, the most important thing in our lives. This focus determines our priorities so that we can make choices, aim at “willing one thing,” and thereby escape from inner conflict.

We may, for example, decide quite unconsciously that work is the most important thing in our lives. We tell ourselves that spending so much time in the office is actually a way of serving our family (we do it to give them a higher standard of living) but really we’re workaholics. And our families resent us and our work.

Or we may decide that the family is the focus of our lives and we end up railing against a teacher who has disciplined our child for having been disruptive or for harming others. We say we’re protecting the family while actually we’re harming them by failing to value ethical boundaries.

To will one thing means to have a mind that is unified around an organizing principle

And a more internal example would be when I know I’d be happier if I meditated, but I have the idea of living in ease and comfort as the focus of my life and I end up avoiding meditating because it will inevitably lead to me having to exercise discipline over myself, confronting my inner restlessness.

Kierkegaard offers a whole list of examples such as pleasure, honor, riches, and power, that appear to offer a focus for our lives so that we can “will one thing,” and yet cannot fulfill that role. These are false focuses, promising inner unity but unable to deliver.

So we need to have an appropriate focus, a true focus. For Kierkegaard the person who wills one thing is the person who is focused on the Good.

Any other focus but the Good is self-defeating. In all three of the examples I’ve given the focus chosen ends up being self-defeating. They are self-defeating because the focus is not something into which we can throw the whole of our will without creating further conflict. When, seeking a point of unity in our lives we choose our work or career as our focus we have to try to negate or trivialize other aspects of our lives — not just family, but health, friendship, and leisure: anything that may get in the way of our work ambitions. This leads to our having unfulfilled needs, and these lead to further conflict. In seeking harmony we have found strife. Similarly, when we choose family as the focus of our lives we have to forget that the members of our family have to coexist with others, and when we choose comfort we end up trying to ignore painful issues and real conflicts that have to be addressed.

But what is the Good? It must be something ultimately real and enduring. It cannot be something impermanent or transient. it has to be something all-embracing so that it’s not in opposition to other aspects of our life.

Kierkegaard tells us that the Good can’t be something external to us or we will inevitably come to resent it. “The path and the place are within each of us. And just as the place is the blessed state of the striving soul, so the path is the striving soul’s continual transformation.”

It’s by looking inside ourselves that we will find the Good — the focus that allows us to orient our lives so that we can find wholeness and escape the inevitable pain of “double-mindedness.”

Rather than bringing the Good into being we are revealing the Good which already exists and which always has existed

There are two ways, in Buddhist theory and practice, of seeing what the Good is. On the one hand we can see it as being our “skillful” (kusala) impulses: those thoughts and emotions that are based on love, compassion, and self-awareness. The task then is, in every decision we make, to look for the most skillful response we can muster and to act upon in as best we can. In doing so we strengthen our positive habits and weaken the negative. Thus the “striving soul” is engaged in “continual transformation” in pursuit of wholeness — the wholeness of a mind free from greed, hatred, and delusion. In this vision we are bringing the Good into being.

On the other hand we have a vision in Buddhist theory that the mind is essentially pure already: “Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements.” While in the first model “we” are a mixture of skillful and unskillful tendencies and our job is to get rid of the unskilful and bring skillful habits, emotions, and thoughts into being, in the second model “we” are inherently pure and luminous. The mind is like a jewel. But the jewel of the mind is covered over with “defilements” (unskillful habits, emotions, and thoughts). Our task is still to rid the mind of the unskilful, but rather than bringing the Good into being we are revealing the Good which already exists and which always has existed.

This pursuit of the Good involves a constant self-examination in the moment of choice. We examine our responses. Are we cultivating the positive or strengthening unskillful tendencies? Are we revealing the Good or obscuring it?

This pursuit of the Good gives us a way to put family, career, wealth, comfort, into a wider context. Family and work may still be of great importance, but more important still is that they are arenas in which we can cultivate or reveal the Good in ourselves and to encourage the cultivation or revealing of the Good in others. And in this way we do not set up family and work, or comfort and self-examination, or any other aspect of our lives, in opposition to each other and in opposition to what is most real in us. We learn to will one thing and in doing so develop true purity of heart.

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Original faces: Reflections on purification

Dante turns toward the heavenly light

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 (now the Triratna 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
me anywhere.

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.

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