We shall not cease
And the end of all
Will be to arrive
where we started,
And know the place
for the first time.
Purifying the Mind - by Nonin Chowaney
This poem (gatha in Sanskrit) is one of many we recite throughout the day to focus our attention on important practice issues.
The bath gatha speaks of "purification," something we read and hear a lot about when we study Buddhism. Purification is important enough to be included in the three Pure Precepts, the most basic of Buddha's teaching: "Do no evil; do good; purify the mind."
When we recite the bath gatha, we vow "To purify body and mind/ Cleansing without and within." What does this mean?
"Cleansing without" is not hard to understand. We wash away dirt, grime, and stains from the body, purifying it, returning it to its original condition. It's a little more difficult, however, to understand "cleansing within."
Let's begin with the words, "defilement," "stain," and "impurity." These words have always given me difficulty when I study Buddhist texts because within the context of my upbringing, they had a moral tinge. They remind me of sin, bad behavior, something unclean, sexual, dirty. After I grew up and realized that sex was not dirty, the words "impurity" and "defilement" turned me off entirely because I was used to hearing them in this context.
But in Buddhism, these words have entirely different meanings. The Sanskrit word that translates as "defilement" is klesha. It refers to the many negative mental states or properties that cloud the mind and form the basis for unwholesome or negative actions. Craving, hate, and pride are three of them. To "purify" the mind is to uncloud it, to remove the klesas or defilements and return it to its original condition: unstained, pure. This is a constant process, and forms the basis of many meditative exercises in Theravadan Buddhism. In Zen practice, we take this a step further by letting go of whatever thoughts arise, unwholesome or wholesome, cultivating non-attachment. The purification process is one of letting go. We return the mind to its natural condition, which is thoughts coming, thoughts going, without suppression or clinging. This is the most common interpretation of "purifying the mind."
In its most important and deeper sense, however, "purify" means to rid ourselves of delusion, a synonym for ignorance (avidya in Sanskrit, sometimes translated as "non-knowledge," "non-clarity"). Ignorance is the root of human suffering. By ridding ourselves of ignorance (delusion), we "cleanse within" and return to our original state, enlightenment.
The most important delusion is self-delusion, the third of the three poisons (greed, aversion, and self-delusion). Self-delusion does not necessarily mean to delude yourself, although it can and does sometimes mean this. Its deeper meaning, however is, "to harbor delusions about the self."
To purify the mind, then, means to eliminate delusion, to move from ignorance to understanding, from delusion to awakening, which is actually our original condition, for like the "cleansing without" that is accomplished by washing away dirt and grime and returning the body to its original condition, "cleansing within" means returning to the original condition of mind, which is bright and clear, awake, clear about the true nature of self.
We don't want to assume, however, that there is anything to clean, that there is a fixed and permanent self to uncover. This delusion is clarified by the famous pair of poems written by the Sixth Zen Ancestor in China, Hui-neng, and the head monk at the Fifth Ancestor's monastery, Shen-hsiu. Shen-hsiu's verse reads:
Hui-neng's verse reads:
Shen-hsiu's verse implies that there is something to be cleaned. Hui-neng's verse cuts through this delusion. Realizing that our true nature is "no-self," no nature, is purifying the mind.
The best intellectual explanation of the true nature of self that I have found occurs in The Psychological Attitude of Early Buddhist Philosophy, by Lama Govinda. He talks about two fundamental tendencies in life: contraction (or centralization) and expansion. One means unification, the other, differentiation or growth. In Lama Govinda's words:
The centralizing force is our construction of the "self." We have to have this or we are too diffuse. Those with a weak sense of self or none at all are unable to function as healthy human beings. However, this "self" must be seen as it is, with no fixed or abiding core. We must be conscious of ourselves as individuals, but also conscious that we are not fixed and unchanging individuals. There is nothing that I can pull out of myself and say, "This is Nonin, or essence of Nonin; this is what makes me what I am." All we can really say about ourselves is that we are provisional beings; our existence depends on causes and conditions and is constantly changing from moment to moment. This is our karmic life.
Again, in Lama Govinda's words:
This mental disharmony is called `avidya,' ignorance, or `Self'-delusion. Under its influence everything will be valued from the egocentric standpoint of desire.
As soon as we create an absolute "I," or permanent ego, and begin to act from this place, we are acting out of ignorance. From this ignorance, desire (or greed) and aversion arise. To "purify the mind" means to overcome ignorance (self-delusion) and eliminate the hold that desire and aversion have on us; then, we can live in accord with things as they are and alleviate the suffering and dissatisfaction that arise when, out of ignorance, we divide the world into fixed, individual, and separate entities, which does not fit with the fluid and indefinable nature of reality.
In a famous passage from Genjo Koan, Zen Master Dogen says:
In other words, we have to know who we are; this is our "mission" as Zen practitioners. Knowing who we are cuts through delusion, and we realize that there are no barriers between self and others. If we don't cut through this delusion, we remain alienated from our fellow humans and all other beings because we see them as apart from ourselves; we dis-integrate ourselves through our own ignorance, blind ourselves to the true nature of reality, and cannot see that everything is interconnected and interpenetrated.
Then, we live to gratify the ego, for "what's in it for me." We want what we want when we want it and shy away from everything that doesn't please us. We become self-centered and selfish, thinking that what is most important is "what's best for me." It is impossible to live in peace and harmony with these attitudes, so we create great suffering for ourselves and for others.
We begin to abuse our environment, for the earth becomes something to use for our own benefit, no matter what the consequences, and we can do this because we have separated ourselves in the mind; we don't see how deeply connected we are. We can pollute our streams and rivers because we don't see them as part of ourselves and don't realize that by poisoning them we are poisoning ourselves.
We accumulate material goods for our personal comfort and don't realize that by selfishly taking for ourselves, we take from others and poison our social climate by creating problems that eventually come back to haunt us because there is, in reality, no gap between ourselves and all beings. Another's difficulty is our difficulty and finally comes back to cause us discomfort and pain.
In our personal relationships, we do not see that we are each other. Once we create a separate and fixed self, the next step is to put ourselves above others. We begin to see and use each other for what we can get, for our own ego-gratification, and we poison our relationships with others through our own delusion.
In intimate relationships, we see a loved one as something we can get, hold, and keep. We want them to remain fixed and unchanging, and to satisfy what we want, not allowing them to grow and live. And when they leave, which eventually happens, either through separation or death, we suffer greatly.
All of this stems from ignorance of what we are and what our relationship with all beings is. As Lama Govinda says, "The inner balance is destroyed and reality appears in a distorted form." And then we suffer, because we do not accord with life as it is. To "purify the mind" means to rid ourselves of delusion, to know on a deep level who we are, and to balance ourselves, so we can live in peace and harmony with all beings. This is Buddha's way.