Showing posts with label Purity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Purity. Show all posts

11 September 2009

How to spot an Arahant

A group of Indian AsceticsOne time when the Buddha was living in Sāvatthī, not as he frequently did in the Jeta Grove, but in the garden of Migāra's mother, King Pasenadi played a little trick on him. [1] As they were sitting together a band of wanders walked past - there were seven Jains, and seven Ājivakas, and Seven naked ascetics, and various other types of wanderers. The King asked the Buddha if he thought any of these worthy men was an arahant - if they were awakened or enlightened. Being used to idealised representations of arahants with halos and beatific smiles we might be forgiven for thinking that it must be easy to see who is an arahant and who is not. But the Buddha is quite wary of giving his opinion, and says:
Saṃvāsena kho, mahārāja, sīlaṃ veditabbaṃ. Tañca kho dīghena addhunā na ittarena, manasikarotā no amanasikarotā, paññavatā no duppaññena. Saṃvohārena kho, mahārāja, soceyyaṃ veditabbaṃ. Tañca kho dīghena addhunā na ittaraṃ, manasikarotā no amanasikarotā, paññavatā no duppaññena. Āpadāsu kho, mahārāja, thāmo veditabbo. So ca kho dīghena addhunā na ittaraṃ, manasikarotā no amanasikarotā, paññavatā no duppaññena. Sākacchāya kho, mahārāja, paññā veditabbā. Sā ca kho dīghena addhunā na ittaraṃ, manasikarotā no amanasikarotā, paññavatā no duppaññenāti .

Intimacy is needed to know virtue, O Mahārāja. And for a long stretch, not a brief one; by paying attention not thoughtlessly; with intelligence not ignorance. Association is required to know purity... In adversity is commitment witnessed... In discussion is wisdom assessed. And for a long stretch, not a brief one; by paying attention not thoughtlessly; with intelligence not ignorance.
At this point in the sutta the King confesses that in fact these men are his spies - sent out undercover to provide information on nearby Kingdoms. Once they have cleaned themselves up he is going to debrief them and see what his enemies are up to. Apart from the insight into ancient statecraft the text provides us with some useful criteria for assessing spiritual maturity in ourself and other people. These might be useful in thinking about selecting a teacher or preceptor for instance, or trying to decide whether to ask someone's advice or not. At the very least they are reminders that it is difficult to know someone's spiritual maturity without knowing them quite well.

The first thing to notice that each test is to be applied only over the long term - over a long stretch of time (dīghena addhunā) as the text says. These things can't be rushed. We have to know someone a long time before we really know them. First impressions can be deceptive. Sometimes we need to see a person under different circumstances in order to get a fuller picture of them. The text suggests several criteria: virtue, purity, (what I've called) commitment, and wisdom.

'Virtue' here translates sīla. Other words for this might be ethics, or morality. I think we can take virtue to mean behaviour of body and speech generally, as the next term, purity, seems to focus on the mental side of things. So here we're looking at ethics as behaviour. And the text says that we need intimacy (saṃvāsa) in order to be clear about this. We need especially to see how a person behaves in private, in moments when they do not feel themselves to be under scrutiny. One of my teachers used to like playing volleyball with men who'd asked him to ordain them. He found that on the volleyball court they lost their self-consciousness and he saw a side of them that he might not see if they were being more guarded. Often we are concerned to be seen to be ethical, and so we are very guarded when we think we are being watched, and we enjoy letting out hair down when the authority figure (whoever they might be) is not watching. But this is not the right spirit at all. We are responsible primarily to ourselves for our own behaviour. So we know someone's true virtue, their real practice of ethics, only when we see them in private.

Then, secondly, we can only know the purity (soceyya) of a person by close association (saṃvohāra). These two words saṃvohāra and saṃvāsa are more or less synonymous. I take purity here to mean the mental aspects of virtue. Someone might behave virtuously, but be in mental turmoil over it. Sometimes we can keep up appearances for a long time, but eventually our state of mind - the extent of our craving and aversion - become apparent. Soceyya is an abstract noun which comes from a root √śuc which means 'to shine, flame, gleam, glow, burn'. The other common term for purity is suddha from √śudh 'to be cleared, or cleansed, or purified, to become pure'. The concern for purity and for a return to purity is a major pre-occupation in Indian religions generally. [2] The Buddha retained the words, but gave them an ethical significance they didn't otherwise have. Purity in Buddhism is purity of intention - pure intentions are free from craving, aversion and confusion; impure are the opposite. This is the distinctive characteristic of Buddhist morality. So purity could be seen as the extent to which our motivations match our values. This makes it difficult to assess in others, let alone ourselves. As the text says: we have to pay attention (manasikarotā), which might also be translated as 'take to heart'.

Thirdly and quite importantly it's not until we see a person in adversity (āpadāsu) that we see how 'committed' (thāmo) they really are. The word thāmo comes from the root √sthā which means 'to stand or remain'. Thāmo is the ability to stand - steadfastness, the ability to resist the worldly winds, that is the extent to which our commitment finds expression in reality. It is one thing to say that the Buddha is our refuge, but on what do we stand when the chips are down? Where do we turn for a refuge? So it is necessary to see a person coping with adversity to really know whether or not they have the three jewels as their refuge, or whether they resort to other refuges. We all know about things like comfort eating, or 'needing' a cup of tea or a beer, or finding solace in sex. These are false refuges. They temporarily provide us with pleasure and reinforce the happiness = pleasure delusion. The true refuge is not to be found in objects of the senses, or in the sensual realm. Not in ideas or ideologies either. It is found in awareness. A little note here that I was mainly concerned to avoid repetition in translating veditabbo here as 'witness' in this case, but in fact both derive from the same Proto-Indo-European root √*wid (Sanskrit: √vid; English: wit) meaning 'to see' and therefore abstractly 'to know'.

Lastly the text tells us that a person's wisdom (paññā) is discovered only through discussion (sākacchāya). It's often said, too often perhaps, that enlightenment is ineffable. It is ineffable but only, in my opinion, in the way that all experience is ineffable. No experience can be conveyed in words, there is no substitute for experience. And yet we can describe what it is like to have had an experience and what we feel about it now. Ideas and emotions can be communicated. Attitudes can be conveyed. Note that this criteria doesn't stand alone from the others, it's not that talking things over in isolation is enough, but clearly a person's wisdom should be discernible in how they talk and what they talk about. If, to cite a common example, a person pretending to wisdom preaches compassion but is sarcastic and sardonic, then there is a mismatch.

Above all what we are looking for in ourselves and other people is authenticity and congruity. We want our actions to flow from our values, for words and actions to add up. We want words and tone of voice and body language to be congruent. Even if we're not conscious of it, we are all able to detect such things. When this knowledge comes unconsciously we may express it vaguely - e.g. we might say that we have a good/bad 'feeling' about someone. In order to clarify our 'feeling' and/or to know how deep it goes we need to be in intimate association with the person, we need to hear a consistent message in their words, and see that words and actions match. We can always get a reality check on our own progress by comparing our behaviour with the ideal. Sometimes it is sobering when we realise how far we have to go; sometimes encouraging when we realise how far we have come. In applying these kinds of criteria we can be less naive about our relationships with other spiritual practitioners, especially if they are more experienced than us. We need not, and should not, jump to conclusions (positive or negative), or rely purely on reputation for instance.

  1. Sattajaṭila sutta, Udāna 6.2 (PTS Ud 64-66). Pāli text from My translation. The sutta is also found with a different verse attached in the Saṃyutta Nikāya 3.11 (PTS S i.77 ff) translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Connected Discourses of the Buddha p.173-4.
  2. Purity is an important theme in my article "Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?" in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics vol 15 2008.

image: ascetics from Indian Routes.

02 January 2009

The Body in Buddhism

The body in buddhism
While on my ordination retreat we studied the Bodhicāryāvatara by Śantideva. This is a core text for the Western Buddhist Order, and also a favourite of the Dalai Lama. It is a Mahāyāna work from probably the 8th century, written according to legend at the great monastery at Nalanda. The theme is the path or conduct (carya) of the bodhisattva and the text is structured around the six perfections. The text is celebrated for the anuttara pūja incorporated into the first few chapters which contains beautiful and elaborate evocations and offerings, but also for the relentless deconstructive arguments of Śantideva. In many ways it is the epitome of late Indian Mahāyāna.

At the same time as studying the Bodhicāryāvatara we were reciting verses from it in our evening puja, and during those pujas we had readings from the text as translated by Andrew Skilton (aka Dharmacari Sthiramati) and Kate Crosby. The readings were very evocative. However at one point I was struck by a series of images which seemed quite out of place. In the chapter on Meditation we find a number of references to the body, and particularly to the bodies of women (the audience for the text having been monastic men). It goes on at some length, and the translators assure us that the language is quite as coarse as they portray it in the translation. Let me quote you a few passages to give an idea:
50. Taking no pleasure from silky pillows stuffed with cotton because they do not ooze a dreadful stench, those in love are entranced by filth.

52. If you have no passion for what is foul, why do you embrace another, a cage of bones bound by sinew, smeared with slime and flesh

53. You have plenty of filth of your own. Satisfy yourself with that! Glutton for crap! Forget her that pouch of filth!

59. If you have no passion for what is foul, why do you embrace another, born in a field of filth, seeded by filth, nourished by filth?

60. Is it that you do not like a dirty worm because it's only tiny? It must be that you desire a body likewise born in filth, because it is formed from such a large amount.

61 Not only are you disgusted at your own foulness, you glutton for crap, you yearn for other vats of filth!

(pages 92-93 of Skilton and Crosby)
Hearing these words I found myself reeling. My first reaction was that this kind of sentiment did not belong in our puja, that this kind of language did not belong in our devotions; that in fact this was not the kind of Buddhism I signed up for. Several years have done nothing to change this opinion. In fact I have become more clear that hatred of this type, hatred towards the body, has nothing to do with the Buddhism I practice.

Sue Hamilton follows the development of Buddhist attitudes to the body in his book Identity and Experience. The Constitution of the Human Being According to Early Buddhism. She shows that the earliest texts were in fact quite neutral towards the body. The attitude was analytical - one examined the experience of being embodied dispassionately to see that this was a conditioned experience like any other. There is none of the harping on impurity that we find later. Hamilton associates the subject of purity with Buddhaghosa, but I don't think the great commentator could have been an influence on Śantideva. It had to have been a more general movement.

I have already written about my concerns over ritual purity manifesting as superstition in Buddhism. Where these ideas operate in Buddhism I think we have to see them as having infiltrated from surrounding Hindu culture. In a paper I've had accepted for publication in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics I argue that the Buddha rejects notions of ritual purity and substitutes instead the idea of ethical purity. Concern with ritual purity was quite general during the Buddha's time with Brahmins and Jains finding it a concern. Everyone has technical terms indicating a 'return to purity' for instance - pratikramana, paṭikaroti etc. It is therefore possible to see Buddhism as a path of purity (visuddhimagga) but only in the ethical sense. Brahminical purity was intrinsic to people by birth, and to actions and substances by their nature. Ethical purity on the other hand depends largely on intention (cetana) - the motivation behind actions of body, speech, and mind are what make an action pure or impure. However it would be unusual to find this particular distinction - the usual one would be kusala/akusala i.e. competent/incompetent.

So there is no justification for seeing the body or it's substances as intrinsically impure or foul. Śantideva describes the body as for instance a "pouch of filth", or as "born in a field of filth, seeded by filth, nourished by filth". The fact is that the religion in which human bodily fluids (including here even mother's milk! ) are seen as polluting is Hinduism. I think the contrast here between western attitudes and caste Hindu Indian attitudes is made very stark by the reference to milk. In Indian the milk of the cow, even bovine shit and piss, are seen by caste Hindus as intrinsically pure and holy, whereas the milk of a woman is foul. If there was ever a traditional idea that we needed to reject this is it. Shit is a disease vector and we rightly avoid handling it, but mother's milk? We see mother's milk as a highly beneficial substance because it bestows health and vitality on the infant. There is no better nutriment for a human infant than its own mother's milk. Mother's milk is a symbol of virtue and vitality in the West. The full breasts of a lactating woman are ancient symbols for fertility and prosperity in our culture.

So on the retreat I took a little stand and made my point to everyone there. I don't think I argued the case well back then, it was a heartfelt reaction rather than a thought out position. I'm hoping that this more thought out essay will make the point more effectively. It's important in the WBO because we have a large number of people from backgrounds in Indian which are these days called Dalit (perhaps a third of our order). I can understand why they want to distance themselves from the former label applied to them and their peers. Fifty years ago they would have been called untouchable because caste Hindu considered their mere touch to be ritually pollutting. People were untouchable on the whole because of the family/community they were born into. Widows also became untouchable on the death of their husbands as is poignantly portrayed in the film Water by Deepa Mehta.

The practice of untouchability was outlawed when India became independent largely due to the efforts of the great leader Dr B R Ambedkar, although it has not disappeared from India where Dalits are regularly persecuted and sometimes killed. Dr Ambedkar along with hundreds of thousands of his followers became Buddhists, and these people make up the bulk of the Indian wing of the WBO (although I think the WBO is quite a small part of the greater Ambedkarite movement). As such I think we contemporary Buddhists, especially we FWBO Buddhists, have a special duty to identify and root out ancient prejudices, and especially any notions of ritual impurity.

A person and their body is as only pure or impure as their actions, they cannot be born impure, nor be made impure by contact with supposedly impure substances. There is no reason for describing the body as impure: it runs counter not only to the spirit of Buddhism, but to the politics of fighting oppression in India. I hope that this essay generates some interest and discussion amongst my colleagues.


Further reading:

26 January 2008

Ritual Purity or Rank Superstition?

Many Indian ideas about ritual purity, especially with respect to the body, have made their way into contemporary Buddhism. I want to look at a few examples of this. An examination of the origins of these ideas in Brahminical thought may be cause to re-assess the relevance in contemporary Buddhism.

A couple of years ago I was showing a friend of a friend (a follower of Tibetan Buddhism) some of my thangka paintings. One of these hung at the foot of my bed so I could see it first/last thing. "You don't sleep with your feet pointed at that do you?" - there was a note of shock in the question. "It's very bad karma" she said. I pondered this for some time before coming to any understanding of it. I knew already that Buddhists were not supposed to point their feet at shrines. But why? Because in India the feet are considered ritual impure. But again why? The feet are ritually impure partly because they are in contact with the earth, and the dirt and shit that cover it. But again why the ritual impurity? I think it goes back to the famous Purisa hymn in the Rig Veda. In this cosmogonic myth the four social groups - Brahmins, Ksatreyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras - are born from the various parts of Brahma's body. It later versions it is Prajapati's body. The Shudras, serfs, are born from Brahma's feet. The Shudras are not the lowest rung on the Hindu scale, but they are the lowest rung of the people who are not considered outcasts or untouchable. Shudras are not permitted to enter temples, nor to hear the sacred mantras. This is so much a part of Indian culture - one touches the feat of a respected elder in greeting for instance - that even the new Buddhists honour it though they are frequently from backgrounds which high caste Hindus consider beyond the pale, so ritually polluting that their touch requires elaborate purification rituals involving ironically cow shit and piss. When in 1923 Dr Ambedkar drank from a tank in a Brahmin village, they tipped a load of cow shit into it to "purify" it!

But feet are not ritually polluting in Western cultures. Although foot odour is universally considered uncool at best, it is the odour not the foot itself that offends. The foot is by contrast sometimes even an object of desire in the west! Where I come from it is de-rigour, and completely natural, to go about in bare feet in summer. So why am I adopting this Brahminical value into my practice of Buddhism, which if anything denies the validity of notions of ritual purity?

Right shoulder to stupa
In the centre of the warehouse I worked in two years ago is a 7m high stupa which is both beautiful and impressive. Buddhists traditionally keep a stupa, or any revered object or person, to their right-hand side. Some people who work in the warehouse go to elaborate lengths to go around the stupa clockwise, to keep right shoulder to the stupa. Some go about it quietly, while others are (at times) vocally critical of people who dare to go anti-clockwise, showing their left-side to the stupa. But why I asked? What is the point? Because, I was told, it is traditional. I am not superstition person and I found this puzzling. Again I think this goes back to Brahminical ideas of ritual purity. Even today in India the left hand is impure because it is used for cleaning the anus after taking a dump. The Indians use water and not toilet paper for this. So the left hand is unclean, often quite literally, and one eats with the right. Hence if you revere someone you keep your left hand away from them. Additionally the outcastes were required to dress with their left shoulder uncovered, while the higher castes uncovered their right shoulder - this uncovering the right shoulder is a constant, if entirely incidental, theme of the Pali Canon.

Now I'm right handed and I wipe my arse with my right hand. So by the logic of ancient India my right side is impure and I should either go clockwise around the stupa, but walk backwards; or go the other way. But after I wipe my bum I wash my hands and consider them clean at that point. No literal or ritual pollution! My own belief that it is the quality of awareness of the significance of the stupa which is important - and I can go any way around the thing if I have the right attitude.

Tantra and ritual impurity.
My other example emerges out of the antinomian practices of the Tantra. Antinomian means "released from moral obligations". It originates in a Christian context, but with reference to Indian religion it relates to actions which are ritually impure. So the tantric yogin chooses a consort from the untouchable castes, frequents a cremations ground and messes about with bones and skulls, and consumes meat, alcohol and sexual fluids. These are some of the most polluting things a caste Hindu could do. The point is that the Buddha does not make distinctions like pure/impure . So the yogin experiences these intensely polluting activities with a view to maintaining their equanimity in the face of very strong provocation, to overcome their cultural conditioning around the notion of pollution. For the first time there is a sense of cross-over with western culture. We too have taboos around death that mean human remains are disposed of very purposefully, and according to laws and special customs. However contact with death is not ritually polluting as it is for the Brahmin - it does not require lengthy ritual cleansing for instance. Meat eating, drinking liquour, and even the odd mouthful of sexual fluid, are not particularly taboo in western society. Having sex with a low class person might be seen as tacky in some circles, but again not ritually polluting in a way that requires ritual cleansing.

So it would seem that adopting Indian antinomian practices which are entirely "nomian" (if there is such a word) in the west is a bit pointless. And yet the shrines of Westerners, and Westerners themselves, are adorned with skulls, and bones, and other reminders of death - although I think the significance is lost on most people who simply see them as reminders of impermanence. We make a big deal about the "left handed" tantra, which once again invokes the Indian left-hand-bum-wiping thing and involves acting out polluting actions, and contrast it with right-handed tantra in which one only imagines doing the dirty thing. But to us those things aren't dirty, we aren't ritually polluted by them. Some things we may find unethical, and in that case we may feel remorse if we eat meat or drink liquor, it is not the same thing as ritual pollution.

I doubt that traditional Buddhists reading this are going to want to change the tradition. Some of these things go very deep - are embedded in our canons of scripture for instance. But the Buddha was quite critical of superstition (mangalikā) and we can read for instance the Mangala Sutta as a critique of superstition and a call to just practice the Dharma - i.e. to make yourself pure by good behaviour, not through rituals; have good fortune (also mangala) through reaping the benefits of good behaviour, not through omens, divination, or other superstitions and/or rituals. Let us not turn back the clock on the age of reason in adopting this ancient religion, let us investigate the origins of superstitions and decide whether they are still relevant, and move on if they are not.


26 November 2005

Don't mention the 'H' word!

There is no such thing as Hinayana. It is a slander made up by so called Great Wayists who were busy assimilating Hinduism in order to suck up to their high caste patrons whose money they couldn't do without, and who are ultimately responsible for the disappearance of Buddhism from India. Where do they get off being so arrogant?! The Brahmins had a far more sophisticated approach to religion, and a much better understanding of what religion does for people, and you'll notice that successive waves of Muslim iconoclasts, not to mention Muslim rulers did not wipe them out! The Mahayana sold itself out, and we would know nothing at all about it if the Chinese and Tibetans hadn't kept careful records.

One thing that has been becoming abundantly clear about Buddhists is that we are deluded as to the origins of our traditions. Apart from the idea of dependent-origination which is incredibly important, everything else was taken bodily from existing models of practice. They mainly drew on the Shramana tradition which had turned away from the Vedic tradition only a few hundred years before Gotama did his thing under the Bodhi tree, although you could argue that they had simply re-emphasized some of the original aspects of it - the quest for inspiration and insight was fundamental to early Vedic religion! What the Mahayana did which was interesting was to go back to the source and start incorporating Vedic ideas directly, assimilating Vedic and tribal gods where earlier Buddhists had tried to head off that kind of syncretism. Buddhist practice is essentially Vedic in origin,although the best of it is interpreted in terms of dependent-origination, I wonder at times whether this idea were not incipient in the Vedic world view in any case. It wouldn't surprise me. So all this talk of Hinayana/Mahayana is kind of meaningless. Mind you I've had some very unproductive arguments about this question with some Gelugpas!

The word hina is not a very nice one in Sanskrit. It was very frequently used to describe outcasts and people of low status. A contemporary translation might be "Nigger's Way" - I think it would have been that shocking to the people of ancient India. The assumption, as far as I can tell from the kinds of terms it's used in, is that the hina-people were not lesser in the ordinary sense (for which one might use the Pali word cula - there are frequently cula and maha versions of Pali suttas. ) but actually the untouchables and other people beneath contempt. It goes back to late Brahminical ideas of ritual pollution- the touch of these people is polluting! These are the hina-people. I suspect that it resulted from a Brahmin infiltration of the Buddhist monasteries. During India's golden age, the Gupta period,the rulers were all followers of the Brahminical religion! At the same time they started incorporating Vedic style mantras into their texts, but completely out of context. They also included worship of deities like Saraswati and Sri (see the Golden Light Sutra) in their texts without much if any conversion.

See also my update on this essay: Hīnayāna Reprise. 05 March 2010.