The present article explores the form of meditation called contemplation of the impure (Skt aśubha-bhāvanā
; Ch. bújìng guān
不淨觀) and its meticulous description in a Chinese text produced in the early fifth century CE. It illustrates the problematic nature of the pure-impure polarity and suggests that, ultimately, “purity” refers to two different things. As a generic category, it can be understood as a mental construct resulting from the mind’s discursive functioning, which tends to be further complicated by cultural factors. The other avenue for interpreting “purity” is provided in this meditation manual, which describes how meditation on impurity leads to the direct perception of purity, and to the vision of a “pure land.” This stage is identified as a “sign” marking the completion of this contemplative practice. Examining the specific nature of this capstone event and some of its implications lies at the core of the research whose initial results are presented here. Although this particular Buddhist contemplation of the impure begins with mental images of decaying corpses, it culminates with the manifestation of a vision filling the practitioner with a sense of light and purity. This high point indicates when the practice has been successful, an event that coincides for practitioners with a time when they catch a glimpse of their true nature. The last section of this article further discusses the extent to which positing an intrinsically pure nature—one of the major innovations introduced by Buddhism in fifth-century China—could inform ethical views.
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