Advanced Contemplation of the Impure: Reflections on a Capstone Event in the Meditation Sutra
If one considers [the body] as pure even a little, one’s mind develops attachment. If one mostly thinks of the impurity [of the body], one’s mind develops aversion. Because one goes beyond the characteristics of elements, the true Dharma emerges. In the reality of ‘all’ elements, there is no purity or impurity, nor is there enclosure or exit.7
2. Different Strains of Purity and Attempts to Look Beyond the Sectarian Horizon
3. Comparative Premises
3.1. Early Western Scholarship Discussing People without History
The victim immolated in expiatory sacrifices is charged with impurities, for they have concentrated upon it the sins which were to be expiated. Yet, after it has been slaughtered, its flesh and blood are employed for the most pious uses. […] So the pure and the impure are not two separate classes, but two varieties of the same class, which includes all sacred things. There are two sorts of sacredness, the propitious and the unpropitious […].(Durkheim 1915, emphasis added)
3.2. Mary Douglas and Her Innovative Take
If the proposed interpretation of the forbidden animals is correct, the dietary laws would have been like signs which at every turn inspired meditation on the oneness, purity and completeness of God.
If penguins lived in the Near East I would expect them to be ruled unclean as wingless birds. If the list of unclean birds could be retranslated from this point of view, it might well turn out that they are anomalous because they swim and dive as well as they fly, or in some other way they are not fully bird-like.
So long as identity is absent, rubbish is not dangerous. […] Even the bones of buried kings rouse little awe and the thought that the air is full of the dust of corpses of bygone races has no power to move. Where there is no differentiation there is no defilement.
4. Purity and Purification in the Indic Context
- śuci, aśuci, and śauca, which often refer to cleanliness of the body or of one’s environment but can also mean honesty and dishonesty.
- śuddhi, śuddha, and viśuddhi—all convey a similar nuance related to purity, albeit with more emphasis on purification. To those familiar with Buddhist sources, the Pāli equivalent visuddhi evokes the masterpiece of the Theravāda scholar Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga, translated as The Path of Purification.11
- śubha and aśubha tend to deal with the flow of time and life, with śubha indicating something that redirects this flow in fertile and prosperous directions. It is also translated as auspiciousness.12 The Buddhist interpretation of aśubha gave a different twist to this term, with the Chinese translation emphasizing the “impure” nuances and sometimes evoking something “horrible” or “repulsive,” often rendered as “foulness”.13
The socialising aspect of these rules also explains another aspect of purity/impurity: the ultimate aim of these rules is not to make people remain constantly pure, which is in principle impossible. Their aim, I believe, is to make people intent on recovering purity. Hence most of the terms used for purity, especially śuddhi and śuci, as we have seen, mean not being pure but the act of becoming pure. It is purification not purity that is at the heart of the system.(Olivelle 1998, p. 214. Emphasis in the original article.)
5. Some Philosophical Implications
5.1. In the Teachings of Vimalakīrti
- (1. Thurman)
- Reverend Upāli, passions consist of conceptualizations.
- The ultimate nonexistence of these conceptualizations and imaginary fabrications—that is the purity that is the intrinsic nature of the mind. (Thurman 31, emphasis added)
- (2. Watson)
- Ah, Upali, deluded thoughts are defilement.
- Where there are no deluded thoughts, that is purity. (Watson 47)
- (1. Thurman)
- Misapprehensions are passions. The ultimate absence of misapprehensions is the intrinsic nature of the mind. (Thurman 31)16
- (2. Watson)
- Topsy-turvy thinking is defilement. Where there is no topsy-turvy thinking, that is purity. (Watson 47)
In the same way I [can] see that also all sentient beings have for a long time been constantly overpowered by defilements, [but] knowing that their defilements [are only] accidental (āgantuka), [I] teach the Dharma with [appropriate] means in order to purify [their] intrinsic nature (prakṛti).20
5.2. In the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra
6. Why the Meditation Sutra?
6.1. Need to Analyze Chan before Chan
6.2. Regarding This Text’s Compiler
6.3. Alternative Titles
7. On the Contemplation of the Impure
- Cultivation of contemplating the constituents (dhātu) (Xiūxíng guānjiè dì shísān 修行觀界第十三);
- Cultivation of the samādhi of the four immeasurables (apramāṇa) (Xiūxíng sìwúliàng sānmèi dì shísì 修行四無量三昧第十四);41
- Cultivation of contemplating the aggregates (skandha) (Xiūxíng guānyīn dì shíwǔ 修行觀陰第十五);
- Cultivation of contemplating the sense-data (āyatana) (Xiūxíng guānrù dì shíliù 修行觀入第十六);
- Cultivation of contemplating the twelve links of dependent origination (pratītya-samutpāda) (Xiūxíng guān shí’èr yīnyuán dì shíqī 修行觀十二因緣第十七).
7.1. How Does One Meditate on Impurity?
7.2. Stage A
So far, I explained the breath counting meditation (ānánniàn 安般念) within [the limits of] my ability (wǒ lì suǒnéng 我力所能). [To] practice the contemplation of the impure, [let us] successively analyze (fēnbié 分別) the preliminary path of effort [focusing on] the contemplation of the impure, [and how] the mental focus (sīwéiniàn 思惟念) falls back (tuìjiǎn 退減). Gaining insight (míngzhì 明智) into the marks to be known (suǒzhī xiàng 所知相) is what I am about to explain.46
7.3. Stage B
[As] the ideation of the bones (gǔxiǎng 骨想) gains a solid appearance (jiān xiàng 堅相), its quality [becomes] compact and seamless. [Yet if practitioners] do not proceed in sequence and practice the [other] various perceptions (zhòng xiǎng 眾想) [of impurity], abstain from seeking to progress forward, or [if their] mind does not turn away [from the objects of loathing], [they will] be unable to [acquire] mastery (juédìng 決定) [in this practice] either. Although [practitioners may] have completed [this form of] cultivation, [in that case] the wonderful path of impurity cannot produce advanced ideations (shèng xiǎng 勝想), [which would] make their bodies limber (róuruǎn 柔軟).48 Without a limber body (róuruǎn shēn 柔軟身), awareness of the outflows (liú jué 流覺)49 does not arise. The inability to generate awareness of the outflows constitutes what is called lingering in cultivation (xiūxíng zhù 修行住).(T 15 no. 618, 315b15–315b21)
7.4. Stage C
In connection with the body (yú shēn 於身),51 [one] produces (qǐ 起) the ideation of purity (jìng xiǎng 淨想), and the contemplation of the impure [serves as] the antidote (duìzhì 對治).52 Without striving toward [it] (bùqiú 不求), [this practice] brings to a halt (zhǐ 止) the longing of desire (tānyù 貪欲), [through] reflection (sīwéi 思惟) and training (xí 習) in disillusionment (yànhuàn 厭患). In addition, there is the antidote of purity (duìzhì 淨對治), [practiced] without carrying out (búzuò 不作) the ideation of disillusionment (yànhuàn xiǎng 厭患想).
[These constitute] the preliminary (fāngbiàn方便) [methods] for pure liberation (jìng jiětuō 淨解脫),53 [allowing] intelligent individuals (zhìzhě 智者) to open the eye of insight (huìyǎn 慧眼). Namely, as [practitioners are] connected (yuán 緣) to the impure, white bones (báigǔ 白骨) radiate an outflow of light (liúguāng chū 流光出).54 From there emerge in succession trees of bluish-green color (qīngsè 青色) [adorned] with marvelous jewels (miàobǎo 妙寶), in yellow, red, or in immaculate white (xiānbái 鮮白). [Their] branches and leaves, [and their] flowers (zhī yè huā 枝葉花) are also similarly covered (shàngfú 上服) with pearl and jade necklaces (zhū yīngluò 珠瓔珞) of various fine and marvelous colors (wéimiào sè 微妙色). This constitutes what is called cultivation [having reached] the mark (xiàng 相) of pure liberation (jìng jiě 淨解)55 [through the] preliminary (fāngbiàn方便) [methods].Here and there adornments (zhuāngyán 莊嚴) appear on that impure body and, after [a progression in] incremental stages (jiējí 階級), samādhi sets alight (rán 然) the lamp of insight (huìdēng 慧燈). [It] radiates (chū 出) from that single body (bǐ yīshēn 彼一身), [and spreads] high and wide (gāoguǎng 高廣), reaching everywhere (pǔ zhōubiàn 普周遍). All the remaining bodies (yīqiè yúshēn 一切餘身)56 produce similar adornments. This constitutes the pure liberation (jìng jiětuō 淨解脫) [accomplished through] the preliminary (fāngbiàn方便) contemplation of the impure.57
8. A Capstone Event
The white bones [of a skeleton] (báigǔ 白骨) having decayed (xiǔ 朽) for a long time (jiǔgù 久故) show (xiàn 現) the marks (xiàng 相) of being scattered, rotten, and falling apart (shū jí léi 踈瘠羸).58 [They] break into small pieces (pòsuì 破碎) as if they were fine dust (chénméi 塵塺). Everything without exception gets wiped out (mómiè 磨滅) from that point (cóngxià 從下), [and it] arises (qǐ 起) in succession (cìdì 次第). [Using] preliminary efforts (fāngbiàn 方便) [practitioners] destroy (huài 壞) the foundations (suǒyī 所依) [of wrong views]: This [constitutes] what is meant by pure insight (jìnghuì 淨慧), the sign of mastery (juédìng xiàng 決定相) in [their] practice.59
All (yíqiè 一切) [such] immeasurable (wúliàng 無量) and profound (shēnmiào 深妙) types (zhǒng 種) [of signs] reach everywhere (pǔ zhōubiàn 普周遍). The emergence (shēng 生) of mastery’s true form (juédìng zhēnshí 決定真實) resembles a golden-winged garuḍa (jīnchìniǎo 金翅鳥). Next arises a pure land (qīngjìngdì 淸淨地), level (píngtǎn 平坦) and magnificently adorned (jí zhuāngyán 極莊嚴).60
9. From Purity to Pure Land
9.1. Impurity Morphs into Purity
At the same time, both traditions agree in stating that the aśubhā itself (even without the counteraction of the śubhā meditation), at its final stage of accomplishment, actually results in a positive state of ease, joy and calm. [...] Light is visualized to emanate from the white bones, pervading everywhere, and with it is the manifestation of a host of signs of beauty, purity and adornment.
9.2. Purity Manifesting as a Pure Land
10. Possible Ethical Implications
Hence, different ethnicities (yìzú 異族) [share] the same breath (tóngqì 同氣), [although] illusory forms (huàn xíng 幻形) produce distance (gào shū 告疎).75
11. Concluding Remarks
Conflicts of Interest
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Buddhism was introduced into areas corresponding to modern day China around the first century of the Common Era, with Zürcher providing the date 65 CE for “the first unquestionable sign of Buddhism in China.” (Zürcher 1991, p. 282).
T. 15 no. 614, 281c05, (Yamabe and Sueki 2009, p. 65).
In the Chūsānzàng jìjí 出三藏記集 (Catalog of Works Included in the Tripiṭaka) T. 55 no. 2145, 11c14.
T. 15 no. 614, 271c12, (Yamabe and Sueki 2009, p. 11).
T. 15 no. 614, 281c27–281c29, (Yamabe and Sueki 2009, p. 66).
T. 15 no. 614, 282a01, (Yamabe and Sueki 2009, p. 66).
See in particular chapter 9, which is entirely focused on articulating the nondual approach (Búèr fǎmén pǐn 不二法門品). The Chinese version whose translation is attributed to Kumārajīva and his team also appeared in the early fifth century CE.
Here is how it appears in Kumārajīva’s translation:
唯優波離妄想是垢 無妄想是淨 Wéi Yōubōlí wàngxiǎng shì gòu, wú wàngxiǎng shì jìng (T 475, 541b23–24).
Sanskrit experts will immediately spot the gap with the Sanskrit text, which has:
§35 saṃkalpo bhadantopāle kleśaḥ | akalpāvikalpā ca prakṛtiḥ | (emphasis added).
Here is the Chinese version coined by Kumārajīva and his translation team:
顛倒是垢. 無顛倒是淨 diāndào shì gòu, wú diāndào shì jìng (T 475, 541b24).
This passage supposedly corresponds to:
viparyāsaḥ saṃkleśaḥ, aviparyastā ca prakṛtiḥ (MS 18a2).
The Sanskrit text has: saṃkalpo kleśa or viparyāsa saṃkleśa (defilements/afflictions/pollutions).
Its two main translations, by Kumārajīva (abbreviated as Ⓚ)) and by Xuánzàng 玄奘 (abbreviated as Ⓧ), are listed below. The earliest one by Zhī Qiān 支謙 can be neglected.
Ⓚ wàngxiǎng 妄想 Ⓧ yǒu fēnbié yǒuyì fēnbié 有分別有異分別—> Ⓚ gòu 垢 Ⓧ fánnǎo 煩惱.
Ⓚ diāndǎo 顛倒 Ⓧ ruò yǒu diāndǎo jí yǒu fánnǎo 若有顛倒即有煩惱—> Ⓚ gòu 垢 Ⓧ fánnǎo 煩惱.
To render the compound wàngxiǎng 妄想, I would prefer “delusive conceptualization,” and for diāndào 顚倒, it seems that “cognitive distortion” provides a good approximation.
The Sanskrit text has: aviparyastā ca prakṛti —> Ⓚ jìng 淨 Ⓧ xìng qīngjìng 性清淨 (the purity of the intrinsic nature).
This implies asymmetry, in the sense that the Buddha-nature does not need to be purified and cannot be acquired.
Emphasizing the central metaphor of “pure gold” (pìrú zhēnjīn duò bújìng chù 譬如真金墮不淨處) T 16, no. 666, 458a24, Zimmerman 117.
Zimmerman 117. T 16, no. 666, 458a27–28.
Several of them are included in volume 15 of the Taishō edition of the Buddhist Canon. As mentioned above, one of sources the most closely related to the MS is the Sutra on the Concentration of Sitting Meditation (Zuòchán sānmèi jīng 坐禪三昧經, T 15 no. 614, abbreviated as SCSM), translated by Yamabe and Sueki (2009).
The two fascicles of this text correspond to SX4575 and SX4577 in the huge corpus of 4647 volumes (cè 册) digitized for this project, identified as Rare Book 3129 (shànběn shūhào 善本书号 03129).
See the text digitized by the National Digital Library of China (Zhōngguó guójiā shùzì túshūguǎn 中国国家数字图书馆), http://opac.nlc.cn, with the following ID number, 312002082295, or reference number (shūhào 书号) 141380: 榮297 (7–8).
A digitized PDF version of this huge text is now available: http://evols.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/handle/10524/47071.
T 15 no. 618, 301b09.
T 15 no. 618, 301b22.
More below about the way we ought to understand the term fāngbiàn 方便 in this context.
T55 no. 2145, 11c14.
The Abhidharmakośabhāṣya includes a passage mentioning the Venerable Dharmatrāta (Skt bhadantadharmatrāto; Fǎjiù 法救 in Xuanzang’s translation), identified there as the individual who compiled the collection of Udāna-varga (Wūtuōnā sòng 鄔拕南頌). T 29 no. 1558, b27. Ejima (1989). Abhidharmakośabhāṣya of Vasubandhu. Bibliotheca Indica et Buddhologica 1. Tokyo: Sankibo Press, 3.
SAT stands for Saṃgaṇikīkṛtam Taiśotripiṭakam, indicating the Database of the Buddhist Canon compiled during the Taishō era.
CBETA stands for Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association, which has also digitized the Buddhist Canon compiled during the Taishō era.
http://tripitaka.cbeta.org/T55n2145_002 (accessed Tuesday, 14 May 2019).
In some early translations and in this particular text (the MS), the term fāngbiàndào 方便道 is used as the Chinese equivalent for the Sanskrit prayogamārga, or path of preparatory application, according to the perspective articulated in the Sautrāntika interpretation of Sarvāstivāda. Similarly, fāngbiàn 方便 (preliminary) was used as an equivalent for the Sanskrit prayoga, and does not constitute the Chinese translation for “skillful means” (upāya), a later innovation. See Willemen (2013, p. 44).
While competing claims about the accurate location of Kapilavastu are still raging, archeological excavations are ongoing in the walled city of Tilaurakot in Nepal, whereas the nearby Indian town of Pipprahawa also has argued that it corresponds to this ancient city. The present national boundaries and these sites’ competition in an effort to grab pilgrims’ attention tend to conceal the fact that both locations, in fact, may have been part of larger settlement. For the current excavations in Tilaurakot, see https://en.unesco.org/news/new-season-archaeological-investigations-commences-tilaurakot-kapilavastu, a report about the work produced in conjunction with Durham University (accessed Thursday, 21 May 2020). Regarding this region, now increasingly considered as the Greater Lumbini Area, see Coningham et al. (2018).
This Chinese term seems to have included Uḍḍiyāna, Gandhāra, and Bactria. See Willemen (2012, p. 483). In this article, Willemen rather argues for Buddhabhadra’s Bactrian origin, much farther West than present-day Nepal or even Pakistan. He describes him as “a Sautrāntika whose Buddhism has a Bactrian origin” (Willemen 2013, p. 35). An inscription by a monk with the same name is dicussed in Singh (2012).
Gāosēng zhuàn 高僧傳 (Biographies of Eminent Monks, T 50 no. 2059, 339b07–08).
T 15 no. 618, 314b18–b21. The usage of the first person in this paragraph seems to suggest that these teachings were first delivered as oral instructions.
This is also the case for the third section “Cultivation of the Preliminary Path—Mindfulness with Breathing, on Lingering, Third Section” (Xiūxíng fāngbiàndào ānpán niàn zhùfēn dì-sān 修行方便道安般念住分第三), which is also the shortest among the eight sections dedicated to mindfulness with breathing.
Some sources consider this flexibility as one of the Buddha’s qualities. See “His mind was soft and peaceful, his body limber” (qí xīn héān qí shēn róuruǎn 其心和安其身柔軟) in Pǔyào jīng 普曜經 (Lalitavistara), T 3 no. 186, 526b10. A similar description appears in the SCSM, T 15 no. 614, 272a21. It enumerates three signs indicating that meditation on the impure was successful, the first one being: “The body becomes comfortable, soft, and light” (shēntǐ héyuè róuruǎn qīngbiàn 身體和悅柔軟輕便). Yamabe and Sueki (2009), p. 13.
The passage immediately preceding this sentence mentions that the “body” mentioned here is a corpse (sǐshī xíng 死屍形).
One of the eight forms of liberation (bā jiětuō 八解脫).
The compound jìng jiě 淨解 (pure liberation) is rarely used, and we need to assume that it serves here as an abbreviation for the more common jìng jiětuō 淨解脫, meaning the same. One exception is the name of the bodhisattva Śuddhādhimukti, which two Chinese translators rendered as Jìngjiě Púsà 淨解菩薩, T. 14 no. 474, 531a22 and T. 14 no. 475, 551a1.
This seems to indicate a type of meditation where one dead body is the object of contemplation, and then morphs into multiple bodies. This form of “multiplication” is common in the visualization of deities, for instance in Tibetan Buddhism.
The excerpt from the MS translated here corresponds to T 15 no. 618, 316b27–316c11.
This is another example of a rare combination of characters found nowhere else, but here each one seems to convey a separate meaning. The character shū 踈 often stands for shū 疏, meaning “scattered.” The character jí 瘠 seems to stand for zì 胔, which indicates rotten meat or the bones of dead animals. The character léi 羸 can refer to something that gets deteriorated or goes bad, hence “falling apart” for bones.
T 15 no. 618, 317b04–b07.
T 15 no. 618, 317b08–b10.
Used in the sense of the Sanskrit apūrva, literally indicating something unprecedented.
T 15 no. 618, 317b11–b12.
The first one is directed inward, with the perception of one’s own impurity, and the second one expands this realization to other beings’ physical forms for the purpose of eradicating attachment.
Analāyo (2009, p. 612). His quote from Xuanzang’s Chinese translation of the Mahāvibhāṣā (Āpídámó dà pípóshā lùn 阿毘逹磨大毘婆沙論; Treatise of the Great Commentary on the Abhidharma, T 27 no. 1545, 437c28) clearly marks the transition from the first two liberations focused on the impure to the third one, developing the perception of what is pure or beautiful. See also (Kritzer 2017).
One of the transcriptions for kalala, the first stage after conception, often transcribed as jiéluólán 羯羅藍. This term is used no less than 16 times in the MS, with the transcription jiāluóluó 迦羅邏. See (Kritzer 2009). The Garbhāvakrāntisūtra, also translated by Robert Kritzer (2014), provides an elaborate description. See T 24 no. 1451, 253b28–c9. Yet, this is included in the Gēnběn shuō yīqiè yǒubù pínàiyé záshì 根本説一切有部毘奈耶雜事 (T 24 no. 1451), translated by Yijing 義淨 around 710, and cannot have served as a source for the MS. It is more likely that Buddhabhadra relied on the Zá āhán jīng 雜阿含經, T 02 no. 0099, 357c29, whose translation is attributed to Guṇabhadra (394–468).
T 15 no. 618, 317b13–b14.
T 15 no. 618, 317b10.
For a remote testimony, see for instance the Collection of Debates Heard in Ōhara (Ōhara dangi kikigaki shō 大原談義聞書鈔), a text attributed to Hōnen, saying, “The Land of Bliss is not far: it has only been put at a distance of ten-thousand billions of worlds in the West. Amitābha resides within one’s own heart and appears in the form of a Buddha sitting on a lotus pedestal.” Jōdoshū Zensho 浄土宗全書 14, 762a. Some scholars claim that it is not the work of Hōnen himself but rather that of his disciple Shōkaku 正覺 (1167–1235).
One dimension of this shift seems to have resulted from the propensity of Kumārajīva and his translation team to use xiàng 相 instead of xiǎng 想. This is particularly visible when comparing the translations of the Diamond Sutra (Sk Vajracchedikā Sūtra) into Chinese attributed to Kumārajīva and to Xuanzang. In manuscript texts, the choice to privilege xiàng 相 is also often the result of the copyist’s preference for a Chinese character with fewer strokes.
T 15 no. 618, 301b05. The Taishō edition uses a variant that reads “create [such] traces/impressions (zào jì 造跡)” instead of “produce distance” (gào shū 告疎 = 疏).
See, for instance, (Khyentse 2016).
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Mohr, M. Advanced Contemplation of the Impure: Reflections on a Capstone Event in the Meditation Sutra. Religions 2020, 11, 386. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11080386
Mohr M. Advanced Contemplation of the Impure: Reflections on a Capstone Event in the Meditation Sutra. Religions. 2020; 11(8):386. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11080386Chicago/Turabian Style
Mohr, Michel. 2020. "Advanced Contemplation of the Impure: Reflections on a Capstone Event in the Meditation Sutra" Religions 11, no. 8: 386. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11080386