“It is the Unformed, the Unconditioned, the End, the Truth, the Other Shore, the Subtle, the Everlasting, the Invisible, the Undiversified, Peace, the Deathless, the Blest, Safety, the Wonderful, the Marvelous, Nirvana, Purity, Freedom, the Island, the Refuge, the Beyond.” (Samyutta Nikaya 43: 1-44)
We continue our reflections on the Buddha’s above description of awakening, or enlightenment, by examining Purity and Freedom. The heart of these reflections are not the words themselves, nor the exercises imbedded in the text, but the experience to which they point. That the Buddha used so many different and differing words to describe awakening – he used many more than in the above paragraph – reveals the diverse expressions of it, and the many Dharma Gates to ‘enter’ it. Hopefully, we may stroll through such a Gate together and bask on the other Shore, in the Everlasting contentment of enlightenment.
· Purity (Suddhi) Buddhism has been defined as ‘the Path to Purification’ (Visuddhimagga in Pali) by such luminaries as Buddhaghosa, the fifth century monk-scholar. Now, we can define purity in a moral sense, or an aesthetic sense. Different societies and cultures have varied ideas on the exact forms that moral purity should take, but some basics are not to kill, steal, commit sexual misconduct, and lie. These four moral concepts form all but one of the Five Precepts of Buddhism, which are the foundation of living a virtuous life, according to the Buddha. (The fifth precept is to refrain from intoxicants, which also allows for a ‘pure’ mind.) If we define purity in terms of aesthetics, that is to say beauty, we may judge life on its appearance, and how it appeals to our notions of what is attractive or not. From this perspective, a rose may be deemed beautiful or ‘pure’ in an aesthetic sense, whereas a weed may be considered ugly and impure.
These kinds of purity are changeable however, not only dependent on the particular society or culture they come from, but also from one individual to another. Furthermore, even individuals can alter their moral or aesthetic standards depending on what stage in their lives they’re at, or even what mood they’re in at that moment. Are your morals exactly the same as when you were a child or a youth, and do you listen only to the same music you did when you were a teenager? For most of us, at least, our sense of purity alters through life, sometimes minute to minute. This is because we change as we age, year to year, second to second. Naturally, as we evolve through this life, so do our opinions of what constitutes purity, as this too is based on our personality and its likes and dislikes. But, what if purity is not defined in terms of ego or its preferences, but on that which precedes it? If this seems somewhat obscure, we can investigate it more clearly by actually discovering this selfless purity and then comparing with egotistically-developed notions of what is pure or not.
Listen to the sounds arising in this moment: do you consider them pleasant, unpleasant, or a mixture of the two. Perhaps they are neutral for you and inspire no particular response. So, would you consider them to be pure sounds, that is to say truly beautiful, or not? Take some time to really listen to the noises in the present, and also note your reactions to them. Now, shift attention away from these sounds to that which is listening. Is it a particular sound or set of sounds, or is it a pure silence in which they are heard? Does it have any qualities at all that can be responded to? Listening here, this spaciousness in which all sounds occur is without any audible qualities itself, but instead takes on the particularities of whatever noises are in it. There’s no gap between spacious Purity and sounds, just the fact of noise existing in this Silence. Is it the same for you upon reflection?
Well, now that Purity has been revealed, how does it compare with our previous ideas of what constitutes it? Looking at morality, it’s clear that living a morally good life – as represented by the Five Precepts listed above – is a positive and worthwhile way to conduct ourselves in society. But there’s a kind of forced aspect to this kind of purity, for it is ultimately a falsity in that it isn’t a naturally occurring pureness. In contrast, the compassion and wisdom that can arise out of recognizing the Purity at our heart is wholly natural and unforced. It is a pure virtue, born of recognizing and living form Purity. Similarly, ideas of an aesthetic purity that lifts us and inspires us with its beauty is all too often short-lived, whereas this inner Purity never fades like a rose; it never decays turning pulchritude putrid. Purity exists wherever we are, whatever our scenery, and whatever cacophony may be going on. We just need to listen.
· Freedom (Mutti) Freedom is a widely desired state. Nations like America and Thailand consider themselves ‘Lands of Freedom’ (despite the experiences of so many to the contrary in both countries!). Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of eating spaghetti – there are so many kinds of freedom sought after and cherished. Political prisoners, convicted criminals, abused children, battered wives, battered fish, all seeking freedom. And, yet, when these freedoms are gained, within a generation or two, or even within the same generation, they become taken for granted, or even criticized as faulted or not that important. Why is this? What is it within us that can desire something so deeply and then dismiss it as almost irrelevant to our happiness? In a word, self. Or, in four words, the sense of self. The sense of being a self, in other words the ego, can never be satisfied by its very nature. This is why so many millionaires and billionaires cannot rest on their wealth and simply enjoy it (or enjoy sharing it for that matter). The illusory ego drives them on to gain more and more, pushing them ‘till the day they die; darn rich but darrn unsatisfied!
So, if neither freedom to express one’s political views nor the freedom to buy half of the Caribbean make one satisfied, what freedom does? The freedom from the delusion of self, that’s what! As long as we associate with these limited and limiting illusory personalities we will never be free from their propensity to suffer. True happiness is never experienced by an individual because a) the individual doesn’t really exist, and b) happiness is the absence of the delusion of there being a self. The question may arise, if there’s no self, who’s having this delusion? The answer is no one. There is the delusion of being a self which occurs in spacious awareness, contracting its otherwise free and endless expanse into either a tiny frame called the human body, or worse, the human mind. Atheists are in a prison that defines them as a series of psychophysical processes, whereas those that believe in eternal souls are trapped in the prison of believing that the self is just this. Either way, suffering arises out of the delusion of being a self, whether it’s a kind of automated bone bag, or a wispy ethereal ego.
Are you the body? Take a few precious moments to explore this question, answering it honestly based on the evidence. Look at ‘your’ body; see its various shapes and colours, feel its itches and aches, the textures of its skin and hairs (if you have any hair, that is!). Do they respond to your every command? Well, sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. You can order your arm to rise up, and you can instruct your eyes to close. But, can you tell those aches to stop, or your nose to cease smelling? And what of the mind: surely that obeys your (its) commands when told to? Nah! Yes, you can conjure up specific images in your imagination, and you can repeat a word mentally for at least a short time, but when depressed, can you direct your mind to be happy, and if obsessive thoughts keep returning, can you dismiss them with just one wish? Not on your life! Both body and mind go their own ways more often than we like to admit because they are nor self. They are natural phenomena following their natural patterns and processes: we just imagine that we in charge! Furthermore, imagining thus, we create the illusion of being a self in charge of a body and a mind, and (for some of us) a soul. What dreams the mind can produce – as there was ever such a thing!
We can see beyond these imaginary selves if awareness is recognized as that which is the background upon which they are painted. Body and mind (and ‘soul,’ if taken to be a separate, distinct self) are data appearing on the monitor screen of awareness, the latter preceding and following on from the former. And yet, while there is both awareness and consciousness of phenomena, there is no gap between them; No-thing and everything are unified in this present moment. The fundamental difference then, is whether awareness and its contents are both recognized or not. If only awareness is experienced, we have a kind of awake void with nothing to focus on (but No-thing itself, of course), and experience of this is attested to in some Buddhist meditation traditions. Indeed, some of these traditions consider the experience of naked awareness in absorptive meditation a necessary prelude to full awakening. We cannot remain in these absorptions all the time, however, and what would be the point of living if we did? On the other hand, to only be aware of mental and physical happenings (the world) is to live in suffering ignorance of our deepest nature. (And, this is what most of humanity seem to do most of the time.) The simultaneous recognition of what’s ‘there’ with what’s ‘here’ results in simply what is in this moment, free of the bondage of taking these egos to be permanent entities. This is Freedom.
In truth, beyond the delusion of selfhood, we are both the Purity that lies at the heart of every apparent thing. This Purity is pure awareness itself, full of the world, but ultimately untainted by it. It is untainted because it is free of any egoistic surface upon which anything might alight, and has, therefore, justly been called Freedom by the Buddha. Isn’t it wonderful to realize that no matter what impurities we previously might have attached to our sense of self, we are in fact Purity itself, and this because there is no self in the first place! Furthermore, this lack of self means that we can never be imprisoned in the chains of suffering, because there is no one here to suffer. Sadhu, Lord Buddha! Sadhu!