THE GOLDSMITH

Shakyamuni Buddha

 Thailand, 8th century, stone. From Buddha of the Future, Asia Society/Courtesy National Museum, Bangkok
Thailand, 8th century, stone. From Buddha of the Future, Asia Society/Courtesy National Museum, Bangkok

THERE ARE THESE GROSS IMPURITlES in gold: dirty sand, gravel, and grit. The dirt-washer, having placed the gold in a vat, washes it again and again until he has washed them away.

When he is rid of them, there remain the moderate impurities in the gold: coarse sand and fine grit. He washes the gold again and again until he has washed them away.

When he is rid of them, there remain the fine impurities in the gold: fine sand and black dust. The dirt-washer washes the gold again and again until he has washed them away.

When he is rid of them, there remains just the gold dust. The goldsmith, placing it in a crucible, blows on it again and again to blow away the dross. When the dross is blown away, the gold is then refined, pliant, malleable, and luminous. It is not brittle, and is ready to be worked. Then whatever sort of ornament the goldsmith has in mind-a belt, an earring, a necklace, or a gold chain-the gold would serve his purpose.

In the same way, there are these gross impurities in you as a meditator: misconduct in body, speech, and mind. These you abandon, destroy, dispel, wipe out of existence. When these are gone, there remain the moderate impurities: thoughts of sensuality, ill will, and harmfulness. These you wipe out of existence. When these are gone, there remain the fine impurities: thoughts of your race and background, thoughts related to not wanting to be despised. These you wipe out of existence.

When these are gone, there remain only thoughts of the dharma. Your concentration is neither calm nor refined. It has not yet attained serenity or unity. It is kept in place by the stone activity of forceful restraint. But there comes a time when your mind grows steady inwardly, settles down, grows unified and concentrated. Your concentration is calm and refined, has attained serenity and unity. It is no longer kept in place by the activity of forceful restraint. Then whichever of the six higher knowledges you turn your mind to know and realizeincluding the total ending of all mental impuritiesyou can witness them for yourself whenever there is an opening.

THE BEST METHOD

Sri Lanka, c. 7th century, bronze with traces of gilding. Peter Johnson/From The Flame and the Lotus: Indian and Southeast Asian Art from the Kronos Collections, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams.
Sri Lanka, c. 7th century, bronze with traces of gilding. Peter Johnson/From The Flame and the Lotus: Indian and Southeast Asian Art from the Kronos Collections, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams.

Master Sheng-yen

Before cultivating samadhi,
people with heavy or deep karmic obstacles might not feel pain in body and mind.
But after beginning the life of
cultivation, obstructions of the body
and mind become glaringly apparent.
The best method for such people is to perform volunteer services for the
public and to undertake arduous
physical tasks for the sangha. Instead
of seeking accomplishments, they
seek to have their karma dispelled.
After some time, their desire for fame,
benefits, and material goods grows
weak. Then, even if they do not
achieve deep samadhi, their minds
gradually become purified.

From Dharma Drum: The Life and Heart of Ch’an Practice (Dharma Drum Publications).

THE PERFECTION OF PURITY

Peter Johnson/From The Flame and the Lotus: Indian and Southeast Asian Art from the Kronos Collections, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams.
Peter Johnson/From The Flame and the Lotus: Indian and Southeast Asian Art from the Kronos Collections, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams.

Amaro Bhikkhu

THE HABITS OF IDENTIFICATION, attraction, aversion, and anxiety create suffering and lead to rebirth in samsara. They keep us far from our main goal, that of recognizing ultimate reality and complete enlightenment. Ultimate reality is the principle that all mental and physical phenomena—people, mountains, galaxies, the New York subway—are regarded as being without substantial essence or separate self-identity. In order to see the true nature of existing phenomena, we need to purify the mental cloudiness that keeps us from seeing it.

The Buddha taught that “it is owing to the development of virtue, concentration, and wisdom, that enlightenment has been fully realized.” In order to learn how to properly apply these three agents of purification-virtue, concentration, and wisdom we need to learn from our mistakes—and purification is synonymous with this act of learning.

The methods to do this revolve first around a conscious recognition by the individual of destructive or delusory tendencies in his actions, his speech, and his mind; second, around the resolution to do better in the future. This is working on the principle that if we simply deny our shortcomings or try to play the “Absolute Reality” trump card, the obstructive karma will be regenerated continually and unconsciously. Once things are opened up and acknowledged honestly, however, the purifying can function freely. In the Theravada tradition, we say:

Rain soddens what is kept wrapped up,
But never soddens what is open;
Uncover, then, what is concealed,
Lest it be sodden by the rain.

Another text states it in this way: “For it is growth in the Buddha’s way of training, when one sees one’s error as such, to make amends for it in accordance with the dharma, and undertake to be more careful in the future.”

These acts of recognition can vary in size from a brief mental noting, to the recitation of the monastic rule, to a monthlong “Ten Thousand Buddhas Repentance Ceremony,” or the 100,000 prostrations, mantra recitations, and visualizations employed in the Tibetan ngodro practice. Regardless of the dimensions or grandeur of the act, however, the essence of the transformation is identical-it’s a radical lettinggo of the past and a reformation of attitude. On the psychological level, this act is the catalyst of all beneficial development.

The Buddha extended this principle of purification through different approaches toward meditation, particularly the development of what are known as “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” or Satipatthana. These four are, in brief, mindfulness of the body, offeeling, of mental states (or moods), and of mind objects (or the categories of phenomena according to the Buddha’s teaching, such as The Four Noble Truths). They are described as, “A path that goes in one direction only: to the purification of beings, to the surmounting of sorrow, to the disappearance of pain and grief, to the attainment of the true goal, to the realization of Nirvana.”

THIS SCHEMA OF CONCENTRATION and contemplation of mind is designed to fulfill the work of purification. For example, in the section on the “contemplation of mental states,” the Buddha says, “Here a monk knows a lustful mind as lustful and a mind free from lust as free from lust; a hating mind as hating … a deluded mind as deluded … a distracted mind as distracted … a concentrated mind as concentrated … a liberated mind as liberated and an unliberated mind as unliberated …. Mindfulness that ‘here is a mental state’ is present just to the extent necessary for knowledge and awareness. And he abides detached, not grasping at anything in the world.”

This passage outlines a crucial element of what “purification” means on the level of mind: it’s not what you think or feel, it’s your awareness of and attitude toward thoughts and feelings that counts. Anger arises, but it’s only anger-in the light of awareness and a heart of loving-kindness we can feel it, know it, let it go, and not follow it. Nothing has been destructively repressed, no hurtful action has been taken, and the light of the mind is “on.”

As the consistency of awareness is strengthened by meditation, this process is illuminated more and more clearly. It is seen that the anger came out of emptiness, dissolved back into emptiness, and that any ascription of a feeling of ownership toward it was an unnecessary and false addition. The anger is no more mine than is the breeze on my skin or the sound of a dog barking across the street. It arises and ceases, it is known by awareness-and we are neither enriched nor corrupted by its passing. As it says in the verses of the Third Zen Patriarch:

The Way is open like vast space,
where nothing is lacking
and nothing is in excess.

This insight naturally develops into a deep recognition of the laws of causality and interdependence, and the heart rests in the knowing of these relationships. Being this knowing is the Way, the path to peace.

At first this kind of insight arises only momentarily, so effort needs to be made to sustain or further it. Once the Path has been seen, however, and we have managed to get onto it, we need to be able to keep ourselves on it. As everyone knows, it’s very easy to wander off down all kinds of interesting sidetracks. As we learn to recognize what is and what is not the Path, we are more able to pursue our desired route straightforwardly.

Sustaining and furthering insight into selflessness is the act of purification, and yet the purpose of it all is not the process of purification but the nature of life when the goal has been reached.

When the realization of this nature is complete, the heart has arrived at perfect nirvana, free from any clinging whatsoever. It is the realization that there is no one here to be pure or impure-only a quality of brightness and ease, a rich and fearless peace. This is the perfection of purity.

CARLITO’S QUESTION

Geshe Michael Roach

The Tibetan deity of divine purity, Vajrasattva. Courtesy Snow Lion Publications Deity Card.
The Tibetan deity of divine purity, Vajrasattva. Courtesy Snow Lion Publications Deity Card.

WE’RE SITTING AROUND, about a hundred of us, in a funky room with walls that are all black, underneath a film-editing studio in the East Village in New York, having this big open debate about karma in a class on Master Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. About how karma is anything we do or say or think. About how it is stored in the mind whenever we think anything, or say anything, or do anything.

About how all it takes to store it, mainly, is to be aware of it while you’re thinking or saying or doing anything; about how this leaves impressions in your mind that can last for thousands of years; how they ripen and create your entire world; and all about the scary fact that you can collect these impressions, karma, in your mind at the rate of sixty-five per second. And, when they ripen, then the pictures come in a strong, quick flow, just like the frames of a film, and give you the impression of your life flowing by. How even the tiniest thoughts, like a moment of irritation at someone as you bump into them on the sidewalk in Manhattan, can have massive karmic consequences as the impressions-the seeds-grow in your mind with every passing moment.

And this kid named Carlito, a thirteen-year-old who commutes by himself in from Brooklyn on the subway to catch the classes (he’s also the best tuba player in his elementary school), is the only one in the room who really gets it. He raises his hand, all excited, and stands up and demands to know, “Is there any way to get rid of those karma seeds in your mind before they get too big, before they cause you a lot of trouble?”

And it’s one of the most sacred teachings of the Mahayana tradition: how to purify karmic seeds, how to remove them from your mind before they explode into huge, twisted trees that cause all the suffering of a human life. We pull out a laptop that has about a hundred thousand pages of the original texts in Tibetan, input by the monks at Sera and other monasteries in India, and do a little surfing, looking for the purification teaching.

The most important reference perhaps is in the Diamond-Cutter Sutra, where the Buddha himself says:

O, Subhuti, any son or daughter of a noble family who takes up a sutra like this or who holds it, or reads it, or comprehends it fully, will suffer. They will suffer intensely.

Then he clarifies himself:

Why is it so? Because, o Subhuti, such beings are purifying nonvirtuous karma from the entire string of their previous lives, karma that would have taken them to the three lower realms. As they purify this karma, it causes them to suffer here in this life. As such they will succeed in cleaning away the karma of these nonvirtuous deeds of their previous lifetimes, and they will then come to achieve the enlightenment of a Buddha.

The point here is that there really is a way to purify bad karma, to make it ripen early, now, in this life, as something much less than what it would have been otherwise. In the Sutra of the Great Liberation, the Buddha says as well:

Even though one may have the bad karma To take his birth in the three lower realms, A simple headache will clean it away.

If purification is done properly, the karma that would have thrown us into a birth in the hells, or as an animal or a tormented spirit, can be experienced as nothing more than a migraine in this life. Not bad! How to do it? The Buddha taught four steps, called the “Four Forces.” They’re found in the Sutra of the Four Dharmas.

The Four Forces of Purification

Thailand, 9th century, stucco. Peter Johnson/From The Flame and the Lotus: Indian and Southeast Asian Art from the Kronos Collections, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams.
Thailand, 9th century, stucco. Peter Johnson/From The Flame and the Lotus: Indian and Southeast Asian Art from the Kronos Collections, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams.

The first force (or power) that purifies karma is called the Foundation Force. If you slip and fall down, you need solid ground to push against, to get back up. The Foundation Force means going back to the basics: you think about Buddhist refuge, you put yourself mentally back in the hands of the Buddha and the Path. Then you think about compassion, how you’re working for all living beings. This is the foundation. It sets the scene for the purification.

Some texts also say that at this point we should think about who it is we hurt with our bad karma: it’s not only just ourselves, or the person we did the negative karma towards. We have also let down every other living being, beings who are counting on us, waiting for us to reach Buddha paradise and bring them with us.

The second force is the Force of Destruction, which is described as “the intelligent regret” of a well-educated Buddhist, someone who realizes the very serious future implications of even the tiniest negative karma.

There is no word for the idea of “guilt” in Sanskrit or Tibetan scripture: it’s considered counterproductive to feel upset or angry with yourself about making a karmic boo-boo, because that is just another bad karma. What you do is to regret intelligently, and go and do what you have to do to clean up the mess-to purify the karma.

The third force is the Force of Restraining Yourself in the Future. I have Christian friends who hear about purification practices and say, “You Buddhists have it easy. You can do bad karma all night and then just purify it the next day-it’s sort of like a morning-after pill.” But it’s not. If you don’t have an honest intention to stop doing this same kind of negative deed in the future, you cannot purify the karma. With the third force, you make a personal commitment to yourself not to do or think or say this kind of negative thing again. For example, if you lie to someone, you promise yourself never to lie to them again.

Now you and I both know that, unless it’s something really drastic, you will probably do the bad thing again. The trick is to choose a time limit and stick to it, “I won’t do this for the next year-” or the next month, or even the next twenty-four hours.

With mental bad deeds, like irritation at someone who really pushes your buttons, this is tricky! So you might want to say, “For the next five minutes.” This saves you from the additional bad karma of lying.

The fourth force is the Force of a Make-up Activity. Here you do some good deed quite purposely dedicated to canceling the bad karma. I have a friend who fought in Vietnam and thinks he might have killed people, spraying the jungle with a machine gun when his convoy was ambushed one day. Our teacher told him to buy and care for a farm animal that was to be slaughtered for meat until it died a natural death. He did this for over ten years. Reciting mantras or studying a Buddhist teaching like the Diamond-Cutter Sutra is also powerful. But the scriptures say that the most powerful antidote of all is to meditate on emptiness-anyone who understands emptiness perfectly understands how it makes karma possible, how it makes ethical living an absolute necessity. Only a fool would keep doing bad karma if he understood anything about emptiness.

By the way, in the case of a really serious karma, or for karmas from long ago that we have in our minds that we don’t even know about clearly, the Four Forces have to be repeated over and over. I had a teacher who said to do them every day for a long time for serious karmas. He said it was like making a needle by filing away at a block of steel by hand.

Think of it as Carlito’s question; every Buddhist should worry about the same thing—how to get rid of the bad karma, the negative seeds already planted in our minds by the millions. Purification works. Try the Four Forces. Who can imagine what the world would be like if we could remove the veil of the little bad deeds we do all day, the small karmic seeds? Maybe you’ll see a little paradise. Try it and see….

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