Purify – Already Pure, A Talk by Leland Shields (July 8, 2017)

Posted by on Jul 10, 2017 in Uncategorized, Zen Talks | Comments Off on Purify – Already Pure, A Talk by Leland Shields (July 8, 2017)


In Red Pine’s translation of the Platform Sutra, it begins with these words of Hui neng and then those of a narrator within the text:

“Good friends, purify your minds by reciting the teaching of Mahaprajnaparamita.” Then the Master stopped speaking, while he purified his own mind.

(Red Pine, The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teachings of Hui-neng, 2006, p. 73)

This can be a simple introduction, including a moment of Zazen meditation, or chanting one of the Prajnaparamita Sutras silently or out loud. The Prajnaparamita sutras are the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. Red Pine believed it likely that Hui-neng was referring not to the whole of either sutra, but gathas that summarized the teaching. The section he thought Hui-neng most likely referred to was this from the Diamond Sutra:

All created things,

are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow,

like dew, or like lightning,

view everything like this.

(Supra, p. 75)

Before talks in this room we begin with rituals – preparing the room, the speaker makes a bow to Kwan Yin, and we to each other, we chant. Each action is a chance to see and hear – the altar, each other, the words of the sutra we chant. A bow to each other is full participation, appearing like lightning, and fully gone as we take our seats with full participation.

The first lines of the Platform Sutra are also more than an introduction. We’re a couple sentences into the Platform Sutra, and already at risk of getting sidetracked.

“Good friends, purify your minds…”

If we reflect properly on the Diamond and Heart Sutras, do we change the state of our mind from impure to pure? When the bell rings to start the period in this very room, do we purify, improve, or better ourselves?

Later in the Platform Sutra, Hui-neng tells us:

Good friends, in this school of the Dharma, when we practice Zen, we don’t contemplate the mind, and we don’t contemplate purity, and we don’t talk about being dispassionate.

If someone says to contemplate the mind, the mind is basically a delusion. And because a delusion is the same as an illusion, there is nothing to contemplate.

If someone says to contemplate purity, your nature is already pure. It’s because of the deluded thoughts that reality is obscured. But once you are free of deluded thoughts, your original nature is pure. If you don’t see that your nature is already pure, and you rouse your mind to contemplate purity, you create the delusion of purity instead.

(Supra, p. 144)

OK, we’ve got that down – before we begin we will together purify our minds. Also our minds are already pure, and to rouse our minds to contemplate purity is to create not only delusion, but delusion of purity.

My interest in perspectives of purity in Zen began with my curiosity about our morning service chant titled, “Purification.” This sutra existed in some form at least as far back as the 7th century CE. Our version goes like this:

All the evil karma ever created by me since of old,

on account of my beginningless greed, hatred and ignorance,

born of my conduct, speech and thought,

I now confess openly and fully.

Here purification is linked to the possibility of some sort of resolution of evil acts, thoughts, and words about which I might feel guilt and shame.

The Oxford dictionary lists meanings for “purity” as free from contamination and free from immorality. We all want purity. I believe no one in this room wants to be greedy, hateful, or ignorant. Any amount of these qualities or behaviors in ourselves or others is distasteful. In a relative sense, our precepts and vows encourage us to minimize such things; we do have to live together after all. When these intentions to avoid greed, hatred, and ignorance are taken to intolerance, we can see ourselves or each other as immoral and shameful. We can also lose for a time something fundamental of the perspectives of Zen.

In thinking about intolerance, I am reminded of Dogen’s words from the Four Virtues of the Bodhisattva:

In the secular world, there is the custom of asking after someone’s health. In Buddhism there is the phrase, “Please treasure yourself”…

Please, do not rely on words of Dogen in order to treasure yourself. Treasure yourself.

From the relative perspective, nothing is pure. Looking closely enough, one can always find impurity. There is no point in holding back from an open and full recognition of the fact. From the absolute perspective, nothing is or can be anything but pure – as it is – no matter how closely one looks. All of us lose this perspective some of the time – it is easy to let our ideas of self, other, and the world slip between us and color what is. To expect to maintain clarity all the time is another way to ask purity of ourselves. The schedule of our weekend retreat is itself an experiment in the finding the balance of how we think of retreat.

While writing this, I found echoing stories everywhere. In one from last week, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter just before he died, declining an invitation to a 4th of July event due to illness. He wrote, “…all eyes are opened, or opening to the rights of man… [and] the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born, with saddles on their backs.” The same story reminded us that he owned slaves, as if the slave-owning Jefferson contaminated the visionary Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson is not two – and the one can be described with Hui-neng’s word as pure.

In another recent story, a woman disabled with a form of cerebral palsy married an able-bodied man. After the marriage fell apart she realized she intended the marriage to allow her to pass as normative-bodied, as if her disability was a contaminant to her purity. When accepting her disability she found ease and belonging with a blind lover instead. Confessing her disability openly and fully, delusions of her body and identity falling away, can be described as pure.

In another story, “A young woman was put in protective custody after being stabbed 17 times by a brother who accused her of bringing shame to the family for running away from an abusive husband.” (New York Times, June 24.) For the Jordanian brother, the circumstances of his sister leaving a husband were not relevant and the response demanded to maintain the purity of the family was not sidestepped. Some in that tradition might see the brother as courageous.

In my own life, I have been giving, and at other times, due to a type of greed and ignorance, I harmed others. When remembering the harm I can perceive myself as contaminated. With a falling away of both giving and harming, Hui-neng tells me I can instead perceive something we might call pure. I expect everyone in the rom can say something like this, wanting to eliminate a perceived contaminant from one’s self or from another, and perhaps searching for another way to hold it.

Everywhere we can find struggle between purity and contaminant. In the 10,000 Dharmas we can likewise revel in that which is, all-containing, un-stainably pure. Even if I there are no stories of purity and stain to be found, this too can be called pure.

I must add, I believe Hui-neng’s silent pause to purify his mind, and his saying our nature is already pure both address something broader than guilt or shame, or standards by which we measure ourselves and each other. Hui-neng is pointing at each thing as it is, already pure, absent any consideration of purity. He is unafraid to talk about purity in a relative, casual way – as if saying, “Let’s do this thing for a few minutes before I speak.”  And unafraid again to use the same word in another way, also casually, but not only casually. Already pure, whether clear or unclear. Whether or not my evil karma since of old has been confessed openly and fully.

It is the personal guilt, shame, evaluations of self and other as good enough or not, that I hear about from those around me daily, and that I feel coming and going in my own heart. In the greater world, the perceived importance of purity shows up wherever intolerance is playing. In that context, pure, purity, and purify are loaded words.

Hui-neng offers additional words that address our identification of ourselves or others as impure:

What do we mean by the pure dharma-body Buddha? Good friends, everyone’s nature is fundamentally pure, and the ten thousand dharmas are present in this nature. If we think about doing something bad, we commit bad deeds. And if we think about doing something good, we perform good deeds. Thus we know all dharmas are present in our nature. But our nature itself remains pure. The sun and moon are always shining. It is only due to cloud cover that there is light above but darkness below and we can’t see the sun or moon or stars. Then suddenly the wind of wisdom comes along and blows the clouds and drives the fog away, and a panorama of ten thousand images appear all at once.
Our nature is pure like the clear sky above, and our wisdom is like the sun and the moon, our wisdom is always shining. But if externally we become attached to objects, the clouds of delusion cover up our nature, and we can’t see it. Then because we meet a good friend who explains the true teaching, our delusions are blown away and everything inside and outside becomes perfectly clear, and the ten thousand dharmas in this nature of ours all appear. This nature of ours in which ten thousand dharmas are present is what we mean by the dharma body. Those of you who take refuge in yourself, if you get rid of bad thoughts and bad practices, this is called taking refuge.

(Supra, p 154)

All this talk about our nature being pure like the clear sky – hogwash, of course. Bring out your nature and then we can talk about it. But that isn’t the nature to which Hui-neng refers. What is Hui-neng talking about, if it can be seen in a panorama of ten thousand things all at once?

In gazing at a lake late on a summer day, as swallows swoop here and there for mosquitos, the 10,000 Dharmas are accessible. If a big rusty oil drum and dead gull float by, one might experience annoyance – a contamination to the scene. In an absolute sense, 10,000 Dharmas are still evident. Walking on a trail, seeing bear scat we have one response, realizing it is human scat, we have another. Even with aversion, when releasing the struggle that anything of the scene be otherwise – just as it is, already pure.

In chanting Purification, we do not deny the deeds born of greed, hatred and ignorance; we do confess them openly and fully, right here in the panorama. When confessed openly and fully, there is no room for fog, or clouds. For that matter, there is no room for sun, moon, or wisdom.

In the panorama is the 17-year-old Jordanian girl, and the brother who stabbed her. The image calls to us to be confessed, intimately recognized openly and fully. In the panorama is the anger we each sometimes hold for those who disagree with us about something so vitally important, that we must care, and cannot be dispassionate. In seeing our anger, it seems we must sometimes go beyond passionate and dispassionate, and become attached as well. The anger that others who disagree with us hold toward us demonstrates we have much in common – we all are of the nature to be intolerant, and everything that entails.

In Verse of the Faith Mind, we chant:

Using the mind to seek the mind —

isn’t that a great mistake?

Rest and unrest arise in delusion,

enlightenment knows neither like nor dislike.

All dualistic views come

from your own mistaken deductions.

(TTS sutra book, by Jianzhi Sengcan)

In this line, “Using the mind to seek the mind –  isn’t that a great mistake?” we are brought back to Hui-neng encouraging us to purify our minds before he begins to speak the Platform Sutra, and then cautioning us that consideration of purity is engagement with thought and delusion. Not long before he died, Hui-neng also said:

Nothing that exists is true

don’t think what you see is true

if you think you see the true

what you see is surely false

if you want to find the true

the mind free of the false is true…

(Supra, page 253)

Where is there purity or contamination if there is nothing that is true? With only breath, the sound that is heard, what is there to call pure or impure? Calling this pure maybe like adding a tattoo to a shadow. Yet, if we are to talk about this at all, we may describe the simplicity of hearing a sound as pure.

Hui-neng said our nature is like the blue sky, present whether obscured by the fog of delusion or not. Nevertheless, we ring bells and sit, to purify ourselves, and blow away the obscuring delusions, not for improvement, but like a sunflower turns toward the sun.

I am deeply grateful for good-hearted and intelligent people I’ve known who have had psychosis and delusional thinking. Their gift to me was in demonstration of the limits of using the mind to seek the mind. Sometimes I have pointed to an internal inconsistency in delusive thinking, only to watch as the mind adapts to bring new consistency without threat to the perspective of self and words. I confess, sometimes in witness, I have been disappointed in the restoration of a delusion, but also respectful of the power of mind. The same mind generates the evidence, and makes the connections that support validity for seemingly unlikely perspectives. When in deep depression, any possibility of hope is easily dismissed, no matter how valid it may have seemed yesterday or will tomorrow. The mind is quite capable of similarly stabilizing current perspectives even absent identifiable or clinical “delusion.” However things are seen right now, are deeply experienced as absolutely and irrefutably real!

I would have been much more comfortable, if only I could have watched these dynamics without also recognizing them as my own. Can any of us deny listening to hear what is wrong with what is being said, rather than what is true in what is said? And when we listen for what is wrong, does it not help us to support whatever our beliefs and perspectives already are? I have too often held a view about me or someone else, only to see the next day I was blind to something. What more can we do but confess openly and fully to these many dharmas of listening for what is wrong, fully intending to abandon ignorance, and undeniably finding ourselves ignorant? Confessing openly and fully need not be associated with Judeo-Christian meaning; all it asks is embrace of what is, without hiding from anyone or anything.

With that embrace, please don’t leave out the purity that is never in question. Please, treasure yourself.

A friend of mine once described how she would try to catch a book or two that is falling off a books case. But if the whole book case is falling, she would step back and let it fall. Stepping back is how I feel about confessing openly and fully to the delusion that is my own mind, to the great mistake of seeking the mind with the mind.

Stopping here, I return to the beginning, pausing to purify my mind…what is this nature already pure?

The rise and fall of the airplanes roar overhead

Diffuse ring of my own tinnitus

Nothing to be found.

Shunryo Suzuki wrote,

Zen is not some fancy, special art of living. Our teaching is just to live, always in reality, in its exact sense.

(Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, and the opening page of Nothing Special: Living Zen, by Joko Beck.)