This article belongs to the Special Issue Impurity Revisited: Contemplative Practices, Textual Sources, and Visual Representations in Asian Religions
contemplation of the impure; aśubhā-bhāvanā bújìng guān 不淨觀; pure-impure dichotomy; Vimalakīrti Sūtra; Six Dynasties Liù Cháo 六朝; Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra Rúláizàng jīng 如來藏經; Buddhabhadra Fótuóbátuóluó 佛陀跋陀羅; Meditation Sutra of Dharmatrāta Dámóduōluó chánjīng 達摩多羅禪經; Émile Durkheim; Mary Douglas
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.
1. Introduction 2. Different Strains of Purity and Attempts to Look Beyond the Sectarian Horizon 3. Comparative Premises 4. Purity and Purification in the Indic Context 5. Some Philosophical Implications 6. Why the Meditation Sutra? 7. On the Contemplation of the Impure 8. A Capstone Event 9. From Purity to Pure Land 10. Possible Ethical Implications 11. Concluding Remarks