I’d like to discuss four words from the Heart Sutra: “not stained, not pure.” Although I regularly insist that Zen Buddhism is a religious practice, these four words seem to nullify much of what religious practices traditionally do for people, how they traditionally function to separate out the holy from the profane, the higher from the lower. There are so many versions of this we could spend an entire seminar just exploring all the various dichotomies and dualities of opposites that typically organize our life and which are often codified or reinforced by religious practice.
Much of the time these seem to function to split off unwanted aspects of ourselves, and at different times and different cultures, that unwanted part takes different guises, but it’s often some form of vulnerability or weakness that’s associated with emotion, sometimes with sexuality, sometimes it is framed as something unclean versus clean. Often it comes down to a separation of what is called feminine, what is masculine. In some cultures we attempt to become rational rather than emotional, spiritual rather than material. There are so many different versions of this. That’s one of the reasons that I’m generally uncomfortable with the use of the word spiritual to describe our practice because it almost always is one half of one of these dichotomies, and the other half typically goes unexamined.
When people speak of being spiritual, there is too often a kind of implication that they are attempting to find some kind of higher uncontaminated state. That state may be uncontaminated by thought, emotional vulnerability, the frailties of the body. Spirituality is often contrasted with mortality or impermanence of the physical body, sometimes to the point of positing that the spiritual can exist completely free of the body, that there’s a soul that is separable from the body that will live on after the body dies. That’s just one of the extreme versions of how we try to split off what we want to hold on to from what we think we’re going to have to lose,
For me -- and I recognize it’s a somewhat idiosyncratic definition -- for me, religious, as opposed to spiritual does not make that split. Religion is a way of sanctifying life as it is, where sanctified doesn’t mean make holy in comparison to something else, something unholy, but through our attention and acceptance, to cherish this life, this body, this mind, this moment, just as it is.
We are challenged in this practice, and in every moment, to become aware of all the ways in which we habitually split our experience, dividing every period of sitting into the good moments and the bad moments, the ones that we want more of from the ones we want to have end as quickly as possible. It’s a very human reflex to endlessly be dividing our life into sheep and goats.
When the Heart Sutra says “not stained, not pure,” it’s evoking the emptiness of all dharmas, all things, all moments, where emptiness means that there is no fixed characteristic of holiness, of purity. Spirituality, on the one hand, is something we possess, whereas on the other hand there is some kind of intrinsic badness or damage or lack that other things possess, and then we can devise some way of sorting and controlling the moments of our life so that we’ll maximize one and minimize the other. Our practice in large part is becoming aware of how automatic that tendency is in us. When we speak of just this moment or just sitting, it’s an attempt to give a name to undivided experience before those dichotomies set in.
When Bodhidharma confronts the emperor of China, the emperor is very preoccupied with being a good Buddhist, accumulating merit, discerning what is holy. And yet when he asks Bodhidharma: What is the most holy truth of Buddhism? Bodhidharma completely undercuts the question: That’s emptiness. There’s not anything holy about it. The emperor, in effect, asks him: How are we then to proceed? Bodhidharma responds, I don’t know. Which is not an expression of a lack of knowledge but an expression of being free of concepts.