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Impurities (Taints)

Chapter 18 of the Dhammapada for Awakening

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One of the most saddening traits of Western religion is its pessimism about human beings. People are told how weak, foolish, ignorant and sinful they are and how likely it is they are going to stay that way–and be punished for it. Then comes the “message of hope”–“God will disregard what a poor excuse of a human you are if you belong to us; then you will get to go to heaven and be happy forever with him. But you will still be a dud, a ‘sinner saved by grace,’ no longer able to sin in heaven, but still not worth God’s time if he were not so merciful. Trillions will be screaming eternally in hell-fire as you sit in heaven. They were no more clueless than you, but there is a difference: you Believed.”

Eastern religion on the other hand has a much better, fuller grasp of the human condition, because it has taken the time to study humanity, not just shrug and grimace. It sees that this is all an overlay that cannot last. That the reality of each human being is a divine Self that can be rescued from the swamp in which he finds himself. And even more wonderful: he can rescue himself by being himself, by turning from the unreal to the Real, from darkness to the Light, from death to Immortality. For it is his real, illumined and immortal nature to do so. He both can and will.

So Eastern religion shows you what a mess you are in, but does not claim that mess is what you are. Just the opposite. It says: “This is not you; this is not where you belong. Come home and be free.” This is the idea of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, though you would not guess it if you read or heard what Western Christians say about it. (Eastern Christians, if they have not been influenced by the Westerns, say just what the rest of Eastern religions would say it means.)

Now Buddha is going to talk to us about the impurities or taints that darken consciousness, and show us the way to dispel them.


You are now like a withered leaf. Death’s messengers themselves are in your presence. You are standing in the jaws of your departure, and provisions for the road you have none (Dhammapada 235).

Buddha is saying this to everyone, even a new-born child. For the moment we are born we begin moving toward death. Degeneration begins in the body, however slightly. However, he is speaking to adults who should be aware that death can come to them at any moment. Within a few days of my high school graduation one of my classmates was killed in a traffic accident. One of Giuseppe Verdi’s collar buttons fell on the floor. When he bent over to pick it up he had a severe stroke and died six days later. We live amidst more potential causes of death than we can number.

So we are all “withered” to some degree. The messengers–potential causes–of death are with us at every moment. In our own body we have microbes, bacteria, viruses and parasites that will kill us if they gain the ascendency. In a sense, all of us are going to be killed by our body, even if only through its inability to preserve itself. So the body which we mistakenly think is what makes us alive, is the supreme agent of death. Again, even at birth we stand in the jaws of death, both in the form of our body and external factors than can kill us, including freak accidents.

The real stinger in the tail is the final part: “And provisions for the road you have none.” This is the great tragedy of humanity: the ignoring of death and making no preparation for death. Now by preparation for death I do not mean praying: “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” We prepare for death by living our life in such a way that when death comes we will ascend to a higher world, hopefully beyond any more birth and death. That is only possible if our consciousness has permanently been elevated to correspond to such higher worlds.

When Panchanon Bhattacharya was grieving over the death of Yogiraj Shyama Charan Lahiri, the Master suddenly materialized before him and said: “Why are you sorrowing? You do not live in this world. You live with me!” What a blessed thought! Right now we can live beyond this world and say with Emily Dickinson: “Instead of getting to heaven at last, I’m going all along!” I know this is possible because I have lived with those that were always in another dimension. My maternal grandmother never lived on earth. Every day with her was to live at the door of eternity. After her departure from this world, through her blessing I came to meet those who not only lived in eternity, but had the power to transfer into eternity–for at least a while–those who were capable of it. And they freely taught everyone how to do it on their own. That is what yogis do.


In such a case, build yourself an island. Make the effort quickly and become a wise man. Cleansed of your faults and now without blemish, you will go to the heavenly land of the saints (Dhammapada 236).

Build yourself an island. This is invaluable counsel for beginner and adept. Not just a fortress is needed, for that would be on the same land as invaders that may come. Rather, in the sea of samsara create a point of stability as solid and unshakable as an island. In essence, make yourself an island. Render yourself impenetrable to anything; and that includes society and the clone-dupes that inhabit it. As Yogananda often said: “Make your heart a hermitage.” Only one person lives in a hermitage–a hermit. Do not be anti-social–that is a reaction to society. Be non-social–forget society altogether. Walk through the crowded streets completely alone. Be like the great Saint John of Kronstadt who was surrounded by thousands of people every day, yet who was always alone with God–so said another saint, Silouan of Athos, who received Saint John’s blessing to become a monk.

We have already cited Emily Dickinson, and once again she presents the idea very well.

The soul selects her own society,
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.

Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing
At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.

I’ve known her from an ample nation
Choose one;
Then close the valves of her attention
Like stone.

Poets–real poets–are mystics whether they think so or not. That is why Emily Bronte (very much the English counterpart of Emily Dickinson) could describe samadhi so well:

I’m happiest when most away
I can bear my soul from its home of clay
On a windy night when the moon is bright
And the eye can wander thru worlds of light

When I am not and none beside
Nor earth nor sea nor cloudless sky
But only spirit wandering wide
Thru infinite immensity.

She, too, loved solitude, and from that well drew forth the waters of profound spiritual realization though, as in the case of my maternal grandmother, no one guessed it.

Make the effort quickly and become a wise man. The matter is crucial and brooks no delay, so Buddha is telling us to make the effort quickly, not work up to it or wait until we think we are ready, but begin at full steam and keep it up from there. We are to become wise, not “devotees” or “serious seekers” and such sentimental identities. Wisdom alone will suffice, and everything else blocks it.

Cleansed of your faults and now without blemish, you will go to the heavenly land of the saints. If we do not manage Nirvana in this life, we can rise to the Pure Lands (Shuddhavasa) beyond rebirth. But only if we are cleansed of all faults and without blemish.

I cannot help but reflect on how in my childhood we used to sing in church:

Heaven is a holy place,
Filled with glory and with grace–
Sin can never enter there;
All within its gates are pure,
From defilement kept secure–
Sin can never enter there.

If you hope to dwell at last,
When your life on earth is past,
In that home so bright and fair,
You must here be cleansed from sin,
Have the life of Christ within–
Sin can never enter there.

This does not sound any different from what Buddha has just said, does it? Certainly the understanding of Buddha and the sincere piety of Charles W. Naylor–who, by the way was one of America’s greatest hidden healers–were not to be compared, but the same fundamental truth was expressed by both. We must have the life of Buddha-Christ within; then we are assured of freedom from the prison of this world, “that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations” (Luke 16:9).

At the end of the journey

You are now at your life’s conclusion. You are in the presence of the King of Death. There is no stopping off place on the way, and provisions for the road you have none. In such a case, build yourself an island. Make the effort quickly and become a wise man. Cleansed of your faults and now without blemish, you will come no more to birth and aging (Dhammapada 237, 238).

What was wisdom in life is still so when approaching death. There will be no halting-place, but every breath brings us nearer the great departure. We must keep on making the effort that we may “come no more to birth and aging” in a future incarnation in this world.

Moment by moment

Little by little, moment by moment, a wise man should cleanse himself of blemishes, like a smith purifying silver (Dhammapada 239).

Little by little. One time I was having a conversation with a teacher of anatomy at a medical school. Actually we were discussing spiritual things, and he said to me: “Any qualified anatomist will tell you that any drastic or rapid change or growth in the body is always pathological.” I understood his spiritual implication, for I had grown up with lightning-strike conversion as the ideal. I heard many tell of their instant rebirth, of how deeply their hearts had been changed and how in an instant all their evil desires and habits were ended. Usually it would only be a matter of weeks or months until things were right back where they had been, and the “saved” were avoiding us to whom they had so earnestly testified. When I was a freshman in college our English teacher read us an article entitled “How Billy Graham Saved Scotland.” It began: “Last Sunday only four people were in attendance at our village kirk [church].” Then followed a description of how a number people from that small town (including the village atheist who carried a thermos of martinis) got on a bus together and went to Edinburgh to attend a Billy Graham Crusade. A lot of them got “saved” and on the way home the author totted up the numbers. But the article ended with these words: “Last Sunday only four people were in attendance at our village kirk.” Just so. Real change comes gradually. Lightning lights up a place brilliantly and is gone in a moment, but the light of day comes gradually and remains.

Moment by moment. Not fits and starts, not hours one day and hardly minutes another, and certainly not sluffing off after some years under the pretense of having come to some kind of plateau and no longer needing to be so disciplined. Every single breath must be a step onward toward the Goal. I mean this literally.

Awise man should cleanse himself of blemishes, like a smith purifying silver. There is only one way this is done: by intense heat and by skimming off and discarding the impurities that come to the surface of the molten silver. It is the same with us. Through intense tapasya in the form of meditation and ascetic discipline and the rejection and discarding of the defilements that will arise due to the heating process, we can cleanse ourselves just as thoroughly as did the Buddha. This, too, is gradual though continuous.

Sending ourselves to hell

Just as the rust which develops on iron, derives from it but then proceeds to eat it away, so a person of unrestrained behavior is drawn to hell by his own actions (Dhammapada 240).

I had the karma of being raised in a religion that claimed God would send me to hell forever if I did evil. This had the effect of making everyone around me afraid of God, but I had a different outlook. I realized that I had no need to be afraid of God, who loved me, but rather I must be afraid of myself, for it would be my deeds that would send me to hell, not God. Looking around at the people in general in my home town, I figured that they were already jumping into hell–no need for either Devil or God to do the job. Buddha supports those early conclusions.

An extremely important point here is the indication that it is our own makeup, our own human nature, that corrupts and then poisons or devours us. After a monk had left a monastery where I was living, the abbot said to me: “The demons never bothered him. They didn’t need to. He was his own demon.” This is true of just about everyone. We are the demon that drags us down to hell by our own “unrestrained behavior.”

Both Narada Thera and Harischandra Kaviratna prefer “states of woe” to “hell,” and Thanissaro Bhikkhu renders it “a bad destination.” Whichever, the lesson is the same: we must avoid becoming our own destroying enemy.

Kinds of blight (rust)

Lack of repetition is the blight of scriptures. Lack of repairs is the blight of buildings. The blight of beauty is laziness, and carelessness is the blight of a guard. The blight of a woman is misconduct. The blight of a giver is meanness. Bad mental states are indeed blights in this world and the next. But the supreme blight, ignorance, is the blight of blights. Destroying this blight, be free of blights, bhikkhus (Dhammapada 241-243).

This very clear: ignorance is the evil of evils, the cause of all evil.

Easy life/hard life

Life is easy enough for the shameless, the crow-hero type of man, offensive, swaggering, impudent and depraved. But it is hard for the man of conscience, always striving after purity, alert, reserved, pure of behavior and discerning (Dhammapada 244, 245).

Narada Thera: “Easy is the life of a shameless one who is as impudent as a crow, back-biting, presumptuous, arrogant, and corrupt. Hard is the life of a modest one who ever seeks purity, is detached, humble, clean in life, and reflective.”

It is easy to fall and wallow on the ground, especially if it is soft mud, but not so easy to remain upright or to rise after a fall and stay standing. The qualities listed here are not hard to comprehend. Those who want an easy life can follow the crow people, and those willing to put forth effort will go the way of the man of conscience.


When a man takes life, tells lies, takes what he is not entitled to in the world, resorts to other men’s wives and indulges in drinking wine and spirits–such a man is digging up his own roots here and now in this world (Dhammapada 246, 247).

Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “Whoever kills, lies, steals, goes to someone else’s wife, and is addicted to intoxicants, digs himself up by the root right here in this world.”

This is certainly easy to understand. I only want to point out that taking life includes the eating of meat, no matter how strongly some Buddhists wish to deny it, even claiming that Buddha died from eating spoiled pork. Such people are shameless in their self-indulgence, like those that want to prove that Jesus was married or at least had a girlfriend. Actually, Buddha is going to speak of them in this very next verse.

Evil unrestraint

So understand this, my man–unrestrained men are evil. Do not let greed and wrongdoing subject you to lasting suffering (Dhammapada 248).

The unrestrained are evil, and if we join them in their folly, the suffering that results will be of long duration, for willful evil produces powerful karma, hard to erase and often lasting for more than one lifetime.

Getting displeased

People give according to their faith, or as they feel well disposed. If one is put out for that reason with other people’s food and drink, then one will not achieve stillness of mind in meditation, day or night. But he who has destroyed that sort of reaction, has rooted it out and done away with it–he will achieve stillness of mind in meditation, day and night (Dhammapada 249, 250).

Readiness to be offended, hurt or upset by the deeds of others is a most virulent–and usually hypocritical–disease of mind and heart. Buddha speaks of giving in charity, including the giving of necessities to monks, but it represents all aspects of other people’s actions, especially those that are intended to be virtuous. I have known people that would be envious if someone gave another person a bent pin. Those who knew him often joked that Al Jolson would be consumed with envy if he learned someone had started a successful laundromat. I have also known some who would say: “Well, they could have given it to me,” if they heard about any kind of gift or assistance. It was the reflexive reaction of the malignant narcissist–consummately greedy and selfish. Such people cannot have steady meditation because their inner fires of greed and jealousy will not stop burning within them. But those who have freed themselves of all such egotism will always be at peace in and out of meditation.

The worst

There is no fire like desire. There is no hold like anger. There is no net like ignorance. There is no river like craving (Dhammapada 251).

There is no fire like desire. Harischandra Kaviratna: “There is no fire like passion.” Narada Thera: “There is no fire like lust.” This is the truth: desire is the real fire of hell here-and-now. It not only torments the desirer, it destroys him and usually destroys others around him. Wars are the greatest proof of the destructive nature of desire. The word used here is raga, which means intense desire and attraction, greed and passion. Like fire it destroys, often beyond hope of restoration. There is another aspect to fire: the more you feed it the more it grows. A lot of people tell themselves that repression is bad, and that if they will just accept their desire and fulfill it that somehow they will be able to control it. That is the same as throwing gasoline on a fire to reduce and put it out. It is impossible. There are two ways to put out fire: suffocate it or deprive it of fuel. We must do both ruthlessly. Otherwise we will be supervising our own spiritual cremation.

There is no hold like anger. Harischandra Kaviratna: “There is no stranglehold like hatred.” Narada Thera: “There is no grip like hate.” Those who can break this hold are mighty indeed. But if it is not broken it will strangle our mind and heart and paralyze us.

There is no net like ignorance. Harischandra Kaviratna: “There is no snare like delusion.” Narada Thera: “There is no net like delusion.” Deluded people revel in their delusion and try to spread it around to others. They can never escape it because they like it and even call it clear-sighted wisdom. There is no way to escape when we do not know there is a need for it. Ignorance is blindness and deafness. It is total darkness. How can a person who knows nothing else decide to get away from it? Only our innate urge to spiritual transcendence can save us. Until then we are buried alive and call it living.

There is no river like craving. Harischandra Kaviratna: “There is no torrent like craving.” It is impossible for a person to halt the flow of a river for even one second. It goes on and on with no end in sight. How long have the Mississippi and Amazon rivers been flowing without a single moment of interruption? And if we fall in the river it can sweep us away and the undertow can pull us down and drown us. Craving (tanha) is just the same. We must not go near it or think we can diminish it, much less eliminate it, except through meditation and an ordered spiritual life.

Crazy King Canute thought he could stop the tide from coming in. He could not, but he found out that he could drown–and did.

Easy perception

Other people’s faults are easily seen. One can winnow out other people’s faults like chaff. One hides one’s own faults though, like a dishonest gambler hides an unlucky throw (Dhammapada 252).

I think this is the experience of us all. Jesus talked about how easy it was to see a tiny speck in someone else’s eye, while not knowing that we have a big beam or plank in our own eye (Matthew 7:3-5). Yet we are ready to take that speck out of their eye, but defensive about our beam, which we try to hide or deny. Like the dishonest gambler we cover up our errors. Thanissaro Bhikkhu agrees with Richard’s translation, but both Narada Thera and Harischandra Kaviratna translate it as covering up our faults like a bird trapper covers himself with leaves to escape detection. Either way, we are awfully honest about other’s faults and very dishonest about our own. Consequently:

When one notices the mistakes of others and is always finding fault with them, the inflow of one’s thoughts just increases and one is a long way from the cessation of this influx (Dhammapada 253).

We just make ourselves miserable and agitated, and even more tangled up in our own flaws.

It is all within

Just as there is no path in the sky, there is no man of religion [samana] outside. Other people take pleasure in multiplicity, but the Buddhas are free from it (Dhammapada 254).

A samana is a holy person who has followed dharma and purified himself. Such a one is living totally within as the Gita says: “He whose happiness is within, whose delight is within, whose illumination is within: that yogi, identical in being with Brahman, attains Brahmanirvana” (Bhagavad Gita 5:24). Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation is: “There is no trail in space, no outside contemplative.”

Jesus said: “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). The scribes and Pharisees were so obsessed with externals that their religion was nothing but outer observances. Jesus warned that such obsession did not just hinder entrance into the kingdom of heaven–which, as he said (Luke 17:21) is totally interior–it prevented entry. That is why Buddha (whose teachings Jesus studied diligently in India and Ladakh) tell us that just as there is no such thing as a path in the sky, in the same way there is no true saint who is not an “interior soul,” whose focus is inward and whose life is inward, his outer life being only a minimal token. Those who had the great good fortune to meet Swami Venkateshananda, a disciple of Swami Sivananda, will remember how Swamiji was so kind, full of humor and a real teacher of dharma; yet at the same time when you were with him you realized that he was living in another dimension, that his real life was completely unseen.

As Buddha further says, while others are immersed in multiplicity, those with genuine realization are totally free in awareness of Unity.

Just as there is no path in the sky, there is no man of religion outside. There are no lasting functions of the mind, but there is no oscillation of mind for the Buddhas (Dhammapada 255).

We identify with thoughts and feelings that come from the mind (manas and buddhi), but that is a grave mistake, for the mind is nothing but a field of subtle energy that is constantly in flux. Mental states are like the weather, constantly subject to change. Therefore we should not take them seriously, neither the good states nor the bad ones, for they are nothing in themselves. If we take a piece of clay and make a beautiful image, is the clay itself beautiful? No; only the momentary appearance is beautiful. We can smash the clay into a lump and then make an ugly image, but the reality is the same: the clay has not become ugly, only the appearance. In the same way the mind just keeps shaping and reshaping itself without cessation. Those who identify with the shapes will keep changing all the time. These are the people that talk about how they have ups and downs, how sometimes they are on the mountaintop and sometimes in the valley, and they even try to glorify this condition, claiming that “faith” makes it all right. It does not, for our eternal Self is never changing. It remains the same under all conditions, exactly the opposite of the mind. And that alone should be identified with. The permanent condition of the Self is Nirvana. Those who have attained Nirvana have transmuted the mind into Nirvana itself, so the waverings and mutations of the mind are ended forever. Until then, nothing worthwhile is going on with the mind.

Yoga is the remedy for mood swings and botheration rising from the changes of the mind. Yogis of steady practice have steadiness of heart, so even when the mind is still unsteady, the mind does not influence or trouble them. This was one of the first symptoms that my yoga practice was really taking hold. After over twenty years I was no longer at the mercy of the idiot mind. I was amazed. Oh, yes, the rascal kept hopping about and changing its masks, but I was not impelled to react. I could laugh at what had been a cruel and capricious jailer in the prison of earthbound life. I learned to fool it like it had been fooling me. For example, after meditating a while my mind would say: “I want to quit meditating.” So I would say: “That’s right. I’m bored. I’m quitting.” And then it would shut up for twenty minutes or more. Then it would whine again and I would say: “Yes. I am quitting right now.” Then I would have twenty more minutes of peace. (I have no idea why it took twenty minutes for the pathetic mind to figure out I had not stopped meditating.) Happily, after just a few weeks of this the whole drama stopped, because meditation had eliminated the split in my mind and I no longer had to pacify it by tricking it. It was not Nirvana, but it was progress along the way. Step by step we get there.

Next article in the Dhammapada for Awakening: The Righteous (Dharmic) One

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Chapters in the Dhammapada for Awakening:

Introduction to the Dhammapada

The History of the Dhammapada

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