Purity is a matter of concern to a majority of the traditions that influence my practice(s). It’s a subject approached from a variety of angles – one might consider internal purity, external purity, and behavioral purity. Because I’m a devotee, not an initiate, I concern myself with the basic forms of purity, namely things like honesty, kindness, compassion, non-violence, steadfastness, devotion, and so forth. Cleansing rites are valuable and have important effects but if one doesn’t exhibit the principles that these rites embody, the activities rapidly become empty and meaningless. Although the above-mentioned standards can be regarded as a “basic” approach to purity, they aren’t simple and nor do I succeed in exhibiting them with consistency. But you see that steadfastness bit up there? I am obliged to continue trying.
One would rightly point out that unless interior forms of purity are exhibited, then they’re not much use to anyone, including ourselves. And this is true, of course. The internal stances and the interior sources of appropriate behavior and action are essential but these things must be helpfully communicated in order to achieve their fullest expression.
Purity in action is reflected in how I treat others and how I treat myself. Purity in action is how consistently I enact my values and how consistently I apply them to the decisions facing me. And none of this is easy; every time I reflect on these concepts I’m aware of how far I miss the mark. I am aware of my dishonesty, cruelty, divisiveness, and coldness. I am aware of how frequently I chose options contrary to my standards. But see – I’m reminded that choosing these contrary options I’m enacting harm. I let others down. I let myself down. I open myself up to more self-recrimination and blame. Choosing these contrary options aren’t simply impurity because of some arbitrary set of rules; these contrary options are impure because they lead to harm, a certain set of effects that I’ve chosen to try to minimize in how I live, believe, and practice.
I’ve struggled with this question for a while – why should I bother trying? What is lost or gained by my choices to strive towards my standards or to slide away from them? Why does purity matter at all to me or to my practice? Why does minimizing harm matter to me or to my practice?
A friend reminded me not long ago that compassion requires bravery. Extending a friendly hand – or at least a hand that doesn’t intend harm – requires so much bravery and confidence. Not being an especially brave person, I can recognize that I flee from the implications of my harm-reduction purity standard. But sadhana isn’t supposed to be easy – how else can one grind the mill to dissolve the impediments to clarity and charity? Adopting a purity practice because one likes following rules is…well, not useless but it isn’t exactly very useful perhaps. Adopting a purity practice because one feels challenged by the prospect and perhaps slightly unworthy of the whole endeavor…well, there is fertile ground for meaningful change.
(I rather hate that I feel obligated to clarify my non-violent stance. My non-violence is based in an unwillingness to see violence as a foregone conclusion to situations, and in a willingness to look for other forms of resolution. I strive to see the ways in which I harm others (and myself) and to find ways of correcting this harm or at least mitigating it somewhat. I chose this value because I feel myself to be fundamentally a violent person capable of considerable harm; I came to see the futility of this personality trait and therefore chose differently. Like all ideals, non-violence cannot fully exist in a non-ideal world but no one could ever accuse me of wisdom in such matters.)