Photo © Bruce Thomson (Flickr)

Photo © Bruce Thomson (Flickr)

Though the spiritual path can be a long and winding road, some good news is that the only work we really have to do is purification – everything else naturally follows from there. In that sense, our spiritual unfoldment is simple and easily within reach. Here’s how.

There are three stages in the spiritual path; purification, illumination and beatification. Beatification automatically follows illumination, as illumination automatically follows purification. The “work” of the spiritual life is basically just a one-step path – purification – delivering you to liberation and awakening. How fantastic is that?

However, purification (visuddhi in Sanskrit) in itself is a three-step process, consisting of ethics, concentration and wisdom (sila, samadhi and prajna). This is so central to Buddhist philosophy that its second-oldest text – the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification) written in the 5th century ­– is devoted entirely to it.

Lost in Translation

Buddhaghosa, whom the Visuddhimagga is attributed to: Kelaniya Temple murals, Sri Lanka

Buddhaghosa, whom the Visuddhimagga is attributed to – murals at Kelaniya Temple, Colombo, Sri Lanka

The Sanskrit language was created to describe consciousness, whereas English is the result of mercantile and military confluences; as you can imagine, Sanskrit-English translations can be like putting square pegs in round holes. Let’s fill out our understanding of this spiritual purification process, using what we know of Sanskrit. Click here to access an easy translation reference below.

In addition to “purification,” visuddhi can be translated as clean, clear, honest and empty. The Sanskrit word sila is commonly translated as “ethics,” and it also means habit, character, practice, and coolness (as in unruffled, or cool under pressure).

Samadhi is generally translated as “concentration;” moreover it indicates putting together, bringing into harmony and completion. Finally, prajna in Sanskrit is typically translated as “wisdom,” and also means insight, knowledge and having sense.

Putting these terms together in various forms could be translated as:
·     “A harmonious habit makes good sense;”
·     “An empty (spacious) mind is the result of practicing insight completely;” or
·     “A clear character concentrated on insight yields wisdom;”
·     and so on.

However we translate it, it sounds better than when we’re feeling crummy. That’s why this path is worth following.

The implication is that depth (wisdom) comes from examination (samadhi), keeping a cool (sila) attitude to thoughts and feelings, resulting in a harmonious (blissful) life. Sounds simple, right?

The richness of the study of the path of purification emerges with practice and there are a multitude of methods to take advantage of this. Under the category of sila (ethics) we can develop generosity, patience and energy, among other virtues.

The Big Picture … Feels Better

Note that ethics here are not the same thing as social norms of morality, nor are they related to ideas of guilt and sin. Buddhist philosophy emphasizes that we need calm in the face of the emotional and mental turmoil that is part of every life, and leading a “wholesome” life facilitates that.

“Wholesome” in this case doesn’t mean “do x; don’t do y;” rather it means, “If you’re going to do x or y, consider and accept the consequences.” That is, look at the whole picture – that’s wholesome! With practice, we can see the patterns, anticipate the consequences, and make better decisions. That leads to greater wisdom and greater enjoyment of life: bliss makes for good times.

Back to some of the Sanskrit roots (once more, you can click here to access a simple translation reference below).

Along with concentration, calm is also a component of samadhi, so the cool ethics of sila have a natural synergy with and aid the development of samadhi or absorption.

Guatemala meditation retreat

Meditation Retreatants with Doug and Catherine in Guatemala, 2010.

Benefiting as we are from thousands of years of Hindi and Buddhist meditators’ experience, there are countless meditations to develop concentration and absorption. Respective methods are assigned to individuals according to their different temperaments. This is one reason why our teaching values a diverse spiritual path: different practices work well at different times for different people.

Lastly, the development of wisdom arises with investigation and examination of presuppositions that may have gone unexamined previously. This can sometimes “stir the pot” of our conditioning: we may discover that our lives and actions have been based on ideas that we don’t actually believe!

Maintaining calm and focus allows us to ride that dragon skillfully. The result is a feeling of spaciousness, more joy and greater freedom, a.k.a. liberation.

This article was written by Doug Duncan and Catherine Pawasarat.  They are leading a retreat on the Path of Purification 1-17 Jan., 2016 at the beautiful and tranquil Clear Sky Retreat Center outside Cranbrook, BC. View the Meditation Retreat details for course outcomes, expectations, inspirations and to register.

Dharma Teacher Couple

Path of Purification (​Visuddhimagga) Translation Reference (Sanskrit to English)

prajna: wisdom, insight, knowledge, having sense
samadhi: concentration, absorption, putting together, bringing into harmony, completion
sila: ethics, habit, character, practice, coolness
visuddhi: purification, clean, clear, honest, empty