26 January 2008

Ritual Purity or Rank Superstition?

Many Indian ideas about ritual purity, especially with respect to the body, have made their way into contemporary Buddhism. I want to look at a few examples of this. An examination of the origins of these ideas in Brahminical thought may be cause to re-assess the relevance in contemporary Buddhism.

A couple of years ago I was showing a friend of a friend (a follower of Tibetan Buddhism) some of my thangka paintings. One of these hung at the foot of my bed so I could see it first/last thing. "You don't sleep with your feet pointed at that do you?" - there was a note of shock in the question. "It's very bad karma" she said. I pondered this for some time before coming to any understanding of it. I knew already that Buddhists were not supposed to point their feet at shrines. But why? Because in India the feet are considered ritual impure. But again why? The feet are ritually impure partly because they are in contact with the earth, and the dirt and shit that cover it. But again why the ritual impurity? I think it goes back to the famous Purisa hymn in the Rig Veda. In this cosmogonic myth the four social groups - Brahmins, Ksatreyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras - are born from the various parts of Brahma's body. It later versions it is Prajapati's body. The Shudras, serfs, are born from Brahma's feet. The Shudras are not the lowest rung on the Hindu scale, but they are the lowest rung of the people who are not considered outcasts or untouchable. Shudras are not permitted to enter temples, nor to hear the sacred mantras. This is so much a part of Indian culture - one touches the feat of a respected elder in greeting for instance - that even the new Buddhists honour it though they are frequently from backgrounds which high caste Hindus consider beyond the pale, so ritually polluting that their touch requires elaborate purification rituals involving ironically cow shit and piss. When in 1923 Dr Ambedkar drank from a tank in a Brahmin village, they tipped a load of cow shit into it to "purify" it!

But feet are not ritually polluting in Western cultures. Although foot odour is universally considered uncool at best, it is the odour not the foot itself that offends. The foot is by contrast sometimes even an object of desire in the west! Where I come from it is de-rigour, and completely natural, to go about in bare feet in summer. So why am I adopting this Brahminical value into my practice of Buddhism, which if anything denies the validity of notions of ritual purity?

Right shoulder to stupa
In the centre of the warehouse I worked in two years ago is a 7m high stupa which is both beautiful and impressive. Buddhists traditionally keep a stupa, or any revered object or person, to their right-hand side. Some people who work in the warehouse go to elaborate lengths to go around the stupa clockwise, to keep right shoulder to the stupa. Some go about it quietly, while others are (at times) vocally critical of people who dare to go anti-clockwise, showing their left-side to the stupa. But why I asked? What is the point? Because, I was told, it is traditional. I am not superstition person and I found this puzzling. Again I think this goes back to Brahminical ideas of ritual purity. Even today in India the left hand is impure because it is used for cleaning the anus after taking a dump. The Indians use water and not toilet paper for this. So the left hand is unclean, often quite literally, and one eats with the right. Hence if you revere someone you keep your left hand away from them. Additionally the outcastes were required to dress with their left shoulder uncovered, while the higher castes uncovered their right shoulder - this uncovering the right shoulder is a constant, if entirely incidental, theme of the Pali Canon.

Now I'm right handed and I wipe my arse with my right hand. So by the logic of ancient India my right side is impure and I should either go clockwise around the stupa, but walk backwards; or go the other way. But after I wipe my bum I wash my hands and consider them clean at that point. No literal or ritual pollution! My own belief that it is the quality of awareness of the significance of the stupa which is important - and I can go any way around the thing if I have the right attitude.

Tantra and ritual impurity.
My other example emerges out of the antinomian practices of the Tantra. Antinomian means "released from moral obligations". It originates in a Christian context, but with reference to Indian religion it relates to actions which are ritually impure. So the tantric yogin chooses a consort from the untouchable castes, frequents a cremations ground and messes about with bones and skulls, and consumes meat, alcohol and sexual fluids. These are some of the most polluting things a caste Hindu could do. The point is that the Buddha does not make distinctions like pure/impure . So the yogin experiences these intensely polluting activities with a view to maintaining their equanimity in the face of very strong provocation, to overcome their cultural conditioning around the notion of pollution. For the first time there is a sense of cross-over with western culture. We too have taboos around death that mean human remains are disposed of very purposefully, and according to laws and special customs. However contact with death is not ritually polluting as it is for the Brahmin - it does not require lengthy ritual cleansing for instance. Meat eating, drinking liquour, and even the odd mouthful of sexual fluid, are not particularly taboo in western society. Having sex with a low class person might be seen as tacky in some circles, but again not ritually polluting in a way that requires ritual cleansing.

So it would seem that adopting Indian antinomian practices which are entirely "nomian" (if there is such a word) in the west is a bit pointless. And yet the shrines of Westerners, and Westerners themselves, are adorned with skulls, and bones, and other reminders of death - although I think the significance is lost on most people who simply see them as reminders of impermanence. We make a big deal about the "left handed" tantra, which once again invokes the Indian left-hand-bum-wiping thing and involves acting out polluting actions, and contrast it with right-handed tantra in which one only imagines doing the dirty thing. But to us those things aren't dirty, we aren't ritually polluted by them. Some things we may find unethical, and in that case we may feel remorse if we eat meat or drink liquor, it is not the same thing as ritual pollution.

I doubt that traditional Buddhists reading this are going to want to change the tradition. Some of these things go very deep - are embedded in our canons of scripture for instance. But the Buddha was quite critical of superstition (mangalikā) and we can read for instance the Mangala Sutta as a critique of superstition and a call to just practice the Dharma - i.e. to make yourself pure by good behaviour, not through rituals; have good fortune (also mangala) through reaping the benefits of good behaviour, not through omens, divination, or other superstitions and/or rituals. Let us not turn back the clock on the age of reason in adopting this ancient religion, let us investigate the origins of superstitions and decide whether they are still relevant, and move on if they are not.

image: www.clear-vision.org
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