Pure Land by David Chapman
Everyone you meet is a Buddha.
All the world is a sacred paradise.
That is the tantric practice of “pure vision.” Like charnel ground, it is a “practice of view,” which means developing the habit of interpreting the world in a particular way.
There are technical methods for developing this “divine perception.” However, as in earlier pages, I would rather emphasize the power of the attitude.
What is important is relating to people as though they were Buddhas, and relating to circumstances as though they were a “Pure Land.”
The purpose of pure vision
Pure vision might sound like pretending. It definitely feels like pretending when you first start practicing. “Isn’t pretending a bad idea?” I’ll come back to that. First, what is pure vision good for?
Antidote to ordinariness
Pure vision is the antidote to misperceiving people and things as ordinary. Conceiving them as “ordinary,” you tune out their specifics and relate to them only to manipulate them for boring, necessary purposes. They lose most of their ability to surprise or delight you.
Nothing is objectively “ordinary,” and nothing is objectively “sacred.” These are strictly in the eye of the beholder. So which would you prefer to live with?
Tantra aims for enjoyment of all circumstances. This is an obviously desirable way of being. Besides that, enjoying everything helps you accomplish other tantric goals. (More about that later.)
In a pure land—a paradise—obviously everything is enjoyable. If you experience whatever situation you find yourself in as a pure land, then you will enjoy it.
Obligatory sexual metaphor
(This is tantra, after all!)
The six senses are six beautiful naked deities (of your sexual preference) offering you bowls of nectar, plates of ambrosia, and, um, other delights.
Tantric psychology, like all Buddhist psychology, emphasizes the role of the senses in connecting the world with your emotions. Mainstream Buddhism explains this as mainly negative: sensory awareness provokes hatred, lust, and ignorance; and sensory connections are “fetters” that chain you to samsara.
Tantra reverses that. The physical world is nirvana. You should want to be connected to it, as much as possible, because it is thoroughly enjoyable, and because the real world is the place you can be most useful. Your emotions (stripped of fixed meanings) provide the energy that drives usefulness.
You should, therefore, honor the senses as sacred. You should also get to know them better by paying more attention to what they do and how. Personifying them as sexy deities is a tantric trick to help with that.
Of course, these deities are devoted to serving you. They bring you all the world’s wonderful experiences, offering them as gifts.
Dissolving fixed meanings
Ordinarily, we automatically interpret people and situations as intrinsically good, bad, or uninteresting; as supports or threats. Perceiving something as “intrinsically bad” means that its badness is fixed—an objective, enduring meaning. Then we have emotional reactions to those valuations, and act based on the emotions. This is one way of understanding the Buddhist concept of “kleshas.”
The kleshas are supposed to be the cause of dukkha (unsatisfactoriness); but we can turn that around. Unsatisfactoriness is the cause of the kleshas. Habitually seeing life as a nasty problem is what makes you interpret people and things as good, bad, or uninteresting.
In pure vision’s paradise, nothing is unsatisfactory or threatening. So, you can relax. There’s no need to categorize people and situations as good, bad, or uninteresting.
This is a method for developing spaciousness, which is a key to tantra. Alternatively, you can understand this as the transformation of the tantric five kleshas into the corresponding five wisdoms. The wisdoms are the energies of the kleshas, minus fixation.
Exploding subjective and objective
It might seem that pure vision fixates everything as “good.” But that fixation is the klesha of neediness—“Gotta have it!” You take a subjective valuation (“I like it”) and project it as an objective quality (“it’s good”).
Pure vision makes everything interesting—not “good.” Interest is what makes everything enjoyable. Interest is a dynamic interaction: neither subjective nor objective, but a process that involves both self and other. Enjoyment is also interactive, whereas neurotic desire is subjective.
Is this realistic?
How do you feel about what I’ve written so far?
If you tend toward nihilism (as I do), it may inspire derision. It may sound like typical rainbow fairy spiritual self-deception. You may wonder if I’ve taken an overdose of stupidity—especially after my wonderfully grim previous post about the charnel ground.
If you tend toward eternalism, it may inspire hope. It may come as a relief, after my horrifyingly grim previous post about the charnel ground. You may wonder what awful thing happened to me then to write such depressing rubbish.
Either way: apparently, I’ve retracted what I said in the last post. Tantra offers salvation from samsara after all!
Isn’t it unrealistic to deliberately delude yourself with a kitschy fantasy? Isn’t it better to face the truth about the world as it is? Putting on rose-colored glasses doesn’t actually make the world any less bad; and if you can’t see it accurately, you won’t be able to respond accurately. Especially not to threats.
However, the ultimate aim of pure vision is not to see anything that isn’t objectively there, nor to hide anything that is. The aim is to end the hallucination that subjective valuations (good, bad, uninteresting) are objective qualities.
In tantric technical exercises, you do visualize things that are not there. For example, you try to see ordinary pebbles as precious jewels. The point of this, though, is to come to appreciate pebbles for their own real-world qualities.
“Ordinary” is a hallucination—an imposed meaning. It blinds you to the thing itself; to the beauty of the rock, which you can enjoy if you pay it attention. “Precious” is also a hallucination, but you can use it as a temporary antidote to “ordinary.” Visualizations are training wheels for the actual practice. Trying to see a pebble as precious, you open your eyes to what is there.
The technical practices of pure vision are probably best tried first in a safe space. Done properly, they won’t turn you into an idiot, however. The attitude of pure vision is realistic, not Pollyannaish. It does not blind you to harmful consequences.
What it can do is allow you to appreciate anything, including “bad” and “ordinary” things. There is a powerful social taboo that says you are only allowed to enjoy “good things.” (This is especially key to the middle classes, by the way. Things from your own sub-class are “ordinary,” and you shouldn’t enjoy them much. Things from the next grade down are “bad,” and you mustn’t enjoy them at all, or your status may slip and fall.)
You can enjoy even physical pain—almost always labeled “bad.” But athletes actively enjoy certain kinds of pain, as proofs of accomplishment. The same pain would cause suffering if it didn’t have that meaning. By stripping the meaning off other pains, you can enjoy them, too. (That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t rather avoid them, though.)
Is this possible?
Is it possible to see everyone as a Buddha, and all the world as a paradise?
My experience is that it’s hard work. Ideally, you are supposed to maintain pure vision at all times. I can’t do that, and I can’t know whether it is possible.
However, being able to do it even a little bit is enjoyable and useful. I think it’s certainly worth trying.
This is one of the many aspects of tantra where working closely with a teacher is invaluable. They can give advice on appreciation tailored for your personal patterns of aversion. They can give specific advice about how to enjoy particular things. You can also learn a lot simply by watching them relish unlikely pleasures.
No heaven on earth
The pure land might sound like heaven, but it’s actually quite different.
Traditional Buddhism has heavens, which it considers no damn good. Everything is so blandly pleasurable that you turn into an indolent idiot. There is no motivation to do anything but soak in it. It is always mid-afternoon, and the weather is always perfect.
Nothing ever happens in heaven. Time slows almost to a halt. You can spend billions of years without noticing that you have got absolutely nothing done.
A pure land, by contrast, is the ideal place for Buddhist practice. It’s comfortable enough that you can settle into meditation, but not stupefyingly pleasant. It’s varied enough to jolt you out of the mindless bliss states that can trap advanced meditators. In the pure land, the point is to wake up, train hard, and learn how to make yourself useful.
In heaven, it is always 78 degrees Fahrenheit—a soothing tropical warmth. In the pure land, there are bracing autumn mornings that say: wake up!
In heaven, angels play constant sweet songs. In the pure land, there is none of that kitschy muzak. There is silence—often the best thing for meditation. In that, you may hear the sound of wind in the branches. As dusk falls, frogs call. There is the croak of a raven; and then in the distance the snarl of a hyaena.
I saw hyaenas being fed once. It was terrifying. They can, and did, bite straight through a cow’s leg bone. From the way they hurled themselves against the cage walls as we passed, it was obvious that they consider people food.
So in the pure land, the hyaena’s snarl is a useful reminder that time and life are limited, which motivates practice.
Heaven is a garden of perfectly maintained, tastefully color-coordinated flower beds, emitting a delicate perfume.
There are flowers in the pure land, too. They grow on thorny black brambles, amidst the heaps of rotting corpses, which emit the acrid stench of death.
Wait a minute! Something’s wrong—this suddenly got twisted and weird…It seems that we’ve wandered from the pure land into the charnel ground. Charnel ground is the practice of viewing all reality as a horror movie. What went wrong?
Nothing. Here is the secret key to both practices:
The pure land is the charnel ground. The charnel ground is the pure land.
It is not that things you like are the pure land, and ones you don’t are the charnel ground. That’s just the dualism of the kleshas—attraction and aversion.
It is not that reality is somewhere in-between heaven and hell. It is not that charnel ground practice is the antidote to liking things, and pure land the antidote to disliking them. That might be the approach of lukewarm mainstream Buddhism; but Tantra is not the middle way.
It is not that you alternate pure land and charnel ground practice. You do that in training, but it is not the ultimate, non-dual practice.
All of reality is always simultaneously a pure land and a charnel ground.
Everything is sacred—perfect just as it is. Everything is a nightmare, horror heaped on horror.
The charnel ground is a paradise: there are always plenty of corpses to eat, and rivers of poison to drink. (Tantrikas are required to eat corpses—of cows, at least—and to drink rivers of poison—alcohol, at least.)Everyone you meet is a shambling undead monstrosity and also a perfectly enlightened Buddha.
So are you.
It is not that you are a Buddha when you are “being good” and a monster when you are “bad.” These are two poetic descriptions of the same whole person.
The value of charnel ground and pure vision practice is in highlighting different feelings you have about the one non-dual reality. Charnel ground is the antidote to eternalism: the delusion that the universe has some ultimate metaphysical meaning that will save you. Pure vision is the antidote to nihilism: the delusion that the universe is only dead matter, and life—full of suffering—has no purpose.
In the garden of nightmares, coiling vines grow pale flowers. They bloom at midnight.
You stroll through the endless charnel ground hand-in-hand with the god/dess of your dreams.
S/he stoops and, delighted, picks up a bleached, broken human femur. It glints in the moonlight.
You turn it over in your hands, admiring the delicate filigree of bone within. So lovely!