July 2017

Purify Your Own Heart
Rev. Master Basil Singer

Recently I became aware that the Third Pure Precept,1 “Do Good for Others,” has another expression in the ancient scriptures: “Purify Your Own Heart.” This really hit home with me in light of my actions of thought and speech during the recent election cycle. Like many people, it seems, of whatever political persuasion, I hardened my heart against those with different points of view. In effect, I polluted my heart with self-righteous ideas and opinions and denied the ideas of others. I refused to consider their intentions and point of view, even if I disagreed with their approach. In effect, I denied them their Buddha Nature.

A wonderful aspect of pure meditation (even if sometimes painful) is that if we practice sincerely and with an open heart, it shows us the suffering we’re causing ourselves and others and the need to change our ways. In this case, although it took some time, eventually my meditation showed me quite powerfully the pain that my hard-hearted opinionation was causing myself and others. This shock of recognition inspired my deep regret, and also made me recognize that my hardened heart was similar to those with whom I had a problem. The resulting sange2 prompted me to apologize to those upon whom I had inflicted my opinions. Letting go of my hard-hearted attitude felt like a load of rocks dropped from my back, and my relief was great. As Dogen says in the Shushogi:3

Contrition before the Buddhas brings purification and salvation, true conviction and earnest endeavour: once aroused, true conviction changes all beings, in addition to ourselves, with benefits extending to everything including that which is animate and inanimate.

This experience truly roused my conviction to refrain from making this mistake. Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett points out a direct connection between the First Pure Precept, Cease from Evil, and the Third, Purify Your Own Heart: “Know that to purify the heart is, indeed, to have the intention and practice of refraining from all evil whatsoever.”4

My own experience with this situation has inspired me to remind the various meditation groups I visit how vitally important it is to be ever mindful of our thought and speech. Keeping our thought and speech pure helps keep our Heart open and maintain generosity of spirit for others and ourselves. This is not easy, I know, because there are things and people that push our buttons and cause us to want to close down and harden our hearts against them. But as we are taught in our very first meditation instruction, when we simply let these thoughts and emotions naturally arise, observe them, then let them go they will be washed and purified by the compassion of the Eternal. Saying this seems simple enough, but actually putting it into practicecan be challenging even after years of training. It is difficult because we are trying to convert deeply habituated forces of negative habit energy that we have generated in this life and inherited from past lives. This can blind us to the suffering we’re creating.

Rev. Master Jiyu said about the Third Pure Precept:

The feeling of refraining and of purifying the heart is one of the most exquisite feelings there is. It is a feeling of … “becoming more spiritual….” Since another way of referring to the spirit is the pure inner “water” wherein the “Moon” of Truth is reflected, this is also known as “becoming full of Light.”5

And in her commentary on this Precept in the Kyojukaimon, where it is expressed as “Do Good For Others,” she makes clear that doing good for others first requires ceasing from evil: “Do not set up a chain of causation that will cause others to do wrong; do not do that which will cause another to grieve; do not do that which will result in your creating karma for another being; do not accidentally set the wheel of karma in motion.”6 Elsewhere in this regard she said:

Dogen says that to purify the heart is the very same as to refrain from evil. The refraining itself is the purification. So don’t worry about how to purify your heart, just refrain from evil. The purification will happen automatically, as a result of refraining and of meditation. We do not have to worry about the analysis of how or why, just refrain from that which is not to be done.7

This is an important reminder that first we must do something about ourselves: purify our hearts by training in pure meditation and mindful application of the Precepts, which is to “refrain from evil.” If we try to willfully “do good for others” we most often step on toes and make a bit of a mess. Of course, we do need to take action at times, and our training helps us to respond to people and situations from a place of centered stillness, a place of compassion, sympathy, and empathy. And that is truly doing good for others.

In talking about this recently to the meditation groups, I mentioned that if anyone had anything to add to this article they were welcome to contribute. The following are one trainee’s observations.

Rev. Basil once pointed out that when the selfish self arises, there is almost a physical sensation of feeling the heart harden as we push away that which we don’t want or cling to that which we do. Sort of a claustrophobic feeling, if you will. His observation has proven to be of great help to me, and I’ve learned to observe that symptom in myself when greed or hate arise. (Delusion, however, is much harder to observe: more elusive, seductive, more insidious than the other two.) The sensation is a timely reminder that something is going wrong: I am beginning to feel a tangible discomfort and I can alleviate that by letting go of the urge to insist that the world conform to my desires. This is a better use of the will, and I recommend it.

There’s a willfulness that seems to be in the way of the needed softening of my heart. Rev. Master Kōshin has a metaphor he uses to describe this conundrum: we must get ourselves out of the driver’s seat.

I understand my True Heart to be my Buddha Nature. I have no doubt that it is void, unstained, and pure. All I need to do is to take refuge there, setting aside all concerns about purity and impurity. Taking refuge in the Buddha Nature softens the brittle accretions of willfulness and allows my thoughts, words, and deeds to be informed by, to flow from, my True heart. Taking refuge in this way helps me to become a vessel for something much deeper and more compassionate than my ordinary selfish self.

In closing, it must be recognized that at any point in our training there will people and situations that “push our buttons” and cause our hearts to harden and for our training to go off the rails. I speak from recent experience, when my reactions to a situation made me realize that I needed to do extra meditation, be more still, and let the Eternal wash and cleanse my thoughts and emotions. This proved to me yet again that our first, last, and best recourse in difficult times is to ask for the help of the Eternal through pure meditation and to let our actions of body, speech, and mind be guided by the Precepts. When we do these things, we purify our heart and are truly good for all.


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1The Three Pure Precepts are expressed in the Soto Zen tradition as: Cease From Evil, Do Only Good, Do Good for Others.

2 “SANGE (J), contrition, confession, repentence. The sincere recognition of all that is wrong within one and the acceptance of one’s past karma. Sange is the true source of religious humility and a principal gateway to enlightenment.” Glossary, Zen is Eternal Life (Mount Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press, Fourth Edition, 1999), p. 328.

3Excerpted from Zen is Eternal Life, ibid., pp. 94-103.

4Roar of the Tigress, Volume Two (Mount Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press, 2005), p. 164.

5 Ibid., p. 158

6Kyojukaimon and Commentary. Giving and Receiving the Teaching of the Precepts.

7Roar of the Tigress II, op. cit., p. 159.


North Star Dharma Refuge

We have purchased a house in Hutchinson, to close August 9. The house is well-suited as a temple, having a large living room that's ideal for a meditation hall and a formal dining room that will make a roomy common room. There's a half-bath on the ground floor, with bedrooms and full bath upstairs. It's an older house, built in 1916, but has been well maintained. There's also a detached, two-car garage.

Rev. Bennet is looking forward to the move, but he's not too sure that the cats are on board with it....