Purity? What purity?

Friday July 28, 2006


According to the Japan Times, Japanese researchers have just found a seventh century painting that is possibly of the mythical Persian bird Simorgh (or Simurgh) in a cave at Bamiyan in Afghanistan.

Information at the moment is a bit scant on this – one of the best reports appears on Yahoo News, but researchers are excited by the finds. One of those working on the project claimed that:

This image shows that Iranian myth and Persian views were reflected in Bamiyan Buddhism. It indicates the influence of people from Sogd, the areas north of Afghanistan which covers what are now Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Of course, it should not be at all surprising that Buddhism in seventh century Afghanistan should be influenced by Persian Zoroastrianism. Staking out our territories around imagined entities (“Buddhism”, “Zoroastrianism”, “The West”, “The East” and so on), we tend to underestimate the cross-fertilisation of cultures both now and also in the ancient world. There is evidence, for example, that as early as the 8 th to 10 th century Tibet was influenced by Nestorian Christianity and Persian Manichaeism. Take the following text, found at Tun-huang:

Man, your friend is named god I-si Myi-si-ha (Jesus Messiah) and acts as Vajrapani Sri Sakyamuni, and when the doors of the heaven with seven layers will be opened, you will pursue the Yoga that you will receive from the judge at the right hand of God; and what (you) will have thought, do it without shyness, unscared, undaunted. You will become a Jina. There will be no demons of sickness and impediments. This lot, for whatever cast, is very good. (From G. Uray, “Tibet’s connection with Nestorianism and Manichaeism” in Contributions on Tibetan Language, History and Culture, ed. Steinkellner and Tauscher. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1995, 413)

The content is deeply obscure – as if the author of the Book of Revelation has somehow wound up locked up in a library of Tibetan texts. And I for one have no inclination to comment upon what any of this might possibly mean. But at the same time, I like the fact that in the very early phases of Buddhism in Tibet, we find an unexpected mixing of ideas, this cross-fertilisation, this blurring of boundaries.

Often in the Buddhist world, the extent of this mixing is underestimated in favour of a concern with maintaining the “purity of the tradition”. This concern is common to almost all Buddhist traditions from Theravada to Zen to Tibetan Buddhism. From one point of view, this is a reasonable desire. If particular practices are good and useful, then it is good to maintain a certain rigour in handing them down. But even then this rigour needs to be tempered with a kind of flexibility. Many of those who talk about the purity of their own tradition are blind to the fact that this much-vaunted purity is a far more compromised thing than they would like to admit. It seems to me a reasonable axiom that no religious tradition (and, for that matter, no tradition of any other kind either) is pure. What, after all, does it even mean to say that a tradition is “pure”? It seems to me that so often the conjuring of the chimera of purity serves to merely divide, to dismiss and to condemn. Occasionally, it can even lead to violence.

And for all that we might talk about purity, which of us are genuinely pure? I don’t mean this in a moral sense, but rather in a deeper sense – I’d call it an ontological if that didn’t sound too ponderous. Michel Serres writes of the self as a “mixed body: studded, spotted, zebrine, tigroid, shimmering, spotted like an ocelot…” (, 145). Calvino writes of how we are

a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined[.] Each life is an encyclopaedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable. (Calvino, , 124.)

Perhaps, then, we don’t need pure practices, pure doctrines, pure thoughts and pure ethics, but mixed practices, mixed doctrines, mixed thoughts and mixed ethics, so that we might be able to live well in this mixed world of ours.

To return to Simorgh, the mythical bird. It may be that Simorgh can serve as an image of the power of impurity, an image of that which is good about being mixed. With a body of thirty colours, with the head of the dog and with the claws of a lion, Simorgh itself is a mixed creature. But the legends tell us that a touch of the mythical bird’s wings can kill any malady, and that when it first took to the air, the flapping of its wings caused the tree of knowledge to shake so that the seeds of every plant in the world fell out. These seeds floated around the world and sprouted in rich forests, curing all the sicknesses and the woes of humankind.

Perhaps, if we are to set about the slow task of responding to the ills of the world, we should take a hint from Simorgh, and begin to recognise the virtues of being mixed and impure.

# · tazo

Christianity itseld is ripe with a mized heritage. The sun disks on martyrs derive from that of the ancient Egyptians. Praying to the Saints is like praying to a pantheon of gods. Angels supposedly were picked up by the Jews when captured by the Babylonians. And the great flood has been reported by ancient Turks, Greeks…and the Mayans.

# · Pramila

‘’take a hint from Simorgh, and begin to recognise the virtues of being mixed and impure’’

‘’I don’t mean this in a moral sense, but rather in a deeper sense – I’d call it an ontological …’

These statements grabbed my attention.
The question arose ‘What exactly are the virtues of being ‘mixed and impure’?
I tried to answer this: 1] combines different flavours 2] depending on who/how does the mixing and who tastes, as it were the ‘mix’, it could be colourful or a horrid mish mash.
I would argue, that, if we are talking about spiritual traditions such as Buddhism, perhaps it is best to savour each ingredient [or ‘path’]. Allow it to simmer [practice of a particular aspect/discipline]. Taste its ‘purity’before spitting it out/or mixing Then, judiciously mixing other elements.
3] Being a chameleon, blending in as a survival mechanism….but somwhere, within that ‘shifting self’ there is some sort of ‘pure/authentic’core? or maybe not? What, within us, are we not prepared to ‘mix’? or is everything relative?
4] Image of the lotus in Buddhism ….arising from mud of many sources [mixed and impure, yet what a radiant bloom]

Mixed and imp your thoughts?

# · rama

In a recent post I wrote: “Advanced human life (of the mind, of spirit) is far more ancient than the western world believes, much has happened which is entirely unknown today, but with clues lying around for those who wish to know and observe.

Exchanges – commerce of soul – have taken place between peoples and cultures from ancient times, exhibiting a sweetness of intercourse incomparable to anything in contemporary life. So much of the wealth of ‘secular’ (i.e. non-religious) life – is the fruit of spiritual fabrication over millenia. Ordinary life is impregnated with the sacred. Everything around us – is sacred.”


Yes of course, a lot of precious exchanges took place between Buddhist and Muslim mystics, especially from Iran. When I read the Sufi stories published by Idries Shah – I am struck by that.

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