Purity in Buddhism

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Purity (suddha) is an important concept within much of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, although the implications of the resultant moral purification may be viewed differently in the varying traditions. The aim is to purify the personality of the Buddhist practitioner so that all moral and character defilements and defects (kleshas such as anger, ignorance and lust) are wiped away and Nirvana can be obtained.

Theravada Understanding of Purity[edit]

Theravada Buddhism regards the path of self-purification as absolutely vital for the reaching of nibbana/nirvana. The main task of the Theravada Buddhist monk is to eradicate moral and character flaws through meditation and moral cultivation, in alliance with the cultivation of insight (panna/ prajna), so that the purity of nibbana can be achieved. So important is this notion of purity in Theravada Buddhism that the famed Buddhist monk and commentator, Buddhaghosa, composed a central thesis on dhamma (Buddhism) called The Path of Purity (Visuddhi-magga).

Mahayana Understanding of Purity[edit]


Controversially, according to the Mahayana Tathagatagarbha sutras, the unsullied essence or "true self" (also termed the Buddha nature) of the being can be laid bare and become manifest once the temporary and superficial contaminants (kleshas) have been eradicated from its presence.[1][2] These contaminants are seen as extrinsic to, rather than inherent within, the essence of the being.

The resulting Buddha (after the kleshas have been eliminated) is referred to in the Tathagatagarbha literature and in the works of the Tibetan Jonangpa lama Dolpopa as the 'pure Self'.[3]

Perfection of Wisdom[edit]

The Perfection of Wisdom sutras of Mahayana Buddhism, in contrast, would ultimately view both impurity and purification as illusory, without any basis to either. Neither has an enduring essence and so is not truly 'fake', according to these ideas, but is merely a name or concept. Nevertheless, these scriptures do teach the need to detach from all moral defilements if Buddhahood is to be reached for the sake of awakening all sentient beings.

See also[edit]


  • Hopkins, Jeffrey (2006). Mountain Doctrine: Tibet's Fundamental Treatise on Other-Emptiness and the Buddha Matrix - by: Dolpopa, Jeffrey Hopkins, Snow Lion Publications, Hardcover, 832 Pages. ISBN 1-55939-238-X
  • The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra in 12 Volumes tr. by Kosho Yamamoto, ed. by Dr. Tony Page, Nirvana Publications, London, 2000.
  • The Srimala Sutra tr. by Dr. Shenpen Hookham, Longchen Foundation, Oxford, 1995.


  1. ^ Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra in 12 Volumes, tr. by Kosho Yamamoto, ed. by Dr. Tony Page, Nirvana Publications, London, 2000, Vol. 3, pp. 7-8 and passim, and The Srimala Sutra tr. by Dr. Shenpen Hookham, Longchen Foundation Press, Oxford, 1995, p. 34).
  2. ^ "In the Śrī-mālā, there are two main conditions for the"embryo of the Tathāgata" (tathāgatagarbha): either covered by defilements, when it is called only the "embryo of the Tathāgata"; or free from defilements, when the "embryo of the Tathāgata" is no more the "embryo" but the Tathāgata (= the Dharmakāya) (actuality) . . . . For example, the Mahābherīharaka-sūtra states at one point, 'accordingly at the time one becomes a Tathāgata, a Buddha, one is in nirvāṇa and is referred to as "permanent", "steadfast", "calm", "eternal" and "self" (ātman)'. Alex and Hideko Wayman, The Lion's Roar of Queen Śrīmālā, Columbia University Press, 1974; p45
  3. ^ (suddha-atman - see Mountain Doctrine, by Prof. Jeffrey Hopkins, 2006, p. 201)