Dust to Dust

Next, having first gazed upon the dust visible in a beam of light [1.12] coming through a window, when walking, standing, sitting, lying down, and even while eating, you must constantly imagine this dust within the beam of light. [1.13] [To meditate thusly] is the greatest form of repentance. [Translator’s note: Sinful actions take place in dependence on the body. If one contemplates that one’s body is nothing but dust, then sin has nothing upon which it can depend. [To meditate thusly] is the greatest form of repentance.]

I totally disagree with the translator’s assessment of this passage. [Sinful] actions are not exclusively dependent on the body; sinful actions are actions emanating from [spirit], the body is only secondary. It is an evil spirit that entices the body to sin. Rather, the passage in question asks that the adept meditate upon dust particles appearing in a beam of light as a reflection of the reality of what just does constitute material formality—including the carnal body; ultimately they are reduced to nothingness, which is a good reminder of the fragileness of the human condition. Repentance is a spiritual affair, not carnal.

When a practitioner is diligently contemplating [all things as] dust, he may [1.14] experience a vision of his body with its flesh rotted, or bruised, or infested with maggots, or [exuding] pus and blood; or else he may see himself as a skeleton; [1.15] or he may see himself as a body without a head; or missing half his body; or as missing one hand; or [1.16] as missing one foot; or he may see his internal body parts each fall away leaving only his skeleton behind; or he may see the flesh of half his body [1.17] rot away revealing half his skeleton; or he may see himself without a body, [as but a] mirage or reflection. There are [1.18] various meditative visions (jingjie) that one might see at this time. Concerning whatever things you see, you must merely think to yourself: “This is dust!” When you first do this, [1.19] they will not want to become dust. But if you diligently gaze upon them for a long time, they will eventually all become dust.

While meditating on the limitations of the human condition, one may begin the meditation in sequence fashion—of the bodies dismemberment, foul excrements, the final dissolution as a skeleton, and then ultimately dust. But whatever images produce themselves, this passage teaches that ultimately they are dust and no-thing more. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Further, when contemplating [all things as] dust, [1.20] you may see buddhas, or bodhisattvas, or monks; or you may see palaces, towers, flower ponds, jeweled canopies, [1.21] or else the entire world filled with earth, water, fire, or wind, or with various blue, yellow, red, or white lights. [1.22] Even though visions such as this appear, within your mind merely keep diligently thinking of them as dust and eventually they will become dust.

When in meditation, there are an endless array of images that can manifest themselves, yea this includes images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, or other sundry spiritual entities. While they can prove useful in the early stages of meditation, ultimately they are a direct hindrance to spiritual growth in the Unborn. Just keep reflecting that ALL images are as dust itself.

There was once [1.23] someone who, while learning the dust contemplation, saw a snake wrapped around his neck. Though he could feel its coolness, he said to himself “This is [2.1] dust!” and following these thoughts it became dust. Someone else was once contemplating dust and saw a buddha, [2.2] its body as big as the sky. This buddha spoke, saying: “Other things can be made into dust, but I have a [2.3] body of adamant!” You must not be afraid [if you see something like this]. Just diligently imagine it as dust, and on the tenth day it will entirely transform into dust.

Many times certain images arising during contemplation can appear to have a total hold over the adept, thus producing fear and uncertainty.  But, once again, just keeping coming back to the admonition that they all constitute dust—and are thus [powerless] to overcome you. They are just cheap imitations of dust.

[2.4] Indeed, as the first fascicle of the Lankavatara Sutra says: “Why do you not ask how many [motes of dust] there are within the bodies of the voice-hearers. pratyekabuddhas, buddhas, and the [2.5] sons of the conqueror?” (“Sons of the conqueror” means bodhisattvas)—translator). And as it says later in this same fascicle, [2.6] “what you analyze into motes of dust you will no longer falsely imagine as a truly existing material form.” All material forms that one sees with one’s eyes [2.7] are merely this kind of thing; all are merely false perceptions. [translator: “All material forms” are tenfold: namely, [the sensory organs of] eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body, and [the sensory objects] of visible forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and tangibles.]

Excellent referral to the Lanka that marvelously illustrates how all formal images are just faulty perceptions—and thus are worth no more than dust.

Some people these days, [2.8] upon hearing this method [of practice], whether old or young they all contemplate dust and thereby obtain [2.9] great benefit. There was one person who heard about it and then, in private, contemplated dust. Right then he saw his own body [2.10] entirely vanish and he suddenly became afraid, [thinking]: “My body has vanished into nothingness! What do I do?” For several days he was all in a flurry, [2.11] as if he had gone crazy. Someone came by and saw he was cultivating the path and spoke to him several times. Gradually [2.12] he was able to understand the meaning of the scriptures and is now perfectly at ease.

A passage that reinforces that one need not fear the realizations that occur when undertaking the Dust Contemplation. There are scriptural passages (like the Lanka) that help to reinforce this realization that all is dust, and thus one has no-thing to fear.

There was someone else who heard this teaching about dust and when he began to [2.17] contemplate, he became blind. At once he became extremely startled and quickly felt for his eyes. Even though [2.18] his eyes were still there, day and night he was uneasy. Someone came by and saw him cultivating the path and spoke with him, gradually [2.19] easing his mind. At present, he has reached an even more superior realization!

This apparent blindness in this passage is indicative of witnessing a marvelous realization, and that is beholding the great [imageless] affair—indeed, the greatest of all self-realizations and the ultimate prize of all contemplations! The very seedbed of deathlessness, as cradled in imagelessness, wherein all false images dissipate into the nothingness from which they emanated.

Many are those who have benefited from hearing and then practicing [the contemplation of dust] [2.20] in this way! One person, when contemplating dust, saw an adamantine person, over ten feet tall, standing in front [2.21] of the door saying: “I have an adamantine body; how could I be dust?” On the fourth day, [this practitioner] came to me and, prostrating to the ground with his hands clutching the [2.22] threshold of [my] doorway, asked about the path. [I] said: “Don’t be afraid. Just diligently imagine [that adamantine person] as dust.” [2.23] And on the fifth day he suddenly turned to dust!

Another reinforcement of the cheapness of all images. They are nothing and in nothingness they shall return.

Others who contemplate dust will suddenly see their bodies transform into large trees or large [2.24] mountains. Imagining them as dust without cease, these visions will entirely transform into dust. Others will see various different [2.25] meditative visions like those described above. Gaze upon them and they will all turn to dust. Nowadays, there are some people who engage in the white-bone contemplation or the [2.26] contemplation of impurity without reaching attainment even after many years. Yet merely by carrying out the dust  contemplation, [visions of] white bones and impurity will come of themselves!

[Translator’s note: The “white bone contemplation” (baigu guan) is a version of the contemplation of impurity, one often discussed in medieval Chinese Buddhist sources, in which the meditator imagines or visualizes the flesh rotting away from his own body until only the white skeleton remains.]

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