Evil is done by oneself alone;
By oneself is one defiled.
Evil is avoided by oneself;
By oneself alone is one purified.
Purity and impurity depend on oneself:
No one can purify another. (translated by Gil Frondsal)
This popular verse was posted in the central room of the Theravadan monastery where I first became familiar with the monastic system and Buddhist teachings in general. It was particularly apt since I had previously tried to give away responsibility for my spiritual health and progress, an attempt which failed spectacularly.
“No one can purify another” – this is an important truth. Naturally enough, many of us have been reluctant to take responsibility for choosing a direction in life. We wish for the best or right way to be clear to us so we don’t have to keep making decisions and judgments that we feel ill-equipped to make. For many of us, our teens and twenties are a confusing and anxious time because we haven’t yet figured out who we are and where we want to go. If there’s a realistic shortcut to finding our direction in life, no one’s mentioned it yet. Instead, we try this and try that and see what happens. It’s a messy business, but the path we find through this process can last us through the remaining decades of our lives.
What is purity? Especially when paired with evil, both extremes may be difficult to perceive in the hustle of daily life. We recognize evil (purity perhaps less so) when we see it externally, in person or in fiction, but the purity and evil we need to keep track of are internal to each of us.
Purity and evil are not the same as pleasant and unpleasant feelings. There are pleasant feelings that can be wholesome or unwholesome, and unpleasant feelings can also be wholesome or unwholesome. We might find overindulgence in sense pleasures appealing, at least for a while, but overindulgence is by definition unwholesome. We might have a conversation that’s painful because it points out a moral failing of ours, but the realization that may come from such a conversation is profoundly wholesome; it can make us more whole.
On the other hand, when we experience a sense of deep peace or profound love, our grasping self may be set aside. We can breathe freely and we have a taste of liberation. And sometimes negative feelings are telling us to go in another direction. We could say that our pleasant and unpleasant sensations are initial signals, but we have to look more closely at what words and actions they are guiding us toward.