On dust and dirt

Fa Fu


法福 (严姗)

  Essay Writing of Buddhas’ Practice Incorporated
  On dust and dirt – A Brief Discussion on the Formation of Defilements with the “Shurangama Sutra” as the Center
  Advisor︰Venerable Wuguang
  Author: Shi Yin Yi
  August 28, 2022

I. Preface

  When I first learned about Buddhism, I read some Buddhist scriptures and stories, and one story that stuck with me vividly was about the venerable Chou Li Pan Te. “He considered himself foolish and lacking in the ability to recite Buddhist texts. However, after the Buddha taught him the “sweeping away of dust and dirt” practice, he recited the verse while sweeping and, after some time, realized that he also had internal dust and dirt that needed to be removed. Eventually, he had a sudden enlightenment and became a great Arhat .As Buddhist disciples, can we also awaken to the need to cleanse ourselves of dust and dirt like Venerable Zhoulipan? Do we have an understanding of these dust and dirt? In various Buddhist scriptures, such as the “Shurangama Sutra” (Chapter 6), “Vimalakirti Sutra” (Chapter 1), “Samyutta Nikaya” (Chapter 39), and “The Sutra on the Perfection of the Buddha’s Actions” (Chapter 34), there are references to dust and dirt that need to be cleansed.
  It is highly virtuous to distance oneself from dust and dirt, as well as from delusions about mental images,emotions and consciousness. At the very least, one’s Dharma eye will be clear, and the supreme nature of awareness and knowledge can manifest their true functions without the influence of biased perceptions or past karma. To remove these impurities, it is necessary to have a clear understanding of how they are formed. Without understanding its formation, it is impossible to comprehend.Without comprehension, there can be no removal. Thus, comprehending the formation of impurities is a crucial step in their elimination.
  This article focuses on the “Shurangama Sutra” as the core text, with other sutras and commentaries as supplements, and emphasizes the formation of dirt. It is hoped that through simple discussions, the public can fully understand, comprehend, and eliminate dust and dirt, providing some references. The main text of this paper is arranged as follows: Definition of dust and dirt.
  How dirt is formed. This chapter analyzes the formation of dust and dirt from three aspects:
  The formation of dirt between people;
  The formation of dirt between people and things;
  The formation of dirt between people and objects.
  The harm of dust and dirt and methods to eliminate it.

II. Definition of Dust and Dirt

  What is dust and dirt? In the eyes of ordinary people, dust generally refers to floating small dust and dirt particles, while dirt is considered as impure substances, such as scale, plaque, and grease. How does Buddhism define dust and dirt? Dust is defined as a phenomenon that is perceived by the mind, and is associated with defilement, pollution, dust pollution, and impurity. Dirt is defined as defilements, impurities, fetters, consciousness, delusions, and so on. Dirt is also called afflictions, sinful actions, retrogressive actions, latent actions, feverish actions, and regretful actions. Therefore, the 88 bonds, afflictions, and karmic afflictions,the lack of understanding of the nature of reality, and they can taint and obscure the wisdom of Prajnaparamita, all of which are considered as dust and dirt. In this section, the author briefly discusses several definitions of dust and dirt, providing a preliminary understanding of it.

  (1).The Definition of “Dust”

  What is “dust”? According to the Commentary on the Vinaya (Shizong Yiji Ji) Volume 2, “dust refers to dust defilement, which is the obstacle of afflictions.” From this we know that dust has the meaning of defilement and refers to the obstacle of afflictions , including the six root afflictions (greed, hatred, delusion, pride, doubt, and wrong views) and the twenty secondary afflictions .
  In addition, the Commentary on the Shurangama Sutra (Leng Yan Jing Bao Jing Shu) volume 1 also strongly confirms that dust is the root and secondary afflictions. The scripture states: “Dust means defilement, and disturbance means labor. Speaking in general, it refers to the root and secondary afflictions.”
  From the above two passages, it can be seen that dust is simply the root afflictions and secondary afflictions.
  So, how is dust defined in the famous Shurangama Sutra? The original text records: “If you abandon the maintenance of birth and death and abide in the true and constant, the constant light will manifest. The dust, roots, consciousness, and mind dissolve as they should. The conceptual appearances are dust, and the emotion and consciousness is defilement. Both are far away, and your Dharma eye will be clear at the right time. How can you not attain the supreme knowledge and enlightenment?”

  (2). Definition of dust and dirt

  Having a basic understanding of dust, what then is defilement? How is it defined in the Buddhist scriptures?
  In Buddhist scriptures, the term “垢” (gòu) refers to defilement or impurity. According to the “Chengshi Lun”, which is a Mahayana Buddhist text, it is defined as follows: “The various afflictions are called impurities. Whatever is influenced by afflictions is called impure, and whatever is not influenced by afflictions is called pure.”
  In the “Shurangama Sūtra”,”垢” is defined as follows in Chapter 4: “Imaginary appearances are dust, and conscious emotions are impurities. If you are free from both, then your Dharma eye will be clear and bright. How can you not attain the supreme knowledge?” So what is “識” (shí)? It is also a form of impurity, or “垢” (gòu), which arises when we experience conscious emotions. When a person becomes aroused, that is “識,” or impurity.
  As we can see from these two passages, various afflictions are considered as impurities, and anything that is influenced by these afflictions is also impure. Conscious emotions, or “識,” are also considered impurities. Of course, the definition of impurities and dust is broad, and here the author has only briefly discussed two or three of these definitions.

  The Formation of dirt

  How do impurities, or “垢” (gòu), form? In this chapter, the author will focus on the “The Shurangama Sūtra” to discuss how impurities form. The author will mainly talk about how impurities are formed.

  Formation of external impurities.

  First, let’s understand how external impurities in the world are formed. For example, the grease in a range hood (the main components of grease are waste oil and small particles of dust in the oil fumes. Grease has a certain viscosity, and when it comes into contact with the grease filter, some of it will adhere to the filter and form grease) is not visible on the first time cooking. In fact, it has already accumulated a thin layer of impurities, but it is too thin to be seen. On the second time cooking, it accumulates another layer, but it is still too thin to be seen. After a few days or ten days, suddenly we find that the range hood is covered with grease? In fact, it accumulates layer by layer, each time it accumulates a very thin layer, which is invisible to the naked eye. However, once it accumulates a lot and the frequency increases, the thickness of the grease increases and people can see the grease.
  In addition, there is also the limescale that adheres to electric kettles when boiling water. How is it formed? In a high-temperature state, calcium sulfate, which is slightly soluble in water, will precipitate due to water evaporation. Carbonate ions in the water will combine with calcium, magnesium ions, etc. to form insoluble calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate, which are water alkaline. As water evaporates and concentrates, the amount of water alkaline increases until it reaches saturation, forming limescale. So, the limescale is not visible after the first or second time boiling water in an electric kettle. In fact, the electric kettle has already accumulated a layer of limescale after the first boiling, and another layer after the second or third boiling. Although each layer is very thin, once the number of layers accumulates over time, such as two or three months or half a year, the limescale becomes visible.
  The above is a brief discussion on how the dirt on range hood and electric kettle is formed, which is visible external dirt. There is also invisible internal dirt that forms unknowingly. So how is this internal dirt formed?

  The Formation of Inner dust and dirt

  From the previous section, we learned how the visible dirt on range hoods and electric kettles is formed. In fact, the formation of inner impurities in each individual is based on the same principle. In order to better explain the formation of inner impurities, the author mainly discusses the three types of impurities – greed, anger, and ignorance – from the following three aspects: the formation of impurities between individuals, the formation of impurities between individuals and events, and the formation of impurities between individuals and objects. First, let’s discuss the formation of impurities between individuals.

  How is dirt formed between people?

  For example, in modern society, blind dates are popular. At the first meeting, there may not be any feelings, and at the second or third meeting, there still may not be much of a connection. However, gradually, from having no feelings towards the person to developing a liking, to feeling a strong attachment and eventually falling deeply in love, things change completely as the relationship progresses. As time goes on, the attachment becomes more serious until it reaches the state where one day apart feels like three autumns and one cannot be without the other. Why does this happen?As stated in the second chapter of the Surangama Sutra, the Buddha said to venerable Ananda:“consider this example: when a person who has pure clear eyes looks at clear, bright emptiness, he sees nothing but clear emptiness, and he is quite certain that nothing exists within it.If, for no apparent reason, the person does not move his eyes, the staring will cause fatigue, and then of his own accord, he himself will see strange flowers in space and other unreal appearances that are wild and disordered.”
  This metaphor is describing a person who, with nothing else to do, stares at the sky for a long time without moving their eyes. Eventually, their eyes become fatigued and they start to see stars and even some chaotic phenomena. This is similar to how the relationship between a man and a woman can develop. If they stare at each other for a long time, they can start to feel a strong attraction. Every time they think of each other, it adds another layer of “dirt” to their relationship, and every time they meet, the feeling becomes more intense. Once enough “dirt” accumulates, it forms an attachment to the person
  In addition, there is also a kind of love at first sight between men and women. Many men and women will call each other after their first meeting and become inseparable. For example, in Buddhist scriptures, Matangi fell in love with the venerable Ananda at first sight. As recorded in the Comprehensive Commentary on the Surangama Sutra, “In the Matangi Sutra, it says that Ananda and Matangi were a husband and wife in their past lives for five hundred births. They loved each other deeply and never forgot about it, thus leading to this situation.” Like Matangi, this kind of love at first sight is due to the karmic bond of greed and attachment between men and women, which has been accumulated over many lifetimes. Therefore, it is not surprising that many men and women fall in love at first sight nowadays, as this is a continuation of their past karmic habits of greed and foolishness.
  The examples mentioned by the author above are all forms of impurities that arise due to liking. There is also a kind of emotion that arises due to dislike, where one feels hatred and displeasure upon thinking about it. Liked emotions arise from greed, while disliked emotions arise from hatred and displeasure. For example, the author once had a good relationship with someone, but after a while, I began to find fault with her and added one speck of dust. Then I found more things I didn’t like and added two specks of dust, and as time went on, I found more and more things I disliked…always focusing on that one point that didn’t suit me, and hating it more and more every time I thought about it. This repetitive cycle of adding impurities due to hatred and displeasure will eventually lead to intense hatred that permeates one’s very being.

  2.The Formation of Dirt Between People and Things

  We already have some understanding of the formation of dirt between people, but how is dirt formed between people and things? Generally speaking, appetite is one of the three desires of sentient beings in the desire realm. Why do people eat? Because they have a desire for it, a fondness for the act of eating, and have an obsession with it. For instance, when I first tasted mantou, I didn’t find it very appetizing since I had grown up eating rice as my staple food three times a day. However, when I started studying at a teacher’s college, I had to eat the same breakfast every day which mainly consisted of mantou, baozi, huajuan, youtiao, and congee. Initially, I only ate my favorite baozi and youtiao, avoiding mantou altogether. But on days when there were no other options, I had to eat mantou and found it to be better than going hungry.
  The first few times I tried mantou, it was like chewing wax and there was no taste or sensation, and it took a long time to eat just one. Gradually, as I ate it more and more, taking a bite every time, feeling it, then taking another bite and savoring it, and it wasn’t bad. I then took another bite, felt it, and tasted it, and it was good. As I ate it more and more, I started to appreciate it and found it to be really good.
  This process was a gradual buildup of attachment, from initially not liking it to feeling okay, then good, and finally really good. With each bite, a kind of attachment was formed, until it became stuck in one’s heart and cannot be removed. Due to repeatedly eating it over and over again, I had become unable to let go of it. I always yearned for the aroma of wheat that lingers in the mantou, to the point that when I went back home during holidays and there was no mantou to eat, I still could not get used to it and asked my mom to make some. At this point, the obsession with eating mantou had formed a kind of dirt.
  Similarly, the act of sleeping is also subject to this process. For example, I have seen many students who do not like to take naps, but under the school system, they are required to sleep, or else they will be punished by their teachers. At first, they are unable to fall asleep and must close their eyes even if they don’t sleep. Gradually, with each nap, a layer of dirt is formed. Through repeated cultivation of this habit, even those students who initially disliked napping eventually succeed in the habit. When nap time arrives, they immediately enter a drowsy state, and cannot resist the urge to sleep. At this point, not only does the dirt of sleepiness form, but also the dirt of foolishness , as people who enjoy sleeping hinder wisdom and cannot escape from the afflictions. Therefore, wise people do not enjoy sleeping. Similar to this, the formation of dirt in drinking, playing and indulging in pleasures follows the same principle.
  3.How does dirt between people and objects form? The formation of dirt between people and objects is based on the same principle as the formation of dirt between people and things. For example, young women generally like to buy beautiful clothes, shoes, jewelry, handbags, etc. Why do they want to buy them? Sometimes it’s because they see these styles of clothes on Taobao and think they look pretty, so they have the urge to buy them. Then they see someone wearing this new style of clothes, with a graceful figure and full of temperament, and their desire to buy them becomes even stronger. Because they keep staring at these beautiful clothes, always fixating on this point, they eventually develop a strong attachment to the clothes, becoming obsessed, and thus feel they must buy them at all costs. Once they enter this state, it indicates that the dirt of coveting beautiful things and becoming infatuated with objects has already formed. If they can’t buy the clothes or the price increases, they will become angry, resentful, and complain, and each time they become angrier, which is equivalent to cultivating anger, it solidifies,and eventually the dirt of anger will also form.
  As mentioned above, when people constantly think about what they want to eat, drink, play, and enjoy, or constantly think about a certain person or object, and reach a state of obsession and madness, their minds are filled with delusions, constantly increasing in number. One delusion, two delusions, three delusions… repeatedly thinking, eventually they will calculate how to obtain these things no matter what, and become completely bound and attached to them, unable to let go and unable to separate themselves from these people or things, forming various kinds of dirt.

  The Harm of Dirt and Methods of Removal
  The harm of dust and dirt.From the discussion in the previous section, we have a rough understanding of how dirt is formed. So what harm does dust and dirt cause?
  For example, the author originally had a lot of dirt and was always indulging in eating, drinking, playing and having fun, constantly adding more dirt, making it stronger and more unbreakable. Once the author tried to do something but didn’t satisfy the greed demon in time, it would keep calling and causing trouble. How can anything be accomplished under such situations?
  In the fifth volume of the Shurangama sutra, it is recorded: “By departing from impurities and eliminating dust, the Dharma eye becomes pure and attains Arhatship, and the Tathagata personally seals the attainment of the path of non-learning.”
  Those who are able to depart from mental images and the consciousness of feelings are called the pure Dharma eye. By following this path, one can attain Arhatship. Conversely, those who are unable to depart from mental images and the consciousness of feelings are said to have impure Dharma eyes and cannot attain Arhatship.
  In the fifth scroll of the Record of the Discourses on the Surangama Sūtra, it is said, “Once the dust and dirt of the senses and objects of perception are eradicated, why would enlightenment not be accomplished and perfect? Once the distant dust is shaken off, the eye of the Dharma will be clear and bright. Why would it not become supreme knowledge? On the other hand, without removing the dust, the eye of the Dharma will not be clear. It would be like wearing colored glasses to view and perceive things, unable to see them as they truly are. If you want to achieve supreme knowledge, it will be even more impossible.”
  Therefore, it can be seen that the harm of defilements is manifold, from the highest level of Buddhist practice to the mundane world. As long as one momentarily raises a thought, the dust and dirt will arise. If one indulges in sensory perception and delusional thinking, and engages in defilements, they will fall into the trap of the grass, like the roots of thousands of grasses entangled together, which can never be untangled. How can one practice then? Therefore, removing the dust and dirt is necessary.

  (2) Methods to Eliminate Defilements

  Since defilements pose such a great danger, a wise person should be willing to actively distance themselves from them. But how can this be accomplished? Finding the right method is crucial since even external defilements are difficult to clean, let alone the internal ones, especially those that are deeply ingrained. The appropriate method is essential; otherwise, it is almost impossible to eradicate them. In Volume 5 of the Praising Practice of the Buddha, it is stated: “The great ocean of birth, aging, and death is traversed by the light boat of wisdom. The great darkness of ignorance is illuminated by the lamp of wisdom. The various entanglements and illnesses of defilement are cured by the medicine of wisdom. The thorn forest of afflictions is cut down by the sharp axe of wisdom. The torrential river of delusion and attachment is crossed by the bridge of wisdom. Therefore, we should diligently practice, listen, contemplate, and cultivate wisdom.”
  In the “Anguttara Nikaya” Volume 11, it is said, “Julipandita…repeated this thought: ‘Binding is impurity and dirt, wisdom is the cure. I will now sweep away these binding impurities and dirt with my wisdom.’ “From these two passages of scripture, it can be seen that wisdom is one of the methods for removing impurities. In addition to wisdom, meditation can also be used to remove impurities and dirt. As stated in the “Cloud of Jewels Sutra” Volume 2, “How does a Bodhisattva remove all kinds of binding impurities? By flooding the six objections with the water of meditation, the roots are purified, and the senses of sight and sound are not stained. This is called the method by which a Bodhisattva removes all kinds of binding impurities.” Using the water of meditative concentration to wash away the defilements of the six sense objects, purifying the sense faculties and rendering them unstained by the six sense objects. This is the method by which Bodhisattvas eliminate all the bonds and defilements caused by sensory attachments. In summary, the methods for removing impurities are wisdom and meditation. The key is not in the number of methods, but in finding the appropriate method that suits oneself.


  This article focuses on the “Mahāvaipulya Buddhāvataṃsaka Sūtra” and provides a simple discussion on the definition, harm, and methods of removing dirt. The formation of dirt is also explored in detail,。It became clear that dirt is originally a manifestation of staring and grasping. If one indulges in it too much, they will become addicted to it. Things that one previously disliked can be transformed into things that they now love, becoming attached to them and unable to let go. Of course, there are exceptions where the first encounter with something can be so captivating that it becomes difficult to let go, which is a continuation of past habits. The realm of desire has three major desires (see footnote 19), which are what ordinary beings covet and pursue. These desires are difficult to control because they have been deeply ingrained for countless lifetimes.Therefore, in the chapter on the formation of dirt, I focused on these three desires and discussed them from three different angles, in order to allow readers to understand how dirt is formed from within themselves, with the aim of thoroughly removing the dirt. To achieve this goal, it is necessary to have a thorough understanding of the formation of dirt. Unfortunately, due to my insufficient understanding of Buddhist teachings, the basis for dirt formation in the Buddhist scriptures is too weak to be convincing. I hope to continue improving myself and enriching my knowledge of Buddhist teachings so that I can provide the most valuable service to more fellow practitioners.

Reference Materials

  I. Ancient Texts (in chronological order by dynasty)

  〔Eastern Jin Dynasty〕Translated by Qutuo Sengjia Tiba: Samyutta Nikaya, Taisho Tripitaka, Volume 2.
  〔Later Qin Dynasty〕Translated by Kumarajiva: “The Treatise on the Perfection of Wisdom”, Taisho Tripitaka, Volume 32.
  〔Later Qin Dynasty〕Translated by Kumarajiva: “The Sutra of Vimalakirti”, Taisho Tripitaka, Volume 14.
  〔Northern Liang Dynasty〕Translated by Dharmaraksa: “The Hymns in Praise of the Buddha’s Acts”, Taisho Tripitaka, Volume 4.
  〔Northern Wei Dynasty〕Translated by Bodhiruci: “The Dashazheniqianzisuoshuo Sutra”, Taisho Tripitaka, Volume 9.
  〔Liang Dynasty〕Translated by Mandrasena: “The Cloud of Jewels Sutra”, Taisho Tripitaka, Volume 16.
  〔Sui Dynasty〕Translated by Shramana Paramartha: “The Collection of the Buddha’s Practices”, Taisho Tripitaka, Volume 3.
  〔Tang Dynasty〕Compiled by Zhanran: “A General Explanation of the Vimalakīrti Sutra”, Taisho Tripitaka, Volume 38.
  〔Tang Dynasty〕Translated by Shramana Paramiti: The Shurangama Sutra, Taisho Tripitaka, Volume 19.
  〔Tang Dynasty〕Written by Dingbin: “The sifenlvshushizongyiji”, Xin Xu Zang, Volume 42.
  〔Tang Dynasty〕Translated by Bodhiruci: “The Maharatnakuta Sutra”, Taisho Tripitaka, Volume 50.
  〔Tang Dynasty〕Edited by Yurong: “The Commentary on the Sutra of the Benevolent Kings”, Xin Xu Zang, Volume 26.
  〔Tang Dynasty〕Translated by Xuanzang: “The Abhidharmakosabhasyam”, Taisho Tripitaka, Volume 27.
  〔Song Dynasty〕Collected by Zixuan: “The Commentary on the Shurangama Sutra”, Taisho Tripitaka, Volume 39.
  〔Song Dynasty〕Written by Congfang: “The Exposition of the One Hundred Dharmas”, Xin Xu Zang, Volume 48.
  〔Song Dynasty〕Authored by Dehong: “The Compendium of the Treatises on the Sutra of Shurangama”, Xin Xu Zang, Volume 12.
  〔Ming Dynasty〕Compiled by Cheng Shi: “The Record of the Lectures on the Shurangama Sutra”, Xin Xu Zang, Volume 15.
  〔Qing Dynasty〕Written by Pu Wan: “The Ornament of the Shurangama Sutra”, Xin Xu Zang, Volume 16.
  〔Qing Dynasty〕Annotated by Xingzhou: “The Commentary on the Verse Summary of the Eight Consciousnesses”, Xin Xu Zang, Volume 55.
  〔Republic of China〕Authored by Shih Ta-hsu: “The Sixth Section of Yogacara-Svatantrika-Madhyamika Only School”, Wan Xu Zang, Volume 7. – Translation

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