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Of Stained and Pure Cloth – Vatthupama Sutta
For a complete understanding of this sutta within the context intended by an awakened human being, please read the suttas linked inline and at the end of this article. ([x]) Inline links will open in a new window.
Everything the Buddha taught was taught in the context of Dependent Origination and the ongoing stress, suffering, and distraction that results from ignorance of Four Noble Truths.  Dependent Origination – The Paticca Samuppada Sutta
His first teaching was taught to describe the results of this common ignorance and the singular path the Buddha taught to recognize and abandon ignorance. [2,3] Four Noble Truths – The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta | Eightfold Path – The Magga-Vibhanga Sutta
In the Vatthupama Sutta, the Buddha uses the simile of a dirty or clean cloth to teach the importance of abandoning magical, mystical, and fabricated views that incorporate magical beliefs of external supernatural forces providing a “cleansing of evil deeds.” Many modern “Buddhists” continue to practice this type of adapted, accommodated, and embellished Buddhism to maintain their fabricated beliefs and provide a speculated repository for an “awakened self.”  Modern Buddhism – A Thicket Of Views
The need for magical, mystical, speculative “dharmas” has always re-formed the Buddha’s teachings resulting in the modern “thicket of views” belief-based modern Bhuddist religions that contradict entirely what an awakened human being actually taught. [5,6] Pail Canon | A Human Buddha
My comments below are in italics.
Of Stained and Pure Cloth – Vatthupama Sutta
Majjhima Nikaya 7
Thus have I heard: On one occasion the Buddha was at Savatthi in Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s Monastery. He addressed those gathered:
“Friends, suppose an unskilled person dyed a dirty cloth. Whether the cloth was blue, yellow, red, or pink, it would take the dye poorly and the color would be impure. Why would the color be impure? Because the cloth was not clean.
“So too, when the mind is defiled, stress and disappointment should be expected.
This is a profound description of how clinging to fabricated “wrong” views, views and resulting practices that ignore ignorance of Four Noble Truths will always prevent anyone from developing the Dhamma. The Eightfold Path provides the framework and ongoing guidance to recognize and abandon all fabricated views that would otherwise lead to fabricated and speculative beliefs and only distract from the Buddha’s Dhamma.  Eightfold Path – The Magga-Vibhanga Sutta
“Now, friends, suppose a skilled person dyed a clean and bright cloth. Whether the cloth was blue, yellow, red, or pink, it would take the dye as intended and the color would be pure. Why would the color be pure? Because the cloth was clean.
“So too, when the mind is not defiled, freedom from greed, aversion, and delusion should be expected. A calm and peaceful mind will prevail.
“Friends, listen closely as I will teach you the defilements of the mind: Greed, Ill-will, Anger, Denigration, Domineering, Envy, Jealousy, Hypocrisy, Fraud, Obstinance, Conceit, Prejudice, Arrogance, Vanity, and Negligence.
These fermentations, defilements, or fetters, can be accurately categorized as “Three Defilements” as these 16 enumerated here are all aspects of Greed, Aversion, and Deluded Thinking.
“Friends, the wise Dhamma practitioner knows these qualities as defilements of the mind. Knowing this, the wise Dhamma practitioner abandons them (and the speculative self-establishments that follow ignored greed and craving). When these defilements have been completely abandoned (through developing the Eightfold Path) the wise Dhamma practitioner knows that these defilements have been abandoned.
“The wise Dhamma practitioner, having abandoned these defilements directly, develops unwavering confidence in me. They know the Teacher as accomplished and fully enlightened. They know the Teacher is endowed with clear vision and virtuous conduct. They know the teacher’s knowledge is a sublime and complete understanding of reality and of fabricated realms. A Teacher of all, they know the Teacher is incomparable among those who can be taught.
The Buddha is not establishing himself as a supernatural savior to worship. He is teaching to see him as a fellow human being who is a living example of a human being who has actually accomplished what his Dhamma teaches. In this way, the Buddha presents his Dhamma as a non-magical, non-mystical, and non-speculative. Dhamma that can and should be developed here and now.  True Refuge – The Ratana Sutta
“The wise Dhamma practitioner, having abandoned these defilements directly, develops unwavering confidence in my Dhamma. They know my Dhamma is well-taught, realizable here and now. They know my Dhamma is accessible, knowable, and brings immediate results, encouraging all to come and see for themselves.
Following the teaching to take true refuge in a human being who awakened, the Buddha then teaches the wisdom of following what he actually teaches rather than “dirtying the cloth” with fabrications and speculative “beliefs.” 
“The wise Dhamma practitioner, having abandoned these defilements directly, develops unwavering confidence in the Sangha. They know those of the (well-focused) Teacher’s Sangha have entered the skillful, straight, proper, and true path. That is to say, this wise Dhamma practitioner knows the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
As with the first two “Refuges,” a sangha well-informed in the Buddha’s Dhamma and well-focused on the Dhamma is the Third Refuge that wise Dhamma practitioners establish within themselves. The Ratna Sutta is at its foundation an admonition to avoid fabricating and speculating false “dharmas” out of fear of loss self-identification with ordinary and imagined phenomena.  Modern Buddhism – A Thicket Of Views
“This (well-focused) Sangha is worthy of gifts, hospitality, and respect. This Sangha’s gift to the world is incomparable.  Anapanasati Sutta
“The wise Dhamma practitioner, having abandoned these defilements directly, even in part, knows they have developed unwavering confidence in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. They gain enthusiasm for the goal, for the Dhamma. There is gladness with connection to the Dhamma.
“Gladdened, joy is born. Joyous in mind their body grows tranquil. From a tranquil body, there is happiness. For the mind of one who is happy, concentration increases.  Right Meditation – Samadhi – Jhanas
“Just as a stained and dirty cloth is cleaned with pure water, just as gold is purified with the heat of a furnace, a wise Dhamma practitioner, established in wisdom, virtue, and concentration, eats the most delicious alms-food, they will not lose their way.
This is another reference to the Heartwood of the Eightfold Path often characterized as a path of ever-increasing wisdom, virtue, and concentration.  Eightfold Path – The Magga-Vibhanga Sutta
“The wise Dhamma practitioner abides with a mind permeated with loving-kindness, and compassion, and sympathetic joy, and with equanimity for the entire universe, their mind boundless and free of hostility and ill-will.
“The wise Dhamma practitioner understands the Three Marks Of Existence and the path of liberation.
Despite contradictory modern “Insight” practices, the only skillful and useful insight the Buddha teaches to focus on and develop is insight into Thee Marks Of Existence.  Three Marks Of Existence – Anicca, Anatta, Dukkha
“When the wise Dhamma practitioner understands in this way, their mind is liberated from the fetter of sensual desire and of becoming, they are liberated from ignorance. Liberated there is the knowledge: ‘I am liberated, giving birth to ignorance has ended, the pure life has been lived, the task is complete, I have overcome the world.’ This wise Dhamma practitioner is known as one who has ‘bathed their inner being.’  Becoming Explained
At this time the brahman Sundarika was seated near the Buddha and asked: “Does Master Gotama bathe in the Bahuka River?
A brahman is a title given to Hindu priests and was of the highest caste. “Brahman” also describes the “Ultimate Reality” taught in Hinduism, a fabricated name-dual existence.  Dependent Origination, Anatta, And The Myth Of Non-Duality
The Buddha studied with brahman/Hindu teachers and dismissed these teachings and their “meditation” methods as “these teachings do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, or to unbinding. This dharma only seeks to establish a reappearance in the dimension of nothingness, or the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception. The Buddha rejected any fabricated belief that sought to establish a “self” in any speculative and imagined non-physical realms. [13,9] The Noble Search For The Noble Path | Right Meditation – Samadhi – Jhanas
The Buddha responds: “What is the Bahuka River? What can the Bahuka River do?”
How could a river be anything other than a river?
“Master, it is true that many people believe that the Bahuka River can purify and bestow merit. Many people use the river to wash away their evil deeds.
The number of people clinging to practicing and professing fabricated beliefs does not legitimize their beliefs.
The Buddha responds:
“Whether the Bahuka, the Adhikaka, the Gaya, the Sudarika, the Payaga, or the Sarasaiti, the fool bathes in many rivers but will never find purification for their unskillful deeds.
“What power do these rivers possess? They can never purify the evil-doer.
“Those who have purified themselves should be celebrated. They do much good in the world.
“Always wise, virtuous, and well-concentrated, it is here (referring to the Eightfold Path) that you should bathe.
“If you wish to be a true refuge for all beings it is here that you should bathe.
The wise Dhamma practitioner knows that the most compassionate, loving, and effective action anyone can take for the sake of others is to develop the Dhamma whole-heartedly.  Anapanasati Sutta
“Brahman Sundarika, if you teach false dhammas and harm other beings, take what is not offered you, following your belief, what could a river do for you? Any well contains water.”
Again, how could a river be anything other than a river?
Hearing the Great Teacher’s words, brahman Sundarika declared: “Magnificent Master Gotama! You have made your Dhamma clear in many ways. You have righted what was overturned. You have shown what was hidden (by ignorance). You have shown the way to one who was lost. You are holding a lamp in the darkness for those with eyes to see (fabrications).  Fabrications
“I take refuge in Master Gotama, in your Dhamma, and in your Sangha. Please bestow the going-forth and develop your Path.”
The brahman Sundarika received the going-forth (acceptance in the original Sangha) and quickly realized for himself the culmination of the Path. He understood “Birth has ended, the well-integrated life has been lived, there is nothing more for this world.”
Sundarika was now an Arahant.
End Of Sutta
Related Dhamma articles and recordings for further study:
- Dependent Origination – The Paticca Samuppada Sutta
- Four Noble Truths – The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta
- Eightfold Path – The Magga-Vibhanga Sutta
- Modern Buddhism – A Thicket Of Views
- Pail Canon
- A Human Buddha
- True Refuge – The Ratana Sutta
- Anapanasati Sutta
- Right Meditation – Samadhi – Jhanas
- Three Marks Of Existence – Anicca, Anatta, Dukkha
- Becoming Explained
- Dependent Origination, Anatta, And The Myth Of Non-Duality
- The Noble Search For The Noble Path
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My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Acharya Buddharakkhita, Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.
Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.
I have made edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain contextual relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
Becoming-Buddha.com and Dhamma articles and recordings by John Haspel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.