Confession and Repentance


The Buddhist Yogi C. M. Chen

Our subject is confession and repentance. The first problem is that many Buddhists say that according to Hinayana doctrine if we sin we must be punished and there is no way to be redeemed. The actual Hinayana Buddha did in fact speak of the four parajikas and said these were very sinful actions which could not be redeemed. These four parajikas are the four heaviest and most important sins. Buddha at that time also gave four parables about them. He said to commit them was like a man whose head was cut off, for a head cannot be put on again; like a tree limb which is broken off and cannot be connected again; like a needle without an eye; and like a stone which if split cannot be made into a complete stone again. He spoke very seriously about these transgressions. So how can such a sin be confessed, how can such a sin be without punishment? Thus say the Theravada Hinayana Buddhists.

He also says, "Where the repentant stands, there the perfectly righteous cannot stand." Many philosophers have some doubt about this problem: If Gods have the will to remove evil or sin, and cannot, then they are not omnipotent; if they can but will not, then they are not benevolent; if they are neither able nor willing, then they are neither omnipotent nor benevolent. Lastly, if they are both able and willing to annihilate evil and sin, how does it exist? Those outside religions which grant God such omnipotence deserve such doubt. The Buddhists of the Hinayana School emphasize the Law of Karma--one sows evil and reaps the punishment upon himself. It is just justice. Sin goes as deeply inside the body as a needle which works its way for years, slowly and surely, until it pierces an intestine or even the heart itself. Even when the sin is repented it can still leave a crushing weight upon the consciousness which may influence many lifetimes, just as a sore may be cured but the scar remains forever. Smallpox may be cured but the pock-marked face remains the rest of one's whole lifetime.

Mahayana doctrine teaches many kinds of repentance methods. So why did Buddha seemingly contradict himself? Because the natural course of time and the student's preparedness time are different. Hinayana means the Small Yana or Vehicle which is for beginners. Just as our parents taught us very seriously when we were very young that we should not have a boyfriend or girlfriend before marriage, for once virginity is lost, it can never be restored again. This is reasonable mother's talk and is true. If you speak very seriously about this rule to the beginner, the small young boy or girl who has faith in his parents, will keep it for a long time and will not be lured by the opposite sex. But as the girl becomes older she connects with many social groups and has many friends. If at that time you say that once this sin is committed you can never be redeemed, then she might think after committing it once, why not commit it again?

There is an example. Milarepa knew a scholar whom he angered and who wanted to put him to death by poison. This scholar thought, "He is so high a lama, so many people worship him. I may be very easily found out by Milarepa." So he sent his girlfriend. He told her: "As you have asked me many times for marriage and as we have already touched many times, if you can help me this time and send this poison to Milarepa I will marry you very soon." He told her, "If I take one piece of garlic it gives my mouth a bad smell and if I take many pieces of garlic I still have the same bad smell. So never mind about this additional sin, as we have already sinned, I will take the whole of you."

Hence one who accepts evil passively is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it. One who thinks of evil and never confessed that evil can flourish the same as a person who begins with committing adultery and ends with killing a holy sage who was like a Buddha. If confession and repentance were both emphasized, this would not have happened.

We do not say that only Mahayana or only Hinayana is right, for each has its own time and viewpoint. We just speak of our common law. In the law courts there is a way to redeem yourself, either by paying a fine, doing some work, or serving time in a prison; there are many ways for you to be redeemed. Other religions such as Christianity allow for redemption after committing sins. God sent his son Jesus so that we might be redeemed. Why are Buddhists not allowed for redemption?

In Mahayana this is not a problem. Why is this so? Hinayana is called a doctrine of unfinished Buddhist teaching, while Mahayana is considered half-finished and Vajrayana is the completely finished doctrine. Finished means perfected in all parts, not just telling you half the story. This system of arrangement is based on the level of understanding of the student. When you are very young you very much fear the law and its punishment as your elders very seriously say you have no second chance if you commit a sin. Therefore you try to keep the law as best as you can. This holds true until the very first time you do commit a sin, which is usually when you are a little older. Buddha does not want you to commit the sin again so it is then said you can confess. From this view the Hinayana is not a finished doctrine.

Our childhood will soon be past and we will come into parenthood. But first we must use the Hinayana and very seriously fear punishment and believe there is no way to confess and repent. After the child has already committed a sin and would commit it again, you say, "Oh please, confess now and never mind the first time." In such a way we should take the Hinayana first, secondly take the Mahayana which allows for confession and repentance, and finally take the Vajrayana.

In Vajrayana one not only commits the "sin" but utilizes it. In Hinayana you can't have sex with other than your wife. In Mahayana if you do commit adultery you can confess. In Vajrayana you prepare and practice, the more the better, just like Padmasambhava who had two wives and Marpa who had nine wives. Never mind, you also can utilize this "sin" if you have the proper preparation practice. If you fall into a little water in a well you drown and die, but in a big water, as the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, if you can swim, you may live. There is a different situation and time for each individual. You can confess and can repent. You must know where you stand.

It is not only Buddhism which emphasizes repentance. All other religions do the same. Below I quote some sayings about confession and repentance:

In Confucianism:

  1. "Repentance is the loveliest of the virtues."
  2. "If you can one day renovate yourself, do so from day to day."
In Judaism:
  1. "There is even some merit in a resolution to repent."
  2. "Remorse and good deeds are a shield from the wrath of heaven."
In Hinduism:
  1. "When confessed the sin becomes less, since it becomes truth."
In Islam:
  1. "Expel avidity (sins from ignorance) from thy heart, the fetters will be loosened from thy feet."
  2. "Repentance is of three kinds, from what is wrong to what is right; from what is right to what is more right; from selfhood to God." (I would add "from God to Buddha.")

In the Lutheran Catechism:

  1. "Confession consists of two parts, first, to confess our sins and secondly, to receive the absolution or forgiveness by the confessor, as from the God himself."

In Christianity:

  1. "The Church of God, in all ages, hath commended, and most ages, enjoined, that we confess our sins, and discover the state and condition of our souls to such a person as we or our superiors may judge fit to help us."
  2. "Jesus obliged us to confess our sins for our own sake rather than for his. Confession is simply a Hospital of souls where the good Samaritan, through instrumentality of the priest, goes about binding up wounds and pouring in oil and wine; a hospital where the Divine physician displays his healing art."

In Zoroastrianism:

  1. An original good work eradicates original sin, and the growth of a good work eradicates the growth of a sin.

Another question is how can Jesus redeem your sins? Nowadays many people ask about this. How can he redeem you? You sin, you must bear the punishment. If you want redemption you must redeem yourself. How can Jesus by dying once redeem many? The answer is that although he died in a distant place he was able to conceive of and encompass everyone under the heavens. Any person who has sinned, who has faith in Him, may have their sins excused. Is this possible? And if so, what is the reason? You must think about this then you can believe that confession and repentance are really possible and are not a lie.

First of all we are all in the same entity. All sentient beings are within his great compassion, within his body. We are just like a hair on his body, and whenever he likes to redeem you, you will be redeemed. That is why he can make the blind open their eyes and can call a dead person back to life again. Buddha once said that once the head is cut off it cannot be repaired, but Jesus can repair it if one's head is in his hands. I do believe this. I will tell you about a person who has done this 8 times. A lama in Sikong did something to cut off others' head and so should be punished 8 times for his 8 great sins. Afterward he was really ordered to have his head cut off. He decided to utilize this chance and he cut his head off once and then by supernatural power extended another head, and then cut this head a second time, until the eighth time was finished. Then he died and did not come alive again. Once and for all he bore the punishment due him for his eight great sins. This really happened in history.

Why can some people be redeemed and some cannot? It is like electricity. You must make the connection. Jesus himself has great compassion and you have faith. When both are connected then the light comes on. Some people do not have faith and they cannot share in redemption. When we have lust and commit adultery it happens through our mind. Jesus himself has great compassion; He has also the mind and the heart. So in a spiritual sense there is no difference between him and us. Whenever his great compassion and our deep faith are connected then redemption can be perfectly confirmed. Otherwise for what purpose was our Jesus crucified and made to bear the five stigmata? Later on St. Francis also had his sign. Nowadays even though many do not believe in Jesus, I heard of a German woman who also had these five marks. Every generation has at least one person who is an example of this.

If you follow his good example of confession and repentance, you also can be saved and become the same entity with his body, the same spirit as his mind. By this way if we connect ourselves with him we will really be redeemed. If we do not make the connection, even though he has great compassion we cannot be redeemed through him. He is like the sunshine which shines everywhere--if you cover yourself and do not receive the sunshine, that is your own business, but do not say it is due to its extending any different treatment to you. He loves every person, and especially loves all sinners and tries to save them first. You must have faith and then you can receive redemption. There is no time limitation, there is no space limitation; just have faith; whatever time it is, his great compassion will be upon your head and so redemption will be perfectly confirmed.

The advantage of confession and repentance are also encouraged by the ancients. St. John Crysostom says, "Repentance alone will turn a wolf into a sheep, make a publican a preacher, turn a thorn into an olive, make a debauchee a religious fellow." Robert Burton says: "Repentance is a sovereign remedy for all sins, a spiritual wing to rear us, a charm for our miseries, a protecting amulet to expel sin's venom, an attractive lodestone to draw God's mercy and graces unto us." Jeremy Taylor says: "Repentance of all things in the world makes a great change; it changes things in heaven and earth; for it changes the whole man from sin to grace." A Russian proverb runs: "A repentant sinner is more worthy than ten saints who never succumb to temptation." It is a pity this proverb nowadays has not run since the Communists occupy Russia. B. Luke wrote:

"Joy shall be in heaven, over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance."

Our Lord Buddha Gautama has emphasized confession and repentance in many Sutras:

  1. In the Mental Visualization Sutra, he says: "If you hide your sins they will increase. If you confess before your Guru, it will be redeemed."
  2. In the Differentiation of Karmic Rewards Sutra, he says: "If one commits sins but repents, his punishment will he be rid of."
  3. In the Vinaya, he says: "If one sincerely repents what he has committed with renunciation, he will be reborn a new mind."
  4. In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, he says: "When one has done evil for which out of contrition one then atones, it is like muddy water becoming clear by the touch of the water jewel or like the moon shining forth brilliantly when it has emerged from the clouds."

About the four conditions of confession and repentance I will talk a little more concerning how they should be practiced in America today.

After obtaining the right motivation, the methods of how to confess and repent will surely follow:

  1. To effect an atonement for a sin:
    1. By realizing the utter futility of committing it.
    2. Appreciating the terribleness of its effects.
    3. Understanding the necessity to become free of it as soon as possible.
  2. To practice good as an antidote to evil:
    1. Practice Sunyata meditation.
    2. Read the Mahayana Sutras.
    3. Repeat the 100 Words Incantation.
    4. Repeat and perform a confession ritual.
    5. Perform a white and purifying Homa.
    6. Pilgrimage to holy places like Bodhgaya.
    7. Ask artists to draw Buddha's image.
  3. To desist from evil carefully.
  4. To trust oneself with reliance continuously.

Alas! All human beings have the same root of evil which is due to their ignorance. Everything may seem to be non-evil. Hence the first important step in repentance is to know what is evil, a sin, or bad action. Some actions seem like nothing in America while the same actions if occurred in Ancient China would be considered a very big sin. Goodness and badness, sin and merit are different and relative ideas, different and relative conceptions. You must follow your own culture's guidelines, according to where you were born and live, whatever the local custom and law are, and therefore what your knowledge is.

For the first type of confession called "Take the Dharma," you must follow your general common law regarding what is a sin and what is not a sin. You must recognize within the law which are the ten bad karmas and which are the ten good karmas. In Buddhism there have been established many kinds of laws. For the Hinayana practitioner there are the basic 5 laws, for the Bhikshu the 250 laws, for the Bhikshuni the 255 laws, for the Mahayana Bodhisattva the 45 laws, and in Vajrayana 14 great sins and 8 special sins have been stipulated. There are 4 laws for the Bodhicitta. In the Tripitaka there are 3 kinds of sins. The first kind of sin is contained in the laws called the Silas or Vinayas. Each of these has a story concerning which student committed this sin and how Buddha set up this law; how another person committed that sin and Buddha set another law. The Tripitaka consists of many books, the second part of which is the law. It is necessary to read all of these to recognize a sin and to know how to confess it.

The second type of confession is called "Take Some Good Form." This happens when before you appears an image or you really see the Buddha and he puts his hand on your head either in a dream or in meditative light. This is called "Take the Good Form or Good sign."

The third type of confession is called "Recognize the Sunyata." This occurs when you always meditate in the Sunyata. Because goodness is Sunyata and badness is Sunyata, sin is also Sunyata. It is said if sin were solid, just like a corporeal thing, the whole sky would not be large enough to contain it. A sinner may act either for this reason or for that reason but the nature of the sinner is still also Sunyata. You should not think that sin is just a very hard thing which cannot be moved and cannot change.

So there are these three kinds of repentance or confession. One is "Take the Dharma," one is "Take Some Sign or Form," one is to recognize Sunyata or "Take the Sunyata Nature."

But to take the Sunyata nature you have to recognize the Sunyata very well. You must meditate on the Sunyata and get some true realization, then you can really be redeemed. Many of my books and booklets have described the Sunyata, please read them. When you sit in the Sunyata and the punishment comes, you can still keep your Sunyata and will get no pain. For example, the second patriarch of Ch'an was ordered to be beheaded, but when he was cut he was still in the Sunyata. When skin is cut blood spurts out and comes out red, but his blood came out white, this white is a sign of pure redemption. If cut, a person will usually cry out in pain, but he had no reaction. So this higher method is very difficult. You have to get true realization. These are the classifications of confession and repentance.

Now I wish to talk about how to actually confess and repent, not only the principle behind how to do it. There are four kinds of practice of confession and repentance. The first is Self Help. For Self Help you must read many books of law and think of your sins, not only of this lifetime but also of many past lifetimes. Transmigration is just punishment for our sins. Otherwise we would not be in the "being state" of a man; we could be in heaven, with Buddha, or in holy places. Some beings came here as men just to be punished for their past lives' sins. Some come here to perform actions leading to the next punishment. People who come from a very good state and in the last life gave money to the poor and did many good things for others, can then be reborn in America. They receive much good treatment here: the old people have many organizations to care for them, the young people also receive good treatment. There is medicare, social security, food stamps. Don't think every country has such services. You may live here and think everything in the world is very easy, "Oh, I just fill out a form, then I can get money." It is not so in other countries.

You have to know that your present state is all because of past sins or merits. You did some good merit, you are reborn in America. You did some bad things, like a rich American who does not like to help others, who just enjoys himself, then you will be reborn in India. Don't think an Indian has always been an Indian, an American just stays in America. It is not like this. One's state in transmigration may be very changeable. So first of all it must be recognized that everybody has more or less sinned, then you must know how to repent. This is the first practice.

The second practice is that you must have faith in the subject of repentance and the conditions which help you to be redeemed. They are of six kinds. The first kind is to recognize that everything is Sunyata. This is according to the Dharma. The second kind is according to repetition or chanting. There is chanting in Hinduism, like saying Ram Ram, and in Japan there is chanting of the Lotus Sutra, while some Tibetans chant Om Mani Padme Hum. The first condition leading to redemption is to meditate on the Sunyata, the second is repetition or chanting, while the third is worshipping a Buddha image. You may ask an artist to paint a picture for your confession or you may paint one yourself. It is said that if you make one picture of Sakyamuni, the sins of many lives can be purified. The fourth condition is just making an offering to a monastery, to the sangha, to the high lamas like his Holiness Karmapa. The fifth is to repeat Amitabha's name to get a good rebirth. If you get a good rebirth it is just like being freed from jail and moved into a peaceful place. So the fifth condition is according to the Buddha Amitabha. The sixth is that you must get some sign of purification. When you repent and then dream that you wash your body and it becomes clean, this is also a kind of practice. These six are the second practice for repentance.

Then we come to the third practice. The first practice is through self help to recognize our sins, the second is by others' help to recognize Sunyata, practice repetition, make offerings, worship the images, repeat Buddha's name, and finally to get the purification sign. For the third practice you must know that confession and repentance are quite different. Confession is that I know I committed this sin, I know that I should not have done it but I did and recognize it. This is called confession. Repentance is that I should not commit it again. So the third practice is actual repentance. To really not to do it again, to forbid oneself to do it again.

The fourth practice is to take refuge and develop one's Bodhicitta and do something good instead of committing a sin. What are the signs of realization of repentance? There are three kinds of realization of repentance. The first realization and the very best one is that when one really repents the whole body becomes warm and one's perspiration is mixed with blood. This is the first class sign of real repentance.

The second is that the body becomes warm like having fever and there is perspiration but no blood is mixed with it. However, there is blood mixed with one's tears. I have heard of this in books but have not personally seen the skin's pores emit blood, but tears mixed with blood I have seen. My friend Garma C. C. Chang repented so earnestly that his tears were really mixed with some blood. Surely science says if small blood vessels and tissues are broken from too many tears, there will be some blood.

And what is this realization, who can guarantee that your repentance is real and that you have been redeemed? By what sign can it be proved that you have really been redeemed? There are 13 signs of the purification of sins which appear in dreams. The first sign is to dream that you vomit something black out. The second one is to dream that you eat some cheese, like yogurt. The third sign is to dream that you see the sun and moon. The fourth sign is to dream that you fly into the sky. The fifth sign, whether you dream or really see it, is a big fire. The sixth sign is that you see a bull. The seventh sign is to dream that you conquer some slave. The eighth is that you see a Bhikshu wearing a yellow robe. To see monks in a dream is also good. The ninth is to dream that you see a tree out of which comes some milk, some white juice. The tenth sign is you see a mountain like a bowl, the eleventh you see a lion seat held by lions, the twelfth is you see a very beautiful palace or monastery, and the thirteenth is that you come to a hall and hear some monk giving a lecture.

I have a special sign to add which is a teaching received in my meditative light and that is that on your big toe there is some hair which when you really wash (not in a dream) does not bend down but stands up. This shows that one's sins are really finished. This is the special sign that I was inspired by from my own experience.

So there is the possibility of repentance. We cannot say we have no sin. We must try from today to always reflect well upon what we have done during the day and what we have done at night and use the vinaya's understanding of what is a sin to reflect upon our own conduct. If we have sinned we must do something to purify it. We have performed fire purification rituals at the Adi-Buddha Mandala site many times over the last few years. Each year we have done it twice, once at Christmas and again at Easter. Every time we just ask for repentance and try to reflect within ourselves whether this year our sins have been reduced or increased. If increased, try to reduce them and if reduced you must try to purify them completely. Then we know our Jesus did not spill his blood for us in vain and so we should give thanks to Jesus.

For sins under the sky, Jesus may be the object to ask for redemption, but for those committed which are above the heavens and connected with the Buddhas, Dharma, and Sangha, one has to ask the thirty-five Buddhas or Avalokitesvara for redemption. This should be separately done. Because all Gods including Jesus have themselves sinned upon the Three Gems, they themselves have to be redeemed by these Three Gems.

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