Repentance and Confession

views updated


Repentance and confession have been a part of the practice of Buddhism from its beginning, and several distinctive forms have evolved for different contexts. Indian Buddhism developed at least three forms: (1) communal repentance and confession within the monastic saṄgha; (2) metaphysical repentance of one's karmic past to a supramundane buddha; and (3) meditational repentance of incorrect attachments and understanding. Chinese Buddhists developed public and elaborate forms of repentance and confession; these have cosmic dimensions to relieve the suffering of both the living and the dead.

Indian Buddhism

When disciples of the Buddha first left their family lives for full-time practice, they adopted a set of guidelines that were recited in a twice-monthly ceremony called poṢadha (Pāli, uposatha). During this gathering, monks recited the rules of discipline (PrĀtimokṣa) as a check and support for their individual practice. Participation in the group recitation required purity, so prior confession and restitution were required by monks and nuns if they had violated any rules. Although expulsion resulted from violation of the more serious pārājika rules (no killing, stealing, sexual intercourse, or lying about one's spiritual achievements), lesser rule violations could be remedied by confession and other supportive behavior.

When saṅghadisesa (Sanskrit, saṅghāvaśeṢa) rules were broken, for example, recovery required confession to a community of at least twenty monastics, plus a probationary two-week seclusion for reflection and reform. Saṅghādisesa rules set prohibitions against disruptive behaviors, such as failing to accept admonitions, speaking in envy, gossiping about another, or repudiating the Buddha, dharma, and saṅgha. Violation of the nissaggiya pācittiyas (Sanskrit, naiḥsargikaprāyaścittika) rules also required confession, but only to a minimum of five monastics, plus forfeiture of an article that had been wrongly obtained, such as a robe, bowl, or rug. Confession was required to only one or more monastics for breaking rules against telling laity about the misbehavior of monks, bad manners, carelessness, not keeping an accepted invitation, or abusing others by scolding, tickling, or degrading them. Similarly, violations of a fifth category of rules dealing with food required only confession. Lesser rules dealing with etiquette did not require confession at all.

Confession did not excuse the violator from the penalties of rule breaking; rather, confession was a matter of truth-telling and of inviting appropriate penalties for rectifying the situation. A monk or nun could confess only to other monastics, and confession was not a public event open to the laity. By contrast, the rite of pavāraṇa, which occurred after the annual rainy-season retreat, publicly examined the wrongs that monks and nuns had committed during the three-month retreat. The confession and public repentance involved in pavāraṇa differed from the private whispered confession of the prātimokṢa. Thus, repentance and confession within the Buddhist monastic community served not only to support individual practice, but also to maintain the unity of the monastic community and its good reputation with the laity.

A second form of repentance and confession arose as a way to cope with bad karma (action) and had a very different goal from maintaining monastic purity. These confessions referred to unexpiated guilt resulting from unknown or unremembered past wrongs, and were a plea for forgiveness to alleviate suffering and harm in the present life. The goal was not merely to escape the social penalties of rule breaking, but to avoid the larger karmic consequence of wrongful actions, thoughts, and attitudes. Such a confession of karmic wrongs is given a mythological framework in the "Chapter on Confession" in the Mahāyāna SuvarṆaprabhĀsottama-SŪtra (Sūtra of Golden Light). According to this chapter, during the vision of a shining drum, verses came forth that proclaimed the power of the drum to suppress many woes, and a confession of all previous wrongs was uttered to supramundane, compassionate buddhas. Even the name Survarṇaprabhāsa (Golden Light) was believed to destroy all evil deeds done over thousands of eons. But the most striking feature of this form of Buddhist confession was the theistic function of the buddhas, who were asked to give protection and to forgive all evil deeds. This text presents an endless time span, the recognition of possible unexpiated guilt, a request for forgiveness, supramundane compassionate buddhas as sources for forgiveness, and the use of the name of the Suvarṇaprabhāsa to destroy all evil actions and their consequences.

The worldview expressed by this ritual extends beyond the present social world of the monastery to invoke karmic history and draw on supramundane powers, such as the force of compassionate buddhas and the magical power of dhāraṇī, to rectify a harmful situation. In this worldview, wrongs from previous rebirths not only affect one's present rebirth, but also relate directly to the Buddha, who can intercede and offer relief and support. Repentance is not primarily communal, but rather devotional and directed to a cosmic, transhistorical figure, and thus it can be called "metaphysical repentance." It was this kind of repentance that later evolved into large public rituals in China.

A third form of repentance and confession is based on the Sūtra of Meditation on Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. In this text, the wrongs to be eliminated are from both the remembered and the unknowable past, but the method of repentance and confession goes beyond pleading for mercy and help. Instead, the text offers instruction for visualization of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, and leads to instruction about all the karma and wrongs of former lives that can then be confessed. In addition, the devotee systematically reviews the functioning of each of the sense organs, followed by a recitation of ritual repentance (said three times) for all inner attachment and external wrongdoing. Samantabhadra's "law of repentance" says that attachment to phenomena perceived by the senses causes one to fall into the cycle of birth and death.

Whereas meditative inspection of the sense-fields is the main basis for regretting and rectifying past wrongs, the final dimension of personal transformation is the development of a new understanding based on contemplating the "real mark of all things," namely, their emptiness of enduring distinguishing attributes (lakṢaṇa). This contemplation of the emptiness and signlessness of dharmas is the locus classicus for the idea of "formless repentance" found in Chinese Chan school texts like the Platform SŪtra of the Sixth Patriarch (Liuzu tan jing). Since this contemplation removes bad karma and frees one from past wrongs and present attachments based on exposure to enlightened awareness, just as "the sun of wisdom disperses dew and frost," then this could be called insight repentance.

Insight repentance differs from the confessional model of early Buddhism to correct wrong actions in the present through penance, exclusion, probation, restitution, or confession. Instead, for Chan Buddhists, wrongs are to be "cast aside by your own true Buddha nature" through an inner change, and inner transformation by enlightenment corrects all "past, future, and present" wrong actions and thoughts. As a result, many Zen practitioners in the West daily recite: "All the evil karma ever created by me since of old, on account of my beginningless greed, hatred, and ignorance, I now confess openly and fully."

Chinese Buddhism

All three forms of Indian repentance were adopted in China. The great Chinese vinaya master Daoxuan (596–667) grouped the causes of repentance into three categories: violations of monastic codes, violations of phenomena (immoral behavior), and violations of principle (wrong attitudes, perceptions, and understanding). The Tiantai monk Zhiyi (538–597) was influential in developing the metaphysical and insight repentance methods. In his Fahua sanmei chanyi (Lotus Samādhi Techniques), Zhiyi presents the Lotus Samādhi ritual as a dialectic between the Meditation on Samantabhadra Sūtra and the "Chapter on Peaceful Practices" in the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆ1e0c;arĪkasŪtra). The first text instructs practitioners to repent sins from the six senses, whereas the second text states that bodhisattvas do not make distinctions, nor do they practice any dharmas. Zhiyi argues that these two texts complement one another, and he shows how they switch positions, with the second advocating remembering, reciting, and explaining the scriptures, while the first advocates "formless repentance," as in the statement "Since one's own mind is void of itself, there is no subject of demerit or merit." This "formless repentance" not only became popular in Chan Buddhism, but also led to a reduction of repentance in Japanese Buddhism to the single act of recognizing the emptiness of all things—doer, deeds, and karma.

Zhiyi emphasized, however, that both "practices of form" and "formless practice" are preliminary, but at the time of realization, both methods are discarded. Instead, based on the statement in the NirvĀṆa SŪtra that "In the mind that is 'one moment of thought' one is able to name and evaluate each of the incalculable birth-and-deaths," Zhiyi asserts that at every moment one is to understand three truths: emptiness, the value of provisional worldly truth that includes precepts and repentance, and an inclusive middle path. As a result, one empathizes with the pain of all beings and causes them to cross over to unboundedness.

This inclusion of others into one's repentance caused a dramatic increase in repentance rituals in China. Shioiri Ryōdō (1964) observed the remarkable fact that the Chinese pilgrims who traveled most extensively in India—Faxian (ca. 337–418), Xuanzang (ca. 600–664), and Yijing (635–713)—reported only two public Buddhist repentance rituals in India and Southeast Asia. By comparison, Chinese Buddhist repentance rituals are prominent as regular public ceremonies, so that more than one-fourth of the ritual texts collected among contemporary Chinese Buddhist practitioners by Kamata Shigeo (1986) are repentance texts. These ceremonies pervade the Chinese Buddhist liturgical year and constitute a major bond between the monastic elite and the laity, and between the world of Buddhism and Chinese society.

The Chinese transformed Buddhist repentance practices because they believed that the sufferings of the dead can be visited upon the living, and the actions of the living can transform the sufferings of the dead. Chinese Buddhists also assumed that a conspicuous public display of regret and anguish over previous wrongs would influence cosmic powers to show mercy. As a result, public repentance during the Ghost Festival to relieve the suffering of deceased family members became a major ritual in Chinese society from medieval times to the present (Teiser, 1988).

See also:Festivals and Calendrical Rituals; Precepts


De Visser, M. W. Ancient Buddhism in Japan: Sūtras and Ceremonies in Use in the Seventh and Eighth Centuriesa.d.and Their History in Later Times, Vol. 1. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1935.

Eberhard, Wolfram. Guilt and Sin in Traditional China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Eckel, M. David. "A Buddhist Approach to Repentance." In Repentance: A Comparative Perspective, ed. Amitai Etzioni and David W. Carney. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997.

Kamata Shigeo. Chūgoku no Bukkyō girei (Chinese Buddhist Ceremonies). Tokyo: Daizo shuppan, 1986.

Kuo Li-ying. Confession et contrition dans le bouddhisme chinois de Veau Xesiècle. Paris: L'École Française d'Extrême-Orient, 1994.

Prebish, Charles S. Buddhist Monastic Discipline: The Sanskrit PrātimokṢa Sūtras of the Mahāsāṃghikas and Mūlasarvāstivādins. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975.

Rhys Davids, T. W., and Oldenberg, Hermann. Vinaya Texts, Part I: The Pātimokkha, The Mahāvagga I–IV. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 13. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1996 (reprint of the Oxford University Press edition, 1885).

Shioiri Ryōdō. "Chūgoku Bukkyō ni okeru raisan to butsumei kyōten" (Repentance Rituals and Scriptures of the Buddha's Name in Chinese Buddhism). In Bukkyō shisōshi ronshū: Yūki Kyōju shoju kinen. Tokyo: Daizo Shuppan, 1964.

Teiser, Stephen. The Ghost Festival in Medieval China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Teiser, Stephen. The Scripture on the Ten Kings and the Making of Purgatory in Medieval Chinese Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. Sisters in Solitude: Two Traditions of Buddhist Monastic Ethics for Women. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

David W. Chappell