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Special Blog: Why Repentance?

After yesterday’s post, some readers may be wondering why repentance is such a central practice in Buddhism. It can be found in all schools of Buddhism and stretches all the way back to the time of the Buddha, when disciples would confess their mistakes in front of the assembly on a regular basis. Nowadays, while such specialized repentances still occur, although mostly in monastic contexts, scripted repentance is used widely, from the 35 Repentance Buddhas of Tibetan Buddhism (which are actually used in Chinese Buddhism as well), to the Repentance Verse used in practically all schools of East Asian Buddhism, the practice is live and well.

But the meaning behind repentance is more than just reading a text. With Emperor Liang Repentance in particular, it lists out all of the innumerable transgressions we could possibly have committed in our past lives. By reading them, reflecting on these actions and their harmful effects, we apologize to those we have hurt and also resolve to not make the same mistakes again. In the words of the repentance:

Today, we sincerely throw our five limbs on the ground in prostration. We repent and seek forgiveness on behalf of all who have suffered or are currently suffering within the Six Realms. We also repent and seek forgiveness on behalf of our parents, teachers, and all of our relatives. We also repent and seek forgiveness for ourselves. May the offenses that have been done be completely eradicated, and may we never dare to commit offenses that have yet to be done. We take refuge in the world’s great compassionate father.

《慈悲道場懺法》卷3:「今日至心等一痛切五體投地。普為六道已受苦者當受苦者。求哀禮懺。奉為父母師長一切眷屬。求哀禮懺。亦為自身。求哀禮懺。已作之罪願乞除滅。未作之罪不敢復作。歸依世間大慈悲父。」(CBETA, T45, no. 1909, p. 937, a24-29)

We can break this passage down into two separate parts. The first is that the repentance is not done on purely our own behalf. Instead, it recognizes that there are many sentient beings who are suffering, but have no opportunity to repent for the transgressions that led to their current suffering. Therefore, we keep them in mind during the repentance and direct the merits to them. We also keep our loved ones in mind—our parents who raised us, our teachers who taught us, and our family who supported us. To repay their kindness, we also practice this repentance on their behalf, in addition to ourselves.The second part is how the text defines repentance, namely: to take responsibility for and admit to the harm we have caused in the past, and then to commit ourselves to end all harmful behavior and to not do it again.

Tonight, during the Dharma talk precluding the service, the presiding venerable explained that if we do not change our habits and our mistakes, then we could practice the repentance once a week and it still might not be enough. Repentance is only effective when it goes beyond language and enters the realm of action. Just like when we hurt someone we are close to, an apology helps to close the wound, but to merely offer an apology without changing our actions will just lead to more suffering later down the road. The apology needs to be done in conjunction with tangible change.

However, we also need to note the strength of repentance. Nobody is able to change themselves overnight, so it helps to start from talking the talk before walking the walk. As we chant the text, we learn from it, and it informs our actions, which then leads to changed behavior. So while the goal is to not have anything to repent for, none of us are perfect, and participating in such services does have an effect on our unenlightened minds, leading us closer to awakening.

I was talking with another venerable earlier today, and we came across the topic of why sincere repentance is so hard for people. Saying the words of repentance is not too difficult, but truly being sincere with it requires an acceptance of being wrong, being at fault, and being imperfect. In a culture where we like knowing that we’re right, that we are the bigger person, and that we should put out a perfect image of ourselves, it’s incredibly difficult to be sincere in listing a list of personal issues that we have while also maintaining a healthy sense of self-esteem.

In repentance, we are not here to rub people’s mistakes in, to shame them and tell them what terrible humans they are, but rather to acknowledge the mistake and aspire to do better. There is undoubtedly a sense of shame that comes from repentance, but I feel that it is more of a sense of regret that is accompanied by a desire to change. It is a motivating force, rather than a burdening one. This is especially difficult in personal repentances where someone will acknowledge something they concretely did in the past few weeks. I have seen it occur during various retreats, whether it be someone announcing to 200 people that they knowingly broke the rules and kept their cell phones on them, or announcing that they had snuck into a guest room to watch TV. It is embarrassing to be put on the spot like that, but the energy of the group is what spurs change.

Back when I was studying social psychology, I read about this experiment in which darkness encourages deviant behavior. That is, when people have a sense of anonymity, they will do things that they typically would not do under ordinary circumstances. Of course, being in a monastery gets rid of any sense of privacy and anonymity. Everything is done as a community, and so everybody knows each other. I remember one time, when a venerable made a mistake during morning chanting that was disruptive to the assembly. After the service, she publicly apologized to the community. Later, she told us about the situation and remarked that it was through her repentance that she felt very free. Up until that point, she felt heavy and burdened with uneasiness. But after acknowledging her mistake and vowing to improve, she was able to move past it.

However, to be able to truly and sincerely repent is very difficult. It is hard to imagine that any of us could have done the heinous deeds listed in the repentance, but we have to think of ourselves as having done them. Over the eons and eons of birth and death, surely we committed some of them, and so we should take each line seriously. We also have to remember that we are doing it not just for our own behalf, but for all sentient beings, of which, many have committed the transgressions listed in the text.

I want to end this entry with one final quote from the repentance tonight.

There has never been a virtue born out of sloth and laziness. There has also never been a virtue born from pride and gluttony.

《慈悲道場懺法》卷3:「未見一善從懶墮懈怠中生。亦未曾見有一善法從憍慢自恣中得。」(CBETA, T45, no. 1909, p. 933, b6-7)

Let’s all work on being more diligent, humble, and reserved. See you next time!

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