Zen and Repentance

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Author of this essay:

E-mail: Fa Tian Shakya
(1 December 2007)

by Fa Tian Shakya

In the words of La Rochefoucauld, "Repentance is not so much regret for the ill we have done as it is fear of the ill that may happen to us in consequence."

For me, as a young, "good" Catholic boy, this fear of consequences was a good reason to repent. I remember how easy it was to be absolved of all my sins. All I had to do was confess my transgressions in the privacy of the confessional, perform the prescribed penance - usually a half dozen Our Fathers and an equal number of Hail Marys - and I could leave the church, happy that God had forgiven me. My immortal soul cleansed, I was now assured that if I got caught in any of those sins, I could mitigate damages by citing my confession and God's official forgiveness, or in the longer view, of going to Heaven if I died between leaving the church and committing my next transgression - which usually was uncomfortably close to the time I left the church. But barring death or incapacitation, I'd be back in a week for another one-on-one with the priest and the inevitable round of penance.

cnfssnl.jpg Image of Confessional: www.ship-of-fools.com

Generally speaking, Catholics believe that to repent one's sins, all one need is to sincerely confess them to God, preferably through His earthly representative, the priest. Formal confession is a ritualized act. One enters the confessional, which is a claustrophobic, closet-like structure, and kneels, waiting for a small screen window to open. The cue to speak is given when the priest, who sits on the other side of the partition, pulls the screen back. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." The recitation continues with the roll call of all sins small ("venial") or big ("mortal"). Some sins require a little investigation and the priest may press for details. When the interrogation is over, the relieved penitent recites an Act of Contrition. Absolution is given and penance assigned.

The ritual concludes with the priest intoning, "Go forth and sin no more," an adjuration that most people found as impossible to obey when they were children, as they find inconvenient to obey as adults.

Whether or not Confession lessens the desire to sin, it does provide the sinner with psychological benefits. The purgative advantages alone would seem to make participation worthwhile. Yet, as Carl Jung determined, those penitents who maintained a mature attitude and actually effected the required behavioral changes, achieved a rebirth of the spirit, a "metanoia" (μετάνοια), or a "spontaneous attempt of our psyche to heal itself of some unbearable conflict by melting down and being reborn in a more adaptive form." Jung believed that many psychotic episodes could be understood as "existential crises" which were often attempts at self-repair.

In the original Greek version of the New Testament, metanoia meant "after-thought" and denoted a change of mind. As Jung used the term it indicated a fundamental alteration in view, attitude, and behavior. His usage more closely approximated that of the ancient Indian philosophers who emphasized the necessary "turning about in the seat of consciousness" as evidence of reform. The term therefore has less to do with sins that require repentance and more to do with overcoming self-ignorance, the Delusion which is one of Buddhism's Three Poisons: Greed and Hatred being the other two. To be unaware that our actions are harmful or that our way of life is unethical is to entertain, as the Gospel of Philip puts it, "the mother of all evil."

In Zen, metanoia is more than an intellectual change, a scholarly reversal of fortune. It does not so much change what we are, however objectionable that state of being might be, but rather it mandates that we enter a dimension which in every time and in every place constitutes a deeper reality.

In Zen, repentance isn't accomplished by simply taking a few hours to confess our sins. What outward act of penance can we perform? We have no confessional chamber to enter and no representative of a higher authority who can absolve us of our sins. Sins occur in the material world of illusion, the world that the Buddha called "bitter and painful." The solution for us is not to limit our renovations to the activities of the material world, but to remove ourselves from the material world's influence. In the material world we sin and we are sinned against. In the world of truth, Nirvana, there is no such thing as sin. Well is it written, "The Buddha, if he be in the body of a murderer, sees no murderer. The Buddha, if he be in the body of a saint, sees no saint."

Good and evil are cultural concepts that manifest themselves only in the individual's samsaric mind. All effects have an infinity of causes - the knots in the material world's Karmic Net. Even without our knowledge of DNA, congenital defect, and pre-natal care, the ancients could clearly see that a child who was well nourished, educated, and lovingly raised in a harmonious environment was not destined to be a thug whose childhood was likely to have been one of cruel neglect, abuse, and abandonment. The metanoia that Zen ordains is the revolution in the victim's consciousness which allows him to understand Karma's randomness, its "luck of the draw," and, in understanding it, to penetrate the illusions of the opposites: pious and wicked, saint and sinner, refined and coarse, fortunate and unfortunate. The practitioner who realizes this knows also that he has survived Samsara's bitterness and pain and is now free to enjoy the peace, joy, truth, and liberty of Nirvana.

By removing itself from the caste system and the control of priests, Buddhism obviated any transfer of control to an exterior agent. No command issued by another human being - especially an often "all too human" priest - could contain the force of conviction that inheres in a self-generated commitment to seek Enlightenment and to enter the Buddha's paradisical Refuge, the Refuge that exists within each person's heart and mind.

If we need assistance in our efforts to reach this point of decision, Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng gives some advice in his Platform Sutra (Section 23).

"From now on you will call Enlightenment your master and will not rely on other teachings which are deluded and heretical. Always prove it clearly yourselves with the Three Treasures of your own Nature... If in your own minds you take refuge in the Buddha, heterodoxies and delusions are not produced, you have no desires and are content with yourselves as you are, and stand apart from the passions and the physical wants...

"Good Friends, each of you must observe well for himself. Do not mistakenly use your minds! The sutras say to take refuge in the Buddha within yourselves. They do not say to rely on other Buddhas. If you do not rely upon your own Natures, there is nothing else on which to rely.

(24) "This [Mahaprajnaparamita] Dharma must be practiced; it has nothing to do with recitations. The capacity of the mind is broad and huge, like the vast sky. Do not sit with a mind fixed on emptiness. If you do you will fall into a neutral kind of emptiness. Emptiness includes the sun, moon, stars, and planets, the great earth, mountains and rivers, all trees and grasses, bad men and good men, bad things and good things, heaven and hell; they are all in the midst of emptiness. The emptiness of human nature is also like this. Self-Nature contains the ten thousand things..."

"Although you see all men and non-men, evil and good, evil things and good things, you must not throw them aside, nor must you cling to them, nor must you be stained by them, but you must regard them as being just like the empty sky."

The equanimity that the Sixth Patriarch prescribes is often called 'Holy Indifference" by which we mean we do our duty and interact with persons in our environment without getting emotionally involved in either our duty or the problems of others. However, until we have achieved this state of Holy Indifference, we must still examine our conscious, and in the words of our Venerable Shi Ming Zhen in the Seventh World of Chan Buddhism,

"Consider all of the five precepts and determine if you have violated any of them... Resolve to make amends or restitution if you have. If you feel anger towards anyone resolve that within 24 hours the anger-causing incident will be settled in the favor of the other person."

Most importantly, remembering that,

"The burden of understanding and forgiving the other fellow is on you."

A Chinese proverb says, "Forethought is easy; repentance hard." Forethought in this case is judiciousness in avoiding harm, ahimsa. We accomplish this in Zen by maintaining a simple awareness not only of our actions, but of our thoughts and words. This awareness helps to keep us fearful - as La Rochefoucauld noted - of the consequences, not all of which we can determine in advance. When we thoughtlessly act, we create suffering, not only for others, but for ourselves as well.

As we spend time with Zen, on the cushion and off, we begin to see that our suffering is caused less by those who trespass against us, and more by our own trespasses. It is through seeing this that we experience our own metanoia, and we fundamentally change the way we approach our lives.

In the Dharma,
Fa Tian Shakya

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