Confession, repentance, forgiveness

Kāyena vācā cittena, pamādena mayā kataṁ
Accayaṁ khama me bhante, Bhūri-pañña tathāgata

If, due to negligence, I have done some wrong, by body, speech, or mind, Forgive me of that offense, O Bhante, perfect One of vast wisdom.

This phrase is chanted in Theravada Buddhism in relation to confession / repentance of misdeeds.

Here’s a short mental reflection for you. In your mind, what is Buddha? Is he a teacher? A god like figure? Another human being, A leader that shows you the correct way?

Depending on your personal definition of what Buddha is, the above phrase will have different context….. (try it)

As mortal human beings, we are full of faults and will do wrong, say wrong or think wrong. (collectively known as misdeeds) Sometimes, misdeeds are personal and have no effect on others. For example, a scorching hatred appears in our mind. We are aware of it and might be alarmed by it. Our delusional thoughts then spun uncontrollably and weaved notions of vengeance. Bitter things that we wish we will say, so as to harm others etc. Such misdeeds requires repentance. We can do so by reciting various prayers, such as the one above. The 35 Buddha repentance prayer or the 88 Buddha repentance prayer. Objective is to cultivate our mind, so that it will ultimately avoid misdeeds and engage in good deeds.

Sometimes our actions or words are intentional and our misdeeds may harm another person. That person may be aware or unaware of it. In this situation, confession is called for when the time is right. One has to confess to the person whom our misdeed caused harm. Instead of seeking forgiveness from Buddha, it is more important to seek forgiveness from the beings whom we have harmed. Beings are not limited to Humans. If you enjoyed fishing as a sport, confession would include asking forgiveness from fishes! It may sound strange to go to a river side and start asking fishes for forgiveness. However, Buddhist confession / repentance practices are part of our mind training. Moreover, all beings have the same desire for happiness.

In order for the confession/repentance to be effective, one must really mean it. Confessing misdeeds to fellow humans whom we have harmed is more challenging though.

Sometimes our misdeeds can harm a congregation or a a group of people. Naturally, the Karma becomes heavier. For example, we may engaged in non-virtuous speech and created a huge misunderstanding amongst colleagues. In such situation confession will mean asking the forgiveness of everyone! In a Buddhist community, one will have to confess and seek forgiveness from fellow Dharma brothers and sisters. The karma of creating a schism in a Buddhist congregation may affect the enlightenment of other people, it breaks the harmony of the group. Therefore, it is extremely bad karma.

In order to even start confessing / repentance, we need to be aware of our misdeeds and their effects. For most of us, we usually do things and say things without bad intention. We may say something that is hurtful to a person or a group of person without even realising it. We are just careless. In such situations, a general confession prayer in front of a Buddha image will suffice. Which is why Buddhist confession/repentance prayer includes a verse to state that we confess /repent all misdeeds that we are aware of or unaware of. Such prayer also train our humbleness and prevent conceit. By saying such prayers, we acknowledge that we are imperfect and need more practice.


When others point out our faults

When someone comes to us and point out our misdeeds. The first action is to seek forgiveness. It doesn’t matter if we remember our misdeeds or whether we did it intentionally. If someone else is hurt by our deeds, we just ask for forgiveness and apologise. If we explain ourselves, it is because we want to remove the hurt or suffering that our deeds have caused.

In a Buddhist community, such an approach will foster harmony and it will make us become more aware of others’ sensitivities. Different people have different sensitivities towards actions and speech. What is acceptable to us, may be taboo for others.

So it still boils down to our practice of compassion and humility.


Can we pray to Buddha to absolve our bad karma?

It is important to note that Buddha never teach his disciples to pray to Him and seek absolution. The Buddha also taught that it is useless to pray to any beings (including gods/goddesses) for that.

Whenever there is an action there will be an effect. (Karma) As long as one is in Samsara, one will experience karma.

Ablution rituals that involve washing in holy river or baths is also equally useless, according to Buddha.

Nonetheless, we still see various Buddhist traditions having various rituals that seems to be seeking absolution or looks like ablutions. Is there something wrong with such practices? I think not.

This is because, we cannot begin healing our mind (to gain enlightenment) if we are weighed down by guilt and fear.

On the other hand, having guilt and fear of one’s misdeed is a good thing, because it motivate us to renounce our past misdeed and do good. But, if our fear and guilt overburdened us, we cannot progress.

During Buddha’s time, a King who murdered his own father to usurp the throne, went to seek forgiveness from Buddha. Buddha did not denied the King’s request. Instead, he took the opportunity to teach the King some Dharma.

Likewise, in ancient Tibet, a half crazed guilt-ridden man went to a Buddhist master to ask for salvation. That Buddhist master did not reject him but subjected him to the torturous task of building houses, demolishing them and rebuilding them. When the mind of that man became more settled and at peace with himself, that master taught him Dharma. That man became one of Tibet’s most renown master, the enlightened yogi , Milarepa.


What if someone confessed the harm they did to us?

If someone confessed to us and informed us of the harm they had done behind our back. For example, someone informed you that they had back-stabbed you and robbed you of a chance for promotion. What do we do? The shock and anger may be really difficult to handle, especially if that person is our friend. At such moment the test for us, is to practice loving kindness. If we can forgive and generate love instead. If we are more concern about the guilt and remorse in the confessor and we want to forgive and give them peace of mind. Then I think, it shows that we have progressed spiritually.

If we are not ready for that, we should at the least, not retaliate with hatred. Because hatred burns the mind. A mind that is burning will be directed to lower rebirths. If we feel anger and injustice, that kind of emotion is an affliction of the mind. It requires healing. To heal, we can practice Metta Meditation. When we perceive someone as an enemy, we can simply try to wish that person well. Do it until the hatred subside. Not easy but necessary. Its like curing an illness. We should not let hatred fester in our mind.

What if our friend wish to confide in us or want us to hear their confession.

If someone did bad to another and want our help to feel better. Or they have misdeeds or some bad habits, some dark secrets etc.

We DO NOT tell people, “Hey, you just wait for your time to suffer the effect of your bad Karma. Because Buddha says no one can save you!”

We can either direct that person to a qualified Buddhist teacher or recommend them to chant Buddhist prayer text (such as the 35 Buddha or 88 Buddha repentance prayer)

It is all about compassion and giving hope to others. In our endless round of rebirths in Samsara, we are all the same. Until the time we break free, everyone is the same. (Full of faults)

However, I would caution against hearing a confession, trying to play the role of a religious priest.

Foremost, no being can white wash bad karma. A deed committed will have its effect.

Buddhism confession doesn’t work that way. If our close friend need our help to feel better, and wish to confide their misdeeds with us. Then we have to think carefully if we are ready to hear it. Their dark secrets will remain with us for a long long time. In our mind. Trust me. If our mind is weak, we may be negatively affected.

In such situation, we will be similar to someone who cannot swim but nonetheless jumped into the river to save our drowning friend.

For me, the action of confessing a misdeed to someone may help us feel better only. It doesn’t really help in progressing the mind. Meditation and self discovery is better. I think, sharing meditation methods will be more useful. This is because any external factor soothing the mind is just temporary. The guilt will still return to haunt that person. So only they can heal themselves through the right mental exercises.

I will strongly recommend introducing a qualified Buddhist teacher to help them or encourage them to see a medical practitioner (if it is really bad)

May all be well and happy.