Posted by: Upāsaka | 10/08/2017

Atonement

Having confessed my transgression I’m still left with how to atone for it. Initially, I’d assumed the word “atone” derived from “tone” in the sense of tuning an instrument but it has the following, equally telling etymology:

atone (v.)1590s, “be in harmony, agree, be in accordance,” from adverbial phrase atonen (c. 1300) “in accord,” literally “at one,” a contraction of at and one. It retains the older pronunciation of one. Meaning “make up (for errors or deficiencies)” is from 1660s; that of “make reparations” is from 1680s. The phrase perhaps is modeled on Latin adunare “unite,” from ad “to, at” (see ad-) + unum “one.” Related: Atonedatoning.

So, maybe I wasn’t so far off. Anyway, the concept of seeking forgiveness and righting wrongs is always complicated without a Creator to turn to but the following piece by Ven. Chuan Guan is illuminating:

In the case of a breach of Buddhist precepts, it is not a breach against the Buddha, but against ourselves. Consequently, Buddhists in a way do not really apologise to the Buddha. Let’s take a look at Buddhist precepts to understand better.

Buddhist precepts are training rules taken up voluntarily to help us change and become better. It is like a person with high blood pressure prescribed a ‘precept’ of not taking too much salt and oil. If he take a lot of salt and oil, would the doctor be angry? Would he need to apologise to the doctor? I think the doctor would not be angry (ok, some may!), but may feel sorry for the patient, for the patient is the one who is being harmed, and not the doctor. Out of compassion, the doctor may rebuke him and suggest for ways that the patient may adopt a healthier diet, but in the end, it is still up to the patient to adopt the diet, and to follow through with it.

So when Buddhist did something against the precepts, they are really doing something against themselves and others (where their actions also harm others), and not the Buddha. Just like the doctor in the above analogy, the Buddha do not get angry with people for doing wrong things. Instead, He feels compassion for us, for He sees clearly the harm that we do to ourselves and others by breaching the precepts.

Hence ‘atonement’ is not so much an apology or seeking reconciliation from the Buddha, but ‘atonement’ refers more towards the steps we take to right the wrong.
This consist of (1) confession 忏, (2) repentance 悔 and (3) aspiration 发愿. (Some communities may develop this further and hence be more comprehensive).

In Buddhism, if we do some wrong, the first step is to (1) confess the deed, (2) recognise that our deed was (2a) harmful, was wrong, ignoble, blame-worthy, unworthy, and hence, should be (2b) abandoned, removed, eradicated etc. We should, having recognised the wrong, then (3) make a firm resolve not to repeat it. But easier said than done. So, within the Buddhist text, there are very comprehensive teachings, outlining how the human psyche ticks and what triggering factors lead to others that inclines towards harmful actions that are driven by greed, anger and delusion.

Follow-up Steps
We then (1) practise distancing from triggering factors while (2) applying reflections, contemplations and other practices that transform our perception of the triggering factors so that future contact with it do not lead to the same actions. Meanwhile, we also (3) strengthen mindfulness so that if (1) fails and we encounter the trigger before we have mastered (2), then mindfulness can kick in and prevent a repeat of our earlier actions. (4) Applying proper attention is also most useful while we distant ourselves. Why preoccupy ourselves with something that upsets us?

In modern day Buddhism, repentance puja (chants) are recited as part of a devotional practice that encompasses the above steps. These may be done infront of the Buddha’s image as a reminder of our spiritual direction, towards this state of perfection, Nirvana, that is humanly possible and attained by the Buddha, the Arahants and Enlightened Bodhisattvas. Where possible, confession and repentance is also done with one’s guidance teacher who knows our habits, both good and bad, and knows our tendencies and inclinations. In this way, done methodologically, it can lighten the emotional burden of wrong, while developing the mind so that we can practise restrain and not repeat our mistakes again and again.

These steps leading to an eradication of harmful actions is the full ‘atonement’ of that wrong, a full purification of that wrong.

Good news is that while difficult, it is humanly possible.

http://buddhavacana.net/2010/10/righting-a-wrong-faith-atonement/

Finally, there is the Verse of Atonement used in Zen circles (of which I happen to be a part) and which seems more relevant than ever. I will be adding this to my morning chanting.

All harmful acts, words and thoughts, ever committed by me since of old,

On account of beginningless greed, anger and ignorance,

Born of my body, speech and mind,

I now atone for them all.

May I overcome greed, hatred and delusion and make a final end to suffering.


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