The sutra and ceremony of repentance
By Lana Hōsei Berrington
In zen we chant this verse of repentance on some occasions:
Ga shaku sho zo sho aku go
Kai yu mu shi ton jin chi
Ju shin ku i shi sho sho
Issai ga kon kai san ge
This means: All my past and harmful karma ( or ancient twisted karma), born from beginningless greed, hate, and delusion, through my actions of body, speech, and mind, I now fully avow.
It’s the verse of repentance, and it turns up from time to time in our zen way. It comes from Samantabhadra Bodhisattva. We don’t talk much about Samantabhadra whose name means Universal Virtue or Universal Goodness. Whereas Manjushri Bodhisattva (Monju Bosatsu) exemplifies wisdom, and Avelokitshevara Bodhisattva (Kannon or Kan ji zai bosatsu) exemplifies compassion – Samantabhadra (Fugen Bosatsu) represents wisdom in action – he says that there can be no wisdom if it doesn’t benefit beings – wisdom must be practiced – So, Fugen bosatsu symbolises practice. I like to think of Samantabhadra as being the bodhisattva of just being an all round good person.
Maybe the reason why we don’t hear a lot about him is because one of the features of Samantabhadra’s practice is doing “hidden good deeds”. He is mentioned in the Lotus sutra, the Avatamsaka (flower garland) sutra, our meal sutra, and influences a lot of our ceremony. Samantabhadra is well known for his 10 vows, mentioned in the last chapter of the Avatamsaka sutra. Vow number 4 is the vow to repent. The words of the vow are “From beginningless time I have acted unskilfully, with craving, hatred, and ignorance, in actions of body, speech, and mind. Determined now to begin anew, I repent.” It’s very easy to see how we get our verse of repentance from this; the words are almost the same.
It is Repentance, our verse and our ceremony of repentance, that I want to talk about today. The word repentance brings a lot of things up for some, maybe of people preaching in the street, shouting “Repent Sinner !” or of a Catholic confessional with a priest to whom you confess your sins and seek forgiveness.
But in Buddhism, we don’t have the same idea of “sin” that we find in Christianity. In Christianity, sin is an immoral act considered a transgression against divine law, rather than a natural law.
It is also something for which you can be encouraged to feel shame, and guilt. Additionally it is a system that relies on the benevolence of an “other power” – in this case Christ, God or a Saint, to facilitate your redemption. In Buddhism, “other power” is called TARIKI” – and we see other power redemption particularly in the Pure Land school of Buddhism. The opposite of Tariki is Joriki – or ‘self power’ – this is applicable to zen.
Another part of the idea of ‘sin’ in Christianity is the guilt and shame we can be encouraged to feel. Guilt and shame are about keeping us stuck in the past. Keeping us, in our minds, inside some past story that we have created; a story that is all about how horrible we are. “I’m so terrible, my god, I’m the worst person, I will beat myself” – It’s a very self-centred attitude, it turns a situation into something that’s “ALL ABOUT ME!”. Guilt and shame are about NOT Continuing, not letting go, being unable to return to the present.
In Buddhism, repentance is not about shame or guilt. It is about acknowledging the role that we play in this world, and seeing it clearly. We can express our regret – which is a way of addressing the suffering we have caused, we can apologise, if it’s appropriate, we can accept responsibility, and then we can move forward. We WANT to recognise and acknowledge what we have done, so we can return to the present and meet what is right here, right now. Recognise is a great word. I looked up the English word recognise, and found out that it is taken from the Old French world recognoistre – which means to RE THINK – to recall to mind – to know again.
So, there is an element of wisdom in recognising our misdeeds.
Whatever the consequences of our actions – whether wholesome or unwholesome – whether good or bad – in Buddhism, we own them. They are ours – and one of our jobs is to recognise that. This is the English word “avow”. “I now fully avow” means to acknowledge, to look again with eyes open. To think again, and then MOVE FORWARD from this place – that is to say – to let go and return to the present.
When we perform repentance rituals, or chant the repentance verse, the point is not to ask forgiveness from someone for what we’ve done. It is not “Bless me father for I have sinned”, which is ‘other power’. It’s important that we don’t think in this way, ultimately there is no gap between ourselves, the person who we might be asking forgiveness from / or whom we may have harmed, and the actions we have committed.
Finally, when we move forward, there is also an element of repentance that encourages us to try not to create harmful consequences again. Repentance doesn’t mean we should keep causing harm. Just because you can mend a broken leg, doesn’t mean you should break your legs.
Guy often speaks about giving and receiving – that the giver, receiver and gift are not separate – are one. This is the same. The one who acts, the consequences and the aggrieved party, are not separate – they are one. Real repentance can’t rest in “wrong view”, in thinking we are separate. In Buddhism, the purpose of “right view” is to clear one’s path from confusion, misunderstanding, and deluded thinking. It is a means to gain right understanding of reality.
So, we do 2 kinds of repentance in Zen. Formal and Formless.
Formal repentance is when we own up to something, usually something specific – like when we apologise for hurting someone. Our verse of repentance is formal, except that it’s non-specific.
We chant the repentance verse before ordination ceremonies (tomorrow), before we receive the precepts (also tomorrow), and the beginning of our Ryaku Fusatsu ceremony (our repentance, or purification, ceremony) – where our commitment to the precepts are re-affirmed. “Ryaku” means, “abbreviated” or “simple”, and “fusatsu” means “to continue good practice”, or, “to stop unwholesome action”. Our ceremony (that we’ll do later) is even more abbreviated than the ones commonly done – a very abbreviated resolve to continue good practice, or to uphold Samantabhadra’s wise practice.
This ceremony is similar to a ceremony done in the Theravada and some other kinds of Buddhism, where traditionally, the monks and/or nuns in the sangha meet twice a month (on the full and new moon) and confess openly all their specific transgressions of the 227 (311 for women) Prātimoka rules of the vinaya which they broke over the past fortnight. Each rule broken exacts a prescribed penalty, a specific punishment from the community. This punishment could be anything from simply apologising, to being kicked out. But, don’t worry, we don’t do that, we don’t normally confess or repent specific actions in front of the community, or even to a third party, nor do we have any prescribed penalties. Our repentance is much more broad and all encompassing. It is non-specific, we own up to ALL of our harmful actions of body speech and mind from the beginning of time. Acknowledging our regret for harmful actions is done internally, with the awakened quality of our own mind.
The idea is that we chant this verse before we take on something very important – it’s like moving forward with a clean slate, like washing cloth before we dye it.
That’s Formal repentance. The other kind of repentance that we do in Zen is “Formless Repentance”. Formless repentance, is repentance in the ultimate realm. It is absolute/supreme, it is beyond any idea of good or bad, of wholesome or unwholesome, of helping or harming. It is letting go completely. Zazen is formless repentance exactly.
Daikan Eno (Huineng) – the 6th Chinese ancestor talked a lot about formless repentance in the Platform Sutra. He stated that formless repentance will annihilate the sins of past, present, and future, enabling you to attain purity of thought, word, and deed. Formless repentance happens in each instant.
Master Eno wrote:
“From the preceding moment of thought, the present moment of thought, and the following moment of thought, from moment of thought to moment of thought I will not be affected by folly or delusion / conceit or deceit, Jealousy or envy; I repent of all previous folly or delusion, conceit or deceit, Jealousy or envy and other faults due to them, may they disappear all at once and never occur again.”
Formless repentance is manifesting your true self, in this moment.
In the reality of our lives, where we live, in this relative world, we have to make choices every day. We use our discriminating mind all the time, it’s unavoidable. We have to decide what is good, what is bad – but in zazen – we just let thought pass – no discrimination, no judgement, only pure presence, we are totally free from discrimination. Repentance is letting go of our past, and zazen is letting go completely. So our practice of zazen is also the purest, most complete, form of repentance.
We need both kinds of repentance in order to move forward in each instance. Formal repentance cleans the slate, and softens the consequences of our self- centred actions of body, speech, and thought. Formless repentance deals with the roots of these actions. Formal repentance prepares us for zazen. Formless repentance is zazen itself.
In the Sutra of Forty-two Sections: The Buddha said:
“If a person has many offenses and does not repent of them, but cuts off all thought of repentance, the offenses will engulf him, just as water returning to the sea will gradually become deeper and wider.“
So… it’s good to repent – it’s good to recognise our misdeeds, it’s good to let them go, and to try to do better in the future. In Zen, whether we are working with the precepts, sitting in zazen, or engaging in daily activity, what is emphasized is returning – returning to our original nature before any thoughts of separation.
Dogen Zenji wrote:
“We should reflect on it. This is the exact point of a realized buddha. With repentance you will certainly receive invisible help from buddha ancestors. Repent to the buddhas with mind and body. The power of repentance melts the roots of unwholesomeness. This is the single colour of true practice, the true heart of trust, the true body of trust “.
In the Samantabhadra sutra it says:
“The ocean of all karmic hindrances arises solely from delusive thoughts. If you wish to make repentance, sit in upright posture and be mindful of the true reality. All misdemeanours, like frost and dew, are melted away in the sun of wisdom.“