Words like “confession”, “repentance”, “apology”, and even “prayer” seem out of place in a Buddhist context, at least they often do to me. For instance, if one were to say a prayer of apology, to whom is it offered? There is no God. Buddha is dead. The universe? Well, maybe . . .
And yet, despite how these words might rub against our sensibilities, they are important subjects in Buddhism. It’s taught that a prerequisite for changing karma, or tenju kyojo (actually lessening karmic retribution), is repentance and confession of one’s errors. And the answer to whom is addressed I think is ourselves.
I like to look at it more as recognition and determination. Recognizing one’s mistakes is the first step to not repeating them. Then we make a determination to stay on that course. It’s a conversation we have with our own mind.
The second chapter of Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life is dedicated to the “Confession of Error.” When we see the word “confession” we might think of it in the Christian sense, of confessing one’s sins to a priest. In Buddhism, monks and priests do not hear confessions, at least not in any formal way, as far as I am aware. It’s a personal and private act.
One of the definitions of “confess” that I found at Dictionary.com is “to own or admit as true.” This is close to what we mean by confession in Buddhism – to own our mistakes, take responsibility for them, and by admiting our errors and seeing them as a truth, a fact, we drive another stake into the heart of the delusion that made us want to commit them.
When Shantideva says, “Overwhelmed by the deceptions of ignorance, I rejoiced in what was done, but now seeing these mistakes, from my heart I declare them to the Buddhas”, he is really declaring them to himself. He is opening himself up for his own inspection. Before we can rectify the external situation, we must transform the internal one.
We can’t change until we see ourselves as we truly are, until we become honest with ourselves. And seeing that we have made mistakes, that we have negative tendencies and bad habits, does not make us a “bad” person, merely truthful.
The Chinese T’ien-t’ai master, Chih-i, advanced a theory in the 6th century that was rather controversial at the time. He said that even Buddhas have evil natures. Previously, and still today, many consider a Buddha to be free of errors, completely cleansed of any impurities. But Chih-i maintained that this is not realistic, rather it is dualistic. Good and evil are not two separate things, they are two sides of the same coin.
Chih-i developed a number of meditations of evil, based on the idea, as described by Neal Donner in “Chih-i’s Meditation on Evil”, of “Entering into evil thought and impulses in order to understand them and thereby become liberated from them . . .” Chih-i also authored a repentance rite, known as the Kuan Yin Repentance which is still preformed at various Chinese temples today. In the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1987 1412-3, David Chapell comments on Chih-i’s concept of repentance by saying, “repentance for wrongs involves not just a change of behavior, but also a change in understanding . . . Moral defects are based not just on misdeeds and bad habits, but also at a more basic level on incorrect understanding. Thus, we need to repent errors of behavior . . . and of understanding . . .”
In Japanese Buddhism, individual repentance is called zange. It’s often called a “prayer of apology.” Actually it means repentance; confession; penitence. Zange has been associated primarily with the Lotus Sutra sects, but it was also significant practice in Zen.
In the 1970’s a top leader in the Soka Gakkai gave a lecture on changing karma from which a formula for zange was developed. When I first encountered it, I thought it to be rather profound. It’s like a checklist, to go down as one meditates or chants. The idea is to spend some time reflecting on each section or item.
Since I know that few people outside of the Lotus traditions are familiar with it, I thought I would share this zange (with some changes to make it a bit more universal), in case someone might find it useful. Although it seems geared toward reflection on a specific incident, it can be used in a more general way, as sort of a script for this conversation with ourselves, and while using it, one should keep in mind the points made above.
ZANGE (Buddhist Apology and Repentance)
For being able to practice Dharma.
For being able to change my Karma (Tenju Kyoju).
For being alive at this time.
For all the people around me.
For everything being a teacher to me.
Realize again that for every external cause, there is first an internal cause.
Every hurt, anger, frustration, irritation or painful situation that occurs to me is my responsibility.
Through my karma, I forced that to happen, or forced them to behave that way.
Hendoku Iyaku – I can turn poison into medicine.
Become aware of my own internal “hooks” that drew such an experience to me.
I, alone, am responsible for raising my life-condition.
For current negativity in thought, word and action.
Loving-kindness – offer thoughts for the health and well-being of the person(s) involved, and that they may deepen their own compassion. Ask myself “what can I do to rectify the situation?”
To not want to engage in negative thoughts, words, or actions anymore.
To work harder to be of benefit to others.
To create harmonious relationships in the areas of family relations, school, or work.