The Practice of Repentance

by Josho Pat Phelan

This afternoon three people will receive the precepts in the ceremony, Zaike Tokudo, or staying home and entering the way. This ceremony isn’t held just for these three people to receive their precepts, but to support all of us in renewing our precepts, in reconnecting with our fundamental vow. Receiving the precepts this way, before the community and with the support of the community, is a little like an intentional rebirth. When people are ordained, they receive a new name, lineage papers which show their new family, and they receive Buddha’s Robe, in this case the small robe, the rakusu which they have cut out and sewn, saying a refuge with each stitch. One view of the precepts that I have found interesting in Buddhism is that it is considered better to take the precepts and break them than not to take them at all. In one of Dogen’s teachings on leaving home and becoming a monk, Dogen repeated a story told by Nagarjuna about Shakyamuni Buddha giving the precepts to a drunk Brahman. You many know that traditionally in India the Brahmin caste is one of the highest castes, and men of this caste were often priests, scholars, or spiritual seekers; and I’m not sure what the significance of drinking alcohol might have in this context. The story goes:

Once when the Buddha was at Jetavana Park, an intoxicated Brahman wandered into the compound where Buddha was staying and asked to become a monk. Buddha requested that some of his monks shave the Brahman’s head and clothe him in a kesa (or the Buddhist monk’s robe). Later, after the effects of the liquor had worn off, the Brahman was astonished and frightened upon seeing that his bodily form had changed into that of a Buddhist monk, whereupon he ran away. The monks respectfully asked the Buddha why he had allowed the drunken Brahman to become a monk only to have him run back home. Buddha answered, "For eons beyond measure, this Brahman did not have the heart to leave home life behind, but now, while under the influence, he gave rise to a bit of courage. Due to this, he will, later on, leave home life behind." (Eihei Dogen, Shukke)

This story strikes me as one of those strange but intriguing stories, which also illustrates how powerful receiving the precepts is considered to be in Buddhism. The Chinese Master Sheng-yen said something similar, that in Mahayana Buddhism, "Having vows to break is the bodhisattva path. Not having vows to break is a non-Buddhist path." Of course, the point isn’t to break the precepts but to receive and maintain them. Between the two points of arousing the aspiration to receive the precepts and mature our practice, and the actual fulfillment of that aspiration, we can use the precepts to support and clarify our practice.

The Precepts Ceremony begins with honoring the Three Treasures, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and honoring the historical transmitters of this way of practice: Shakyamuni Buddha, Eihei Dogen Zenji who brought Soto Zen from China to Japan, Shogaku Shunryu or Suzuki Roshi who brought his practice of Soto Zen from Japan to the United States, and to other countless, nameless ancestors who have kept the tradition alive during the past 2,500 years so that we, today, can meet practice as well as countless others in generations to come. The honoring or homages begin with the statement, "Invoking the presence and compassion of our ancestors, in faith that we are Buddha, we enter Buddha’s Way." I think entering "Buddha’s Way" can be characterized by choosing, moment by moment, to live based on vow, on our deep intention to wake up, rather than living by default based on our karmic patterns and habitual reactions.

After honoring those who have kept and will keep practice alive, there is purification which includes repentance or confession. But first the room, or the space around us, is purified by sprinkling Wisdom Water which represents the Wisdom of the Ancestors. This is followed by karmic purification or repentance and we chant the repentance verse, "All my ancient, twisted karma, from beginningless greed, hate, and delusion, born through body, speech, and mind, I now fully avow." In this way, we acknowledge our endless and beginningless, our inexhaustible delusion which propels us into birth and death. In the Indian Buddhist world view, there is no beginning or first cause the way we think of it in the West where time, or the origination of the universe, is considered to have a definite beginning and end with a long middle in between which progresses from the past to present to future. The early Buddhist world view considered existence or reality to be more like a spiral without any beginning or end.

In his book on the precepts, Being Upright, Tenshin Reb Anderson said that "Confession of wrongdoing is an act of awakening." When I first read this, it sounded up-side down, but now I understand it the way I understand the idea of "knowing delusion as delusion is insight." Similarly, recognizing wrongdoing, knowing wrongdoing in your heart, as wrongdoing, is waking up to what we are actually doing. Zen Buddhism has two kinds of repentance, formal repentance and formless repentance. In the Precepts Ceremony and in the Bodhisattva Ceremony, we engage in formal repentance in which we formally repent our actions which cause harm, actions that go against the precepts or don’t support our intention to live an awakened life. These are actions which miss the mark, either intentionally or by not paying attention – through carelessness or negligence. In Zen, normally we don’t confess or repent specific actions in front of the community, or even to a third party. Rather confessing or acknowledging our regret for harmful actions is done internally, with the awakened quality of our own mind. However, this doesn’t mean that when we do something hurtful that we don’t need to apologize. For the most part, the practice of the precepts takes place in the realm of human relationships; and when you miss the mark, I recommend apologizing to the person involved.

In Buddhism feeling regret or remorse is considered an important dharma or factor of mind, but this shouldn’t be confused with the added burden of guilt. Guilt keeps us stuck in the past due to the story we have created about what happened, and we keep replaying the story in our head unable to whole-heartedly enter the present. This reinforces a self-image – a negative self-image that strengthens our sense of self. Instead, we want to recognize and acknowledge what we have done and then return to the present, to meet what’s right here.

When we cause harm, knowingly or unknowingly, as we all do, and when we realize it, I think it is healthy to feel regret and to express that by apologizing. When we don’t feel remorse or feel sorry about harmful actions we have done, this indicates a disconnect, it’s an indication that we are cut off not only from others, but from our own wholeness of being. This feeling of separation or wrong view ignores our fundamental interconnection. So, formal repentance is feeling regret for our unwholesome actions of body, speech and mind, and vowing, or sincerely intending, not to repeat them. Tenshin Anderson said, "When we deny our basic connection with other beings, the bodhisattva precepts are broken."

In his book, Returning to Silence, Katagiri Roshi said that repentance in Buddhism means perfect openness of heart. He said, " If we open ourselves completely... we are ready to listen to the voiceless voice of the universe." He explained that, "The ritual of repentance is not to ask forgiveness from someone for what one has done." He said, "Repentance is not a preliminary stage to enter Buddha’s world or to become a good person. If repentance is understood in this way, we fall... into the trap of dualism, a big gap is created between us and whatever object we try to make repentance to.... Real repentance cannot be found in dualism... [Repentance in Buddhism] is the perfect openness of our hearts that allows us to hear the voice of the universe beyond the irritation of our consciousness."

The other kind of repentance is formless repentance which has been emphasized in Japanese Soto Zen since around the 16th century. Formless repentance refers to the absolute or non-dual nature of ultimate reality. In formless repentance, we repent activity that has a self-centered focus or egocentric motivation, whether the activity in itself is good or bad. Shohaku Okumura Roshi said that when we do something unwholesome or when we make a mistake, it is easier to see that we need to repent. Because when we don’t recognize our misdeeds, others will let us know by getting angry or expressing disapproval some other way. But when we are doing good things, it is more difficult to notice the karmic hindrance of our actions because people praise us and we feel good.

In formless repentance, we repent all of our deeds. Whether we are engaged in wholesome or unwholesome activity, in harming or helping, if we have the idea that we are doing something, it solidifies our sense of a separate self. Letting go of all ideas in zazen, releases us from the opposition of subject and object, of doer and deed. Formless repentance is the practice of zazen, in its pure sense. And by letting go of thought, we repent activity that has a self-centered focus or egocentric motivation, whether the activity itself is good or bad. Okumura Roshi described formless repentance as awakening "to the total interpenetrating reality which is beyond separation of subject and object, self and others." Which he said, "is our zazen. ...formless repentance is actually sitting in zazen and letting go of thoughts."

In Living by Vow, Okumura Roshi referred to the 18th century Zen teacher, Banjin Dotan, who said, "To awaken to the reality that is prior to the separation of delusion and enlightenment, is the essence of repentance." He taught that we shouldn’t take the repentance verse to mean "that we have to get rid of delusive thoughts by sitting upright and being mindful of the true reality." He said, "Repentance is another name for the Three Treasures." [or Three Refuges] "To repent is to take refuge in the Three Treasures."

In Zen, whether we are working with the precepts, sitting zazen, practicing mindfulness, or engaging in daily activity, what is emphasized is returning – returning to original nature before separation. So, in formal repentance, we recognize and acknowledge our karmic activity. Whereas, formless repentance is considered to reach to and remove the roots of these actions. Tenshin Anderson said that, "Formal confession refreshes and purifies us from the consequences of our self-centered actions of body, speech, and thought. Formless confession reaches to and removes the roots of these actions. Formal confession prepares us for meditation. Formless confession is the meditation process itself. It is being upright. Formal confession is the work of finding your place and taking your seat, in the midst of your ancient twisted karma. Formless confession, according to the Lotus Sutra, is to ‘sit upright and contemplate the true characteristics of all things.’"

For Dogen, the best way to experience and express the non-dual nature of reality was zazen. He considered the three trainings in Buddhism, the precepts, meditation, and wisdom, to occur simultaneously within zazen practice. He said, "When seated in zazen, what precepts are not being observed: What virtues are lacking?" In Zen the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts describe Buddha Nature or reality, and so the precepts are equated with the mind of Buddha or enlightenment itself. (Soto Zen in Medieval Japan, by William Boddiford)

I think the older we are, the harder it is to change habits, especially those we have spent decades reinforcing. This reminds me of Zen Master Menzan talking about discursive consciousness, which tends to be our default consciousness. He said, "If you think that you have cut off illusory mind, instead of simply clarifying how illusory mind melts, illusory mind will come up again, as though you had cut the stem of a blade of grass...and left the root alive." Our work with the precepts involves getting to the root of our habit energy and other unwholesome or unconscious actions. And this is an endless endeavor. We keep finding more subtle ways that we grasp for what we want, or try to defend ourselves. Because our desire to live in a "non-self-referential way" comes by degrees and deepens over time, wherever you are in this process, you can begin supporting the part of yourself that wants to let go, and open, and live an upright, transparent life. The depth of transformation that practicing with the precepts reaches, goes beyond our conscious behavior and conscious thought, all the way down to the roots of our impulses and intentions.

In my opinion, Zen Master Dogen had one value, one practice – reality, engaging the non-dual nature of reality. For Dogen, the non-dual experience of the interconnectedness of everything was not any different than the precepts. And he considered the realization of this experientially to be the true precepts. So, we might paraphrase this by saying, the non-dual experience – the intimate experience of the interconnectedness of everything – is the true precepts. How could we harm something we are interconnected with, something we are intimate with? In the Kyuju Kaimon Dogen wrote, "To receive [the precepts] is to transmit [the precepts]. To transmit [the precepts] is to awaken [to buddha-mind]. Therefore, to realize buddha-mind is to receive the precepts, in their true sense." This expresses the fundamental spirit of the precepts in Chinese and Japanese Zen which originated with the Bodhidharma One-Mind Precepts. Before receiving the precepts, we purify our mind through repentance. But purification is not a way to get rid of defilement; in Zen, purification is an affirmation of the original purity of mind. "Pure" means non-dual, and so purification is an affirmation of original mind which is undefiled by duality.

Whether or not we are the ones receiving the precepts formally, the precepts and vows in the ordination ceremony support all of us – support us to return to our ancient vows. Taitetsu Unno, who was a Pure Land or Shin priest and a Buddhist scholar, talked about the idea of primal vow. He said, "Deep within each one of us, there is a primal wish to fulfill our life, our short life on earth, to become the self truly." He said, " Primal means it is beyond the grasp of my consciousness; it’s much deeper than that. To awaken to this primal wish means to let go of the needs of ordinary self and to live life touched by boundless energy and infinite gratitude for the short human life."

I think our path in practice is about 50% will or determination, aiming ourselves in a direction; and about 75% letting go of tracking and measuring, letting go of our orientation, our ideas and self image – letting go of everything – while trusting, having profound trust that letting go is the right direction.

© Copyright Josho Pat Phelan, 2013

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