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Confessions and Guilt

Question:

In Catholicism and other sects of Christianity, there is a focus on a confession of sins to others, such as priests or a congregation. Are there similar actions in the various Buddhist sects?

Answer:

There are many examples of monks and laypeople “confesssing” various things to the original Buddha. One story goes as follows:

A wealthy householder from Shravasti, who became known as Anathapindada (“Giver of alms to the unprotected”), confessed to the Buddha that he enjoyed his investing and business cares. Shakyamuni suggested that he be a lay disciple and continue his work and use it as a blessing for other people. So Anathapindada invited the Buddha to spend the next rainy season at Shravasti, the chief city in Kosala, where he purchased and built the Jetavana Monastery. Later when Anathapindada was dying of a painful illness, Shariputra went and taught him the mental concentration for the avoidance of pain usually only taught to monks; Anathapindada died in peace. Source

As you can see, this is more practical than spiritual. The man had reservations about becoming a monk, so by “confessing” his doubts to Buddha, he was advised to take a more appropriate path. In this particular case, the man had not done anything wrong, but as time passed, the practice of monks confessing their doubts, faults, and broken precepts became more and more common.

Guilt is yet another form of suffering, and by confessing one’s guilt, that suffering can be relieved. A punishment may be assigned for some offenses, but overall, the guilt will be gone.

Unlike Catholicism, there is no forgiveness of sins, since that just can’t happen in Buddhism. No matter what the offense, there is no avoiding the effects of karma. You must (and eventually will) take full responsibility for your crimes, mistakes, and bad judgment, just as you will for all your compassion, help, and kindness. All the good and all the bad from your past matter, and confession won’t help that, but for the sake of justice and removing your guilt, then confession is a good thing.

8 comments to Confessions and Guilt

  • Mia

    Is it possible for one person to take on the karma of other people? (Just like the “taking away of sins” in the Catholic belief.)

  • Michael in Maine

    This brings up a question along those lines…. If the “bad actions” which we commit during out lives (thoughts, words and deeds) cannot be “forgiven,” in the Christian sense of the word, can we hope that our “good actions” can somehow outweigh the bad ones before it’s too late?

    The person who after many years of living a thoughtless life, acquiring a lot of “bad karma” comes to the knowledge of the Dharma at midlife and turns his/her life around, learning compassion and wisdom and producing “good karma.” Is there a balance here or is every cause going to produce an effect, or is the total life’s karma seen as a whole and the effect is based on that totality?

    I know this is sort of like asking about the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin, but I wonder if there is a softer side to this karmic law.

  • Michael;

    Obviously no one knows for sure. It seems to me that it works something like a game; for every action, you get “points,” either positive or negative. It really is more complex than this, but it’s an easy way to visualize it.

    If you’ve been bad for sixty years of your life, and then make a turnaround, then you have a whole bunch of badness to work off. Every good thing you do helps to ameliorate that bad karma and you start to work it down again. It really is all about the total.

    Look at the classic character of Scrooge. He’s an evil old guy who changes his outlook and become a wonderful, giving person. By turning around, he’s going to start reducing the bad karma he’s spent decades building up, but will it be enough to even out all the bad? At his old age, probably not, but he has to try.

    Again, nobody can really answer this. But “instant forgiveness” such as that found in Christianity, doesn’t happen in Buddhism. You need to take responsibility for your actions and live right… NOW, while you still have time to erase those misdeeds.

  • No matter what the offense, there is no avoiding the effects of karma. You must (and eventually will) take full responsibility for your crimes, mistakes, and bad judgment, just as you will for all your compassion, help, and kindness. All the good and all the bad from your past matter, and confession won‚Äôt help that, but for the sake of justice and removing your guilt, then confession is a good thing.

    This, I have found, to be a particularly profound thing about Buddhism that calls to me. By being able to remove guilt while still having responsibility, to me, enables us to be able to act in the here and now, and not freeze in place guilt ridden by past misdeeds. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn from those misdeeds or mistakes but rather accept them as they are: experiences and move on to experience more.

  • Michael in Maine

    While “confession” would not remove any negative karma, it might be a good tool for gaining insight/enlightenment. The act of vocalizing the negative action brings it out on a different level and lays it’s reality bare, so to speak, for evaluation and understanding why one acts in such a way. It might help one avoid such further actions. Besides, it’s often beneficial to share deeply personal things with a trusted friend/associate. The human exchange of these events and perspective can helpful to both parties.

  • Lee

    my understanding is not that karma is a game or adding up points so you can say i’ve got 10 good ones and only 5 bad ones… it is simply what you do you are responsible for; what you set in motion may produce good for one being and bad for another (the same action) what is most important is your intention behind the act … for example if you were in Nazi Germany and hiding a person who was a jew and the authorities came and asked you “are you hiding a jew” if you say no you break a precept…if you say yes you allow the person to be taken and killed… so either way you break a precept and are responsbile for the action and consequences … assuming you lie you save a life … good karma results … If you go around trying to weigh all the actions you will be bogged down and unable to live… It’s all wrapped up in your intent behind the action you are taking. I’ve been told if you truly repent (there is a ceremony we do and there is another word for it that I can’t remember right now) it may lessen the karmic consequence … and also some karmic consequences of your act’s are taken on by others.

  • eric g

    It seems to me, that the very act of following the “middle way” would preclude even the “concern” that one may have built up bad karma, wouldn’t it? If, please forgive my ignorance I’m really new at this, I’m to accept the 4 noble truths and the 8 fold path, I am to release from my grasp any desire to be absolved or even to be punished.

    Additionally, it seems, that I’m also to ultimately release the desire to reach nirvana, even while moving in that direction. I feel that true “enlightenment” may be beyond even a hint of absolution or reward.

  • nikita

    Its not possible to keep everyone happy,you may hurt one to keep other happy.How long can this go?At one point of time it becomes very difficult to do and we end up repenting.

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