Continuing our commentary upon the Summary of Faith and Practice
Text: and the mind of contrition as a fourth
Contrition is about climbing down from our inflated sense of ourselves and doing so by a process of studying our daily life and its effects. We could say, by studying the evidence. If we really study the evidence of the effect of how we generally carry on, we will arrive at a change of heart. When that happens we shall see what we need to do.
In Western renderings of Buddhism, contrition is often ignored or minimised. Westerners do not like it. I have seen famous teachers avoid the subject even when questioned directly upon it. Yet in Asian Buddhism it plays a crucial role. Contrition, sange in Japanese, is the indispensable gateway to the Dharma. I remember a Japanese Buddhist teacher coming to our temple and seeing the contrition verses in our service book and being startled. “Oh, that is very Japanese!” he said, remarking that he had not found it elsewhere in his visits to other Western Buddhist centres. I hope that this is now changing.
One of the reasons that we steer clear of contrition is because we have become frightened of judgement. This suppression, however, is often counter-productive. It can lead to people secretly having a very judgemental mind about others and/or about themselves. Sober assessment fails as we swing from one extreme to another. What is required is not judgementalism, but genuine humility.
Here are Dogen’s words recorded in the text Shushogi,
“Contrition before the Buddhas brings purification and salvation, true conviction and earnest endeavour… Here is the way in which to make an act of perfect contrition. ‘May all the Buddhas and Patriarchs, who have become enlightened, have compassion upon us, free us from the obstacle of suffering which we have inherited from our past existence and lead us in such a way that we may share the merit that fills the universe… All the evil committed by me is caused by beginningless greed, hate and delusion. All the evil is committed by my body, speech and mind. I now confess everything wholeheartedly.’”
He goes on to say that through contrition we open the way for the Buddhas “to help us naturally.” Although Dogen is a Zen teacher, his words here are no different from what is taught in all the other branches of Japanese Buddhism.
Contrition thus functions to make us open to receiving help. Contrition itself does have a purificatory function, but the aim is not to transform us into a ‘justified’ state since, in Buddhism, there is no final judgement, no punishment or forgiveness, only karmic consequence which is inexorable.
How, then, does contrition work in Buddhism? Let us consider an example. Perhaps, in the course of the day, I lose my temper and say some things that later I regret saying. I see the unfortunate consequences of my loss of control. I feel contrite. We need to distinguish two levels to this experience of contrition. The first level is regret. This may involve a criticism of myself and a resolution to try to do better in future. Clearly it will be better for everybody if I keep my anger under control. I shall do better next time, I hope. This is the superficial aspect of contrition. There is, however, a deeper level. Studying the acts of my daily life, I see that I am made this way. Perhaps I shall indeed curb my temper, but there will be other things. No matter how hard I try, I will still be human. Furthermore, even my attempt to improve is ego driven. The reason that I decide to curb my anger is basically so as to have an easier life myself and appear in the world as a better person. Even my attempts to do good are shot through with self serving motivations. thus, the deeper level is to see that there is no escape.
Buddhism is not a matter of exhausting all of our near infinite stock of karma. That would be completely impossible. It is about a change of perception, or genjo, that happens when we truly realise that we are not the most radiant star in the universe and start to play our proper part in the scheme of things.
In Christianity, the main concern in relation to contrition is forgiveness. Catholics believe that forgiveness follows confession before a priest. Protestants, mostly, believed that the priest was not necessary - that God would forgive the faithful directly. This was one of the main distinctions between Protestant and Catholic. However, in Buddhism there is no forgiveness. In Buddhism, therefore, recognition of our nature invokes a kind of despair. Karma is inexorable and one is never going to be ‘forgiven’. There is no sutra on forgiveness: forgiveness is not really a Buddhist concept. Plenty of modern people want to insert it, but Buddhism solves these problems in a different way. Although we cannot avert karma, contrition does open the way for the Buddhas to help us because it extinguishes, at least for a little time, the blinding light of ego.
In Christianity, the person who is forgiven returns to an innocent, ‘justified’ state. In Buddhism, this does not happen. Karma is never destroyed. However, the Buddhas have vowed to help the karmically oppressed.
The word ‘contrition’ in European languages comes from a word meaning ‘crushed’. We say this in common speech sometimes. “When I realised what I had done I felt completely crushed.” In Buddhism, the ‘feeling crushed’ state is precious. Such are moments when the ego loses its grip for a moment. At such a moment, the gateway to liberation stands open wide.
It seems that, in practical terms, the Christian and Buddhist approaches are quite similar. What is different is the metaphysics. The framework of ideas that is used to explain the situation and provide for it a sustaining image is different, but the liberatory intent is much the same. Many Western Buddhists want to believe that Buddhism promotes an idea of ‘original goodness’ in contrast to the Christian idea of ‘original sin’ and this idea sustains them in their adherence to Buddhism, but if one looks deeper there is really less difference in practice.
Ideas such as ‘Buddha nature’ have been recruited into the cause of asserting ‘original goodness’, but there lies there a serious danger of grandiosity that is alien to the Buddhist approach which has more to do with the value of those times when the ego is crushed or abandoned.
We are slightly more than nothing. The Buddha body in relation to ourselves is as the clear blue sky in relation to a dewdrop. One has to accept and take on one’s proper part in the scheme of things, and this is a humble one. This, therefore, involves a complete self-abandonment. When the Christian writer Thomas a Kempis wrote “I would rather feel contrition than be able to define it” he was expressing a sentiment that would have been found completely acceptable by a medieval Buddhist also.
This passage occurs in the text in a context. The whole sentence says that the nembutsu automatically encompasses the three minds and contrition as a fourth. In entrusting oneself to the nembutsu - to refuge - one accepts one’s true nature and true place and manifests genuine humility. Beyond the despair of the inexorability of karma lies the Pure Land of Buddha. While we rely upon ourselves, our reward will be in proportion to our small efforts and as we have already received far more than we could possibly repay this means that we are getting deeper and deeper in karmic debt with every intentional action. However, contrition opens our eyes to the real situation and turns us around. Instead of being mesmerised by self, we stand open hearted before Buddha. In this situation infinite goodness naturally enfolds us as a free gift.
Contrition is also the foundation of compassion. Seeing one’s own bottomless karma and its dreadful consequences one naturally feels for others caught on the samsaric wheel. As long as one believes that one can oneself arrive at righteousness one will go on expecting it of others and judging and condemning them accordingly. Only when one genuinely realises the hopelessness of such an outlook does the judgemental tendency in oneself die down and real fellow-feeling arise. This is why one sometimes meets people who are, as we say, ‘salt of the earth’ who live far from perfect lives themselves but have a wonderfully open heart toward others. They have arrived at a measure of realism about human nature and this is the deeper effect of contrition.