Of the many beautiful things that have yet to be fully transplanted from the East into the fertile soil of Western Buddhism is a broad appreciation of the role and practice of repentance. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is that the purpose of repentance is a bit different in Buddhism than it is in western Christianity, where it is often represented as atoning for some that is truly un-atonable: someone else’s mistake (“original” sin). Therefore, it took the death of God’s son to bring humankind back into communion, as we are incapable of doing it ourselves. (However, in Orthodox Christianity, it is a bit different, as I will quote in a moment.)

Buddhism, I hope, is obviously quite different from the general Western understanding of repentance. Rather than confessing our inherent failings, repentance in Buddhism is acknowledging our freedom and our ability to move through and beyond our mistakes in an honest appraisal of our lives. It is showing ourselves that we are able (and willing) to change, and are not bound by our actions that create suffering. Repentance is the willingness to let go of our suffering and step towards true freedom. More than anything else, repentance is, in short, movement.

Buddhism teaches that our suffering (which is the inability to make ourselves happy, try as we might) comes from ignorance about how things really are. This ignorance manifests in three primary ways: greed, anger, and delusion (or confusion.) Our actions based upon any of these three manifestations inevitably create suffering for ourselves and/or others, because they are counter to how the world truly is, in that they assume existence for something that truly has no existence. So, the suffering we experience, in fairly simplistic terms, stems from a misunderstanding of our world. Therefore, repentance is largely the willingness to say, “I know I do not see things clearly; and I wish to perceive things better.”

Repentance is central to the spiritual progress, development, and maturity of all practitioners because it is the acknowledgement of the creation of suffering, and the vowing to refrain from such acts in the future. Or at least, trying to refrain from such acts. Many Buddhists, myself included, make this part of our daily rituals.

Here is the most common repentance verse in Chinese, with one English rendering:

往昔所造諸惡業:All the unwholesome karma created by me,

皆由無始貪瞋癡:Arising from beginningless greed, hatred and delusion;

從身語意之所生:Expressed through my body, speech, and mind;

一切我今皆懺悔:I hereby regret and repent them all.

Here is that quote about how repentance is seen in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, which I find very interesting (found here):

One repents not because one is or isn’t virtuous, but because human nature can change. Repentance (Greekμετάνοιαmetanoia, “changing one’s mind”) isn’t remorse, justification, or punishment, but a continual enactment of one’s freedom, deriving from renewed choice and leading to restoration (the return to man’s original state).

I would add that there is, often, an aspect of remorse in sincere repentance, but that is often overshadowed by a deep willingness to move more towards one’s spiritual goal: resolve generally trumps emotion. Regardless, the Eastern Orthodox view of repentance is quite similar to Buddhism’s teaching, as you may see. In fact, there is much about Orthodoxy that is familiar to a Buddhist (but that is a potential topic for another post.)

Repentance is a word that features heavily and prominently in Chinese Buddhism, especially in liturgical settings. In Chinese it is 懺悔 (chàn huǐ), which simply means to repent and regret one’s mistakes. Many, if not most, liturgical services have a repentance verse (or verses) that is recited at least once, and there are specific ceremonies devoted to the cultivation of a repentant mind (including the Great Compassion Repentance ceremony I mentioned here).

One such beautiful repentance ceremony is called 八十八佛大懺悔文 (bā shí bā dà chàn huǐ wén), or the Great 88 Buddhas Repentance Ceremony. In many Chinese monasteries, Dharma Drum included, this is performed every-other evening as part of the Evening Service. It is one of my favorites, if I’m allowed to say that.

I do not have a sophisticated understanding about this ceremony, but it largely consists of the recitation of the names of 88 different Buddhas as a form of repentance and request for help. Here is a site with iconographic representations of all of the Buddhas. There is also long verse of profound vows at the end as well, which is I believe a quote by Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, as it appears in the Avatamsaka Sutra. But I’m not too certain. (For any reading this who are familiar with Shasta Abbey’s liturgy, this is basically the Vigil Ceremony often done the evening before a festival for one of the major Bodhisattvas.)

Here is an audio file and a .pdf transcript for anyone interested in listening to it (it is about 17 minutes long):

Audio file of 88 Buddha’s Ceremony (this is not from Dharma Drum)

.PDF transcript, with Chinese and English (compiled and translated by Ven. Hui-feng.)

For those interested, you can read a bit more about repentance in Buddhism from Master Yin-Shun here, if you scroll down a bit.

To end, with, here are two passages from the Sutra on the Meditation of Samantabadhra, also known as the Repentance Sutra. These two passages (taken from this edition, very slightly adapted) have always struck me as very profound and beautiful. This sutra is generally considered the “closing” sutra to the Lotus Sutra, towards which I have a strong and enduring affinity. Here are the quotes:

If you contemplate your mind, you will find no mind, except the mind that comes from mis-conceptions. The mind with such conceptions arises from delusion. Like the wind in the sky, it has no grounding. Such a character of things neither appears nor disappears. What is sin? What is virtue? As the thought of self is itself empty, neither sin nor virtue is our master. In this way, all things are neither permanent nor destroyed. If one repents like this, meditating on one’s mind, one finds no mind. Things also do not dwell in things. All things are liberated, show the truth of extinction, and are calm and tranquil. Such a thing is called great repentance, sublime repentance, repentance without sin, the destruction of the self-referential mind. People who practice this repentance are pure in body and mind, like flowing water, not attached to things.


The whole ocean of hindrances from past actions

arises from illusion.

If you want to repent, you should sit upright

and reflect on the true nature of things.

All evils are like frost and dew.

The sun of wisdom can dissipate them.

As always, I hope you are well.

Thank you for reading.