by Ven. Chuan Guan
In the case of a breach of Buddhist precepts, it is not a breach against the Buddha (or God), but against ourselves. Consequently, Buddhists in a way do not really apologize to the Buddha. Let’s take a look at Buddhist precepts to understand better.
Buddhist precepts are training rules taken up voluntarily to help us change and become better. It is like a person with high blood pressure prescribed a ‘precept’ of not taking too much salt and oil. If he take a lot of salt and oil, would the doctor be angry? Would he need to apologize to the doctor? I think the doctor would not be angry (ok, some may!), but may feel sorry for the patient, for the patient is the one who is being harmed, and not the doctor. Out of compassion, the doctor may rebuke him and suggest for ways that the patient may adopt a healthier diet, but in the end, it is still up to the patient to adopt the diet, and to follow through with it.
So when Buddhist did something against the precepts, they are really doing something against themselves and others (where their actions also harm others), and not the Buddha. Just like the doctor in the above analogy, the Buddha do not get angry with people for doing wrong things. Instead, He feels compassion for us, for He sees clearly the harm that we do to ourselves and others by breaching the precepts.
Hence ‘atonement’ is not so much an apology or seeking reconciliation from the Buddha, but ‘atonement’ refers more towards the steps we take to right the wrong.
This consist of (1) confession 忏, (2) repentance 悔 and (3) aspiration 发愿. (Some communities may develop this further and hence be more comprehensive).
In Buddhism, if we do some wrong, the first step is to (1) confess the deed, (2) recognize that our deed was (2a) harmful, was wrong, ignoble, blame-worthy, unworthy, and hence, should be (2b) abandoned, removed, eradicated etc. We should, having recognized the wrong, then (3) make a firm resolve not to repeat it. But easier said than done. So, within the Buddhist text, there are very comprehensive teachings, outlining how the human psyche ticks and what triggering factors lead to others that inclines towards harmful actions that are driven by greed, anger and delusion.
We then (1) practice distancing from triggering factors while (2) applying reflections, contemplations and other practices that transform our perception of the triggering factors so that future contact with it do not lead to the same actions. Meanwhile, we also (3) strengthen mindfulness so that if (1) fails and we encounter the trigger before we have mastered (2), then mindfulness can kick in and prevent a repeat of our earlier actions. (4) Applying proper attention is also most useful while we distant ourselves. Why preoccupy ourselves with something that upsets us?
In modern day Buddhism, repentance puja (chants) are recited as part of a devotional practice that encompasses the above steps. These may be done in front of the Buddha’s image as a reminder of our spiritual direction, towards this state of perfection, Nirvana, that is humanly possible and attained by the Buddha, the Arahants and Enlightened Bodhisattvas. Where possible, confession and repentance is also done with one’s guidance teacher who knows our habits, both good and bad, and knows our tendencies and inclinations. In this way, done methodologically, it can lighten the emotional burden of wrong, while developing the mind so that we can practice restrain and not repeat our mistakes again and again.
These steps leading to an eradication of harmful actions is the full ‘atonement’ of that wrong, a full purification of that wrong.
Good news is that while difficult, it is humanly possible.