by Shi Chuan Guan
Faith & Atonement
I’ll go with the two definitions of atonement and move on from there:
1. Amends or reparations made for an injury or wrong;
2. Reconciliations or an instance of reconciliation between God and humanity.
When I first read it, I zoomed into the part of reconciliation between God and humanity.
Throughout history, humans have worshipped and prayed to multitudes of God(s). However, Buddhist do not have a belief in creator God(s). Hence, there is no concept to receive reconciliation between God and humanity. Some may posit that Buddhists merely replace “God” with “Buddha” and draw arbitrary delineations to differentiate themselves. Consequently, some think that Buddhists worship Buddha and seek forgiveness from him, in order to not incur his wrath. In fact, it cannot be further from the truth.
We may perhaps first examine how wrong or injury can occur. It can occur if say, harm or injury were inflicted or it could occur if certain rules are broken. Many times, the two coincide, other times, they diverge.
eg, it is illegal to park along the road at certain hours or not at all. No one may be harmed in a sense, but a breach of the law has occurred.
Another example I like to share is wearing of seat belts. Some people dislike seat belts and wear them only when absolutely needed, and takes them off whenever they can. As some say in Singapore (or worldwide?), “just don’t get caught”. The funny thing about this rule is that, even if you don’t get caught by the traffic police, getting caught in an accident would result in harm nonetheless.
So we can see that sometimes rules and harm coincide and sometimes don’t.
In Buddhism, if you harmed someone, the best thing to do is to seek forgiveness from the person or group we harmed. We have a joke about asking Buddha for forgiveness after slapping someone. Nope, not gonna work. Apologising to the person involved is the most
direct way of atonement and of gaining closure on the matter.
In the case of a breach of Buddhist precepts, it is not a breach against the Buddha, but against ourselves. Consequently, Buddhists in a way do not really apologise 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 apologise 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) recognise that our deed was (2a) harmful, was wrong, ignoble, blame-worthy, unworthy, and hence, should be (2b) abandoned, removed, eradicated etc. We should, having recognised 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) practise 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 infront 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 practise 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.