01 March 2008

More on Confession

I've been following up my research into confession in Early Buddhism. It is clear from the Pali texts that no one short of Awakening is expected to be able to act ethically at all times. So there are procedures for monastics which deal with confession in quit some detail. As I mentioned in my earlier blog post on the confession of Ajatasattu, there are also some paradigms for confession which are not specifically for monastics. A model is put forward in a sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya (A i.103).

The first step is to realises that you have done something wrong. Often Buddhists will insist that there is no right and wrong, that actions are skilful or unskilful. Right and wrong create a too rigid dichotomy. The texts do however talk about "faults" and "transgressions". Transgression is quite a good word because it reminds us that we measure our behaviour against the scale of the ethical precepts that we take on as Buddhists. The Pali word is accayo which literally means "going on, or beyond". There are boundaries to behaviour. Until we have Awakened it may no come naturally to act in ways that cause no harm, either to ourselves or others. The metaphor in Pali, as it is in English, is that we "see" that we have transgressed. We see it for ourselves through reflection and introspection. We may not always be very good at recognising transgressions, but practising awareness heightens ethical sensitivity as well. Often it is a matter of, as Sangharakshita says, an imaginative identification with the other person.

It is important to recall here that what the Buddha meant by kamma was cetana - intention or volition (A vi.13). Karma was originally the ritual actions carried out by Brahmins to restore them to ritual purity. The Buddha turned the notion of "purity" on its head and said that it consisted in pure conduct - not breaking the ethical precepts. The vinaya talks quite explicitly about the purity/impurity of monastics in these terms (Vin i.124). Confession, in this way of thinking consists in two aspects. Firstly having seen one's transgression as a transgression, one reveals this to another person. Secondly one resolves to be restrained in the future.

The Ratana Sutta emphasise that one should waste no time in confessing (Sn 232 and SnA i.278). One should not conceal a transgression for even a moment. I think the reason for this relates back to the idea equating action with intention. The intention to hide a transgression is not a skilful intention. As I said in my earlier blog post it can be difficult to feel motivated to reveal a transgression with the threat of punishment hanging over you. However it is better to get it out! The Vinaya says that having transgressed and wishing to be pure again, should confess because revealing makes him comfortable (Vin i.103). With regards to who we should confess to, the Ratana commentary suggests a teacher; a wise person; or a fellow practitioner. The point of confession in very many of the passages I have been studying is "restraint in the future". Confession - experiencing remorse, revealing a transgression, and making a resolution not to transgress again, helps us to keep the precepts in future. In case it is not clear we do this in order to minimise harmful effects on ourselves and others.

Having returned ourself to purity we are in a position to hear, to accept in the Pali terminology, the confessions of others. This necessity for prior purity is emphaised in the Vinaya which sets out procedures for monastics to follow if, for instance, everyone in a particular monastery has "fallen into a fault". One monk must go and seek out others to whom he can confess and return to accept the confessions of their fellows (Vin i.126). This quid pro quo is quite important for the functioning of a spiritual community, although I do not think that strict ritual purity is necessary for non-monastics (see my rant on superstition and ritual purity). If we have taken on precepts, however, then we do need to have someone sympathetic with whom to talk over our practice of them. Accepting a confession need not be an empty ritual. In the Majjhima Nikaya 140 the Buddha does not immediately accept Bhaddhali's confession. It is clear that the Buddha knows Bhaddali quite well, and knows that he is a bit half-hearted and inattentive at times. Bhaddali must request acceptance three times and endure quite a severe reprimand in order to convince the Buddha of his contrition: at one point the Buddha says to him "weren't you, Bhaddali, at that time an empty, vain, failure?" (M i.440). Ouch!

One last thing which caught my eye this week is that the Vinaya does not allow for collective confession. Over the years I have seen a number of discussions of so-called "collective karma" - does it exist or not. In one story in the Vinaya however a monk who mentions that he is not the only one to have fallen into a particular fault, but that everyone in the monastery has also. But the message is clear: it is no business of yours whether another has or has not fallen into a fault: take care of your own faults! (Vin i.127) So, even if there is such a thing as collective karma, you are still responsible for your own actions.

image: www.ordinarymind.net
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