06 February 2009

Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?

In lieu of a blog post this week I would like to draw your attention to my recent publication in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics: Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him? In this article I explore a passage from the Sāmaññphala Sutta (DN 2). This is the well known account of the meeting between King Ajātasattu and the Buddha. At the end of the discourse the king becomes a lay disciple and then confesses to the Buddha that he has killed his father, King Bimbisāra. The article begins with a translation problem. Although the action clearly describes a confession, the word often translated as confession - paṭikaroti - means no such thing. In trying to establish what the word does mean I looked at every occurrence in the suttas, and the Pāli commentaries on them, showing that the text uses a stock phrase (or pericope) which is employed in many different settings. This highlighted a feature of Buddhist confession which is distinct from religious confession in the west - that it does not involve reparation or making amends (despite what the translators say!).

In order to better understand what is happening I locate the action in the context of the early Buddhist theory of karma, and in the broader religious context of the day. The latter was deeply concerned with ritual purity, and, having been polluted with the return to ritual purity. The Buddha reinterpreted ritual purity as ethical purity, and confession in early Buddhism is a way of returning to ethical purity. The results of karma cannot be avoided, hence there is no reparation, no requirement to make amends in the confession. However through spiritual practice - including ethical purity - one can avoid creating new karmic results (kamma-vipaka), but crucially one can also reduce the impact of karmic consequences. I believe this is because we become more emotionally robust through spiritual practice, and that we are more able to contain painful vedanā (experience, sensation, feeling). To put it another way we are less likely to be blown off course by the worldly winds. The king however is doomed to rebirth in hell because patricide is an "unforgivable" offence. In fact this fate is undone in later version of the story which are preserved in Chinese translations of the sutta and a Sanskrit frgament. Here the charisma of the Buddha is such that it help Ajātasattu escape his fate. This change is one that deserves more attention but I don't speak Chinese!

Having established what the story is telling us I revisit the phrase 'yathadhamma paṭikaroti' around which the action hinges. I have shown by this point that previous translators (T W R Rhys Davids, Maurice Walsh) have misunderstood this term, and that the Pali-English Dictionary has also misunderstood it. There is no sense of "making amends" in any of the suttas which use this phrase, only of returning to ethical purity. In fact the phrase is difficult to translate into English and I have tentatively suggested that "Dharmically counteract" at least accurately renders the sense of the Pāli. Being an unattractive phrase it is unlikely to catch on, but I couldn't think of anything better.

A subsidiary issue arises in that some translators (Piya Tan, Ñāṇamoli) have understood Ajātasattu to be asking forgiveness and the Buddha to be offering forgiveness. I show that this does not make sense in the context, and it does not make sense in terms of Buddhist doctrine. The king is merely asking the Buddha to acknowledge his resolution to be ethical in the future, and the Buddha acknowledges the intention as an intention. Nothing more.

In early Buddhism confession is mostly associated with the bhikkhu sangha, but as my article shows confession clearly was part of a more general religious landscape with laypeople and even non-Buddhists confessing evil actions. One minor point which I make is that it is the actions which are done foolishly, in confusion, and unskillfully (yathābālaṃ yathāmūḷhaṃ yathā-akusalaṃ). Most translators change the adverb into an adjective describing the person rather than the action. This is consistent with Judeo-Christian ideas of culpability, but not with Buddhist views.

I hope this little precis will encourage people to read the whole article. Those with no Pāli at all may find the first couple of pages a bit daunting, but it soon settles down to discussing the implications, so don't be discouraged!

P.S. some of the ideas that emerged while researching this article have already appeared in blog posts: follow the link to other blog posts on confession.
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