The practice of repentance is part of many spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, where it plays a role in helping to avert rebirth in the lower realms of samsara.
In Buddhism, repentance can be considered as a continual process of sincere self-reflection and diligent self-discipline (through upholding the precepts), with the goal of purification and the unveiling of our innate and pristine Buddha Nature.
The Repentance Verse of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, as recorded in Buddhist scripture, reveals the depth of what’s involved:
From beginningless kalpas (aeons) in the past, I have created all measureless and boundless evil karma with my body, mouth (speech), and mind, because of greed (attachment), hatred (aversion) and stupidity (ignorance) [The Three Poisons]. If this evil karma had a substance and form, all of empty space could not contain it.
I now completely purify these three karmas, and before the assemblies of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, throughout the Dharma Realm in lands as many as fine motes of dust, I sincerely repent and reform my offenses and vow never to create them again. I will always dwell in all merit and virtue of the pure precepts.
So it is that when the realm of empty space is exhausted, the realms of living beings are exhausted, the karma of living beings is exhausted, and the afflictions of living beings are exhausted, then my repentance will be exhausted. But just as the realm of empty space up to the afflictions of living beings are endless, so too my repentance and reform are endless. They continue in thought after thought without cease. My body, mouth, and mind never weary of these deeds.
Flower Adornment Sutra – Chapter 40
The Buddha hailed the benefits of this practice, and warned of the consequences of non-repentance, as follows:
Concerned about the state of our world today, Dharma Master Cheng Yen puts great emphasis on the importance of repentance, especially since our individual wrongs have amassed and are having a grave cumulative effect.
Today, our world is experiencing global warming and is beset by disasters. The frequent disasters are alarming messages sent to us by the earth and heaven. We must take such warnings to heart. To end such multiple disasters, we must learn to cultivate multiple spiritual merits – by remaining vigilant and sincerely pious, by repenting of our wrongs, and by practicing vegetarianism. To repent, we should first clean impurities from our minds. Then the stream of purity in us will flow out and purify others. We ourselves must repent before we ask others to do the same.
Natural disasters, however massive, eventually come to an end. What we really need to be wary of is the ignorance and anger in our minds. In ignorance, people revert to their unwholesome habits and create more bad karma for themselves. To avoid this, we must purge mental toxins from our minds. The longer we allow such filth to remain in our minds, the harder it is to wash it away, just like stains on clothing. Not only that, but it also reflects badly on our character.
When we truly repent of our failings, we’ll be able to wash away the five major sources of mental afflictions: greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance, and doubt. Such mental impurities, if allowed to converge and come together, cause a ferocious karmic force to arise that can destroy the peace and safety of the world. This is why it is so important to take care to reflect on ourselves and repent.
Practicing repentance means more than just chanting sutras or bowing to statues of buddhas or bodhisattvas for forgiveness. Instead, it is about keeping our minds broad and pure and dealing with others with understanding, accommodation, and love. Those who are sincerely repentant will feel a liberating sense of peace; on the other hand, those who cover up their mistakes and are unwilling to repent will be weighed down by worries and afflictions.
To further help ourselves become pure in mind and body, we must cultivate moral discipline, samadhi (deep concentration), and wisdom. Practicing moral discipline is like wearing protective armor – it keeps us from being easily influenced by outside circumstances and falling into traps. With moral discipline comes samadhi. With samadhi, our minds will be focused and clear and we won’t deviate from the right track. The third attribute, wisdom, will naturally arise within us when we have moral discipline and samadhi. When we possess these three characteristics, we’ll be able to walk a smooth, broad, long-lasting spiritual path.
Over 2,000 years ago, the Buddha said, “In an era of turbidity, living beings have a lot of impurities.” Look at today’s society: Many people are ignorant and deluded and laden with afflictions. They can’t distinguish right from wrong or good from bad. They have no sense of ethics and feel no shame when they do something wrong. With so many impurities residing in peoples’ hearts, we’re living in an era of turbidity.
With so many people creating negative karma, our world can’t be at peace. Bad karma can be created in thought, word, or deed. Everyone must therefore wake up, reflect on themselves, change their wrong ways, and return to their pure innate state. Let us not allow our ignorance to grow and take our negative karma into our next life.
Everyone makes mistakes. When we do something wrong, the best thing to do is to quickly repent and change our ways. However, many people don’t do that. As a consequence, delusions and afflictions accumulate in their minds and their hearts become polluted.
I hope everyone can encourage each other to diligently absorb the Buddha’s teachings. If we can cleanse our mind with the water of Dharma, reflect and repent, break our bad habits, and get rid of our ignorance, we will naturally live in spiritual joy. When everyone has a peaceful mind and is free of afflictions, positive energies will prevail and our world will prosper in peace and safety.
The section in italics is comprised of excerpts from a speech given by Master Cheng Yen in 2011, as translated by Teresa Chang.