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What is Significance of Buddhist Repentance?
For all the evil deeds I have done in the past,
Created by my body, speech and mind,
From beginningless greed, hatred and delusion,
I now know shame and repent them all.
-Traditional Repentance Verse
from "The Practices & Vows of Samantabadra Bodhisattva" (Avatamsaka Sutra, Chapter 40)
The above is perhaps the simplest but most widely practised verse of repentance. The practice of Buddhist repentance is not so much the asking for divine forgiveness. It is the clear recognition of our unskilful actions done intentionally or unmindfully through our body, speech and mind, which are the results of our lack of compassion and wisdom, originating from our attachment, aversion and delusion. After recognising our misgivings, we make resolutions to be as mindful as we can, so as to never repeat them under any circumstances. In this sense, repentance is about forgiving oneself through expressing regret and turning over a new leaf, absolving oneself of unhealthy guilt while renewing determination to further avoid evil, do good and purify the mind with greater diligence.
Traditionally, the practice of repentance is done through chanting relevant sutra verses and bowing before a Buddha image, which represents the presence of the Buddha bearing witness to our sincerity. However, if one has done wrong to someone who is contactable, one should apologise to him or her personally, or the practice of repentance before the Buddha would be rendered a hollow practice lacking in sincerity. Even if the other party is unlikely to forgive us, we should do our part in seeking forgiveness - this is also the practice of humility. Actual remedial action of making up for any physical or psychological damage caused to others is also important - or repentance would literally be merely saying "sorry".Repentance should ideally be practised at the end of each day, as we try to recall best we can, any misgivings we have done in the day. For repentance to be more effective, misdeeds should be recalled as specifically as possible, instead of vaguely generalising. Doing this practice daily reduces our repetitive mistakes as it increases our mindfulness the next day. Repentance should also be practised immediately in the moment, without procrastination, when we realise we have just made a mistake. If one's pride is too strong, one should still make a point to repent later, as soon as possible.
The stronger our sincerity is, the more powerful our repentance becomes. While repentance does not erases our negative karma, it can dissolve its future effects, much like the addition of abundant pure water onto salt, which dissolves the otherwise unbearable saltiness we have to taste. Interestingly, repentance practised well can become meritorious, as it prevents the creation of fresh negative karma which can lead to future suffering, while offering peace of mind to better learn, practise and share the Dharma, thus clearing much of the path to the attainment of Enlightenment.
-Shen Shi'an (pic:lovinglightworks.com)