Forest Sangha Newsletter April 1995

Practice as Process; Ajahn Pasanno
Why go to a monastery; Sister Candasiri
Fantasia: The Nature of Perception; Venerable Sunyato
The Dhamma School
Sutta Class: Immorality, Confession & Forgiveness; Venerable Varado
A Matter of Tradition; Ajahn Sucitto

Signs of Change:


Sutta Class:
Immorality, Confession & Forgiveness

Venerable Varado led a series of discussions at Amaravati on the topic of samvara (restraint). The following article is drawn from those talks.

In spite of our best wishes our psychological make-up contains elements not always pleasing to us. Indeed, such elements as guilt, shame and remorse can be unbearable. Unfortunately our reaction to this guilt and remorse can easily lead to further pain; the reason being that our instinct is to hide what is hurting us. This is illustrated in a verse from the Dhammapada:
Easily seen are others faults.
Hard indeed to see ones own.
One winnows abroad others faults like chaff,
But conceals ones own faults like a crafty hunter.
(Dhammapada 252)
The Buddha highly praised the use of confession, and in a poetic simile warns us against concealing of offences:
Channam ativassati
Vivitam nativassati
Tasma channam vivaretna
Evan tam nativassatiti

Rain soaks what is contained
It doesn't soak what is open
Therefore open up what is contained
So rain won't soak it.
(Vin. II 240)

The Vinaya Commentary to this verse points out that if you commit an offence and conceal it, then you will fall into another, fresh offence. If however you disclose it, then you will not fall into the same offence.
    Before the Patimokkha recitation, Theravadin monks must confess offences. If a monk hides an offence, that is regarded as conscious lying. And conscious lying, the Buddha taught, is an obstacle (antarayiko) to meditation: obstructing and preventing its bliss, its calm, and its many fruits and benefits. However, for monks who reveal offences:

there comes to be comfort (phasu). (Vin.II 105)
When admonishment is well given and well received we can expect it to lead to spiritual growth.

This is the comfort of meditation, its bliss and its realisations. Confessing offences is of benefit regardless of the gravity of the offence.
    King Ajatasattu of Magadha used the opportunity of a meeting with the Buddha to confess to the murder of his father, the previous king:
Transgression overcame me Lord, foolish, erring and wicked as I was in that I, for the sake of the throne deprived my father, that good and just King, of his life. May the Blessed Lord accept my confession of my evil deed that I may restrain myself in future.
The Buddha replied:
Indeed, transgression overcame you when you deprived your father, that good and just King, of his life. But since you have acknowledged the transgression and confessed it, as is right, we will accept it. For he who has acknowledged his transgression as such and confesses it for betterment in future will grow in the Aryan discipline. (Digha. Nikaya I 85) (Transl. Maurice Walshe: Thus Have I Heard)
And similarly, a soldier, sent by Devadatta to murder the Buddha, having found himself unable to do such a thing: approached, having inclined his head to the Lord's feet, he spoke thus to the Lord:
Lord, a transgression has overcome me, foolish, misguided, wrong that I was, in that I was coming here with my mind malignant, my mind set on murder. Lord, may the Lord acknowledge for me the transgression as a transgression for the sake of restraint in future. (Vin.II 191)
The Buddha replied:
Truly friend a transgression overcame you . . . But if you, having seen the transgression as a transgression, confess according to the rule, we acknowledge it for you: for, friend, this in the discipline of a noble one is growth whoever, having seen a transgression as a transgression, confesses according to the rule, he attains restraint in future.

When we as meditators see that there is an inner psychological result to our own actions, and see the potential we have of hurting our own minds, it then becomes clear that we must order our life and activity in a very careful way. How we should do this is outlined by the Buddha in: The Discourse on an Exhortation to Rahula at Ambalatthika.

Rahula, what is a mirror for?
Venerable Sir, it is for reflection.
In the same way, Rahula, should activity of body, of speech, and of mind be undertaken with reflection and consideration.
And so the Buddha teaches Rahula to consider all activity that he is about to perform, by body, speech or mind, and to ask himself of such behaviour:
Will it harm myself?
Will it harm others?
Will it harm us both?
Is it unwholesome or wholesome?
Will its result be painful, yielding pain?
Or happy, resulting in happiness?
If you consider potential activity to be harmful or unwholesome you should avoid it. And of harmful or unwholesome activity of body or speech for which you are responsible, it should be:
confessed, disclosed, declared to the Teacher or to intelligent Brahmafarers . . . so it induces restraint in future.
Of unwholesome and harmful thoughts:
you should be concerned, ashamed and fed-up, and being concerned, ashamed and fed-up, you should exercise restraint in future.
And the Buddha concludes:
Rahula, indeed, all those samanas and brahmanas who have purified themselves in the past and in the future, all of them have done so, and will do so, by repeated consideration and review. (MI 414)
Such is the importance of this sutta that it was recorded in the Bhabru Rock Edict of King Asoka so that all monks, nuns, and lay followers should hear often and reflect on.
Purity of moral conduct is assisted by the presence of other monks and nuns. This is because the Buddha allowed and encouraged them to admonish each other:
Thus comes to be development for the disciples of the Lord, by mutual admonishment and mutual rehabilitation. (Vin. III 178)
But admonishment and reprobation must be done with sensitivity in order for it to strengthen, not damage, anothers spiritual practice. Reprobation should be done at the right time (kalena) rather than necessarily immediately (akalena); it should be done gently (sanhena) rather than harshly (pharasena); it should be done seeking welfare (hitesita), rather than seeking an opportunity to vent ones feelings. (Vin. II 249) So the admonisher needs all the qualities of patience and kindness and wisdom, otherwise he will achieve very little.
    And when we find ourselves the recipient of admonishment or reprobation the Buddha encouraged us to seek support in two dhammas: truth (sacca) and steadfastness (akuppe) that is, in seeking the truth of the matter in question, (rather than merely justifying ourselves) and in remaining cool, rather than allowing ourselves to be upset. And when admonishment is well given and well received we can expect it to lead to spiritual growth.
    Related to the topic of confession, are the topics of apology and forgiveness.
    In the Mahavagga section of Vinaya we find the Buddha encouraging apology and forgiveness. In the Buddhas day young monks would share a room with their teachers and this led to a situation recorded in the Mahavagga section of the Vinaya where young monks: did not conduct themselves properly. Having been on that account dismissed by their teachers they did not apologise. The Buddha encouraged them to apologise. They still refused. So the Buddha laid down a rule: Monks, one who is dismissed is not, not to apologise. For whoever should not apologise, there is an offence of wrongdoing.
    Now the preceptors, being apologised to, did not forgive. The Buddha encouraged them to forgive. Even so they did not forgive. And those who had shared a room departed, disrobed, joined other sects. The Buddha said: Monks, when you are being apologised to, you should not, not forgive. For whoever does not, not forgive, there is an offence of wrongdoing.
    In this story we see the reluctance of us humans to apologise and our reluctance to forgive. And I think if we see such reluctance in ourselves, such a story might help us see that actually the Buddha was also talking to us.