Confession Is Good for the Not-Soul

There is a near universal human urge to confess to someone when we have done something wrong. And confession rarely fails to provide some solace. It is an altogether laudably feature of human nature. Not growing up Catholic, I always envied their practice of confession. What a potentially beautiful way to share you foibles and sins with someone trained to be a kind, receptive presence. I’m sure it doesn’t always work out that way, but the idea is lovely.

There is something like this in Buddhism, but only for monks and nuns. Twice a month, the monastic sangha in a particular area gathers to recite the rules (the Patimokha) and share with the group any transgressions they committed during that time. This is so important, that gathering for this meeting is the very definition of sangha in monastic Buddhism. It’s a shame that Buddhism never developed any formal way for the laity to confess. Still, it’s a good idea to find a teacher or close dhamma that you trust enough to confess to. It’s good for the Not-Soul.

Once the Buddha was living at Samagama in the Sakyan country. At that time, Nigantha Nataputta, the leader of the Niganthas [another ancient Indian religion, probably the Jains], had just died at Pava. At his death the Niganthas had split into rival groups which were fighting and arguing. They shot each other with verbal darts saying, “You don’t understand dhamma or viyana!” or “You are wrong! I am right!” or “You are flip-flopping! I am consistent!” or “You are backward, upside-down, and just plain wrong!” or “You are all tied in knots! Get straight if you can!” It seemed they did nothing but argue, and their lay followers were sick of it. They realized then that Nigantha Nataputta’s students were useless and his teachings did not lead to liberation and peace, that he was not completely enlightened, and they were without refuge.

The Buddhist novice monk Cunda spent the rains retreat a Pava and saw all this. He went to Ananda, bowed, and told him what was happening. Ananda realized at once that the Buddha needed to be told, so the two of them set off at once. They went to the Buddha, bowed, and told him what Cunda had seen.

Then Ananda said, “I do not want such fighting and arguing to happen when the Buddha is gone. This kind of fighting would lead to pain and misery one heaven and earth.”

“Ananda,” said the Buddha, “The things I have taught you — the four foundations of mindfulness, the four right efforts, the four bases of power, the five faculties, the five powers, the seven enlightenment factors, and the Eightfold Path — do you see even 2 monks arguing about these things?”

“No,” replied Ananda, “but there are some who respect your teachings now but might start arguments about Right Livelihood or the rules for monks and nuns when you are gone. Such arguments would cause tremendous pain and misery on heaven and earth.”

“An argument about these things would be unimportant, Ananda. But if disputes arise about the spiritual path, that would truly lead to pain and misery on heaven and earth.

“Ananda, there are 6 causes of disputes:

  1. A monk is angry.
  2. A monk is arrogant and abusive.
  3. A monk is jealous.
  4. A monk is a liar.
  5. A monk is corrupt.
  6. A monk has his own views and stubbornly holds to them.

“Such a monk is does not show respect to the Buddha, Dhamma, or Sangha. He does not follow the spiritual training. He creates rivalries in the Sangha which lead to pain and misery on heaven and earth. If you see these causes for dispute in yourself or others, work hard to let go of these things. If you do not see these causes for dispute in yourself or others, work hard to make sure they do not arise in the future.

“Ananda, the sangha must resolve a dispute where there is an argument, an accusation, an offence, or a disagreement over the way to resolve problems.

“Ananda, there are seven ways of resolving disputes:

  1. When monks are arguing, they should come together, review the dhamma, and settle their dispute according to dhamma.
  2. If the monks can’t settle their dispute among themselves, they should gather together with more monks and settle their argument according to the understanding of the majority of monks.
  3. If a monk accuses another monk of a serious offense, the accused monk should be asked if he remembers committing the offense. If he says, “No, I don’t remember committing such an offense,” then the accusation should be withdrawn.
  4. But if the accuser presses his case and the accused monk says, “I must have been temporarily insane because I do not remember committing such an offense.” In the case of insanity the accusation should be withdrawn.
  5. Or if he says instead, “I don’t remember committing this grave offense, but I do remember committing a minor offense.” But still the accuser presses on saying, “Surely you know if you committed an offense or not.” And the accused replies, “Oh! Well! I do remember. I was just joking when I said before I didn’t remember.” This monk is a monk of bad character.
  6. When a monk confesses or remembers an offense when he has been accused, he should go a senior monk and pay homage. Then he should kneel, raise his hands with palms together and say, “Venerable sir, I have committed an offense” and confess his offense. The senior monk should then say, “Do you understand your fault? Will you do better in the future.” And the monks should say, “Yes, I will do better.” And this should serve to resolve the matter.
  7. When the monks take to arguing, they may say things that are wrong for a monk to say. In this case, a wise monk should call for a “Covering Over With Grass.” He should say, “If the sangha agrees, the for the good of everyone I will confess and we will put aside all except the most serious offenses or offenses against the laity.” Then a wise monk on the other side of the dispute should rise and do the same. Such is the covering over with grass.

“And Ananda, there are these 6 things that create love, respect, and community:

  1. When a monk acts with loving kindness in public and private toward his friends and companions in the hold life.
  2. When a monk speaks with loving kindness in public and private toward his friends and companions in the holy life.
  3. When a monk things with loving kindness in public and private towards his friends and companions in the holy life.
  4. When a monk freely shares any gain, even what is in his own bowl, with his friends and companions in the holy life.
  5. When a monk lives virtuously in public and private with his friends and companions in the holy life.
  6. When a monk lives according to dhamma that leads to liberation and the end of suffering in public and private with his friends and companions in the holy life.

“So, Ananda, take and maintain these principles, and they will lead to happiness for a long time.”

-Samagama, Majjhima Nikaya 104

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