Repetitive Repentance

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us,
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

All pray in silence.

Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins
through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all
goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in
eternal life. Amen.

You know those mental snapshots of childhood, when for some reason your memory captures a moment in stunning clarity? A few of mine occurred in church—not surprising, given how much time I spent there growing up. One such image was sparked by confusion and frustration over the Prayer of Confession.

The emotional anchor for this particular snapshot was the repetitiveness of this ritual. While there were a few variations, the theme of the Confession remained remarkably constant: Dear God, we messed up. Again. We promise—again—that we’ll do better next time. The same apologies, the same promises. Again and again and again.

With the simplistic logic of childhood, I wondered: Why do we keep apologizing to God? Why don’t we just stop doing whatever it is we’re doing wrong, or at least stop repeating the same old lines? Are we even trying? Do we think God’s an overindulgent or absent-minded father figure who won’t be upset that we’re just feeding him the same old pseudo-apology? “Father figure” indeed: even as a kid, I knew I couldn’t get away with that sort of thing with my earthly parents.

Imagine my surprise, then, many years later, at discovering the following chant of repentance at the Austin Zen Center:

All my ancient twisted karma,
From beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
Borne through body, speech and mind,
I now fully avow.

Granted, this is typically chanted only once per month, at a special service. And I do prefer the straightforwardness of not apologizing to a particular being, asking his forgiveness for the sake of his son, our friend. Still, “body, speech and mind” sounds an awful lot like “thought, word, and deed.” So here we are once more, trapped in an endless, predictable cycle of messing up, taking responsibility even while knowing that we will soon mess up again.

However, the more I study Zen the more I’m coming to appreciate the nuances of repentance. Various teachers describe it as “an act of awakening,” a refreshing and purifying recognition of “the consequences of our self-centered actions.” In The Heart of Being, John Daido Loori sees wholehearted repentance as initiating “a mind receptive and open to transformation.”

All right, awakening and transformation sound great, but I’ll still have plenty to “fully avow” next month, won’t I? For some time, I worried that I was right back in that old trap of confess-screw up-confess again.

I think what finally shifted things for me was reading Bernie Glassman’s metaphorical treatment of the bodhisattva precepts. In a previous post, I wrote the following:

Imagine these precepts as a glass, he says: we can aspire not to break them, but in the very act of living we will continually violate them. Practice, then, becomes a matter of cleaning off the smudges or traces of our actions, a regular atonement through “taking better care of the glass.”

As he says, “we never get to the point of no longer needing to clean the glass.” But I see a crucial distinction between being inherently, inescapably flawed creatures and living in a world where things regularly, endlessly happen “that make life a mess again.” I don’t think it helps to view ourselves as broken; but things do get smudged. So we can (and should) try to take the best possible care of the glass, knowing that no matter how hard we try, it will get dirty again—and that’s okay.

When it comes to repentance and forgiveness, I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of nuance, and I certainly don’t mean anything like “my confession is better than your confession.” Indeed, I find it difficult to argue with anything that facilitates atonement (at-one-ment), anything that—to paraphrase a line from As Good As It Gets—makes us want to be better people.

Rather, I hope that by sharing a piece of my story I can promote broader understanding of the importance of taking responsibility for our actions and aspiring to do the best we can. After all, to quote a very different movie, we must remember to “be excellent to each other.”




Filed under Zen

2 responses to “Repetitive Repentance

  1. I’m not sure, from a Buddhist perspective, that “taking responsibility” makes sense in the way that we were taught. In a world where all is interconnected and shit happens, taking responsibility implies that we can control our lives. On the other hand, we can take responsibility for how we take it all in and the choices we make. So we don’t control our lives, but we control our responses to our lives.

    • Loori has some interesting comments on that point, Kim.

      First, this: “When you become aware you have drifted away from the precepts, just acknowledge that fact. That acknowledgement means to take responsibility for your life; taking responsibility plays a key role in our practice. If you don’t practice taking responsibility, you are not practicing. It is as simple as that.”

      Then this: “To take responsibility means to acknowledge yourself as the master of your life. To take responsibility empowers you to do something about whatever it is that’s hindering you.”

      I don’t think responsibility means that we’re in control, exactly, but rather that the very interconnectedness you cite calls us to be as responsible as we can with our thoughts, speech, and actions. (Incidentally, I wrote “very, very Sudbury” in the margin of this page.)

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