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Forgiveness and Buddha Nature: Re-approaching the Practice of Purification

Among the people who consciously moved toward Buddhism as an alternative to theistic traditions, it seems that, for many, one of the most attractive features that Buddhism had to offer was its lack of emphasis on heaviness and guilt in its presentations of the basic makeup of a human being and what happens when humans become confused. From the Buddhist perspective, the most essential dimension of our minds is buddha nature, which is completely free of any fault or defect. It is understandable that many people would be attracted to a spiritual tradition that teaches that human beings are fundamentally whole.

So how does a tradition like this work with confusion, disturbing emotions, and harmful actions? It basically says that these are a legitimate part of our experience too, and they certainly need our attention and care just as much as our buddha nature does. Vajrayana Buddhism says that the difference between our buddha nature and our confusion is that our buddha nature is fundamental to the nature of our mind, while our confusion, and anything that arises from our confusion, is incidental, i.e. nonindigenous to our mind’s basic fabric. Understanding this basic relationship between confusion and buddha nature is crucial to approaching the practice known as purification.

In his text, The Words of My Perfect Teacher, the nineteenth century master Patrul Rinpoche stated that negative actions, generally speaking, deserve a lot of the bad press they get: they harm ourselves and others in ways big and small. But, he continued, all negative actions do have one positive quality: they can be purified.

Some people may be surprised to hear that Indo-Tibetan Buddhism has so many practices for purifying negative actions. In some cases there is even a practice of “confession” that is employed. Whoa! Isn’t this what we left the other building to get away from? Though “confession” is definitely a heavy-sounding word, and could be in danger of bringing up not-so-inspiring connotations due to its usages in other contexts, in Buddhism the practice of purifying negative actions is basically a practice of acknowledging confusion as confusion, reconnecting with the basic goodness that underlies that confusion, seeing the possibility of doing things differently, and then, finally, moving on and starting fresh.

One of the main methods that Buddhism offers to work through a process of purification and renewal is called “the four powers.” In the way I will translate them, the four powers are 1) establishing a support, 2) feeling genuine remorse, 3) applying a purifying remedy, and 4) being clear about the path forward. I will slightly modify the traditional ways in which these steps have been presented in order to emphasize their basic gist to an audience that may not consist solely of practicing Buddhists.

When we have noticed that we have become overcome by attitudes and habits we’ve seen to be harmful to ourselves or others, and when we want to give ourselves a chance to regain our center and let go of any negativity that has developed within us, as well as any harm our actions may have caused, we can use these four powers or steps to help us reconnect with our most fundamental positive intentions, forgive ourselves, and move forward in a sane way.

In the practice of the first power, establishing a support, we try to re-connect with our basic desire to live a meaningful life, to make the most of this precious, impermanent opportunity to live in this world, and to bring as much benefit to ourselves and others as we can.

The second step is to allow ourselves to feel genuine remorse toward any negativity or harm we generated. Remorse and regret are a bit of a tricky topic in the West: sometimes we are so put off by the notion of “guilt” that we might not want to go in the direction of “remorse” at all, regarding the latter as a fast ticket to a painful guilt trip. But if we can use our prajna or discriminating intelligence to distinguish guilt from genuine remorse, there is a lot of healing we can gain access to. The basic distinction is that guilt always focuses on an untrue, negative self-image: there is so much emphasis on how “I” did or thought such-and-such thing, and therefore “I” am terrible to the core.

Remorse has a much softer and more creative quality. With remorse, there is actually space for us to acknowledge our deeper, positive nature, and see, in the light of that acknowledgment, that the negativity or harm we had generated is actually not really who we are. We can allow ourselves to feel the sadness and pain that resulted from the negativity, and at the same time we can allow ourselves to feel encouraged that such mistakes are not part of our true nature, so there is no need to identify ourselves with them fundamentally.

With guilt, we feel bad because we did something unskillful and feel that that represents who we are fundamentally. With what I would call buddha nature-based remorse, it’s not about needing to “feel bad,” but rather giving ourselves the space to feel inspiration toward who we actually are and what we are capable of at our best, even as we reflect with sadness at the harm that can come through confusion. Reconnecting with inspiration in this way can in turn become the basis for moving on and doing things differently.

In the third step, the power of applying a remedy, we engage as one-pointedly as we can in a practice that can actually instill in us a deeper familiarity with the true nature of our mind and of the world around us. One of the main practices taught for this stage is to contemplate the reality of śunyatā or emptiness—phenomena’s lack of any solid or stuck type of existence. The reason why contemplating emptiness, or lack-of-solid-self-ness, is taught to be purifying is because it is through self-versus-other solidification, the opposite of emptiness, that our reactive states of greed, hatred, and ignorance gain strength in our minds. Engaging in a well-informed session of contemplating emptiness, supported, for example, by chanting the Heart Sutra, can set the stage for a natural speed-reduction of our reactive negative thought patterns. If done properly, contemplating emptiness, which is inseparable from the reality of interdependence, will also have the effect of calming our mind and creating an inner environment in which we can analyze what steps we need to take next with greater clarity. Planting seeds of familiarity with the true nature of reality in this way will also further strengthen our natural affinity toward beneficial actions.

The fourth step is to lay out a clear path of intention and action going forward. We have reconnected with our deeper positive motivation, we have acknowledged any harm or confusion that have arisen as harm and confusion without turning away, and we have given our minds the chance to settle into a clearer, calmer perspective. The final step of this method of renewal is to clearly form an intention to bring the full strength of our wisdom and compassion to bear in the future, to the greatest degree that we can, in order to not re-engage in the negative patterns that we have been reflecting on. Full-hearted engagement in the first three steps prepares us to truly engage in this final step, sometimes also called “the power of resolve,” in a steadfast way. With the fourth step, we promise ourselves essentially that we will do our best to do something different next time, so that we can avoid the same negative results that we experienced previously.

These four steps of renewal or purification don’t have to be engaged in only in response to serious negative actions. In fact, to be sure, serious negative actions, actions that do great harm to individuals or groups of people, need to be addressed through methods that go beyond meditation techniques or individual contemplation sessions. But in terms of working with our own spiritual practice of monitoring ourselves on a day-to-day basis, and being the primary witness to whether or not our actions and attitudes are in line with our deepest intentions, the four powers can be very helpful.

To be on the path to awakening, it is said, means that the quality of our practice will, by the very definition of “path,” be sometimes on the mark, sometimes off the mark; sometimes pure, sometimes impure. We don’t need to “feel bad” about something in order to take an honest look at our experience and work with our self-deception and mistakes. Sometimes, we may even spend unnecessary energy trying to pretend that “everything is okay,” when maybe there is a little something nagging at us under the surface, something that a practice such as the four powers may help us address in a way that brings more ease of movement.

I think the most important point that is implicit in the practice of the four powers is the practice of forgiveness, particularly self-forgiveness. Self-forgiveness may seem counterintuitive in the heat of the moment when we come to our senses and realize we have made a mistake. Many of us feel that we would rather berate ourselves, and that only a harsh remedy will “teach” us the “lesson” we need. But as so many of the great teachers who have been active in the West have pointed out, it is actually gentleness that cuts through the rigidity of our confused patterns, not further speed and feigned toughness.

On the other side of working with the practice of the four powers, there are also wonderful teachings on the practice of rejoicing. I hope to write about the Buddhist approach to rejoicing in a future post. Thank you for reading!



Tyler Dewar is a Mitra, or senior teacher, in the Nalandabodhi Buddhist community. He can be found on Facebook and Twitter, and at his blog, Parijata Press.

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