This is the fourth piece in the Venerable Geshe Lhundup Sopa’s introductory teachings, the “lessons before the lessons.” We are still on the verse taken from Nagarjuna, Letters to a Friend. (For first three blogs click back to previous articles.)
“Whosoever was negligent previously
But later became attentive and careful,
Shines forth like the moon freed from clouds,
Just like Nanda, Angulimala, Ajustastru, and Udayana.”
—Nagarjuna, Letters to a Friend, Verse 14 (Leslie Kawanura)
After his teaching,The Four Powers of Confession, I offer up a commentary on the transformative power of regret, along with some spiritual journaling prompts and inquiry.
The Four Powers of Confession
Fortunately, people can use their natural intelligence and engage the skillful means of confession to free one from the results of negative past actions. If you, like Angulimala, make use of these four powers, all the negative karma that you have accumulated can be subdued, mitigated, and completed destroyed. The first of these four powers is the power of regret. This remorse is directed toward any negative karma you have created in the past due to your actions. In its most basic explanation, you feel a genuine sense of regret for your wrong doings. Of course you first need to have this clarity about your negative actions,–an awareness that you did cause yourself or someone else harm.
The second power of confession is whereby you apply an antidote to counteract the negative karma, as if you realized that you inadvertently took poison and regrettably put yourself in great danger. In Angulimala’s case this was the poison of ignorance and the negative karma of killing other human beings. The antidote for Angulimala was his desire to confess, and the act of confession itself. This can be true for you too. From a deep desire to confess (based on your regret), your antidote is the confession itself. *
Third is the power of restraint and a commitment to not act in the same way again in the future. If you survive swallowing something poisonous you will naturally make a firm resolve not to ingest that particular substance again. Restraint is based on the realization that you did swallow poison, or in this case, acted out of ignorance.
Fourth is the power of foundation, or basis; this is also known as the power of reliance. Since you have created a negative cause that may have very severe consequences, you look for a basis of protection, someone you can rely upon to help you form the results of your negative actions. In Buddhism, the most reliable source of refuge and protection is the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. In fact, merely taking refuge in them, with heartfelt trust and a willingness to rely on them, will in and of itself purify many negative karmas.
If you practice these four powers to counteract negative karma, there is no nonvirtuous action that cannot be purified. Even if, like Angulimala you have committed great negative actions, and you have enough time and energy to apply these opponent powers seriously and intensely, those grave negative potentials can be destroyed completely.
The purification through sincere confession and the development of virtuous actions and merit can result in liberation in this lifetime, as this story shows us. Liberation, the complete exhaustion of your suffering, is possible. The reason is that the cause of suffering is karma, and the cause of karma is Klesha, the obscuring afflictions, which are themselves all rooted in ignorance. Applying the proper antidotes can root out ignorance and all that obscures our minds. The more the antidotes are cultivated, the weaker the afflictions become. Therefore, there can be the total cessation of ignorance— of the obscuring afflictions—and thereby of suffering.
*Footnote: This is just one example of an antidote; there are many possibilities depending on the situation and the guidance of the teacher. Usually, antidotes to negativities are more than the confession itself, as Geshe Sopa shares in many of his teachings. Such things as recitation of sutras or other purification prayers, making offerings, or some other activity that counteracts the negativity are considered to be antidotes. More on this is in Geshe la’s Lam Rim Book 2, p. 148. To order book click on the title.
My Commentary: The Transformative Power of Regret
Confession ranks up there as one of the best tools for transforming negativity. But we often find it challenging because it begins with experiencing regret for our misdeeds. And this willingness to experience regret is wholly based on a willingness to take a look into the mirror.
People come to me wanting to forgive or be forgiven and I lead them to the process of confession. True forgiveness, and freedom from negative deeds and habits happens through the four powers of confession. But all too often I have witnessed false forgiveness. When people apologize without any authentic regret for their actions it is like offering someone cake with a razor inside. If you are on the receiving end of such an apology (sans regret) you may like the first bite but soon you will be fatally wounded. This is a found in the cycle of abusive relationships – someone apologizes but there is no depth to their confession, so they repeat it again and again. (For more see: Portrait of a Bully ) This is true with self-forgiveness and confession as well, –– when we say to ourselves “Oh I won’t do that again,” but feel no regret we are mostly just unhappy with the results of our actions. This too means we are likely to repeat the transgression. The power of regret is transformative in its ability to humble us to the truth of our negative actions. But we have to be willing to open up our minds and hearts to feeling the regret.
Regret in this sense is not going over the past and pondering how you wish you had done this or that differently. Instead it is a state of awareness around how you acted in a way that was not productive, even harmful. In this case, you open up to the emotional state of regret and bring awareness to it. In what way did this action cause harm? What is your motivation and reasons for behaving this way? And, how does this affect yourself and others negatively? Can you isolate the behaviors that tend to bring you regret? Rather than hiding our mistakes from ourselves, we get honest with ourselves. When we acknowledge regrets, we are less likely to continue to deceive ourselves. And fortunately, we are less likely to repeat the actions that brought the regret on! How can we clear the inner path of obstruction if we do not acknowledge what causes us to repeat negative patterns?
Feeling regret than brings on a wish not to repeat the same behavior. The power within confession of resolve not to act in the same negative way again brings future happiness. A resolve with action to do things differently results in lasting satisfaction and peaceful relationships with others.
In the late 1980s I was at a Zen monastery for a weekend to still my mind and get a sense of that particular practice of Buddhism. I was in the kitchen where the resident monk and a couple of students were preparing a meal when I caught the tail end of a conversation between a monk and a student, as follows:
“It’s better I make it clear to you I will not do that again,” said the monk, “than only to apologize for what I did. Saying I am sorry can just make it easy for me to behave the same way again.” The monk looked directly at the student and said, “So, I will not do that again.”
“No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” –Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, poet and aphorist
Spiritual Journaling and Inquiry prompts
• Meditate and journal on the meaning of the four powers of confession, and how they can be transformative within your life.
• First, write in your journal a conversation that you would like to hold with someone who you have treated poorly, or to whom you have conflict. Just write about this relationship and the difficulty. Then take yourself through the confession process with this dynamic. How can you transform your experience through the powers of confession? What do you regret (from your side of the relationship)? After that, ask yourself whether or not the other person would benefit from the sharing of your confession or apology?
• Write a story or poem about regret using the following words: shadow, gift, kindred, carry, left, blossom, shining.
You Reading This, Be Ready, by William Stafford
Starting Here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
Will you bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that your carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?
When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life–
What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?
Deer Park in Oregon Wisconsin is very happy to announce that this Sunday, August 18 at 10AM, Geshe Jampa Gyatso will teach at Deer Park. Geshe Jampa Gyatso is a student of Geshe Sopa Rinpoche. He is currently teaching in Taiwan. He has come to Deer Park for the first time to visit Geshe Sopa. All are welcome to attend.
I am offering a year-long journey of: Awakening to the Zero Point which includes such practices as conscious conversations, the 4 powers of confession, creative manifestation and more ways to bring forth your greatest potential within the context of your daily life. I will be offering one in Madison starting this January as well. Email me at email@example.com
“Suppose we were able to share meanings freely, without a compulsive urge to impose our view or conform to those of others, and without distortion and self-deception. Would this not constitute a real revolution in culture?”–David Joseph Bohm, quantum physicist, Unfolding Meaning