Thursday, November 17, 2011

confession and absolution

In Roman Catholicism, as I understand it, there is a tradition of confession ... confession and absolution. As I understand it from Catholic friends and acquaintances, a parishioner steps into the confessional booth where s/he is separated from a priest who is likewise ensconced by a screen that allows neither to see the other. The parishioner confesses his or her faults/sins and the priest then prescribes a penance (usually "Our Father..." or "Hail Mary..." prayers) after which the parishioner is absolved of wrong-doing in the eyes of the God that Catholics believe in.

Once upon a time, I can remember a high-school friend of mine who had quite going to Catholic church. It was a time of hormones (as always in high school) and he had a hundred reasons why the church imposed by his parents no longer made sense. But when I asked him if there were any aspect of the church that he missed, a strangely stricken look came over his teen-aged face as he admitted quietly, "I miss confession." And, although I had no church affiliation at the time and could wax pretty skeptical on the topic, still, my heart went out to him.

In Buddhism as I understand it, there was once a tradition of monks getting together periodically (weekly?) to admit to transgressions and other mistakes. As I understand it, there was no absolution ... just the admitting of slips and goofs and wrong-doings. The fact that it was out in the open, not held tightly and in secret, offered a chance to look things squarely in the eye and to investigate.

If his rough depiction of two traditions' approach to confession is somewhere close to the truth, then I think I would call Buddhism's version a confession for grown-ups: Harder, yes, but more adult.

One of the things I have always liked about formal Zen Buddhist settings (after a number of years... not necessarily sooner) is the fact that you can say any damned thing you want. Anything goes. Everything is invited. In fact, everything honest is encouraged. It's not like a social setting in which camouflage and misdirection are in vogue. True, people sometimes swath themselves in spiritual ardor and other folderol, but the general direction is to come clean ... to others, perhaps, but most importantly to yourself.

Who else could possibly absolve you in a way that had true meaning? This is the adult part and takes practice. It takes strength to stand naked in front of your very own mirror, whether real or metaphorical. Relying on the absolution of another simply cannot fill the bill of spiritual adulthood and peace.

Bit by bit and day by day and effort by effort I think a reputable spiritual practice guides us in the building of a confessional in which nothing is hidden, in which the disembodied voice is no longer disembodied, and in which the authority arises without a second thought.

This is authentic absolution ...or anyway that's my guess.


  1. In Tibetan Budhism if you do something wrong and break your vows .You sit in front of a shrine or representation of the 3 jewels and confess your sins , Do prostrations etc ... and vow not to repeat them ( The sins that is , not the prostrations ).
    It is entirly a personal thing . Anita

  2. If you have done the 100-K believe me you never want to do them again. Wrong, right, sins in Vajrayana, HA!