Against The Stream ~ FORGIVE YOURSELF

WE LABOR AND STAGGER ALONG under the burdens of our sins and mistakes, not knowing how to put them down. We’ve all made mistakes, done things we shouldn’t have done, and not done things we should have done. Because of this, regret and remorse follow us like shadows, from the past, to, and through, the present. Although we should feel remorse for our mistakes, life must go on, we must continue on our way, for we cannot live in the past, and attempts to do so only tear us apart. How can we put down the burdens of the past and go forward with lighter hearts?

Many people believe that sin must be forgiven by a ‘God-who-made-everything’; others believe we must be saved by some ‘superman’, otherwise we will go to Hell forever. Others see these things, these beliefs, as psychological techniques, from which we may gain the strength to bear our responsibilities, accept the consequences of our deeds, and go on living. They are valid as long as they remain techniques, for without them, many would find life too hard to bear, and there would be a much-higher suicide-rate than there is. But when a technique isn’t understood as such, and becomes an article of belief, an indispensable dogma, it is a fetter, instead of a means of support. This is why new techniques must constantly be devised, before the old ones become rigid and lifeless.

It seems quite clear that the practice of Confession in Catholicism was adopted, in the early Christian era, from Buddhism, along with other things; however, it became a dogma in Catholicism, and very few people understand the real meaning. Most Catholics believe that when they confess their sins before the priest, who admonishes them and perhaps allots some penance to perform, that that is the end of it, and they may start again with a clean slate. Protestants— who also do not understand clearly about Confession— ridicule Catholics for this; in fact, one of the things that caused Martin Luther— one of the main founders of the Protestant branch of Christianity— to break with the Church of Rome, was the priestly practice of selling certificates-of-forgiveness, known as ‘Indulgences’. Perhaps he was not against the certificates as such, but against the lucrative business they constituted; the rich could afford to have their sins ‘absolved’ in this way, while the poor could not. The priests claimed that, as the ‘representatives of God’, they had the power and right to forgive sins— for a price, of course.

How can we buy off the effects of our sins? No amount of money can do this. But to confess our sins and mistakes to another person is the first step of coming to grips with them, so that eventually, by doing as little evil, and as much good as possible, we may overcome them.

Buddhism teaches that we are punished by our sins, not for them, as do other religions; if we sow the seeds, and if they germinate and grow, we get the results, not someone else. Buddhists don’t believe there is a ‘God’ or anyone or anything else to reward or punish us; when we are free of such beliefs we can do something about our own lives, and be more in control of the way we live.

Therefore, to whom, or to what, do Buddhists pray? Certainly, we pray to no ‘God’, and neither should we pray to the Buddha, as He never asked people to do that, and in fact, warned against it, telling people to follow the Dharma instead, and thereby find their own enlightenment. The Buddha never claimed to be a savior of any kind; it is the Dharma, the Truth, which saves and liberates us, not the Buddha, or anyone else. When we understand this, we immediately avoid the trap of personalizing things, which is a trap that catches many of us.

But many people do pray to the Buddha, do they not? Yes, it appears they do. But, though this might not be correct, and might impede progress on the Way, it is not necessarily bad. You see, many people have no-one in whom they can confide and tell their troubles to. Very few people have what is known, in Buddhist terminology, as a ‘good friend’ (kalyana mitta, in Pali language), someone who will listen sympathetically without condemning, who will help and give constructive advice or criticism when necessary. Without such friends, they keep their feelings and problems bottled up inside, afraid, unable, or unwilling to express them to anyone. Like this, their problems go around and around inside them, causing so much tension and misery, and often growing bigger and stronger, until, somehow, they find ways of ‘getting out’.

Often, if we cannot release or express our problems ourselves, they accumulate and increase in strength until, suddenly and uncontrollably, they burst out like a volcano exploding, and can be very destructive. We need to find ways to release our problems so that their potential for causing damage is minimized. Therefore, although it is not really correct to pray to the Buddha in a symbol, such as a picture or an image, it can act as a way of releasing the tensions of accumulated worries and problems. In this way, as a technique, it can be good. We should not worry about others criticizing us or accusing us of ‘worshipping idols’, because most of them are guilty of doing that which they accuse us of; Christians pray to ‘God’, which is just their own mental creation or projection, for although they claim that "God created Man in his own image", it is actually the other way around: Man created God in his own image, due to his hopes, fears, and wishful thinking!

In some cases, however, we must admit that this accusation is justified: some Buddhists do worship the images and talk to them as superior beings, and pray to and beseech them for help and favors, etc. But if people understood what the Buddha taught, they would not worship the images; the images and icons are merely symbols on which to focus our attention, to help raise our consciousness to higher levels.

No-one knows what the Buddha looked like. The books say that His body had a number of special marks on it, but I suspect that these marks were visible only to people who had developed certain psychic powers such as clairvoyance— that is, the ability to see things that people without such powers are unable to see, like ghosts. In the scriptures, there are cases of people meeting the Buddha and not recognizing Him. Surely, if His special marks— such as the protuberance on the crown of his head, His long ears, and the halo around His head— had been visible to everyone, He would have been widely known by reputation of these things, and anyone meeting Him would have recognized Him immediately!

In 326 BCE— more than 200 years after the Buddha passed away— Alexander the Great led his armies down through the mountain-passes of what is now Afghanistan to the plains of India. Undefeated until then, he was halted at the River Beas by the forces of Emperor Chandragupta— Ashoka’s grandfather— and could go no further. Alexander died in Persia on his way back to Greece, but some of his troops remained and settled in N.W. India, and established kingdoms there. Being philosophically and artistically inclined, the Greeks were very impressed with the teachings of the Buddha that they encountered in India, and embracing them, were the first to carve images of Him, in the likeness of their Sun-god, Apollo, who represented Light and Reason. Many of these graceful early images remain till now, housed in various museums.

There are many styles of Buddha-images: Indian images, Chinese images, Tibetan images, etc.; we can even see painted Buddha-images with blue eyes and brown hair now, looking like Anglo-Saxons! But it doesn’t matter; we should understand the purpose of the images.

Everyone knows the images (it is incorrect to call them statues, as we do not know what the Buddha looked like, and we can make a statue of someone only if we know how he looked) began in someone’s mind— like everything else that people have made. Everyone knows an image of the Buddha is not the Buddha; everyone knows the Buddha-image will not reach down and eat the fruit before it. Offerings are made before the image out of respect to the memory of the Buddha, as our Teacher; as such, the offerings benefit those who make them, if they make them with pure minds. It is similar to the way Christians place flowers on the graves of their relatives or friends. Why do they do so? To show love and respect to the memory of the departed, and nothing more; they are not worshipping the graves!

Have you ever seen a Buddha-image with a sad face or an expression of suffering? Maybe, but not if the image was properly and well made. Many people, out of faith and devotion, like to make Buddha-images, but lacking skill, often produce monstrosities, which remain, for a long time, to cause embarrassment. If we cannot make something beautiful, we should not make something ugly; to make an ugly Buddha-image is an insult, not an act of respect, and only provides some people with an opportunity for mirth; an ill-made or ugly Buddha-image (and there are great numbers of such) only defeats the purpose of the image, which is to inspire people by its expression of peace and unshakability, to evoke a sense of that which lies beyond the smile on its face: Enlightenment, Wisdom, Compassion.

Sit quietly and gaze for a while on the peaceful countenance of a well-made Buddha-image (if you are fortunate enough to find one among all the ill-made ones). Let your mind become free of desires— temporarily free, at least. Perhaps you will find a sense of calm creeping up on you, and a Buddha-like smile breaking like a gentle wave across your face; it begins deep in the heart, when you are not looking or striving for anything.

The Buddha-image is only a means, and not an end. Certainly, we should not be so attached to an image that it becomes an obstacle, and we should never bow before an image in fear or hope of reward. When we bow, we do so out of respect— loving respect, not fearful respect— and gratitude to someone who showed us such a good Way to live by in this confused and confusing world. Many people have tried to indicate Truth, but no-one has shown the Way so clearly as the Buddha did; moreover, He did it without calling people to believe or follow Him, but encouraged them to investigate things for themselves in order to find the same state of enlightenment that He had found.

The purpose of the Buddha-image, then, is to reflect our true face as in a mirror, to evoke Buddha-like qualities in us, so that we may find the Buddha within, and not outside in a stone.

If we are going to talk about ‘idol-worship’, we must look nearer than mere images or pictures. The most popular and powerful ‘idol’ that people of all times and places have worshipped— and from which all the other idols, images and statues have come— is, of course, their self, and everything is used in this worship, including religion! By thinking and saying that their religion is the only true religion, and that all other religions are false— as so many people do think and say— shows that their own tiny self is at the center of their religion, like a spider at the center of its web, manipulating things for its own ends. Their religion thus becomes an extension of their ego— is ego— and strengthens it instead of weakening it. Is that the purpose of religion?

If you examine your religion, to see who, or what, is at the center, perhaps you will find yourself enthroned there, in which case you are an idol-worshipper, and your self is the idol!

However, while praying to the Buddha as a technique for releasing tension is far from being bad, we must beware, and not let it become a habit that we get addicted to. It should be resorted to only under conditions of stress, just as a man with a broken leg would use a crutch to help him walk. As far as possible, we should develop self-reliance, understanding that, somehow, whatever we experience, is a result of causes, and should therefore be accepted for what it is— accepted, examined and assessed to see what can be made of it, and where we can go from there.

If you pray to the Buddha-image, expressing your problems and asking for help, the image will just sit there, with the eternal smile on its face, saying not a word, moving not a muscle. If you ask for a winning-number for a lottery or help with a job-interview, the Buddha-image will not bend forwards and whisper: "Buy this number …."; it won’t say: "Don’t worry; I’ll fix it for you". The answer to your prayers— if there is an answer— must come from yourself, and this depends upon how you release and unburden yourself and express your problems. Very often, while expressing our problems, we find the answers for ourselves, hand-in-hand with the problem. That is why many teachers — of many subjects— learn from themselves as they teach; the effort to express and clarify themselves to others brings about further understanding for the teachers, so that they might sometimes catch themselves in mid-sentence and think: "What am I saying? I’ve said this same thing so many times before, but I never understood it like this until now!"

Therefore, to pray to the Buddha, to talk to the image— if you have no-one in whom you can confide— can be therapeutic and good. However, remember: the image is only wood or stone, and the Buddha is not a savior or an information-bureau, but a teacher who gave practical advice for living. You should, therefore, learn about His teachings and try to apply them in your life, so that many problems may be avoided altogether, and the remainder may be approached with wisdom instead of with fear.

To build up a good reputation is not easy, and takes a long time, but to lose it can happen very quickly. Likewise, while it is difficult to undo the effects of a bad deed, those of a good deed can be undone in a moment.

Many of us go through life arguing and disagreeing, and never attempting to resolve the arguments. If we cannot completely avoid arguments and conflicts, we should try to resolve them as soon as possible, so that they don’t harden and set like concrete; while concrete is still wet, we may do something to change it, but once it hardens, it is difficult to do so. Jesus of Nazareth advised people to make peace with their adversaries while they are still in touch with them and have the opportunity to do so, in case the adversary makes a charge against them and brings them to court. Because of stubbornness and clinging, many foolish cases are brought to court that could have— and should have— been easily settled between the contending parties themselves; but because of pride and stupidity neither party is willing to recognize its mistakes. Sometimes, people harbor grudges for years, unwilling to forgive and forget, thereby burning themselves up. It requires a lot of energy to maintain a conflict and hate; is it worth it to destroy oneself? As the Buddha said: " ‘He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me’; in those who harbor such thoughts, hatred is never appeased. ‘He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me’; in those who harbor not such thoughts, hatred is appeased". Is it not better to let things go, considering that people hurt each other through ignorance and not because they are really bad? Buddhists, especially, should know this, as we are taught that everyone has Buddha-nature, and can become enlightened. With Loving-kindness, we can overcome enmity towards others, rid ourselves of the poison of hate, and draw nearer to Enlightenment.

Venerable Narada, in his famous book: The Buddha and His Teachings, records that the Buddha, when discoursing on generosity, told Anathapindika (a wealthy lay-supporter, the one who presented the Jetavana monastery to Him), that alms given to the Order of Monks, together with the Buddha, is very meritorious; but more meritorious than such alms is the building of a monastery for the use of the Order; more meritorious than building such monasteries is Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels; more meritorious than Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels is the observance of the Five Precepts; more meritorious than such observance is meditation on Loving-Kindness; and most meritorious of all is the development of insight into the fleeting nature of things.

Ven. Narada goes on to say: "It is evident from this discourse that generosity is the first stage of the Buddhist way-of-life. More important than generosity is the observance of at least the Five Rules of regulated behavior that tend to the disciplining of words and deeds. Still more important and beneficial is the cultivation of such ennobling virtues as Loving-Kindness that leads to self-development. Most important and most beneficial of all self-discipline is the sincere effort to understand things as they truly are".

To conclude here: Overcoming our sins and shortcomings begins with recognizing and accepting them, and giving them up; sincere repentance brings relief.

Forgive yourself …. and go on!



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