Recovering From Doing Something Really Bad


Suppose you have stolen a large sum of money or physically harmed someone or even killed someone. What then? Buddhism and Christianity differ sharply over how an individual can deal positively with life once they have committed a seriously negative act.

The Christian solution is simple and rapid. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."[1] We turn to God in anguish, sorrowfully admitting what we have done, strongly desiring to radically change, and He will forgive us for that act and will purify us. Before God you are fully absolved. However, you may still need to serve time, but at least your conscience will have been cleared.

The Buddhist approach is slow and arduous. It is detailed on the website dharmakara.net, where the question is asked, "If we have committed a serious negative act, how can we let go of the feeling of guilt that may follow?" His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, provides the following answer:[2]
    A: In such situations, where there is a danger of feeling guilty and therefore depressed, the Buddhist point of view advises adopting certain ways of thinking and behaving which will enable you to recover your self-confidence. A Buddhist may reflect on the nature of the mind of a Buddha, on its essential purity, and in what way disturbing thoughts and their subsequent emotions are of an entirely different nature. Because such disturbing emotions are adventitious, they can be eliminated. To think of the immense well of potential hidden deep within our being, to understand that the nature of the mind is fundamental purity and kindness and to meditate on its luminosity, will enable you to develop self-confidence and courage.

    The Buddha says in the Sutras that fully enlightened and omniscient beings, whom we consider to be superior, did not spring from the bowels of the earth, nor did they fall from the sky; they are the result of spiritual purification. Such beings were once as troubled as we are now, with the same weaknesses and flaws of ordinary beings. Shakyamuni Buddha himself, prior to his enlightenment, lived in other incarnations that were far more difficult than our present lives. To recognize, in all its majesty, our own potential for spiritual perfection is an antidote to guilt, disgust, and hopelessness. Nagarjuna says in "The Precious Garland of Advice for the King" that pessimism and depression never help in finding a good solution to any problem. On the other hand, arrogance is just as negative. But to present as an antidote to it a posture of extreme humility may tend to foster a lack of self-confidence and open the door to depression and discouragement. We would only go from one extreme to the other.

    I would like to point out that to set out on a retreat for three years full of hope and expectations, thinking that without the slightest difficulty you will come Out of it fully enlightened, can turn into a disaster, unless you undertake it with the most serious intentions. If you overestimate your expectations and have too much self-confidence, you will be headed for dissatisfaction and disillusionment. When you think of what the Buddha said—that perfect enlightenment is the result of spiritual purification and an accumulation of virtues and wisdom for eons and eons—it is certain that courage and perseverance will arise to accompany you on the path.
The Dalai Lama's answer is convoluted. In all honesty, it is not terribly comforting. It is clear that prolonged, intense meditation is one critical element in the recovery process. And, each person must struggle through on their own, with the help of the inspiration of the example of the Buddha, to a place of greater mental purity.

That some very exceptional Buddhists have accomplished this during one lifetime is potentially believable. That those who are ordinary individuals have a reasonable hope of implementing this is questionable, particularly if they are burdened, not only with one seriously negative act, but with several, or with a host of minor negative acts or attitudes. For such people, even eons and eons may not allow enough time for recovery to arise by self-generation. It would be much like trying to swim upstream in a river that is flowing at a speed greater than the swimmer can manage and sustain. There might be bursts of temporary success, but fatigue will inevitably bring defeat.

The Bible openly discounts the possibility of self-generated recovery.

"All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away."[3]

"All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."[4]

These two Bible verses might seem to be hopelessly discouraging. And they are, until the help of God is received and allowed to rejuvenate and rescue the foundering. The power of a Higher Power should not be underestimated.




[1] 1 John 1:9 (NIV).

[2] "Christianity and Buddhism, 10 virtues of Buddhism, guilt feelings," Dhamakara.net, retrieved October 21, 2013.

[3] Isaiah 64:6 (NIV).

[4] Romans 3:23 (NKJV).
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