Growing up in the Roman Catholic tradition, we were encouraged to go to confession (penance) on a regular basis for reconciliation and to be absolved of sins. In Buddhism, the only mention of confession I've seen is in regard to a practice for monks prior to the reciting of the patimokkha. I understand there is no idea of absolving sins in Buddhism, but why is it considered benefical or useful for monks to confess but not for lay people to do the same? I'm assuming there is some sense of unburdening in the confession process and wondering what serves that function for lay people? Thank you.


This is a good question; if the monks can confess their "sins", why can't lay people?

On the one hand, monastic confession is a product of the rigidity of monastic practice, which requires some formal means of realignment. But on the other hand, reaffirming one's determination to keep precepts is a great practice for all Buddhists.

The standard practice for lay people in Theravada Buddhism to correct a broken precept is to simply retake the entire set of precepts (five or eight). There are standard religious formulae for this, so that might be a similar concept to a confession.

Beyond that, though, I think there is less need for Catholic confession since there is less sense of "sin" in evil deeds; since our concept of morality is utilitarian in the sense of "it's evil because it brings suffering", there isn't the sense of intrinsic "sinfulness" of a deed, and hence there seems to be less of the shame and guilt associated with evil in Catholicism.

So, the practical equivalent to confession in our tradition is probably just talking with a teacher about your problems; e.g., rather than confessing you drank alcohol, you would discuss your alcohol addiction or your view that alcohol brings happiness.

  • Part of Catholic "sin" is the idea that you've offended against God and need to become reconciled with Him. However, "bringing suffering" might include bringing suffering to other people. If you hurt other people (I'm not saying you do, but other people might), you might feel ashamed and guilty about that, and want a way to become reconciled with the people you hurt. – ChrisW Feb 8 '15 at 14:32

The experience I have of confession within Buddhism is mostly within the context of a ritual. I practice with the Triratna Buddhist and in one of our more lengthy rituals we have a section on confession of faults part of which goes

The evil that I have heaped up

Through my ignorance and foolishness –

Evil in the world of everyday experience,

As well as evil in understanding and intelligence

All that I acknowledge to the Protectors.

The ritual is based on the Bodhicaryavatara an 8th century Mahayana text by Santideva. The Bodhicaryavatara has a section on the confession of faults. This goes on at greater length on the same themes for example

Overwhelmed by ignorant delusion,

I celebrated the harm that was done.

But now I see it all was done in error,

And before the buddhas, sincerely I confess.

So the notion of recognising on and confessing faults does exists within Buddhism. I'm not an expert on comparative religion but I know that the concept of sin doesn't really exist in Buddhism. Actions are skillful (kusala) or unskillful (akusala) rather than sinful or not. Also it's less clear who you would be confessing to. So any notion of confession would be necessarily different in Buddhism.

On a personal note, it has been suggested to me that the proper course of action when one has done something unskillful is go sit at your shrine, light a stick of incense and try not to be so thoughtless in future. Maybe that's the nearest equivalent in my own experience.

  • 3
    Just an FYI... The Christian term for sin is from the Greek work hamartia, which literally means missing the target. Like when an archer misses the bull's eye. So hamartia or sin in the Greek implies the misdirecting of mind's and body's energies. Repentance is based on the Greek work metanoia means the changing of mind, redirecting the mind's energies. So there are ontological similarities between Buddhism and Christianity regarding sin and repentance. However, some things were lost in translation over the centuries for some folks. :-\ – DharmaEater Jul 10 '14 at 4:13

In the Vajrayana, confession is a specific part of the so-called "preliminary practices" (ngöndro). It is one of the "inner" or "extraordinary" preliminaries, and consists in removing negative actions or "obscurations", namely karmic obscurations; the obscurations of negative emotions; conceptual obscurations; and the obscurations of habitual tendencies.

The removal of obscuration is done through the practice of meditating on the Teacher as Vajrasattva and reciting his mantra (in the context of ngöndro, this is supposed to be done 100,000 times). In what is widely considered the most important commentary on the preliminary practices, Patrul Rinpoche's The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Altamira Press, 1998), one reads:

There is no harmful act that cannot be purified through confession. (...) However, purification only takes place when you confess sincerely in the right way, using the four powers as antidotes. (1998, p. 264)

The four powers are the essential elements in the practice of confession: the power of support "is provided by taking refuge in Vajrasattva and cultivating the intention and application aspects of bodhicitta" (1998, p. 265); the power of regretting having done wrong "comes from a feeling of remorse for all the negative actions you have done in the past" (ibid.); the power of resolution "means to remember the faults you have commited and to resolve never to commit them again" (1998, p. 266); and the power of action as an antidote "involves accomplishing as many positive actions as you can, as an antidote to your past negative actions" (ibid.).

For further reading on the subject, I recommend Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang's A Guide to The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Shambhala Publications, 2004), part 2, chapter 3.

  • Hmmm, I never labelled Vajrasattva practice as a confession - I would always call it a purification practice. I was brought up as a Christian and confession for me is saying aloud a list of bad deeds, a some sort of cruel reenactment of shameful moments in front of some authority. Mantra repetitions luckily don't have this feature which I found very comforting. – Rabbit Aug 6 '14 at 22:01
  • I agree with you that "purification" sounds better. The Padmakara translation of The Words of My Perfect Teacher uses "confession" interchangeably with "purification", and both translate the Tibetan sojong (Wyl. gso sbyong; Skt. poṣadha). The confessional aspect has to do mainly with the power of regret, as one reads in Words: "in his presence call to mind all the negative actions you can think of that you have accumulated until now... Feel that you are confessing them all in the teacher Vajrasattva's presence, your whole body breaking out in gooseflesh with shame, fear and remorse." – user611 Aug 6 '14 at 23:38

Confessing faults is very importand for oneself and in cases of relations and communities.

Putting any effort into a community where such is not used, or assossiate is not for ones benefit but for long time pain.

For more, feel given here: [Q&A] Confession in (Buddhism) tradition of the Noble Ones

[Note: This is a gift of Dhamma and not meant for commercial purpose or other low wordily gains by means of trade and exchange.]

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