To avoid all evil,
To do all good,
And to purify the mind –
These are the teachings of all Buddhas.
– The Buddha (Dhammapada)
How readily you say ‘Sorry’
reflects how well you recognise evil.
Because you can see your inner ‘badness’,
you can see ‘badness’ expressed by you too.
How readily you say ‘Thanks’
reflects how well you recognise goodness.
Because you can see your inner goodness,
you can see goodness expressed by others too.
Though ‘Sorry’ is the opposite of ‘Thanks’,
‘Thanks’ arises from both humility and gratitude,
while ‘Sorry’ arises from humility –
both of which are essential for spirituality.
To apologise is to be ashamed of one’s ‘badness’.
It is the resolution to further avoid evil too.
To thank is to be grateful for others’ goodness.
It is the resolution to further perpetuate good too.
Thinking you are sorry is not enough.
Saying you are sorry might not be enough.
Showing you are sorry would be enough.
The Virtues of Being Humble and Sorry Enough
The compassionate feel “sorry” –
even for the unwise who do not feel sorry.
Ironically, one of the ways to gauge the spiritual greatness of an unenlightened person is not by how often one appears to be great, but by how readily one appears “not so great” – through frank admittance of their imperfections. In other words, the truly great are those who are truly humble. Those who assume themselves to be great are indeed “great” – in arrogance though. We should note that deciding whether someone is humble by appearance is unfair – because one can appear humble, while nursing great arrogance that one appears humble! One can never know how humble one truly is, until we undergo experiences that truly require the actual practice of humility. Such an opportunity would include having made a mistake, thereupon “needing” to offer an open personal apology – despite the fact that one could get away without giving one. If you are to observe carefully, you might be shocked by the number of people around you, who only appear courteously humble, who seldom readily apologise for their mistakes, who simply walk away from their mistakes with no expression of remorse.
What is wrong with not being humble? Much indeed. To be humble is to be the opposite of being egoistic. Egocentrism is the antithesis of the realisation and actualisation of the truth of non-self. It is the clinging to one’s unsubstantial and thus illusory “ego”. To practise humility is to “battle” against one’s “ego” – by letting it go. As long as one is not fully enlightened, there is the need to be humble, so as to learn – simply because we are truly not great enough and should not be proud. What’s more, if even the enlightened continually conduct themselves in a humble manner, much more should we. But what about personal dignity? Well, there’s no need to be proud to gain respect. And we can still stand up for the truth firmly without being haughty. It is hypocritical to be “over-humble” though, which becomes patronising. Those who over-apologise might be non-genuine. The direct opposite of being egoistic, it is the other extreme away from the Middle Path of humility. Yes, it is not extreme to be humble – because to be so is to function in sync with the truth that there is no “ego” to be proud about.
The truly humble are also highly sensitive in a good way – even for the most minor of mistakes to the tiniest of sentient beings. Even if one were to accidentally frighten an insect, one would naturally feel apologetic. Every misgiving is paid attention to. This is the quality of highly attuned compassion at play. Feeling apologetic, one would be determined to be more mindful of the welfare of others and their feelings, and to never repeat mistakes. Having mentioned much on the value of humility, it is hard to imagine the possibility of anyone being able to advance spiritually in compassion and wisdom, while being proud. Here is my challenge to you, to help you advance spiritually too… Make a list of people you know, whom you still owe an apology. Set resolutions and deadlines to sincerely apologise to every one of them. Dissolve any discovered grudges, and never assume there are no grudges. This is kindness to others and oneself, because it resolves the negative karmic affinities between. Remember – it’s never too late to humbly say sorry. To not realise this, is indeed something sorry.
When “Sorry” Seems to be the Hardest Word
As much as the one who harmed another needs to apologise,
the one who is harmed should not need an apology.
Standing in a bus on the way home, it was packed with school kids. When the bus jerked to stop, the boy in front took a step back, accidentally stomping on my foot. He half-turned his head to steal a glance at my reaction, in a somewhat guilty way. About to turn back his head, pretending nothing had happened, I said “Ouch!” – in a deliberate but hushed tone. He quickly uttered “Sorry.” I thanked him with a little appreciative nod.
I was pleasantly surprised by my response and his. From my side, there was no spite, and some humour instead. It wasn’t that painful actually! A few years ago I might have tapped his shoulder impatiently to demand an apology. It felt only right to let him be aware that even the smallest of his actions matter, be it accidentally or intentionally causing physical or mental distress to others. It’s also “good for his karma”, in urging him to “make up” whatever he can before dismissing the incident as insignificant. A lesson out of the classroom for the kid! Do we not tend to trivialise others’ pain while we exaggerate ours? Of course I can’t really blame him – since it’s an “accident”. It’s my fault too for not being mindful enough to move out of his way. Just my personal karma rebounding back – to be received with acceptance, not anger. Likewise, all our unhappiness in life is not really caused by any person, but ourselves. Much of our unhappiness comes from not accepting we cause our unhappiness, while we further cause it with our negative attitude!
Too often do we hesitate to say “Sorry” and “Thanks”. Due to our thick pride, “Sorry” seems to be the harder word. It is only after you have tried your best to seek forgiveness from the one you are sorry to, can you truly forgive yourself. Otherwise, you are just letting yourself off the hook too easily! The greatness of one sometimes can be hinted by the littlest of things which he apologises for, in his unwilling inconveniencing of others – even to a child. Because this shows his great sensitivity and concern to the smallest of others’ feelings. How apologetic are you for your misgivings lately? Repentance can often be easily practised in everyday life. Simply apologise instantly to one whose toes you just stepped on! This sure beats confessing your carelessness before your shrine at the end of the day! So what if the other party does not accept your sincere apology? It just means he chose to let your mistake torment him more. That is his own mistake now! May he be well and happy!
The Significance of Buddhist Repentance
For all the evil deeds I have done in the past,
Created by my body, speech and mind,
From beginningless greed, hatred and delusion,
I now know shame and repent them all.
– Paraphrased Repentance Verse
(The Practices & Vows of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, Avatamsaka Sutra Chapter 40)
The above is perhaps the simplest but most widely practised verse of repentance. The practice of Buddhist repentance is not so much the asking for divine forgiveness. It is the clear recognition of our unskilful actions done intentionally or unmindfully through our body, speech and mind, which are the results of our lack of compassion and wisdom, originating from our attachment, aversion and delusion. After recognising our misgivings, we make resolutions to be as mindful as we can, so as to never repeat them under any circumstances. In this sense, repentance is about forgiving oneself through expressing regret and turning over a new leaf, absolving oneself of unhealthy guilt while renewing determination to further avoid evil, do good and purify the mind with greater diligence.
Traditionally, the practice of repentance is done through chanting relevant sutra verses and bowing before a Buddha image, which represents the presence of the Buddha bearing witness to our sincerity. However, if one has done wrong to someone who is contactable, one should apologise to him or her personally, or the practice of repentance before the Buddha would be rendered a hollow practice lacking in sincerity. Even if the other party is unlikely to forgive us, we should do our part in seeking forgiveness – this is also the practice of humility. Actual remedial action of making up for any physical or psychological damage caused to others is also important – or repentance would literally be merely saying “sorry”.
Repentance should ideally be practised at the end of each day, as we try to recall best we can, any misgivings we have done in the day. For repentance to be more effective, misdeeds should be recalled as specifically as possible, instead of vaguely generalising. Doing this practice daily reduces our repetitive mistakes as it increases our mindfulness the next day. Repentance should also be practised immediately in the moment, without procrastination, when we realise we have just made a mistake. If one’s pride is too strong, one should still make a point to repent later, as soon as possible.
The stronger our sincerity is, the more powerful our repentance becomes. While repentance does not erases our negative karma, it can dissolve its future effects, much like the addition of abundant pure water onto salt, which dissolves the otherwise unbearable saltiness we have to taste. Interestingly, repentance practised well can become meritorious, as it prevents the creation of fresh negative karma which can lead to future suffering, while offering peace of mind to better learn, practise and share the Dharma, thus clearing much of the path to the attainment of Enlightenment.