no sin, no self

The idea that Buddhism doesn’t have a concept of “sin” has floated through various readings and dharma talks.  It’s also been thrown around dharma discussions by people who come to Buddhism because of the apparent lack of punitive measures.  It intrigues me because I wonder how we slide pass things like the precepts, karma and all that stuff that points to taking responsibility for our actions and making a commitment to not create suffering. True, many practitioners I know (and hold dear) will take a pick-and-choose approach to Buddhism – as they did with Christianity until the drop down menu ran out.  And I openly place myself in that camp all the while knowing deep down that the drop down menu really has only one option.

Like most things, I’ve accepted this pronouncement that there is no concept as “sin” in Buddhism without any real reflection.  It probably has more to do with a need for Buddhism to be different from Catholicism than any deep examination of Buddhist concepts.  Let’s admit it: I want a practice where my actions don’t stamp me with the ink traces of disregulated behaviour.  In other words, I don’t want there to be any evidence of my wrongdoing.  And blindly accepting that Buddhism has no concept such as “sin” allows me all kinds of angles to play when I’ve crossed the line.

Sin is a word that evokes some deep fear and reactions against old learning and experience.  So, I asked myself: what might happen if you let go of that fear?

The online dictionary gives this definition:


noun, verb, sinned, sin·ning.

transgression of divine law: the sin of Adam.
any act regarded as such a transgression, esp. a willful or deliberate violation of some religious or moral principle.
any reprehensible or regrettable action, behavior, lapse, etc.; great fault or offense: It’s a sin to waste time.

I don’t think we like having the edges of our nature defined so strongly but that begs the question.  Does Buddhism have a concept such as “sin”?  Based on the definition, I’d have to say it does.  There are precepts – five, ten, sixteen, three hundred, four hundred of them.  To transgress the precepts is to commit a regrettable action (I’m chickening out and going to the least fearful definition).  So what’s the big deal?  If I have a self, it’s going to transgress, i.e., it’s going to sin.  What arises is not anything other than what has stuck to the word “sin” culturally and religiously – all that hellfire and damnation.  In fact, a “sin” or “sinning” is the only way I can experience my humanity and cultivate self-compassion; it may be the door to seeing the self.  The more important issue is in how I meet that transgression or close that door to insight.

I need to get past the fear of being blamed with no recourse to protecting myself if I am to understand what it means to be upright.  Digging under the word and all its accretions, sin is really just another way of saying, “How was your commitment to practice here?”  And, I think, that is where Buddhism offers more to work with.  To extrapolate from Daido Loori’s book “Heart of Being,” the practice of Buddhism (and Zen) trains us in a different concept of control.  Not the punitive control of crime and punishment but a control that arises out of “championing improvement.”  No stain, no gain, no penance, no absolution.  Simply the insight that to champion improvement is to take up the Eightfold Path as the set of precepts they are.

Thank you for practising,


15 thoughts on “no sin, no self

  1. Thank you, this was very well written. While I was visiting Canada last summer, I found myself being similarly critical about people picking and choosing what ultimately just made them seem “right” or “blameless”. If I’d had just a little more insight, myself, I would have avoid a few unfortunate arguments…

    Although I appreciate the lack of hellfire as a threat in Buddhism, I appreciate that living unskillfully can certainly put me in the fire, even here and now, if I’m not careful. When certain things surface during meditation, the best way I can describe the physical reaction that accompanies them is burning.
    It means a lot me me that the Buddha’s teachings have given me a way to work through that now, not not to feel that I’m condemned to an eternity of smoldering.

    Thank you for a great post!

  2. S I just scrolled back up, and caught a glance of Buddha 93 in the corner of my eye, it looked like a hand holding a torch. Just thought I’d share that… ^^

  3. I was attracted to Buddhism because instead of Original Sin it has Original Purity;
    and instead of sinning, we make mistakes and because we make mistakes we are asked to look carefully at how we are, and how we act. Mistakes are not seperate from the Original Purity.

  4. People used to ask our Zen teacher about the precepts. What if you take them and can’t keep them? Her answer was something like, “they are guidelines to work with, not a set of rules.” Being human we will not always be able to keep them but it is (again) about our intention (and commitment as you point out).

    Another thing she would say that I think of when I read your post is, “we are always doing the best we can and we can do better.”

    Also reminds me of the beginning of our meal time verse which starts, “We must think deeply of the ways and means…”

    Thanks for making us think about this important issue.

  5. Erm, actually, Buddhism most certainly does have hell-fire!

    But, yes, it’s not eternal. If you’re lucky, you might get away with being burned and tortured there for just a few eaons, or perhaps just a kalpa or two! Just a few trillion billion years – untill your sins are all paid for!

    Here’s just one description of what happens there, taken from one of hundreds of such Buddhist texts:

    “two hot iron spikes are sent through his two palms, and two other hot spikes are sent through his two feet and the fifth hot iron spike is sent through his chest. On account of this he experiences sharp piercing unpleasant feelings. Yet he does not die, until his demerit finishes. Next the warders of hell conduct him and hammer him. On account of this he experiences sharp piercing unpleasant feelings. Yet he does not die, until his demerit finishes. Next the warders of hell take him upside down and cut him with a knife. On account of this too he experiences sharp piercing unpleasant feelings. Yet he does not die, until his demerit finishes. Next the warders of hell yoke him to a cart and make him go to and fro on a ground that is flaming and ablaze On account of this too he experiences sharp piercing unpleasant feelings. Yet he does not die, until his demerit finishes. Next the warders of hell make him ascend and descend a rock of burning ambers On account of this he experiences sharp piercing unpleasant feelings. Yet he does not die, until his demerit finishes. Next the warders of hell throw him upside down into a boiling, blazingpot of molten. There he is cooked in the molten scum, and he on his own accord dives in comes up and goes across in the molten pot.On account of this too he experiences sharp piercing unpleasant feelings. Yet he does not die, until his demerit finishes. Next the warders of hell throw him to the Great Hell. The square Great Hell has four gates and is divided in two, Enclosed by iron walls, is closed with an iron lid. The floor spreads for seven hundred miles, And it stands there everyday.”

    A touch gruesome! No wonder it’s ignored as fantasy by most western Buddhists!

    For myself, of course I believe in hell. Both as a real realm, and as – like Joseph wisely points out – a psychological state in this current life.

    (In fact, the idea that hell doesn’t really exist apart from as a mental state is also a position shared by an increasing number of Christians in regard to their own versions of hell).

    Interesting discussion. Thank you!


  6. In one sense, we’re all in the “pick and choose” boat, considering most of us have “picked” one tradition over another.

    I’d say that the term sin carries an aversion with it in most Buddhist circles for most of the reasons you stated here, but also because it’s seen as a sort of transgression against someone or something else. And I’d venture to say that (yup, gonna generalize) for most converts this goes against the grain of their initial expectations of Buddhism, in that it appears at first glance to be a religion that only focuses on searching within, rather that caring about what someone on the outside has to say about our thoughts and deeds. Whether or not that is true and to what extent is for another discussion perhaps, but I thought it worth adding.

  7. It’s true that Buddhism lacks notions of “divine law” or “divine order” that characterize the Christian notion of sin.

    But Buddhism does easily accommodate the second definition of sin, namely, “willful or deliberate violation of some religious or moral principle.”

    The short version of this moral principle might be stated as: MAY ALL BEINGS BE FREE OF SUFFERING.

    Given this principle, or something very much like it, the Buddha, clearly called out the consequences of violation – the fruits of karma.

    As he said, “Beings are the owners of their actions – the originate from their actions, are bound by their actions, have their actions as their refuge.”

    The Buddha also gave, in various places, detailed lists of actions that would result in rebirth in the “hell realms” – places of great misery. As Marcus pointed out, such rebirth doesn’t constitute eternal damnation, but I wouldn’t look forward to it (well, I guess I better get used to the idea, in truth).

    Such actions include the taking of life, the harming of someone’s body, anger and irritation, envy, resentfulness, stinginess, arrogance and other activities that are, in essence, self-centered.

    Maybe we could summarize the Buddha’s teachings on transgressions as:

    Self-centered behaviors = guaranteed damnation

  8. Genjo,

    Yes, thanks for this. I’m working on a review of Warner’s new book, Sex, Sin, and Zen and so have been reflecting on Sin again. Brad asserts that there’s no sin in Buddhism but as you clearly say, only if you stick to the first definition.



  9. I wrote the blog entry mentioned above (Buddhism & Hell; Meg Hitchcock Art Blog), and it outlines the various ‘Hot’ and ‘Cold’ Hells in excruciatingly painful detail. I was astonished at the attention given to the many Buddhist Hells! Ironically, it was taken from ‘The Joyful Path of Good Fortune’, written by the venerable (and enlightened) Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, founder of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) of Buddhism. He translated an 11th century Buddhist text, so I don’t know how much is his own input; presumably little. Either way, it comes from a Buddhist writer.

    A sneak preview of the listed Hells, for your enjoyment: Wailing Hell, Bursting Blister Hell, Pit of Fiery Ash Hell, (and my favorite) Swamp of Excrement Hell.

    To hell with Dante! I’m sticking with the Buddhists. This stuff reads like a Hollywood horror flick. It’s anyone’s guess what sins determine which Hell one ends up in.



  10. Seems that it might be helpful to add another definition of sin – “to miss the mark.” Any action that is self-centered, and coming from one or more of the three poisons, fits missing the mark in my view.

    Marcus said “(In fact, the idea that hell doesn’t really exist apart from as a mental state is also a position shared by an increasing number of Christians in regard to their own versions of hell).” I’d agree with this also, and think it would be really interesting to see some of the Christian commentary leaning in this direction.

  11. Thank you! Marcus, Dosho, Meg, Nathan: thank you for adding your voices. Dosho, I’m looking forward to your review!

    All your comments are so rich I’m not going to MOS (more of the same) with them. These are all important points and I’m so glad you’ve each polished a facet of the Three Jewels. To say there is no concept as sin in Buddhism is to get caught in concept. It always concerns me when we reframe critical aspects of dogma (that’s not a four-letter word) and more so when we do it too quickly. A tyranny of reframing only serves to deflect understanding and ironically flies in the face of practice which is to see “what is.”

    Deep bows for all your practice!

  12. Pingback: how to get out of hell « Wake Up and Laugh!

  13. Pingback: Hell Realms « Somewhere In Dhamma…

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