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.
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,