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Blog » Sweet Dews Of Dharma Talks » 2023 » Bowing and Reflection: Internal and External Aspects of Repentance

Bowing and Reflection: Internal and External Aspects of Repentance2023-03-12


A Dharma talk given by Reverend Heng Sure in the Online Sunday Evening Lecture Series on April 10, 2022

Today I want to talk about some of the inner and outer aspects of Repentance. Now we have begun the Ten Thousand Buddhas Repentance. The Ten Thousand Buddhas Repentance is CTTB’s signature Dharma-activity. We do it every year; we’ve done it for decades now and I know there are people who never miss a year.

But this year’s session is unique because two years ago we began somethingnew, which was bowing the Ten Thousand Buddhas Repentance online. Today I want to address some ideas on how do can we do that successfully.

The Avatamsaka Sutra is one of the teachings emphasized by our teacher, the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua. He explained the Avatamsaka Sutra for nine years

and we’ve been translating and re-translating his commentary for twice as long.

One of the great monks of the past whom Master Hua pointed us to, was Tang Dynasty monk, Master Cheng Guan, “National Master Clear and Cool.” Master

Cheng Guan was later known as the “Avatamsaka Bodhisattva.” He authored a commentary and sub-commentary to the Avatamsaka Sutra.

Master Cheng Guan’s commentary said, “People who truly want to understand the Avatamsaka Sutra need to learn its fortieth chapter, entitled, “Samantabhadra’s Practices and Vows.” Chapter forty contains the keys to understanding the cultivation of the entire Sutra. That understanding comes not through philosophy but through practicing Samantabhadra’s Ten Practices and Vows.

In the preceding chapter, Chapter thirty-nine, known as the Gandhavyuha, “Entering the Dharma Realm,” there is a dialogue between Sudhana, a pilgrim who

has made the Bodhi Resolve and who wants to become a Buddha, and fifty-three teachers, including Bodhisattva Manjushri, Bodhisattva Samantabhadra and others. Sudhana asks each of them how to cultivate the Bodhisattva path and how to practice Bodhisattva practices. He finally gets his answer at the very end of his pilgrimage when he meets Samantabhadra. Samantabhadra answers Sudhana’s question with ten specific practices.

Ten is a lot to remember, and so at one point Master Cheng Guan, says, “Ten practices are okay but if somebody asks, ‘Isn’t ten too many? How many can we

delete without losing the essence of this cultivation?’”

Master Cheng Guan says, “We can overlook eight practices without losing the essence of the lot. The two most essential practices are number four, repenting and number ten, transferring merit.”

Repenting is the Buddha’s way to clean out the things that cover our Buddha nature so that its light can shine. Transferring is a way to share that light with others. One way to remember them is to link these two with the Bodhi Resolve.

The Bodhi Resolve (菩提心 puti xin) is a thought in your mind; it’s a resolve to realize your full potential for wisdom. The second part of the resolve determines to realize wisdom by “taking living beings across.” The living beings one resolves to “take across” are called, “the living beings of my own inherent nature,” i.e., my own greed, anger, delusion, ignorance, attachments, and bad habits. By changing my own bad habits and faults I can realize my potential for great wisdom and Buddhahood. The Bodhi Resolve says, “My ultimate potential is Buddhahood and I will set out on the path to its realization right now, by working to clean up the ignorance that covers my mind.”

The two practices of repentance and transference perfectly match these goals. When we repent, we uncover the false thoughts and attachments that obscure our nature. When we dedicate merit, we create wholesome affinities with living beings. Those two: repentance and transference—correspond to the two parts of the Bodhi Resolve.

What does it mean to repent and to renew? Repentance can happen when somebody looks inside and recognizes he or she has made a mistake. That

awareness inspires the individual to apologize, to say, “I was wrong, please give me a chance to change. I made a mistake.”

Perhaps my error was a broken precept, and I recognize that I have lost something priceless; now I want to return to the Path of cultivation and repair my


Philosophers argue whether people can change. One theory suggests that human nature can’t change. Another theory claims that human nature is plastic,

infinitely trainable and that change is possible.

The Buddha in his compassionate connection with us living beings, saw the possibility of the gradual perfection of the mind and created multiple ways for us to

repent and to renew our resolve after moral errors.

Some of my clearest memories of Master Hua’s teaching style came from situations where I had made serious, real-world mistakes while working at Gold

Mountain Monastery. One time a large delegation had come from Asia to Gold Mountain and in my job as Guest Prefect, I had embarrassed everyone by speaking out of turn. My Chinese was clumsy and I managed to insult a dignified elder monk from Taiwan. Because of my careless comments I had created problems for Master Hua that he had to go out of his way to fix. Master Hua, in his unforgettable style, let me know that I had made a big mistake. Our teacher instructed his monastic disciples in cardinal colors: red was red, green was green, blue was blue; he didn’t do pastels. Right and wrong were very clear and we had no defense lawyer in between to adjust the story and make us come out looking less guilty. He said, “Why did you say those things? Who told you to say that?” And so on. Master Hua had a way of making you feel like you were roasting in a pressure cooker.

The next morning I was bowing to the Buddhas and feeling bad about the mistake. Master Hua walked in and sat on a bench at the back of the Buddha Hall,

underneath the large image of Guanyin Bodhisattva. He handed me a book that was open to a particular page. He said, “Read this!”

It was a short sutra text in Chinese called, The Buddha’s Teaching on the Ultimate Extinction of the Dharma(佛說法滅盡經.)I began to read it to him and as

I read, I began to sweat from my whole body, literally from head to toe. I was running with sweat while Shifu listened to me read the sutra. This was a completely unexpected experience, to kneel in front of my teacher in a pool of perspiration while reading a description of the horrible things that happen to the world when the Dharma decays and then disappears.

When I had finished and my robe was soaking wet, I felt as if I had expelled a blockage; I felt as if some darkness had been left behind. Master Hua said, “Alright, I won’t throw you out but you must change! You can’t be so thick-skinned and upside down from now on!”

He said, “Over there on the main altar I put a larger sutra for you to recite. Light a stick of incense, bow to that text and then recite it all the way through.”
On the altar was a copy of the Sutra on the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva, a text I had never seen before. “Read that,” Shifu said. “Read it once

every day for a week.”

I followed instructions and read the Earth Store Sutra for a week, while kneeling in front of the Buddha. I’d never touched this sutra before, but after reading it seven times I felt that something was fundamentally different inside my mind. I felt as if my obstacles were fewer and that my understanding of my self and the world had changed.

I watched Master Hua teach other disciples, each according to the conditions of their behavior, especially when they made mistakes. I noticed a consistent principle: as soon as the person who had made a mistake truly had a heart of repentance and wished to change, Master Hua would recognize it and he would shift the intensity of his teaching.

On the spot his tone would soften and he would say, “Everything’s okay, no problem. Just change, and try again.” There were a number of phrases he would

say, “People aren’t sages; who is truly free of error?” And, “There is no greater goodness than willingness to change after learning of one’s faults.”

Whenever I caused problems in the monastery by my thoughtless behavior or selfishness, he let me know about it. But as soon as I acknowledged my error and resolved to improve, he immediately gave me a chance to make a change.

As the saying goes, “Offenses big enough to fill up the sky can be wiped away, once you truly can bow in repentance.” For all of us here bowing the Ten Thousand Buddhas Repentance, if we truly are willing to repent, if we are able to bow to the Buddhas and then change, then offenses that seem too big will gradually disappear.

Over time, if we continue to move towards the Good, those offenses will disperse and scatter and we can realize the purity of our Buddha nature. Then by transferring to others all the light of virtue that results from the changes, we have embodied the essence of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra’s Ten Practices and Vows.

What is the process of actual change, according to the sutra? Here is the conversation between the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra and the pilgrim Sudana.

Samantabhadra says, “Again, Good Man, I will tell you about repenting and reforming karmic obstructions. A Bodhisattva reflects, ‘From time without beginning, through eons in the past, I have created measureless and boundless amounts of evil karma with my body, my mouth and my mind, because of greed, anger, and stupidity. If these evil deeds had physical form, all of empty space could not contain them.

Now as I come before gatherings of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in lands as many as fine particles of dust throughout the universe, with deepest sincerity, and with all deeds of body, mouth, and mind made pure, I confess and repent of them all. I pledge myself never to commit such acts again. From now on I will always observe the merit and virtue of pure precepts in all my behavior.

When the realm of space ends, the realm of beings ends, the karma of beings ends, and the afflictions of beings ends, then my repentance will finish. But since the realm of space even to the afflictions of living beings are endless, endless, too, are my repentance and reform. They continue in thought after thought without cease. My body, mouth, and mind never weary of these deeds.’”

This is the fourth vow out of Samantabhadra’s famous list of ten. Master Cheng Guan said that this is one of the two vows that you can’t do without.

The first thing the Bodhisattva says is, “From time without beginning, through eons in the past….”

Think about this. His view of our personal history is so long! We’ve been alive in different bodies for such a long time and every body that we have inhabits has done things and collected karma. From time without beginning, throughout eons in the past, with all the bodies that I’ve lived in, I’ve had different names, hometowns, breakfast beverages, clothing, partners, and families. In all those bodies I have created good and evil karma and skillful and harmful deeds. With my body I killed animals for food; with my mouth I’ve made promises and then broken them; with my mind I’ve held evil thoughts. My greed, anger, and stupidity have pushed me to do things that break my heart now as I think about them. How could I have been so short-sighted?

The sutra says, “If these deeds had physical form…”

Suppose the things that I have done over the years in all those different bodies could suddenly pop into reality, and then suddenly, the whole world and I could
watch these things I’ve done, how awful it would be to witness it all.

“...all of empty space could not contain them.”

One person’s deeds from all those bodies will fill up space and there wouldn’t be enough room to hold them all. That’s how many harmful deeds I have done to others with my own greed, anger, and delusion. Can you visualize this?

“Now as I come before gatherings of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in lands as many as fine particles of dust throughout the universe, with deepest sincerity, and with all deeds of body, mouth, and mind made pure, I confess and repent of them all….”

Before all the ten direction Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in the universe, having made my resolve, I sincerely want to change and focus on my own behavior; I won’t blame others or complain about anybody else, or look outside to find fault.

“I pledge myself never to commit such acts again. From now on I will always observe the merit and virtue of pure precepts in all my behavior.”

I resolve to hold the precepts from now on because the people who I admire base their cultivation on the precepts. The person that I want to become is a noble and good human. That’s what Bodhisattvas do and I want to be like them in the future. So I’m going to hold my precepts, keep my mind pure and repent of those offenses, and not do those things again. From now on I’m going to live according to my highest wishes and aspirations. I’m going to guide my life by my Bodhi-resolve. That means I know I can improve; that I am going to face my own bad habits and faults and change them. Then I will share all the goodness that results through transference of merit.

The last part of Samantabhadra’s vow states that he will do this until “the realm of empty space and the realm of beings end.” That is to say I’m going to start doing this and keep it up. I’m going to continue my repentance practice and keep it moving. When does space end? Space never ends. When do living beings end? They simply don’t. When does karma end? It doesn’t. When do afflictions end? Never.

Despite this impossibility, the Bodhisattva challenges the durability of his resolve by saying, “When those things end, that’s when my repentance will finish.” However, since space, sentient beings, beings’ karma and their afflictions are created fresh in each new second, so my repentance will also continue without cease. My body, mouth and mind will never get tired of this because repentance and renewal is how one becomes a Buddha: clean up, reform, renew, and change. Then give away the results, because the self is an illusion and why would an illusory self hang on to things?

The sutra gives us a guideline for how a Bodhisattva repents. This is the standard, the benchmark for how you do it. You can make it simple and
approachable; it doesn’t have to be complex. What repentance must be, though, is sincere and genuine; when it is sincere, then the ice begins to break up and the river of compassion runs once more.

When I was a boy in my hometown of Toledo, Ohio, we had a local park just three blocks from my house. It was called Ottawa Park. It had a nice woodland park with a public golf course, a skating pond and a creek running through it. The creek was called Ten Mile Creek and every winter Ten Mile Creek would freeze solid. It was probably three to five feet deep, but it had enough water that would freeze in the winter and you could ice skate on it. Northern Ohio is cold in winter. But then spring would arrive and for a few days during the transition from winter to spring the ice on Ten Mile Creek would start to break up. As it melted, it made loud noises, it would groan and pop and then explode: bong!

These unique noises were the sound of thick ice melting and Nature announcing that spring was on the way. In a week or so, the water would flow and the fish, the frogs and the birds of Ten Mile Creek would all return, and green buds would appear on the tree branches.

Sometimes it can seem as if humanity’s potential for wisdom and compassion are frozen over just like ice in the winter, and that nobody can recall the running water beneath. But during hard times it’s helpful to recall that strong ice that can support people skating on top is that very same creek water that returns to flow when spring comes. The spring energy of renewal is the Dharma of Repentance—that’s how it works. So don’t fear that our mind is too polluted, too cynical, or too mean to ever change. In such times, if we use the Dharma methods that are stronger than affliction, our minds can refresh and renew and we can remember the river of compassion beneath.

During the pandemic, we have been through years of government-enforced lockdowns. Through months at home with our families, kids out of school, adults

working online or idle, on enforced furloughs, many people have turned cynical and bitter. It has been hard to learn that the whole world is suffering and that everyone feels frustrated. Even harder has been the unimaginable loss of millions of family members, many of them our elders, taken so abruptly and without dignity. Many of us, world-wide, have experienced that grief and had no means to deal with the affliction.

But if we examine this situation through the lens of the Buddha’s Dharma-wisdom, if we use the methods that the Buddha gave us, we can turn that icy water

of cynicism, anger and sadness into “kindness for even those with whom we have no affinities.” Everybody has suffered the same during the Covid pandemic. No humans on earth are immune to airborne diseases. Right before us is a chance to experience “same body, great compassion.”

That’s exactly where changes can happen: right in our minds. That’s where the Buddhadharma works. We can realize that we are not alone in our discomfort and misery and together, we can support each other as we work to transform that suffering. We can share through “dedication of merits,” the well-being that comes from enduring the struggle together and sharing the kindness and generosity that we find in our hearts. Transferring merit melts the ice and nurtures our heart of compassion.

So, don’t fear how much cynicism and nastiness arise in our minds, only fear that we won’t want to change. As long as we are willing to renew and then use the Dharma, the Buddha’s methods, then the winter ice of fear and anger and sadness can transform into kindness and compassion, just the the water of Ten Mile Creek heralds the new spring.

Here’s a useful suggestion for people bowing at home. As we bow to the Ten Thousand Buddhas Repentance together as a group, the cantor’s singing during the repentance goes pretty quickly. It’s often so fast that there’s not enough time to do any contemplation. But if we are bowing by ourselves at home, I’m going to suggest a good practice you can use to enrich the experience of bowing. Try keeping the verse from “Samantabhadra’s Practices and Vows” running through your mind as you bow. The verse goes:

“For all the harmful things I’ve done,
With my body, speech and mind,
From beginningless greed, anger and stupidity,
Through lifetimes without number to this very day,

I now repent and I vow to change entirely.”

If we can keep contemplating that verse as we bow, it works like a power-wash, to clean our karma. Don’t forget to transfer the merit at the end.

Finally, I would like to encourage everybody to continue with our Ten Thousand Buddhas Repentance; put it on your annual calendar of cultivation. What a gift to the nation and to the world! ]