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The Spiritual Significance of Confession

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 125: The Spiritual Significance of Confession - Page 1 _____________________________________________________________________________________________________ Lecture 125: The Spiritual Significance of Confession

Mr Chairman and Friends.

In the course of the last week, my thoughts were going back to India, to the land in which I spent so very many enjoyable and useful and inspiring years, altogether some twenty years. And I recollected that at this time of year in India it's just about the end of the rainy season. In India, you probably know, there is a rainy season, there's a monsoon, which means that for three or four months you get solidly continuous heavy rain.

The rain just comes down and down and down, and you can't see anything - it's just one mass, as it were, of falling grey rain - sometimes quite warm. It's rather like having a shower bath if you are out in it, not cold, not icy, as it sometimes is in this country. But the rainy season does have its disadvantages. You can't go out and about, and you can't do very much, at least not if you live in the villages, not if you live in the countryside.

Underfoot there is only mud, if there isn't actually water, and in any case the rain is falling down very heavily indeed and you get soaked in a matter of minutes. But towards the end of this period, towards the end of the three or four months, the rains gradually stop, and all at once, or so it seems, the sun comes out shining in full splendour. The clouds disappear. And then all day long one can see just clear blue sky, bluer, more brilliant, more intense, than one ever sees in this country, except perhaps occasionally on the rarest of late summer days.

So once more people can get out, can get about, and can do things.

So for thousands upon thousands of years, the rainy season in India, and the end of the rainy season, has affected the whole pattern of life in that country, or rather in that subcontinent, has affected of course, obviously, the whole pattern of agricultural life, but also the whole pattern of spiritual life in India as well, at least so far as the outward forms of that spiritual life are concerned. In the Buddha's day, and for some centuries afterwards, his full-time followers, that is to say the bhikkhus, those who had left the household life, those who had given up their ordinary occupation, those who wandered from place to place and lived upon alms, they all used to stay in one place during the rainy season. They might stay in a cave, they might stay in a wayside shrine, a shrine dedicated to some local gods, or they might even stay in a shed in somebody's garden or in somebody's park. They might even, so we are told, in some cases spend the rainy season in a hollow tree. But later simple buildings were put up for the use of the bhikkhus, for the use of the full-time followers of the Buddha, by the lay supporters who continued to live at home. And these simple buildings, these simple shelters, these retreats for the rainy season, these became eventually what we usually refer to as monasteries.

And during the rainy season, during the rainy season retreat, as it came to be called, the monks, the bhikkhus, the full-timers, they spent their time in various ways. Some of them remained immersed much of the time in meditation. Some of them again repeated to one another what they knew of the Dharma, the Buddha's teaching, what they remembered of the Dharma, because one mustn't forget that in those days the Dharma, Buddhism, was an entirely oral tradition. And some of the monks again attended to more as it were homely tasks, if one can use the word `homely' in connection with monks. They mended their robes, they patched their robes, they washed their robes, and they dyed them afresh. This is what they used to do during the rainy season. And then, at the end of the rainy season, at the end of those three or four months of virtual retreat, of staying in one place in this way, at the end of that period, they'd set off, they'd set out on their wanderings again. Some of them might go singly, alone, others might go in twos and in threes, and sometimes they even went in small bands, walking, wandering from place to place, village to village, even city to city.

The Buddha himself, we are told, usually was accompanied by one other monk, one other bhikkhu, especially towards the end of his life. The records, the traditions, tell us that the Buddha tried, as it were, quite a few monks or bhikkhus as companions, but he found them one and all unsatisfactory, or at least not quite satisfactory. It wasn't very easy to live up to the Buddha's standards. But eventually the Buddha had the good fortune to find Ananda, the famous, the well-known, the much-loved Ananda, and Ananda proved to be the perfect companion for the Buddha in every way. And he remained with the Buddha as his constant companion for some twenty years - until, that is to say, the Parinirvana, the final passing away of the Buddha himself.

Now having set out on their wanderings, the monks, the bhikkhus, and the Buddha wandered from place to place all over northern India, especially northeastern India. For the remainder of the year they were on the Lecture 125: The Spiritual Significance of Confession - Page 2 _____________________________________________________________________________________________________ move, and, of course, on foot. They wandered for the remainder of the year right round until the beginning of the next rainy season. So during that period, if one was wandering, or while one was wandering, one might not usually or very often see very much of the other monks, the other bhikkhus, who also were wandering.

After all even northern India, even northeastern India, is a very big place. Even the area in which the Buddha is known normally to have wandered is equivalent to the extent of Great Britain itself. And the Buddha and his bhikkhus, his monks, his full-timers, wandered over that quite big area on foot. If one was wandering alone, singly, one might go for many days without seeing any other monk.

But twice a month, wherever they might be, wherever they might find themselves in the course of the wanderings, all the monks in a given area would gather together, would meet together, and they'd meet together in the first place on the full moon day or rather the night of the full moon day, and also on the night of the new moon day. And they'd meet together whenever they possibly could in large numbers. There might even be a thousand or more of them, especially if the Buddha himself was present in that particular area, present at that particular meeting, that particular assembly. And what would they do when they met together on the night of the full moon, on the night of the new moon? According to the traditions, especially to the records which now make up the Pali Canon, they would meditate together. You might have a hundred or you might have a thousand or twelve hundred and fifty monks, bhikkhus, around the Buddha, and all meditating together - and usually out in the open air, in a forest clearing, in the light of the full moon, all meditating together. And then they would not only meditate together in this way. They would chant what are called Dharma verses together, they would chant together, they would rehearse together verses in which the Buddha's teaching, the Buddha's Dharma, had been summarised either by the Buddha himself or by one or another of his disciples who happened to be poetically gifted.

So this is what happened during the Buddha's lifetime as far as we can reconstruct events. This is what happened on the night of the full moon, the night of the new moon, that the monks, the wandering monks, would come together, gather together, would meditate together, and would chant the Dharma verses to refresh as it were their recollection of the teaching, to give them as it were something on which to reflect, something on which to meditate. But after the Buddha's Parinirvana, after the Buddha's final passing away from the world, it seems a change took place. For a while the monks continued to wander, they continued to meet twice a month on the full moon night, on the new moon night, but it seems for some reason or other they no longer meditated together, they no longer chanted the Dharma verses. Instead they did something else - and what was that? They confessed any offences which they might have committed since the last meeting, that is to say, offences against the monastic code, which by this time had come into existence in a comparatively fully fledged form. And these offences which they confessed were then dealt with by the assembled Order, or rather by the assembled chapter of the Order.

Later still another change took place. The monks, the bhikkhus, no longer confessed offences during the actual meeting, during the actual full moon night meeting or new moon night meeting; they confessed beforehand.

And how did they do this? They confessed in twos, they got together before the actual main meeting in pairs, and one would confess to the other. The custom was, the practice was, that whoever was senior, that is to say senior in monastic terms, who'd been a bhikkhu, a full-time follower of the Buddha, for a longer time, he would confess first to his junior, and then the junior would confess to the senior. So confessions were made in this way, by pairs of monks sitting together before the actual meeting. So in the actual meeting itself, the monastic code was simply recited by the monk, by the bhikkhu, appointed for the purpose. Since they'd already confessed in private, they remained silent.

So this kind of confessional meeting is still the practice, still the rule, in many parts of the Buddhist world today, especially ...

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