Repentance Practices in Western Buddhist Contexts

Repentance Practices in Western Buddhist Contexts

Postby Queequeg » Sat Aug 25, 2012 4:12 pm

Hello All,

An interesting subject was brought up in another thread comparing the importance of repentance practices in East Asian Buddhism and their relative absence in the West. I thought the subject is deserved its own thread.

Like others, I have observed this difference. I've thought that its because the teachings around repentance tend to be a downer - "Oh, my suffering is my fault?", which contrasts with the perceived benefits of Buddhism - "Oh, Supreme Enlightenment? Sign me up!" I have also wondered how much has to do with many people who come to Buddhism are "refugees" from Judeo-Christian background who want the religious life but can't subscribe to the traditions they were raised with (Buddhism being new and therefore a relatively blank slate can accommodate all kinds of projections, especially in the sense of not having features that caused one to abandon religious traditions one was born into - is that an opinionated view or what?).

I'd be interested to hear people's views on what the differences between East Asian and Western Buddhism are as it concerns repentance (rituals but also teachings, including relative emphasis) and reasons why repentance aspects of Buddhist practice have not caught on in the West.

Thanks!
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Re: Repentance Practices in Western Buddhist Contexts

Postby Indrajala » Sat Aug 25, 2012 4:20 pm

Queequeg wrote:I'd be interested to hear people's views on what the differences between East Asian and Western Buddhism are as it concerns repentance (rituals but also teachings, including relative emphasis) and reasons why repentance aspects of Buddhist practice have not caught on in the West.

Thanks!


In one sense it might be because of how we translate it ... "repentance" or "confession".

"Karmic purification" sounds a bit more exotic and less Catholic.

Repentance in the East Asian context is chiefly concerned with eliminating karmic obstacles. They hinder practice and set one on the path towards unfavourable states of existence (i.e., the lower realms), which is why there has always been a concern with how to eliminate them.

Much of the practices rely on the assistance of the buddhas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions. The idea is that the practitioner relies on the force of the bodhisattvas' vows to purify their own karmic hindrances.

So, in that sense, to do the repentance practices as they are generally done in East Asian traditions requires that you have some conviction in karma and rebirth, and believe that buddhas and bodhisattvas can and will assist you in subtle ways.

In the western world a lot of self-identifying Buddhists have issues with rebirth and karma, and are maybe afraid their atheist friends will laugh at them and joke about "imaginary friends" if they announce a conviction in the existence of non-manifest beings like bodhisattvas.

So, not having much conviction in karma or rebirth, and thinking of buddhas and bodhisattvas as mere mental constructs without any real existence outside of symbolism, why would there be any pressing need for repentance?

In popular Zen especially I find this to be the case.
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Re: Repentance Practices in Western Buddhist Contexts

Postby Jikan » Sat Aug 25, 2012 8:38 pm

"I repent of my six sense organs..."

We do it all the time in Tendai-shu.
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Re: Repentance Practices in Western Buddhist Contexts

Postby rory » Sun Aug 26, 2012 8:30 am

My sensei encourages us to do repentance in my Nichiren sect. At the altar I repent my words, actions, thoughts that depart from the Buddha's teachings. I then resolve to listen to them and to act in a right fashion; with faith and conviction that the Buddha and deities are helping me. In this way I'll purify my karma in this lifetime and leave rebirth.

As Huseng says; Western Buddhists who are nihilists, having no belief in the Buddha, karma, deities etc usually don't practice repentance, because they assume their acts are confined to this life. I really worry about the karmic consequence of my actions and it certainly gives a strong moral direction.
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Re: Repentance Practices in Western Buddhist Contexts

Postby Queequeg » Sun Aug 26, 2012 5:09 pm

Hello Huseng, Jikan, Rory,

I'm not so sure that repentance in Mahayana necessarily involves invocation of enlightening beings to intercede in the purification of karma. Some procedures certainly do approach the matter that way, but I'm not convinced that it has to be that way. In fact, the repentance rituals I am aware of do not rely on enlightening beings to purify karma but instead place the crux on the practitioner themselves. Enlightening beings are invoked, but not to intercede. Rather, they are invoked to bear witness to one's vow to discontinue detrimental conduct. They are not asked for help, but rather they are the beings to whom vows of correct conduct are made. The way I understand it, this Mahayana approach is an extension of the Hinayana approach set forth in the Vinaya - There, repentance rituals are oriented within the structure of the sangha - one confesses sins and repents before the sangha, the sangha pronounces procedures to expiate the karma, and the sangha ensures that the rituals for expiation are performed. The Buddhas of the Ten Directions, Bodhisattvas, etc. who are invoked in the Mahayana in some Mahayana rituals fill the function of the Sangha. (This makes sense to me given that in Mahayana, as bodhisattvas, our peers are other bodhisattvas, ordinary (fellow Mahayana practitioners) and great (like Manjusri, Maitreya, Avalokitesvara, Ksitigarbha, etc.) alike.

Because there are other alternatives, I don't think people's denial of "cosmic" Buddhas and bodhisattvas undermines any possible repentance practice. I think it can be adapted to the scope of people's views. If they don't believe in super Bodhisattvas, no matter - they can still undertake repentance rituals.

I found this passage in Zhiyi's "The Essentials of Buddhist Meditation", Tr. Bhiksu Dharmamitra, p. 41-3
Now, as for one seeking to repent, he must fulfill ten dharmas which assist the success of repentance:
First, develop a clear understanding and belief in cause and effectl
Second, give rise to profound fearlessness [of retribution];
Third, bring forth a deep sense of shame and dread of blame;
Fourth, seek out a method to extinguish offenses. This refers to the methods of practice explained in the Great Vehicle sutras. One should cultivate them in accord with the Dharma;
Fifth, reveal and confess prior offenses;
Sixth, cut off the thought of continuing [the offenses];
Seventh, resolve to protect the Dharma;
Eighth, make a great vow to liberate beings;
Ninth, be ever mindful of all Buddhas of the ten directions;
Tenth, contemplate the nature of offenses as being unproduced.


Zhiyi is as Mahayana as they come.

I don't see reliance on superbeings as being critical in Zhiyi's views. Rather, the emphasis seems to be on the practitioner's resolve. I also looked through his repentance ritual based on the Lotus Sutra, and his views on repentance (translations of both works can be found in Sources of the Chinese Tradition, Vol. 1, published by Columbia U. Press, for those interested). Just because a person does not believe in a cosmic bodhisattva does not mean that they don't believe in cause and effect, that they don't believe in their own part in their lot, that they don't believe they can undertake actions, or rather non-actions, to purify their mind. Moreover, I don't think a person who doesn't believe in rebirth is precluded from Buddhist practice.

The point I'm trying to get at is that repentance practices which are designed to habituate concern with cause and effect and making beneficial causes for beneficial effects, can be constructed for those who don't buy into Mahayana cosmology (mythology?). Maybe, if people are not capable of accepting everything, the teachings should be adapted to what they can accept. Dharma according to the mind of the listener.

So, the question is, why do Westerners avoid the repentance rituals? I think they could be adapted to whatever scope of belief they undertake, so the question for me is back to, why not? Maybe its because they've been presented in a rigid manner that presupposes acceptance of ideas that are just beyond their willingness to accept? Maybe their ability to reason ought to be respected and we might allow that they have good reason to look skeptically on the notion of super beings? Should repentance rituals be adapted to adjust to the capacities of Westerners? Would such adapted rituals be adequate, or does making them dependent on acceptance on the full scope of Mahayana cosmology preclude un-believers from their benefit?

I apologize that this post is a little unorganized. And I apologize for making some points that could be taken the wrong way. I don't mean them in any negative way - My concern is, "How do we bring all beings into the Buddhadharma and quickly enable them to attain the body of a buddha?" The thing is, I just don't see Mahayana mythology as the critical matter in Mahayana Buddhism, so then why should practice be dependent on it? There has to be a workaround.
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Re: Repentance Practices in Western Buddhist Contexts

Postby Jikan » Sun Aug 26, 2012 10:23 pm

Excellent post, Queequeg. I agree on all points but one: I'm not convinced that Western Buddhists avoid repentence practice as such. I think the therapeutic or "mindfulness" set does its own thing, in which you won't find much beyond seated meditation and psychotherapy. But people who practice Buddhism as a traditional spiritual path will do repentance practices as par for the course. This is just from my own observation, so I don't have anything empirical behind this claim.

I'd like to know if there are any mainstream Buddhist organizations or prominent teachers that do not advocate some kind of repentance practice, bracketing out the meditation-only set.
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Re: Repentance Practices in Western Buddhist Contexts

Postby rory » Mon Aug 27, 2012 8:06 am

Well first what is the good argument why the basics of Buddhism: karma, rebirth, bodhisattvas should be unilaterly rejected & disposed of? Western Buddhism certainly isn't a religion; I daresay it's a mere therapeutic tool. It's arrogant people who feel they're above faith and have no humility.
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Re: Repentance Practices in Western Buddhist Contexts

Postby JKhedrup » Mon Aug 27, 2012 8:20 am

I have to say that if people are introduced to Repentance Services properly they seem to enjoy them. When I bowed the Ten Thousand Buddhas repentance at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas there were a few Westerners in attendance, one who attended several years running. I think if the purpose of the ceremony is explained and a translation of the ritual available people might be interested. After all, many Western Tibetan Buddhist do Vajrasattva and prostration purification retreats.

I think the issue might be that the cultural elements seem alien and are not explained. But this is easily remedied by providing, for example, a day to introduce the practice and its importance, and also the kind of points to keep in mind during the ritual.
In order to ensure my mind never comes under the power of the self-cherishing attitude,
I must obtain control over my own mind.
Therefore, amongst all empowerments, the empowerment that gives me control over my mind is the best,
and I have received the most profound empowerment with this teaching.
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Re: Repentance Practices in Western Buddhist Contexts

Postby Queequeg » Mon Aug 27, 2012 5:13 pm

Hello All,

Thanks you for sharing your views on the subject.

Jikan wrote:I'm not convinced that Western Buddhists avoid repentence practice as such. I think the therapeutic or "mindfulness" set does its own thing, in which you won't find much beyond seated meditation and psychotherapy. But people who practice Buddhism as a traditional spiritual path will do repentance practices as par for the course. This is just from my own observation, so I don't have anything empirical behind this claim.

I'd like to know if there are any mainstream Buddhist organizations or prominent teachers that do not advocate some kind of repentance practice, bracketing out the meditation-only set.


You're right, it is too strong to say that Westerners avoid repentance rituals. I have to take that back. Clearly, there are many who do undertake them. I agree with JKhedrup's observation that if the practice is explained properly, it has a better chance of resonating and being undertaken.

Still, and my observations lack any empirical foundation either, it does not seem that repentance gets much emphasis in Western contexts as when I compare practice I have observed in some contexts in Japan (dedication of Jizo statues at some temples, for instance, in connection with abortion is really interesting - so much going on there to unpack touching on so many notions related to repentance in East Asian Buddhism). When it is there in the West, it is treated in a cursory manner. It seems to me, however, to really get into practice, one must go there in depth. Whether you believe your karma is because of causes in past lives or because you were born into circumstances that have left deep and detrimental mental habits that prevent you from perceiving reality as-it-is, examination of one's actions is critical.

I don't think its fair to demand that a literal belief in Mahayana mythology is a prerequisite to enjoying Mahayana practice. I strongly disagree with Rory and his views on faith in Buddhism. Correspondingly, I believe there are ways to present the teaching in a graded manner that does not demand absolute submission to certain views before undertaking beneficial practices.

For me, it still comes back to a question of whether repentance practices can be adapted to those who do not accept Mahayana mythology as literally real?

I don't want to bring up Zhiyi too much as this is a general East Asian forum and Zhiyi is not universally accepted as an authority (although, he is arguably such a giant in East Asian Buddhism that one will almost certainly be defined in some way as either agreeing or disagreeing with him). Nonetheless, I thought his comments about repentance in "Elucidation of the Sequential Approach of the Perfection of Dhyana" might be interesting. In that work he identifies three methods of repentance - 1. repentance involving a fixed regimen of action; 2. Repentance involving the discernment of signs; and 3. Repentance involving the contemplation of [the ultimate truth of] non-arising. The third method would seem to be most useful for a person who does not accept Mahayana mythology. A brief description:

The first involves countering the effects of bad karma with good deeds. In this, Zhiyi includes the Vinaya repentance rituals. "When on confesses [violations] of the second [of the seven] categories [of infraction], an assembly of twenty monks prescribes the particular karma [or "regimen of action"] for removing the sin, such as dwelling apart and submitting to the will [of the monastic community]/ When [the particular] regimen of action has been completed, [the infraction] is declared "eliminated." This [approach] gives no consideration to the perception of different signs or [changes in] demeanor. Nor does it take into account [the presence of] wisdom and the contemplation of emptiness." Sources of Chinese Tradition, Compiled by de Bary and Bloom, Columbia U. Press, p. 468. You can see the Mahayana bias against Hinayana shining through here, but the point he is trying to make is about a mechanical approach to the purification of karma - the old karma bank where you hope to make more good deposits than bad.

The second involves perceiving signs. While engaged in some sort of Mahayana purification ritual, one will receive some auspicious sign that the efforts have been successful. "Signs [indicating that sins have been eliminated] do not go beyond four basic types: (1) seeing signs in a dream; (2) hearing voices in the air or seeing unusual signs and auspicious spiritual omens while performing ritual circumambulation; (3) seeing signs of [past] good and evil [deeds] or observance and violation of the precepts while one is sitting [in meditation]; and (4) signs indicating such things as the internal realization of various Buddhist teachings (lit., Dharma-gates) or the manifestation of the mind of the Way..." p. 469. Zhiyi warns that true and false signs are difficult to distinguish, and that getting attached to a particular sign will invite "demonic influence."

With regard to the third method, Zhiyi cites to the Sutra on the Contemplation of Samantabhadra: "The ocean of all the karmic obstructions is born entirely from deluded thinking. Should you wish to repent, seat yourself in proper [meditative] posture and fix your mind on ultimate reality. The multitude of sins are like frost and dew: the sun of wisdom can dissipate them [instantly]. Thus, with a heart of utmost sincerity, confess [and repent] the sins of the six sense faculties." He goes on to comment, "All things are originally empty and quiescent. Blessedness itself does not exist; home less does sin? Yet because of their lack of skill in contemplation of this [truth], sentient beings deludedly cling to existence, thereby giving rise to ignorance, craving, and anger. Because of these three poisons, they commit boundless and limitless sins of every description. All of this arises from a single instant of incomprehension [deep] within the mind. If one wishes to eliminate [these evils], one should simply turn back and discern whence this mind itself arises... In this respect, one should realize that "great repentance" refers to profound contemplation of [the ultimate truth of] non-arising. Among the repentances, this form is the most honored and sublime..."

Again, is the point of repentance rituals to reinforce notions of Buddhist mythology in our mind or is it to enable us to remove the obstacles to perceiving the true nature of reality? Zhiyi seems to be saying that awakening to the true nature of reality is the most effective purification practice... One would have to look at what Zhiyi means by true nature of reality... but this is an interesting principal. There seems to be a way to sidestep the whole Mahayana mythology.

Does Mahayana repentance practice necessarily require as a prerequisite that one accept Mahayana mythology as literally true? Based on what a master like Zhiyi wrote, it does not seem to be the case. Realization of non-arising (and non-perishing) would not seem to be affected by views on the "reality", "non-reality" or perhaps more accurately, the Thusness of Samantabhadra.

I'll put this out there just in case - if you are a really pious Mahayanist, you will probably look disapprovingly on me. I believe Mahayana mythology offers an alternate (and superior) vision of enlightenment to the one offered in Pali mythology, or any other model of human awakening, for that matter. I practice according to a mythology I believe expresses the ultimate truth better than others. When I sit down and meditate, I will conjure tutelary deities and interact with them as though they are absolutely real. This does not prevent me from also realizing that I am working within conventions to adjust my habitual mind. No matter how much I have examined it, I can never find the source of Buddhist mythology spontaneously arising in my mind; someone taught it to me. My understanding is that our minds can only think in metaphors; experience of MIND on the other hand... I learned Buddhist mythology, like I learned language. It helps me think and talk about really big ideas that, frankly, I have no other language adequate for the purpose. Maybe I haven't meditated long enough. If visions of Mahayana cosmic heroes have appeared to you spontaneously, I have no doubt about your experience and wish you happy travels on your path. If those experiences are True Reality, I am confident that I will come to them myself eventually. Am I arrogant for seeing things this way? I don't think so. I'm doing the best that I can - I am being honest with myself, and communicating what I see to you, as accurately and as honestly as I am capable.

Regardless, I am confident that we will all converge at the ultimate goal and nod in agreement.
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Re: Repentance Practices in Western Buddhist Contexts

Postby Kaji » Wed Aug 29, 2012 12:27 pm

I see lots of very good points brought up about repentance. Allow me to add a few things, in no particular order...

If people don't like words such as repentance and penance, we can use "kṣamā".

In the Avataṃsaka Sūtra (Flower Garland Sutra), the Buddha said that Samantabhadra Bodhisattva made ten great vows in the path to full Buddhahood, which any Mahayana Buddhist should learn and follow - and the fourth vow is repent karmic difficulties ("懺悔業障").

As mentioned by another poster, realising the true nature of the self and reality is a high form of repentance. If the self is not, so are the sins.

This is not easy for beginner Buddhists, so there are prescribed texts that a practitioner may use to repent with.

The idea of confession is supplementary to the practice of repentance. When repenting, confessing your sins to the Buddha, Bodhisattva or any number of monks and nuns is better than if you simply keep your sins as a secret.

In Chinese Buddhism, we are taught to repent by:
- Regretting our wrongdoings
- Commitment to not sin again
- Transferring the merit of repentance

In Chinese Buddhism, there are a number of repentance rituals and services. Some last for half an hour, some hours, some days.

Some sutra and dharani are adapted specifically for repentance usage, e.g. the Diamond Sutra, the Great Compassion Dharani.

There are many mantra that are specifically for repentance and cleansing karmic effects of past sins.

Chanting the names of Buddha (e.g. Amitabha) or certain Maha-Bodhisattva and paying homage to them are also effective repentance practices.

In Chinese Buddhism, repentance is crucial to taking of precepts, no matter if you are taking just the Five Precepts or a monk's full 250 precepts. If you have done some specific sins of a serious nature, you may not be allowed to take certain precepts until you have repented to a point where pureness can be proven, e.g. through signs.

If you have taken a precept and breached it, in addition to the sin of the act per se you have an additional sin of breaching a precept. Repentance is even more required in such instances. The more serious the sin, the more formal the repentance process should be. For example, if you have taken the "no killing" precept, say you deliberately killed a dog; from memory you have to confess to and repent in front of at least three monks/nuns. I think if you killed an ant say when cleaning a table, you can simply confess and repent in front of your Buddhist altar at home.

Repenting is almost always done before vows (e.g. the four Bodhisattva vows) are made, similar to precepts.

There are many accounts of people receiving signs after a dedicated period of repentance practice. Seeing signs in a dream seems to be common, e.g. vomiting a vile fluid, seeing the image of Buddha or Bodhisattva.

You can repent not only for yourself, but also for others. Every you see and hear about a sin, you can repent verbally or silently in your mind. Reading and watching about crime in the newspaper or on TV can become a daily repentance exercise. Remember to transfer merit afterwards.

Other than in Buddhism in the Chinese culture, repentance is also practised in Taoism, done for similar reasons.

I wrote in another thread that in addition to the four forces recognised by physicists today, in Buddhism three more forces are observed - karmic force, empowerment force and willpower. Karmic force makes you suffer your own sins. Willpower is what you use to repent, with regret, vows and commitment. Empowerment is what you ask the Buddha and Maha-Bodhisattva for to help you.

Personal experience: When I first started practising Buddhism, every time I repented I got a headache. The headache went away after I finished repenting. Every single time. I knew then that I must have some serious sins probably from my past lives. I asked a teacher and was told that when repenting merit enters into your body through your mouth and abdomen, and sin karma leaves your body through the head or feet. My headache was from being in tune, and hence feeling, the sin karma exiting through my head. I was advised to keep up my repentance practice, and I did. After a few months I no longer had headache when repenting, but nevertheless I have not stopped repenting on a daily basis.

I am still a sinner, no doubt, but hopefully a lesser one in each day's passing.
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Re: Repentance Practices in Western Buddhist Contexts

Postby Queequeg » Wed Aug 29, 2012 7:04 pm

Great Post, Kaji. Thank you. You inspired me.
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Re: Repentance Practices in Western Buddhist Contexts

Postby rory » Thu Aug 30, 2012 4:45 am

I wouldn't say you are 'sinner' Kaji, I certainly don't regard myself as one but rather a human being with afflictions. It's our responsability to repent them, purify our karma & not continue the behaviors. I admire your humility and perseverance and faith!

And Queequeg, I haven't explained that I too was like you, a typical non-believing Western Buddhist, from the age of 15- until my mid 30's. At that time I had to face the brutal fact that I had accomplished nil in my practice; I was nowhere near becoming a buddha. So I turned to the faith-based gates. I told a monk that I didn't believe in the various deities, sutras etc & his reply was 'have the aspiration to believe.' It's just like zazen; you have to put your back into it but harder as you are working on your mind. I read a ton of pious Mahayana literature, sutras and Nichiren's letters. At my altar I would repent and ask the Buddha for faith. And after 7 years of hard work, it did happen. I did develop strong faith; strong enough that when I was extremely ill, I practiced on my sickbed, wasn't afraid to die, but also got better in record time because it would be selfish not to share the Dharma.

So I will say that Westerners can change their minds from unbelief to belief; unbelief is merely a mental construct. But you have to want to and it requires humility. The Lotus Sutra is true and so is Nichiren, if you choose to believe you will experience it for yourself but you have to make the choice of faith.
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Re: Repentance Practices in Western Buddhist Contexts

Postby plwk » Thu Aug 30, 2012 5:37 am

In one youtube video talk I found interesting and novel was that a certain Chinese Pure Land Master from Hong Kong experimented with a selected group a personal confession cum counseling session as he felt that many who attend the Chinese Mahayana repentance services are merely doing it out of rote and ritual and at times defeated the purpose and function of having such a practice for bringing forth a true heartfelt resolve of repentance and renewing one's spiritual vigor.

He opines from his own observation and experience that there is a general tendency for some to regard it as some kind of a nonchalant event, 'playing church' with the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas when bowing, not generating the repenting and reforming mind and that the long repentance services are just repetitive pages of long texts, a tiring venture of going up and down excercises of bowing but with little or no effect of transforming the mind. And further to that, he states that it's not that the repentance services fail in their objectives but that there are many who are not taught or have embraced the proper meaning and function of the repentance services itself and mentions that many places end up promoting an event rather than awareness of mind transformation, inner recollection, purification of the body, speech and mind & renewed spiritual resolve and vigor.

Initially, he thought that the private confession thingy would not work but instead was surprised at the good response that it had engendered and how those who participated, the 'brave ones' who tried this out had actually bared themselves in mentioning their daily faults and unresolved issues in front of a Buddha image (he mentioned to the confession candidates to 'ignore' his presence if they felt shy and to regard the Buddhas & Bodhisattvas as 'witness and guide' to their confession and resolution), some even breaking into tears and other emotional responses but were guided back by the master to focus and then given personalised advice as to how they can repent and resolve their faults and failures with the Buddha Dharma. He had a long list of confession candidates as a result and they after having experienced the session, were never the same again when they attended the repentance services with much greater awareness and renewed spiritual vigor.
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Re: Repentance Practices in Western Buddhist Contexts

Postby dakini_boi » Thu Aug 30, 2012 5:56 am

rory wrote: Western Buddhism certainly isn't a religion; I daresay it's a mere therapeutic tool. It's arrogant people who feel they're above faith and have no humility.


People start where they are. If we can rejoice in the courage of those who choose to sit and cultivate inner peace (whether they call themselves Buddhist or not, & whether they're educated, uneducated, or misinformed about Buddhism), we can surely create causes for more peace in this world.
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