What IS the path to redemption in Buddhism?

Ok, this comes in response to the recent issue between Tiger Woods, Buddhism and Brit Hume’s comments about its lack of redemption. The Worst Horse has a nice piece among many taking a light-hearted approach to the subject.

What infuriates me most about this whole controversy isn’t the criticism, which is old as Buddhism itself, but the fact that so few people actually can answer the question correctly. News pundits have all weighed in on the subject, and their answers suggest they read a book or website about it, and are essentially guessing what the answer is. Buddhism is frankly a complicated religion, and the misinformation is trivializing or obscuring important aspects that Buddhists themselves know well, but may sometimes struggle to articulate.

SO, let me weigh in with scriptural information as to what redemption means in Buddhism.1

This article speaks to mostly to the Mahayana or “Northern Branch” of Buddhism found from Tibet to Japan. It does not speak to the “Southern” or Theravada branch as I am less familiar with it, however there are a lot of commonalities.

The first step of redemption in Buddhism is confession. In the Buddha’s time, numerous texts show the disciples of the Buddha confessing their faults before elders, before the community, and so on. They did this as part of the Buddhist practice of self-reflection. Self-reflection here isn’t intended to be humiliating or punishing, but to weigh one’s actions and thoughts against the Buddha’s teachings, and determine if they’re wholesome/skillful or unwholesome/unskillful. Confessing your faults then is a way to publicly acknowledge harm you might have caused others through unskillful actions.

In practical terms, even if this is not possible, then a disciple of Buddha then can even confess before an image of the Buddha or whatever devotional figure they prefer within Buddhism. The point is is to publicly acknowledge your mistakes, rather than let them fester inside you and cloud your judgment further. When making such a confession, there’s various ritualistic ways of doing this, or one can simply, earnestly acknowledge their faults and resolve not to do it again. Self-reflection and learning from the experience are also important. In Mahayana thought, this confession also has a second effect in that it may lessen the impact of negative karma later by limiting the conditions that allow it come to fruition (owing to the fact that karma, like all phenomena, is contingent and subject to change).

Karma is not a divine sort of punishment, but simply the outcome of your thoughts and actions. Like a snowball effect, or domino effect, when you think or commit unwholesome thoughts, they set things in motion that will come back to haunt you later, like a lie that you get caught with later. If you never lied, you’d have nothing like that to worry about. Even if you never get caught, the mental affect clouds your actions in the future, so it’s quite cathartic to publicly confess.

Anyway, through confession one acknowledges their misconduct, and resolves to learn from it and not do it again.

But what if people have lived a really harmful or unwholesome life? This too is covered in Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism teaches that all beings will eventually become enlightened, even those who now detract Buddhism. No one will be “left behind” so to speak. Forgiveness and tolerance are very key points in Buddhism, as is explained in the Lotus Sutra, chapter 14:

When a son of the Buddha preaches the Law
he is at all times gentle and full of forbearance,
having pity and compassion on all,
never giving way to a negligent or a slothful mind.

However, people often create their own hells through their actions, and so in Buddhism, we teach that there are figures in Buddhism who seek to rescue beings from their suffering and help guide them along the right path. Some figures are bodhisattvas who are almost enlightened, and as part of the path to Buddhahood help out and teach fellow beings. The Buddhas likewise provide refuge for all beings. A good example of this in the Four Vows of the Bodhisattva which is a frequent part of Buddhist liturgy:

However innumerable sentient beings are, I earnestly aspire to enlighten them all.

However inexhaustible our delusions are, I earnestly aspire to extinguish them all.

However immeasurable the Buddha’s Teachings are, I earnestly aspire to comprehend them all.

However incomparable the Enlightened Mind is, I earnestly aspire to attain it by all means.

Another prominent example of salvation and redemption in Buddhism is Amitabha Buddha, who is a leading figure in Buddhism. Not a historical figure, but is expounded in many Buddhist texts. Amitabha Buddha presides over something called the Pure Land, and provides refuge for all beings even if they only recite his name. No matter what “sin” you have committed, no matter how terrible a Buddhist you are, Amitabha’s vow is for all beings. The Pure Land is a wonderful place, but it is not a heaven either, but rather a place that’s both a refuge, and a place to practice Buddhism more easily. The point though is that Amitabha’s compassion, wisdom, symbolized by “light”2 is for all beings who sincerely recite his name. Doesn’t matter if you’re gay, lesbian, straight, black, white, asian, or suffering from any shortcomings or ignorances. Amitabha Buddha’s vow is to lead all beings to the Pure Land where they can obtain rest and become Enlightened as Buddhas.

And so it even says in the Contemplation of Amitabha Buddha Sutra:

The Buddha said to Ananda and Vaidehi, “Those who attain birth [in the Pure Land] on the lowest level of the lowest grade are the sentient beings who commit such evils as the five gravest offenses, the ten evil acts and all kinds of immorality. Owing to such evil karma, the fool like this will fall into evil realms and suffer endless agony for many kalpas. When he is about to die, he may meet a good teacher, who consoles him in various ways, teaching him the wonderful Dharma and urging him to be mindful of the Buddha; but he is too tormented by pain to do so. The good teacher then advises him, ‘If you cannot concentrate on the Buddha, then you should say instead, Homage to Amitayus Buddha.’ In this way, he sincerely and continuously says ‘Homage to Amitayus Buddha’ [Na-mo-o-mi-t’o-fo] ten times. Because he calls the Buddha’s Name, with each repetition, the evil karma which he has committed during eighty kotis of kalpas [eons] of Samsara is extinguished.

Also, note the image of Amitabha Buddha looks like so:

Amitabha Buddha Steveston Temple
Amitabha Buddha image borrowed from Steveston Buddhist Temple in Canada (apologies)

One hand up in wisdom, one hand out in compassion. This is a perfect example of the Buddhist path: one not only cultivates wisdom, but develops deep compassion and kindness toward others, even those who have wronged them. Now one might say that this, what’s called “Pure Land Buddhism” isn’t real Buddhism, but in fact its a large aspect of Mahayana Buddhism and fully conforms to stock teachings such as the Four Noble Truths, the Dharma Seals, and so on.

One should also take note of the Twelfth Chapter of the Lotus Sutra. The chapter touches upon a former disciple of the Buddha named Devadatta who tried to kill the Buddha, split the community and so on. A kind of Buddhist “betrayer” in other words. And yet in this chapter, the Buddha teaches that Devadatta will find redemption and become a Buddha in the future. One cannot say this of Judas Iscariot within the context of Christianity for example.

Also, consider the example Jizo Bodhisattva, a bodhisattva figure in Mahayana Buddhism that repeatedly journeys into the Buddhist hells, among other places, and rescues beings and leads them onto the right path. His vow is to save all beings from Hell first before becoming a Buddha himself. In Western thought, Hell is a permanent place, but in Buddhism, it only exists as one place to reborn until one’s negative karma is exhausted. All beings will depart and find redemption in the end.

Still, some people will argue this stuff above isn’t real Buddhism, but rather Asian cultural accretions.3 Instead, I encourage you to do your homework and verify it yourself. I have provided many links in this blog to other, real Buddhist texts, and other resources. I am also happy to answer any further questions as well.

As the Metta Sutta states:

Think: Happy, at rest, may all beings be happy at heart. Whatever beings there may be, weak or strong, without exception, long, large, middling, short, subtle, blatant, seen and unseen, near and far, born and seeking birth: May all beings be happy at heart.

Namu Amida Butsu

P.S. Written one afternoon in haste. If it’s useful, please pass it along though. I want to help dispel confusion about what Buddhism is and isn’t.

1 Tiger, if you’re reading, please take notes.

2 Hence he is the Buddha of Infinite Light. As it is written in the Immeasurable Life Sutra:

“If, sentient beings encounter his light, their three defilements are removed; they feel tenderness, joy and pleasure; and good thoughts arise. If sentient beings in the three realms of suffering see his light, they will all be relieved and freed from affliction. At the end of their lives, they all reach emancipation.

3 Despite the fact these are some of the most fundamental texts in Mahayana Buddhism…

12 thoughts on “What IS the path to redemption in Buddhism?

  1. “Tiger, if you’re reading, please take notes.”

    For a split second, I thought that you were addressing me! LOL! :)

    P.S. I’m not certain of this, but, from what little I’ve read, it would appear that Tiger’s mother is from Thailand, so more than likely the Buddhism that he practices is Therevadan.

    P.S. Great post! :)

  2. Thanks for this post Doug. Your posts always delve much deeper into a broader range of Buddhist sources than I would even think to look into. My understanding is much enriched!

  3. Hi Everyone,

    kether1985: Welcome to the JLR and thanks for the information.

    tigeryogiji: Ha ha ha, sorry for the confusion. As for Tiger’s maternal ancestry, I should’ve fact-checked first. DOH! I guess he can take the first part of the advice and discard the rest. Ah well.

    arunlikhati: Thanks much for the encouragement. Inaccuracies are nothing new to the Intertubes, so I just want to set the record straight. If, having obtained correct information about Buddhism, people still want to criticize, then they are certainly welcome to. Also, I don’t like talking ex cathedra myself since I am just a lay follower, so it’s good to make cite sources where possible. :)

  4. Very interesting post
    There is one aspect Regarding reciting Lord Buddha’s Name which doesn’t seem quite right
    Amitayas and Amitabha are widely believed to be two different Buddhas Therefor it may not be correct to recite Amitayas if one is wishing for the Pure Land
    For Non Chinese I would suggest reciting Namo Amitabha Buddha
    Apart from that A thoroughly enjoyable post Thanks

  5. Hello Dhammagevesi and welcome!

    Thank you for the advice. I agree the confusion is a problem. I should go back and correct that. Because I say 念仏 anyway, I usually don’t get confused, but it’s hard to explain in English as you can see. :)

    Take care!

  6. Hi Doug,

    Yes, a wonderful article! Thank you so much! Apart from the dig at Christianity half way through (which comes across as a bit mean spirited to be honest) this is a really superb post that addresses an important issue and is based on the whole broad range of Buddhist thought. Wonderful stuff – it deserves to be widely read.

    Thank you so much, and with palms together,


    PS – for more on the whole question of Judas, a good place to start would be here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Judas

  7. Without Devadattta, we wouldn’t have the Contemplation Sutra.
    Without Akashi no Sada-akira we wouldn’t have the teachings of Honen. Karma works in ways we cannot understand.
    Great post,

  8. Hi guys,

    Marcus: Your comments are well-taken, though it wasn’t meant to be mean-spirited, just calling out what is the mainstream belief in that faith. Hell is frequently seen as a terminal existence, and Buddhism doesn’t subscribe to this view. The gospel of Judas, like other such texts, is a gnostic text and isn’t a mainstream text, so few people would know of it. It’s a fair point in that there are liberal Christian views as well as conservative ones, but such critics of Buddhism are generally not of the liberal strain, and are not interested in Gnostic views in any case. :-/

    Stephen: A very thought-provoking point. It’s classic Kegon thinking in that Buddhism can’t exist without its critics and ignorance of Buddhism. One is contained in the other, etc, etc, hence it’s only right to feel some gratitude.

  9. Hi Doug,

    This is the whole problem with comparing religions. People who are not Buddhist have recently been criticised for speaking about what they don’t know. And yet, in response, many Buddhists have made broad sweeping statements about Christianity that are just as ignoranty and do just as much to create division rather than friendship. I honestly think it is better if people stopped comparing and contrasting religions and stopped trying to score points off each other.

    As for the idea that “Hell is frequently seen as a terminal existence, and Buddhism doesn’t subscribe to this view”, I would kind of agree except (1) Buddhist hell might not be eternal, but it can last many millions of billions of kalpas – which would pretty much feel eternal if you were going through it! (2) Though in Mahayanan Buddhism everyone will eventually get to Buddhahood, in Theravada this isn’t necessarily so. I’ve often asked this question to Therevadan monks and have been often told that, indeed, there is no gaurantee of Nirvana – meaning that hell, or least some form of samsara, is eternal for many.

    Anyway, like I say, trying to compare and contrast and ‘call out’ other religions and schools of thought is never very helpful in my opinion and so I’ll stop there and just say again how much (except for the one sentence taking a dig at Christianity) I enjoyed your article. It’s a lovely, clear piece of writing with excellent gounding and quotes. Thank you again so much.


  10. Yeah I think you hit upon a really good point: comparing religions is
    fraught with peril. :-(

    Also good point about Theravada, though for the record I stated this artcile was a Mahayana-only one early on. ;-)

    Cheers mate!

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