Is repentance relevant and legitimate to people living in contemporary society? I used to think of repentance or confession of sin as a means for organized religions to keep the individual in obedience to the religious authority, to control the masses by means of fear. Indeed a primary reason to repent for negative action, thought, or speech is the anticipation of reprisal. Such reprisals may come from society, as the result of some unalterable natural/cosmic law, or at the hands of a juridical Godhead. However, another reason for heartfelt contrition is that it allows the cathartic cycle of acceptance, forgiveness, and transcendence by which one may move beyond remorse for harmful past deeds.
What creates the negative karma to keep us bound to cyclic existence? Are we bound by actions themselves or bound by the conscience that holds them within the continuum of consciousness? Realizing the need for repentance is in essence awareness of the power of our own conscience to hold those deeds for which we felt guilt or remorse. The second chapter of Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhicaryavatara) is devoted entirely to the confession of negative action, physical, vocal, or mental. Shantideva acknowledged, the implications of personal behavior ripple out far beyond this single life as we progressively build upon the heap of karma we began to construct countless eons ago. It is imperative then, according to Shantideva, to begin immediately purifying ourselves through contrition and taking refuge in the enlightened mind, the Dharma, and those who devote themselves to righteousness.
Even without Buddhist overtones, repentance to conscience is still enacted as a healing process. The vast majority of us live with conscience. Hopefully we each have a basic understanding of moral and immoral behavior, which will shift in degrees based on our personal understandings of the world, ethics, and belief or lack there of (e.g. some believe abortion is a mortal sin others believe it is at times a necessary evil). Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” Some of us may repent to God by various names but it does not take a belief in God to offer genuine repentance. What Heschel’s words remind us of is, as privileged members of the human race we have a duty to our fellow humanity and the world, a duty of consciousness. Contrition is a means of acknowledging, even if only to ourselves, that we have all lapsed in consciousness. And repentance to the listening heart is a way of opening awareness to the sufferings of the world around us.