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August 17, 2010

Buddhists Have It Wrong About Original Sin.

I watched a friend choose an Amish-style straw hat at a Pennsylvania farm stand. Tracing the decorative woven vent around the hat’s circumference, he discovered that the beginning and end of the border didn’t line up with each other. Because of this flaw, I thought he would reject the hat, but he bought it—because of the flaw. “That’s how you know it’s hand-made,” he said.

I heard Tara Brach refer, in a podcasted dharma talk, to “the imperfect stuff—the human stuff.”  Whenever we link humanness with imperfection—whenever we excuse our mistakes with the plea “I’m only human”– we are confessing original sin.

Original sin is not “original guilt;” to say that we have it doesn’t mean that we have “done anything wrong.” It simply means that we are going, sooner or later, to behave without love, because we are only human.

People speak imprecisely of “sins,” giving the erroneous impression that sin and guilt are the same thing. Mindful speakers draw a distinction between “sin” and “sinful acts.” To behave unlovingly is sinful; the thing within us that drives us to do so is sin.

Pema Chödrön (whom I love–don’t get the wrong idea, here) often contrasts original sin with what she calls “original soft spot”–that vulnerable place within all of us, the defense of which is at the root of all human unhappiness. It is a false dilemma. The soft spot that makes us act without love is sin; the sin that all of us carry is our soft spot.

Yes–the doctrine of original sin has been notoriously abused and harmfully applied. It has been invoked to claim that humanity is “totally depraved,” that we can do nothing for ourselves, that we are all damned until proven otherwise. I repent the harm that these beliefs have caused, particularly when the Good News for the poor and powerless has been subverted in the service of the rich and powerful. But the distortion and misuse of a truth doesn’t invalidate that truth.

A contemptuous or dismissive tone from Buddhists toward the doctrine of original sin alienates Christians who wish to learn from Buddhist tradition (there are many more of us than you may realize,) and doubtless shuts out Buddhists from any benefit they might gain from the Gospel of Jesus. We all address the human imperfections that we variously call by the names “sin,” “soft spot,” or “unconsciousness.”

Sin is like the “noise” of music-making–the bellows of the accordion, the click of trumpet valves or clarinet keys, fingers squeaking across the fretboard, the inbreath of singers. On the one hand, it does interfere with the music; on the other, it is part of it. Noise-free music doesn’t exist in nature.  We strive to play as purely as we can, but we do not imagine that we can exclude all noise from the performance.  A little sonic debris lets us know that what we are hearing is handmade; like the sand in the bottom of a bowl of chowder, it is a gritty certifier of authenticity.

Human life is gritty. “All have sinned,” said the Apostle Paul[i], “and fallen short of the glory of God.” We need to love one another, because we are all in the same boat. This knowledge—that we are never alone in our flawed humanness—is a gift. Sinless humanity doesn’t exist in nature; original sin is how we know we are hand-made.


[i] Romans 3:23

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