Buddhists Have It Wrong About Original Sin.

Via Scott Robinson
on Aug 17, 2010
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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


About Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson taught college music at a Christian university for ten years before leaving to pursue creative work and fatherhood.  He has written for Sojourners Magazine, PRISM, Cross Currents, Minnesota Parent, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  He currently composes, records and performs original kirtan with his band Mandala mandalaband.net. Scott is a professed member of the Third Order of St. Francis,  and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two children, and two incessantly shedding dogs. 


76 Responses to “Buddhists Have It Wrong About Original Sin.”

  1. JimWilton says:

    I find the catechism very interesting. The importance of intention in the definition of mortal sins is similar to the importance of intent in Buddhist teachings on Karma.

    To my mind, Catholicism genuinely practiced is very close to Buddhism genuinely practiced and much superior to a Buddhism that is intellectual or dogmatic.

  2. Wow, Matt–it certainly sounds like you were at a much more fundamentalist institution that I was! Knowing I was interested in Sufism, my faculty colleagues gave me a page from a 19th-century illuminated Qur’an as a gift when I left; I’m guessing you didn’t get a page from the Dhammapada from your colleagues!

  3. YeshuDas says:

    Nicely put, Greg–exactly the kind of conversation I was hoping to have. Thanks!

  4. annie says:

    That’s pretty much what the nuns and parish priest taught me. According to them, original sin is a stain on humanity that can only be sorta bleached out through strict observance of the faith which can – if you are good enough – merit God’s showering down grace on you.

    I don’t think Sr. Annette or Fr. Powers would have done much more than roll their eyes at the “soft spot” idea.

  5. integralhack says:

    Yes, indeed, but there are some thoughtful non-conservatives that work there as well, so I should refrain from characterizing the whole institution. I was one of those that was hired from outside the faith, so although the institution has some liberality in their hiring practices as an adjunct there was no hope of me getting a permanent position because I was outside the fold–not that I would have pursued permanent employment there! 🙂

  6. Interesting point, Jim.

  7. Thanks for writing, annie. We had the same education.

    I'm always quick to point out that it is certainly partly because of the moral teachings of my Catholic upbringing that I turned into a reasonably moral person today. (My kids would say "excessively moral" person. For example, I would never let them copy their friends' CDs when they were in high school. You would never steal a candy bar from a drug store, would you, I told them.)

    Bob Weisenberg

  8. sitaramdas says:

    when i read this, i get a feel very similar to articles i read on christian creationism or christian intelligent design.
    you've taken a dogma, insist that its true, and then wind and twist an argument to support it.
    there doesnt seem to be an effort to discover what is actually true, but only to prove your point.

  9. YeshuDas says:

    Well, Sitaramdas, if it makes you feel better, I am the spawn of two biologists, and have never in my life supported teaching creationism in the public schools. With respect to the dogma, I'm not sure what you mean. I haven't proposed a new meaning for the word "sin"–I am, in fact, reclaiming the word's original and true meaning: "to miss the mark." To say that we have original sin means that we are all born mark-missers. I'm hard-pressed to see where the "twisting" comes in. As far as what's "actually true" goes, I'm also a little confused; I thought that *was* my point: "this is what this concept truly means.' How would "discovering what is actually true" be different? I'm always prepared to hone my methods!

  10. YeshuDas says:

    PS, Sitaramdas: I also have more to learn here!

  11. Krishna Jaya says:

    Progressive Christian view of "original sin"…

    Life is a game of hide and seek with God. When we hide (the flawed humanness of the monkey mind), we are "in exile." When we seek (and find), we are back in the garden. Exile to garden, garden to exile, back and forth, to and fro, forgetting God, remembering God.

    St. Paul tells us to "pray without ceasing."

    Is this possible?

    I think so, but this is only a belief and not an experience (yet :o) and one's beliefs are (or ought to be anyway…otherwise we become rigid) in a constant state of flux.

    So let us remember God (or try to anyway) with every breath.

  12. ColinT says:

    *** "Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's own ignorance." – Confucius ***

  13. And most Buddhists have it wrong when it comes to what Buddhists believe…. Let the Dalai Lama correct a few misconceptions…. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kstH-8jwa80&fe

  14. […] how to think or feel. Also, nothing positive can come from making someone feel guilty for past “sins” when the past is just that: the […]

  15. […] concurrently. Therefore both must be taken for what they are: attempted approximations of the Buddha’s teachings that, despite changes by authors, represent the only available insight into the man’s actual […]

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  17. YesuDas says:

    Thanks for writing, Alan. I must point out that you seem to be equating "Catholic" with "Christian." The Anglican (my own Communion) and Orthodox churches have different views on sin and atonement from the Catholic positions.

    Let me ask you this: what is the opposite of Buddhist "right speech", or "right action"? Surely "wrong speech" and "wrong action"?

  18. YesuDas says:

    An excellent point, Serpent; the deeper meaning of the Gospel is all too frequently set aside by the loudest of Christian teachers. You are mistaken, however, in saying that "Other Christians don't come out to counter what they say." We certainly do. I recommend checking out The Center for Progressive Christianity (www.tcpc.org) as a starting point.

  19. […] Here goes in semi-random order from least to most still legally sinful: […]

  20. Dave says:

    Thanks for writing that so that I didn't have to….

  21. lokken liane says:

    The t-shirt in this post is what called me to comment. Not only do most Christians NOT believe that original sin is just a symbolic story, many would be highly offended by that t-shirt. It is dismissive of a doctrine that is central to Christianity. Probably even liberal Christianity in some circles. Romans 3: 24-25 goes on to say that we are justified by the shed blood of Jesus.

    I grew up in the church, became a fundamentalist, then moved slowly toward more liberal notions, and finally through my hat in with the Buddhist boat, because it just makes sense. It feels like a natural progression. I still treasure the words of Jesus and the wisdom of the Bible, but the view is so different.

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