Sin and Atonement in Buddhism

Thank you to Grant R. Shafer

Buddhism emphasizes suffering rather than sin.  The basic teaching of Buddhism is summarized in the 4 Noble Truths: (1) All life is suffering.  (2) The cause of suffering is desire.  (3) Suffering can be ended by ending desire.  (4) Suffering is ended by following the Noble 8-fold Path.

The 3 major branches of Buddhism are Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.

Theravada Buddhism seems to be the oldest surviving form.  In it, monks and nuns seek nirvana, or liberation from birth, death, and suffering.  Lay people support the monks and nuns in order to earn a good rebirth.  All Buddhists should observe the 5 Precepts, forbidding certain behaviors, analogous to sins in other religions: (1) killing any human or animal; (2) stealing; (3) any sex for monks and nuns, and sex outside marriage for lay people; (4) lying; and (5) using intoxicants.  These behaviors and the thoughts which lead to them, such as anger, lust, and greed, bring suffering in this life and future lives.

The result of thoughts and actions is called “karma,” and it persists after death to cause birth in a new body.  Good karma causes good rebirth, as a human or god.  Bad karma causes bad rebirth, in hell, as a hungry ghost, or as an animal.  One way to escape bad karma is to accumulate good karma by doing good to humans and animals and doing rituals such as worshipping the Buddha.

However, as long as one is trapped in the cycle of birth and death, “samsara,” one may have a bad rebirth.  In Theravada, one frees oneself from samsara by becoming a monk or nun and following the Noble 8-fold Path: (1) Right Understanding (of the 4 Noble Truths), (2) Right Intention (resisting bad and cultivating good thoughts), (3) Right Speech (no lying, verbal abuse, idle talk), (4) Right Conduct (following the 5 Precepts), (5) Right Livelihood (not doing work which injures humans or animals, such as a soldiering or hunting), (6) Right Effort (turning the mind toward spiritual progress), (7) Right Mindfulness (constant awareness of one’s acts, thoughts, and feelings), and (8) Right Meditation ( training the mind for advanced trance states).  After many lifetimes of such effort, one can achieve nirvana, as did the Buddha and some of his followers, called “arhants.”

Mahayana Buddhism arose later than Theravada out of the practices of lay Buddhists, but it developed a sophisticated critique of Theravada.  Seeking nirvana for oneself was seen as selfish and leading to only a lower form of liberation.  Mahayana taught that everyone should seek nirvana for everyone else, partly because nirvana requires recognition that the individual is an illusion.  Mahayana concluded that there is ultimately no difference between nirvana and samsara.

As the ideal of Theravada is the arhant, the ideal of Mahayana is the “bodhisattva.”  The bodhisattva is capable of nirvana, but chooses to be reborn to save other beings.  Accordingly, as do Jesus and the saints in Christianity, bodhisattvas can share their good karma with sinners.  Bodhisattvas are omniscient, knowing just what each being needs to advance at every stage of the path.  The gifts of the bodhisattvas are called “upaya,” skillful means.  These gifts can be appropriated through worship and ritual.

The most extreme development of this was the True Pure Land sect.  Ancient Indian Pure Land scripture told how, eons before our Buddha lived in ancient India, Amida Buddha vowed that if he were enlightened, he would create a “pure land” open to anyone who chanted his name.  In the Pure Land, everything conduced to enlightenment, so that the next stop would be nirvana.  The True Pure Land sect, in 13th-century Japan, taught that everyone is already saved by Amida’s grace.

Japanese Zen Buddhism grew out of Mahayana but cultivates irreverence toward deities, scriptures, and taboos, and pursues nirvana, understood as a state of mind, through sitting meditation and crafts as diverse as gardening and swordsmanship.

Vajrayana grew out of Indian Tantra.  This spiritual practice used 5 taboo practices, partaking of (1) meat, (2) fish, (3) parched grain, (4) alcohol, and (5) sexual intercourse to advance spiritually.  Buddhist Tantra promises “attaining Buddha in and through this very body.”  Unlike Theravada and Mahayana, Vajrayana offers enlightenment in this life.  Like Hindu Tantra, Vajrayana uses the passions condemned by other Buddhist sects to energize the quest for enlightenment.  Left-hand Tantra consists partly of ritual sex.  Right-hand Tantra consists partly of visualization of sexual intercourse.   Vajrayana also uses the worship of deities, which is believed to give to the worshipper the powers of the deities.

The 3 main branches of Buddhism each have a different attitude to sin and atonement.  Theravada teaches that liberation requires refraining from evil acts and thoughts.  For example, soldiers killed in battle go to a special hell.  Mahayana teaches that liberation cannot be achieved without compassion for others, and we can receive help from those who have achieved liberation.  For example, a saint travelling with other monks was attacked by robbers.  He reasoned that the robbers were bringing untold suffering on themselves.  To save them from more bad karma, he killed them, taking the bad karma on himself, unless he was already a bodhisattva and beyond karma.  An irreverent Zen teacher said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”  Vajrayana teaches that liberation is achieved by harnessing passions which normally trap one in death, rebirth, and suffering.