Gatha of Atonement

This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on April 16, 2014, at the Greater Boston Zen Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


All evil karma ever committed by me since of old,

on account of my beginningless greed, anger and ignorance,

born of my body, mouth and thought,

now I atone for it all.


– Gatha of Atonement


I began a series of talks about elements of our liturgy a few weeks ago on a Tuesday night. I spoke about the sound of the bell with which our liturgy begins and ends in that talk. Tonight I’ll talk about the Gatha of Atonement, the first verse we chant together.


It’s hard for a lapsed Catholic like me not to chant this verse solely as an act of contrition: as a reminder and admission of how bad I’ve been personally, how big the cosmic hole I’ve dug for myself is, and how endlessly I need to work to try to get myself out of it.


This is a caricature of the Christian notion of sin and repentance, of course, and it’s also a caricature of this gatha from our Zen Buddhist perspective. It is right, and it is vitally important to achievement of personal and collective wholeness, that we acknowledge and try to make amends for the ways in which we have caused harm. To be sure, from one angle this verse is about recognizing my own failures to treat others and all that exists (including myself) with dignity, and about vocalizing my intention to do better.


Yet there is more going on in this verse, I think. The this life, individual accountability, relative dimension of this gatha that may be the primary lens through which some of us view it is complemented and counterbalanced by an atemporal, interwoven, absolute dimension.


Each operative word and phrase in this brief verse is rich with layered meaning from this perspective. Each is worthy of its own talk – of multiple talks. I can only focus on a few phrases, and a few meanings I sense, tonight.


Evil karma


It’s hard to think of two more loaded, contested words in contemporary Buddhist discourse. The classical idea of karma is closely associated with reincarnation, a word that is equally loaded and contested.


I’m going to skirt the reincarnation debate – I’m not very interested in these sorts of dogmatic arguments and metaphysical speculations, anyway – to focus on karma in another accepted, and more prosaic, sense of the word: causes and conditions.


A key insight of Buddhism is that this moment as we find it is the product of causes and conditions that precede it, that have conspired to produce it. Though we can’t always trace and weight the relative contributions of these causes and conditions with mathematical precision, the idea arguably is more in the realm of physics than metaphysics. It’s a pretty simple notion, and increasingly uncontested, even among some theistic religious thinkers, who also see the hand of a God-figure at work.


For tonight’s purposes, I’ll keep the idea of evil karma equally simple, and un-cosmic: among the causes and conditions that conspire to create this moment are causes and conditions that can produce various forms of harm and injustice, some of them extreme. The next line of the verse asserts that these causes and conditions can be traced to the three poisons: greed, anger and ignorance. To be specific, “my beginningless greed, anger and ignorance.”


Beginningless greed, anger and ignorance


This notion of greed, anger and ignorance without beginning is a pointer to the absolute dimension of the gatha. We’re prompted to consider the possibility that these poisons might be in the nature of things; of who I am as a human being; of who we are. Rather than seeing my selfish impulses, anger (expressed or unexpressed), and blindness and false certainties solely as personal failings for which I feel guilty and punish myself, this phrase seems to be an invitation to consider our own and others’ base instincts and impulses, habitual reactions, and present limitations, with curiosity and compassion.


What is it about our circumstances and our programming that inclines us, in some moments at least, toward selfish, angry or biased behavior?


Born of my body, mouth and thought


The next line of the gatha reminds us that we are creatures. We are embodied. And that we seem to be unusual creatures, possessing the capacity for complex thought and communication. And we’re told that evil karma is “born of” these facts.


In this realm of the 10,000 dharmas, of diversity, of seemingly finite resources, and of human and non-human creatures, arriving at this moment on the wave of celecstial and terestial evolutionary history, each of us, like the beings that begat us, must forge a path. This realm often seems, and is, confusing and contingent. I’m inclined to think that greed, anger and ignorance are over-amplifications of tendencies that generally serve us well, individually and collectively, as we make our way:


  • Greed as an over-amplification of our legitimate imperative to satisfy basic physical and psychological needs.


  • Anger as an (often misdirected) over-amplification of our legitimate impulse to protect our fragile bodies, and psyches that are fragile as they develop.


  • Ignorance (aka false certainty) as an over-amplification of the limitations of our senses and cognitive processing powers, and of our need, for many legitimate purposes, to reduce complexity, to filter out some sensory data.


And so we sometimes act (body), speak (mouth), and perceive and process information and experiences (thought) in ways that tend to produce harm and injustice, insomuch as our actions, speech and thought “over serve” legitimate needs and impulses, to others’ detriment.


Now I atone for it all


Right here, right now.


Yes, I express regret for my actions, speech and thought that has hurt others, and I renew my commitment to do my best to live up to my highest ideals – to the precepts. I atone in the sense of acknowledging when I have fallen short of those ideals, and I constantly do, and of being penitent.


But atone has another meaning: to reconcile.  To stop fighting.


I reconcile myself to the nature of things. To my own and others’ creatureliness. To our evolutionary heritage. To the needs and impulses that can incline us toward greed, anger and ignorance when they are over-amplified.


Realizing this, not idealizing about our condition, accepting it, not flogging ourselves and others for our supposed failures to be the perfect angels we tend to think we and others should be – ever pure of heart, in thought and in deed – is an important step toward actually developing the capacity to show up as we intend, and helping others cultivate and sustain their intention and efforts to do the same.


This take on the Gatha of Atonement may be more the very long view from a relative perspective than a view from the absolute. As I said, I’m not very inclined toward metaphysics, and the relative and absolute are one, in any event, as we say. It is a take on this gatha, anyway. It is a useful take for me, and I hope it also is useful for some of you.