Buddhism from the beginning has a tradition of confessing one’s transgressions to others as a way of setting things right. It’s also thought in some schools of Buddhism to also diminish the effects of bad karma by negating conditions that would cause it to come to fruition. At the very least, it creates some small good karma to offset the bad.
Additionally, it helps heal the mind by allowing you to start over and forgive yourself. In doing so, it also helps you treat others with more kindness and patience too.
Confession comes in many forms. The Theravada monk and all-round-nice-guy, Ajahn Brahm, teaches the simple concept of A.F.L.:
- Forgive yourself
Obviously if you hurt others, you should right the wrongs as much as you can. You can’t take back what you did any more than you can put toothpaste back in the tube,* but you can help set things right after the fact.
In the time of the Buddha, in the kingdom of Magadha, the prince Ajatasatru, then one of the Buddha’s lay disciples, overthrew his father and took the throne, then later waged war on the neighboring kingdom of Kosala. During this time, Ajatasatru supported the renegade Devadatta, who tried to pull monks away from the Buddha with his own teaching. Later in other Buddhist texts, Ajatasatru deeply regretted his actions and came before the Buddha to apologize. The Buddha was not angry, and said he was forgiven and welcomed him as a disciple again. Ajatasatru was present when the Buddha delivered sermons such as the Lotus Sutra and others, so it seems that he was a devout follower after that. He still suffered residual effects of his severe karma but the future was more optimistic by his change of heart.
In Mahayana Buddhism (Northern Buddhism from Tibet to Japan), there is a sense of ritual to confessions, whereby one confesses them before the Buddha or Bodhisattva they devote themselves too. This seems to have begun in the last chapter of the Flower Garland Sutra, often treated as a separate text called the Gandavyuha Sutra, and has persisted more or less in the same format. One confesses something wrong that they did, and states that this action was entirely the result of their own ignorance, greed and/or hatred, and they vow not to commit that action again.
A really vivid example of a Buddhist confession is in the Golden Light Sutra. In this sutra the Bodhisattva Ruchiraketu in chapter 3 has had a dream about a great drum radiating a golden light (the Dharma). In chapter 4 he expresses his wish that all beings are awakened by the sound of this drum, and that he can become a refuge to such beings. Then the Bodhisattva confesses his misdeeds in the same chapter:
O buddhas possessed of the ten powers:
Those terrible wicked acts
I have committed in the past,
Before your eyes, I confess them all.
The Bodhisattva then lists the various categories of unwholesome deeds he may have committed before ending it with:
Through misdeeds of body, speech and mind,
I have amassed threefold wrong acts.
In these three ways, whatever I have done,
These deeds I confess in full.
And so on. The point here isn’t that one should follow this formula, or another, but rather that in all these acts of confession, from the simplest to the elaborate, the basic notion is the same. One should acknowledge what they’ve done wrong, and accept responsibility for it. We are all deluded beings, and we all do stupid things that we can’t take back. Too often though we blame others for things gone wrong, but regardless of what life throws at you, ultimately it’s through your own mind, body and speech that acts are committed, wholesome or unwholesome.
However, a wonderful act of humility is to admit when you’ve done wrong and apologize. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but if it is sincere, and meant with wholesome intentions, it can be a wonderful gesture, and a way of setting the mind at ease. One cannot practice Buddhism well if one has such concerns eating away at them for a long time.
* – Where possible, it’s best to avoid the mistake if you can help it. That’s why Buddhists try to cultivate mindfulness, so they can become aware of what’s going on, not just blindly reacting people usually do.