Thursday, January 19, 2012

Christ, Jain, and Mutual Forgiveness

The previous conversation between Jain and Christian thought focused almost entirely on the negative aspects of Jain's approach to the material world as it related to the transcendent and life's ultimate destiny. As a counter balance, the question of forgiveness and particularly the universal stress on mutual forgiveness offers a delightful point of overlap between Christianity and Jain. The Jain focus on forgiveness is an extension of the goal of practitioners to be at harmony with other living beings. There is a semi-liturgical rite known as the Vandana Formula in which a member of the Jain laity approaches a monk and has the following interchange:

Layperson: I wish to reverence you, ascetic who suffers with equanimity, with
intense concentration.
Monk: So be it.
Layperson: You will have passed the day auspiciously with little disturbance.
Monk: Yes
Layperson: You make spiritual progress
Monk: And you also.
Layperson: I wish to ask pardon for transgressions.
Monk: I ask for it too.
Layperson: I must confess, ascetic who suffers with equanimity, for lack of
respect and day-to-day transgressions of the mind, speech, or body;
through anger, pride, deceit, or greed; false behavior and neglect of the
Teaching; and whatever offense I have committed I here confess, repudiate
and repent of it and set aside my past deeds.

This ritual ought to resonate strongly with Christians, particularly as it so nearly resembles the practice of some traditions with regard to confession. There is a clear sense of the inequality of the two people with regard to spiritual progress, and at the same time they meet on the level playing field of their mutual inadequacy. The laity ask for forgiveness and the monk responds "I ask for it too." There is no illusion that one can come to the other for forgiveness, and yet there is spiritual power in the act of seeking it from one another.

The Vandana Formula is by no means peculiar in Jain. In the Kalpasutra, the teachings of Mahavira once again speak to this central place of mutual forbearance and forgiveness among practitioners of Jain. In this text, it arises in the context of a yearly retreat for monks and nuns. Knowing that such a congregation will ultimately give rise to conflict, Mahavira gave the ascetics the following advice:

If, during the retreat, among monks or nuns occurs a quarrel or dispute or dissension, the young monk should ask forgiveness of the superior, and the superior of the young monk. They should forgive and ask forgiveness, appease and be appeased, and converse without restraint.

It is almost too easy to find parallel concepts in Christianity. Jesus' hyperbolic reply to Peter that we ought to forgive one another seventy times seven times springs immediately to mind, as does the command in the Sermon on the Mount to seek forgiveness before making a gift to God. More interesting than merely an emphasis on forgiveness, however, is the parallel idea that exists in both religions that mutual forgiveness is not ultimately about our ability to expiate one another's sins. There is something else going on in each. For Jain, the forgiveness is an attempt to live at harmony with other living beings, to be released from the burden of the illusion of guilt and the corruption of anger. In Christianity, we forgive not because our forgiveness is somehow necessary in order to free one another from sin but because we serve a God who forgives. It is ultimately Christians' own attempt at harmony, but not necessarily with one another (though that is a penultimate goal) but with a God who is overflowing with forgiveness.

The unfortunate truth, I suspect, is that both Jain and Christianity suffer from the same flaw: confession and mutual forgiveness are more readily found in their holy texts than in the lives of modern practitioners.

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