Arnie and I met at our regular morning café. The conversation drifted towards ways of causing and relieving suffering in our interactions with others. If we assume that we’re all interconnected, all one, then my feelings and thoughts towards another matter, I speculated. What is the “right” thing to, we wondered. There are the Buddha’s guidelines in the Eight-fold Path that speak to Right Speech and Right Action; “right” meaning that which does no harm. Isn’t it selfish, we wondered, to go to someone you haven’t seen for a while and tell them you’re sorry about having hurt their feelings 10 years ago? So I told him of my experience with atonement:
My monastic teacher introduced me to the practice a few years ago. He asked me to think of people I’d wronged or injured in speech and actions. I then made contact—by phone or personal visit—to offer apologies. Inevitably, the other knew immediately the reason for my approach and expressed joy and relief. In one instance, I travelled to Europe to address events of 35 years ago. As it turned out, my friend and I had both carried unfinished business in our hearts and, after much weeping and hugging, were glad to restore clarity and honesty.
The dictionary defines atonement as “amends or reparation made for an injury or wrong.” The practice is mentioned in Christian scriptures as an instance of reconciliation between God and humans re the redemptive life and death of Jesus.
The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is one of the Jewish High Holidays: For on that day he shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you from all your sins before the Lord. Leviticus 16:29-30.
Zen practice suggest a three-step approach to atonement. First, seeing clearly that we engage in behavior that creates suffering for others and ourselves. Second, making amends by restoration or apology. Third, resolving to modify our behavior and vowing to monitor future behavior to avoid causing harm.
The word atonement reminds me of having turned away from others (including a God if that’s your belief) and, through admission of wrong-doing and expression of regret, motivated by loving-kindness, to become at one with the other once more.