Transgression and Forgiveness

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 15, 2008

Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?

Jayarava Michael Attwood
Cambridge Buddhist Centre

Is it possible to counteract the consequences of a moral transgression by publicly acknowledging it? When he reveals to the Buddha that he has killed his father, King Ajātasattu is said to “yathādhammaṃ paṭikaroti.” This has been interpreted as “making amends,” or as seeking (and receiving) “forgiveness” for his crime. Successfully translating this phrase into English requires that we reexamine etymology and dictionary definitions, question assumptions made by previous translators, and study the way that yathādhammaṃ paṭikaroti is used in context. We can better understand confession as a practice by locating it within the general Indian concern for ritual purity—ethicized by the Buddha—and showing that the early Buddhist doctrine of kamma allows for mitigation, though not eradication, of the consequences of actions under some circumstances.

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