What is Shakpa?
The third part of the seven-part practice (ཡན་ལག་བདུན་པ་) is shakpa (བཤགས་པ་), or atonement. Shakpa deals with confessing a wrongdoing and making amends for it. Unless one accepts and make reparations for one’s past wrongdoing and failures, one can’t improve oneself morally and spiritually to reach the ultimate goal of enlightenment and happiness. Besides, the wrongdoing will also manifest as undesirable karmic retribution.
The practice of shakpa allows a person to make amends and improvements by recognizing and confessing the wrongdoing and resolving to eschew such actions in the future. For practitioners, this is a necessary procedure to improve oneself morally and spiritually and avoid karmic consequences.
What Are the Four Factors of Effective Shakpa?
An effective shakpa must consist of four factors known collectively as the four strengths (སྟོབས་བཞི་):
Firstly, one must recognize the problem and admit it with intense remorse. For example, if one has hurt someone, one must have an intense regret of having done so, like that of having mistakenly swallowed a life-threatening poison, to use an analogy of Karma Chakmé (b. 1613). This is called the power of remorse (སུན་བྱིན་པའི་སྟོབས་). Without this, the act of confession and reparation misses its point because shakpa is all about regretting the past action and shifting towards a better future.
Secondly, one should confess the wrongdoing in the presence of a very powerful spiritual object such as an important master, deity or holy relic. The strength of the object (རྟེན་གྱི་སྟོབས་) helps one treat the process of shakpa with seriousness and thus has a bigger impact on one’s mind. If one casually apologies for a wrongdoing without a significant listener, it does not leave as deep an impact on one’s mind and is less likely to change one’s character. Having an important object of confession is belived to help one take the confession practice more seriously. Moreover, powerful spiritual objects are believed to have the power to enhance the process of atonement.
Thirdly, one must adopt a very powerful tool or method, such as visualizing Vajrasattva, chanting his hundred-syllable mantra, reading sutra of atonement, circumambulating holy stupas or performing a large number of prostrations in order to effectuate the positive change which shakpa practice is believed to precipitate. This is the strength of adoption an antidote (གཉེན་པོ་ཀུན་ཏུ་སྤྱོད་པའི་སྟོབས་). While any positive act of reparation can help make amends for the wrongdoing, there are certain practices such as those mentioned above which are said to have been particularly blessed as powerful tools or techniques to expiate karmic consequences.
Lastly, one needs to have the strength of transformation (སོར་ཆུད་པའི་སྟོབས་), a strong resolve to not perpetrate the wrongdoing again. If one does not have the commitment to eschew the wrongdoing in the future, shakpa loses its spiritual efficacy as a path to enlightenment. Confession without a strong resolve to abstain from committing the wrongdoing again may offer the individual temporary relief but does not lead to personal transformation and enlightenment.
These four factors make a shakpa practice powerful in transforming one’s mind and character. The fact that all things are impermanent and in flux allows one to change and navigate that change in the right direction. A good and effective shakpa practice must result in positive change in one’s mind. If the shakpa practice has neither brought positive change to one’s mind nor has left no impression on one’s character, then it has become a mere ritual. As karma is an imprint left on one’s mind that unfolds in the future as existential experiences, good shakpa practice can help remove that imprint or overshadow it with a stronger positive imprint. Thus, an effective shakpa is said to be powerful in purifying the karmic impurities.
How Does One Perform Shakpa?
Shakpa practice is a process of self-evaluation, a way of recognizing one’s weaknesses and failures and seeking to overcome them. The most important factor in this process is the state of mind: the sense of regret of having done something wrong and the sense of resolve to not repeat it. It should lead to moral and spiritual improvement of the person who is undertaking shakpa.
In Mahāyāna Buddhism, it is also important to integrate shakpa with altruistic practices by confessing and atoning for the negativities and wrongdoings of all sentient beings. To do this, when one performs shakpa, one should visualise all sentient beings and make reparations for their wrongdoings. One should take the wrongdoings and negative karma of all sentient beings upon oneself and atone for them by carrying out shakpa practices. At the end of the practice, one can perceive that all negativities or impurities have been totally cleansed and that oneself and all sentient beings are therefore freed from all wrongdoings and negativities.
In the ultimate form of shakpa, one can dissolve one’s existential self into the state of emptiness, where there is no wrongdoing, no perpetrator, and no consequences. In this state, the mind is totally freed from mental negativities and aberrations. The mind rests in the wholesome primordial state of openness and innate nature, which transcends notions of good and bad, and right and wrong.
Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel as part of a series called “Why We Do What We Do.”