newDharma Talk | Atonement


transcription of talk given by Rev. angel Kyodo williams given January 2007

This first published in January 2010 issue of transform.

Listen to this newDharma Talk here:
Verse of Atonement (repeat 3x)

All separation ever committed by me

On account of my beginningless greed, anger and ignorance,

Born of my body, speech and mind,

Now I atone for it all

Let’s talk about that [the Verse of Atonement] just a little bit: “All separation ever committed by me on account of my beginningless—beginningless—greed, anger and ignorance.”

That’s a really important phrase because it takes away some moment at which our greed, anger, and ignorance began—‘Oh, I became greedy at this point.’  Don’t bother wallowing in such things.  It’s beginningless, it’s throughout time, it’s unfathomable.  We don’t really know where it began.  But we know it’s one of the ways we manifest our separation from ourselves with greed, anger and ignorance, which are the traditional three root poisons—the things that poison our clarity of vision, our wisdom and keep us from being able to see things as they truly are and [from manifesting] ourselves truly as we are.

So beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance.  Beginningless so we don’t have to find that ‘Oh, yes when my mother did this, then I became greedy—because she fed me lots of ice cream.’ We don’t have to figure it out; it’s just beginningless.  And similar to all of the verses that we have that are part of the Mahayana tradition, there’s an encompassing quality to it.  Just like beings [are] numberless and we vow to save them all and delusions [are] inexhaustible and yet we vow to transform them [from the Four Vows].   So this greed, anger and ignorance in the same way are beginningless.  And where is it borne from?

Well, it’s borne from these three places: the body, our actions, [our] speech, the words that we use and our thoughts—our consciousness.  Consciousness, of course, is always very important because it is the seed; it is the root of body and speech, of action and thought, [of] action and words.

So we take all of it. We [take] not just a little bit of our separation but all of our separation back throughout time, through all space and time.  If you notice all of the verses have that quality of just taking it all in.  There are no outs; there’s no easy out.  We don’t get to escape.  We don’t get to say, ‘Oh well, you know I’m just going to account for this year’s separation.’  Or, ‘Last week I was kind of, you know…’   That’s a little more Catholic, I did this particular thing and I want to atone for that particular thing.

Each time, each month, we’ll atone for all of it, all of it.  Just in case we let any of it slip under the rug, just in case any of it escaped.  And the truth is, not only are we atoning for our own separation, we’re atoning for the separation for all beings.  We’re atoning for [all] the separation that has ever, ever happened.  And if it’s happened through us, it’s happened through everyone.  We have to atone for all of it and take responsibility for all of it. So we don’t get to skirt out and say this is my little part and I’m just going to do my little part.  That’s the big difference in the second turning of the wheel. Going from our hot ideal of Enlightenment for oneself and going to the notion of Enlightenment that is actually held off, truly held off, held off until all other beings are Enlightened as well.

There’s a deep teaching in the understanding of why that has to happen, because really where is the Enlightenment? Where is the satisfaction of the Enlightenment, if there are other beings suffering?  And after a few hundred years somebody figured that out.  They said, ‘You know, this is all well and good, but there are still all these other beings that are suffering. How can I just be in my bliss and go to this space of bliss that is no longer considering the plight of children that don’t have anything to eat; the way that the public schools are run; the way that the country is being run into the ground; the [fact that] brown people are being killed in other parts of the world and right here in our own country—by not just action, but by also inaction? How could I just go into this place that is removed and lets go of all of that and truly be fully and completely Enlightened.

That’s why in the Heart Sutra the text says, “supreme, perfect Enlightenment,” which is different from just the regular old Enlightenment.  There’s actually this different quality that says, ‘Yes, you can have this kind of Enlightenment.’ That is, the Arhat Enlightenment that is just for yourself. You go off into nirvana—blissland—and you go right along and enjoy yourself. That’s just it.

But then, there is this “supreme, perfect Enlightenment” and it’s only possible when the aspiration to save all beings is truly raised, truly raised and truly brought to the forefront.   And not only is that aspiration brought to the forefront—How did it come to the forefront? It comes from the recognition of our own pain and our own suffering.  And truly, if we feel our own pain and our own suffering, how is it [the Arhat Enlightenment] right at all? How will it ever really work for us to just clean up our own stuff and sit there when other people are in pain and [are] suffering?  That’s always a tricky balance for us to figure out.  What is the line?  How do we really make sense of how to really take care of all beings?  Does it mean we run out and literally go to each person’s door and find out who’s suffering there and see if we can fix their situation?  That’s not the idea.

It’s about the aspiration and the deep intention that your life is of service.  Your life is given over to this deep intention, this heartfullness that says: ‘I’m practicing so that I can be the best person that I can possibly be.  So that I can truly be of service, so that I can truly be available.’ And not of service in this way that is very rigid and says something about soup kitchens or homeless people. In service means being truly yourself—that you are truly yourself, that you come to the place where you have deep knowing of yourself and no matter what you do you are manifesting deep wisdom, no matter what you do, no matter what your life path is, no matter what way you show up in the world.  If you are committed to knowing yourself deeply, then that, in and of itself, is a manifestation of service to all beings.  So that’s how it folds in on itself.

It’s not like ‘Oh, okay, what we do is we run off [because] well, who needs to sit here ’cause there’s all this suffering.  We need to run out and just go save people!  Why are we sitting here?’  When we do that [run off] we don’t know where it’s coming from.  We don’t know what the root of our action [is]. We don’t know ourselves truly.  So we come to know ourselves truly through our practice.  And we engage the world.  The reason we engage the world is [because] without engaging the world we have no idea where our practice is.

There’s this story of this guy [who] goes away—it’s a true story—he goes away and goes on retreat for ten years in New York.  He’s got a little tiny cabin [where] he stays on retreat for ten years. [Afterwards] he comes back and [visits] a popular yoga ashram down in the City that was run by Satchi Dananda. Its name is the Ananda Ashram.

So he goes back [to the ashram] and he [said], ‘You know, I have been meditating on anger for ten years.  I think I have something to say about it.’

And they said, ‘Yes, that’s so true, you must have wonderful things to offer.’ ‘Yes, I think so.’ He said, ‘So can you put me on your schedule so I can talk about anger and share all of my wisdom?’

And they said, ‘Well, you know, actually right now the program is full for the next few months so you’ll have to do it after the next few months.’

He got furious!  And there it is.

You can do this practice alone and you can think yourself fully Enlightened, but unless you are rooted in the world, you have no idea. You have no idea where your practice lies.  And that’s why the refuges are taken in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha because without the sangha you have no clue.  You may have a wonderful teacher, you may have wonderful teachings, but without the sangha to rub up against, you don’t know where you are.  So without being in the world, we don’t know where we are.  Without committing some kind of separation, we don’t know where our practice is.

So the idea isn’t even to try to figure out how to not commit any separation. It’s to live that [the experience of separation] and to live it fully and then to atone from it and learn from it.  And to receive it in that way completely rather than finding ourselves shrinking into a smaller and smaller box where we’re [saying]: ‘Well, I’m not going to do that ’cause I’m not going to create separation.  I’m not going to do that ’cause that will create separation.’  And then we’re just small; we’re limited.  So the idea is really to live completely, live completely out loud and to do the best that we can and to return to our cushion, to return to the formal practice that is the dress rehearsal for our life.

Then we find [in living out loud], we did a little of this, we did a little of that…yelling, screaming, nasty thoughts, an angry wish, a subtle glance—all the ways that we have that we can cut people off—or [a] lack of honesty with ourselves about what’s really going on with ourselves.  We create a gap between the way in which we’re living and the way in which we know what’s possible for our life. But we do it and we see it and we acknowledge it. And the Verse of Atonement brings us back to being one with it. Rather than, as I spoke about last week, creating some kind of artificial environment for ourselves [in which] we just say, ‘Oh, I’m just going to become perfectly unseparated and nothing’s ever going to happen.’  Well, you might as well just sit down and dig a hole and pull it in after you, because that’s the only way you can get to that place.

The real thing is to live and to be able to receive and to not make any distinction between the center and the edges. And to have the edges—the far edges of our behavior, the far edges of our thoughts, the far edges of our actions, the things that we want to make disappear—to pull [them] in, to reach out and say ‘Yeah, that too.  That’s part of my world too. That’s part of my way of being at this moment and [at] this time.  And I atone for it; I come into being with it. I come into an acceptance with it.’

Last night we sat with the things that were hard for us this year. We put them under our cushions and sat with them instead of going right away to getting rid of them.  That’s what we all want to do, just get rid of them. But first we sit with them. First, we atone. First, we acknowledge. First, we make friends. First, we come into relationship with the truth of what has happened. And we allow what is in our past to be trusted as a teaching space that can move us forward. Instead of working it from a place of aggression that is always, from here, propelling [us] that way—trying to get [us] away from whatever has been the teaching space for us.

We [don’t] want to cling to the past and drag it with us, but we do want to learn to trust it. We do want to learn from what has already happened. And the only way we can learn from it is if we be one with it and say, ‘Yes, this is true.  This is what’s been true.’ And then we can say, ‘And now I atone for it all.’ If I’m at one with it now, there’s no need to have this sense of something that’s dragging behind.  It just becomes part of the fullness of who we are.  There’s not a separation of the thing that I did back there: ‘Well, you know, I used to be like this. I used to do this kind of thing.’  I hear people say that a lot. ‘You know, I used to be better; I used to be different.  I used to be, you know, something…’ Well, if you atone—whatever it is, good, bad, different, we’re not saying these are terrible things—then you don’t have to ‘used to be,’ it just is.  It just is.  And it’s all brought to bear. And then we can trust ourselves.

Most of us are not aware, for the most part, of the rear of our bodies, because we’re running away, we’re running away from what has already been.  We’re not trusting in what our teaching space is, like what we’ve learned from the past, and so developing an awareness of our past that doesn’t cling to it is very important.  Having a wish, an aspiration for our future is wonderful as long as we are not rushing headlong into it from an aggressive place, trying to hide from the current moment. So, it’s all this balance and in the Verse of Atonement we bring everything together, beginningless, atoning for all of it.  We reach we take in every single bit of it, leaving nothing outside.  Everything is brought right into the center of the room, right into the center of our awareness, right into the center of our being. And its received completely, one hundred percent. Not as less than, not ‘Oh, that’s the part I don’t want to really deal with,’ but all of it, all of it received completely.  The joy, the pain, the sorrow, the mistakes that we’ve made…Lord knows, we’ve made mistakes. Many, many mistakes. And if we are not willing to be okay with that we can’t learn from them.  We really, really can’t.

Many, many times I have sat with people and I have said, ‘You know, judging yourself is different than being discriminating.’ So when we go into this place that judges, ‘I was terrible,’ then there’s no learning there. There’s just more separation. On the other hand, we can’t just go to sleep and be like ‘Oh, well, it just never happened.’ Instead we develop discriminating wisdom that understands, ‘Yes, this happened.’ If we allow the feelings in, if we allow the truth of that separation that we have created for ourselves, in ourselves in, if we allow it to be there and present, then the mourning of that loss can take place.  The grieving of the disappointment that we have in ourselves can actually be present for us and we can move through it, carry with us the lessons that is a part of that.  And so, in atonement there’s an effort to do that. In atonement there’s an effort to say, ‘We’re not going to pretend this hasn’t happened.  We’re not going to say, it’s all out there somehow.’ I’m going to take responsibility for myself and I’m going to do it over and over and over again. But once I atone for it, I’m going to let it be.  I’m going to let it be a part of me that is a lesson learned, that is a teaching carried forth in the world, but I’m going to let it be something that’s here and at one, and not there somewhere dragging me down, holding me back.

So in each direction [receiving and letting go] it’s important.  It’s both important to receive it [separation] and to take it and bring it at one with us.  And it’s also important that once it’s there to let it be there and to embrace it fully instead of leaving something hanging on to our ankles.  For each of us our personality is different.  Some of us are ankle-draggers. We want our traumas and our griefs; we want to shackle them to our ankles and drag them around and [let them] hold us back.  Others of us want to skip completely free, way before we come to just acknowledging the truth.

We begin to understand which inclination we have—there’s some of us that just go dull, forget all of it completely, neither moving forward nor moving backward, just staying stuck in one place—a kind of shrinking in ourselves.  We need to discover our tendency. When we do the Verse of Atonement, when we do the Full Moon Ceremony, we’ll have an opportunity to work on whatever our tendency is. So if you’re one of those people that likes to drag the past around with you, then you really need to focus on the “now I atone for it all,” I’m at one for it all.  And if you’re one of those people who just wants to pretend it didn’t happen and skip on along free and footloose, then you really need to focus on my “beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance borne of my body, speech and consciousness.” You need to focus on that.  And if you’re one of those people that just shuts down and says, ‘Well, I don’t really know what’s happening. I’m just going to sit here like a lump.’ Well, you need to take on the whole thing at once and pull it all in.

So each practice—it all sounds like we’re each saying the same words.  Amie and I were talking a little bit last night about this.  You know, we’re saying the same words, but it’s a different practice for each of us.  It’s not the same practice; we’re not having the same practice here. There’s something incredibly shared, but our—and beautifully shared—but our grief, what we’re holding, what we’re carrying, what we bring to this cushion each time is very different.  What ignites our spirit in a chant is very different and it’s each of your responsibility, not mine, it’s your responsibility to find what it is that speaks to you, what it is that draws you forth, what it is that calls you to Awakening and make use of it.  You can hang out here for three years or five years or ten years and blame somebody for your not being Awake, but it will be your own doing.  If you don’t take full responsibility for digging into every aspect and finding what it is that fully connects with you. There’s something for everyone.  Now you may not like red cushions or you don’t want to do this chant or whatever it may be.  But really, the variety is designed to create a space for everyone to find something.  And the discipline may be too much for some people.  But at some point we have to anchor down; we have to figure out, ‘what’s it going to be.’  Or we might as well go along in our life and wait until the moment arises that says, ‘I’m ready to Wake Up.’  But whatever you do, don’t waste your time. Don’t waste your time.  Just like the Evening Verse says, “life and death are extremely important, time passes swiftly by” and it’s so, so true.  You can put your Awakening off until tomorrow; you can put your awareness of the truth of yourself off until tomorrow and then another tomorrow and then another tomorrow.  And you will look back and you will not have a life that was lived.  You will have a life in which you existed, but you didn’t live.  So with all of the pain and the difficulty that practice brings forth and brings into our consciousness, truly is the only way to live is to come into this place in which we receive our whole lives, our whole selves and become one with it.

Enjoy your life; enjoy your year.  Happy New Year.


  1. […] Kyodo williams offers a talk about atonement.  thank goodness!  have been leaning in the direction of atonement, asking myself what it means, […]

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