The Four Essential Points of Purification Practice
The mind of all sentient beings has two distinct, yet inseparable natures: it is empty, and it is luminous. The fact that it is empty means that if you look for your mind, either in the body or somewhere else, you can't find anything to point to and say: this is my mind! Because of this, the mind is changeable; it can be developed and cultivated, or allow to decay and degenerate. The fact that the mind is luminous means that it is creative, brilliant, and knowing. It is what illuminates the world either as a heaven or a hell, depending on one's karma and outlook. Because of these two natures, the mind can become either good or bad; it can go up or down, depending on what we do with it. Because of the mind's ability to go down, we have all done very bad things in our lives, and are constantly afflicted by emotions and thoughts like anger, greed, stupidity, lust, jealousy, and arrogance.
During the time when the great Indian master Atisha was coming to Tibet, the king had been put in jail because of a violent revolution. The king's grandson, who was a great Dharma practitioner, came to the jail where his grandfather was being held and said, "Grandfather, although you are chained to the wall and unable to perform charity or build temples, just think kind thoughts and collect merit and virtue for future lives." This story shows that no matter how bad our environment is, we can always do something to cultivate love and compassion, and overcome hatred and indifference. This is what many Tibetan masters did when they were put in prison and tortured by the Chinese Communist government.
In addition to cultivating love and compassion, it is good if one can overcome former negativities, whether of body, speech, or mind. One of the best ways of doing this is through confession practice. Through this practice we can clean up every bad thing we have ever done, and rather than experience very harsh consequences of those misdeeds in future lives, we can bring them up now and purify them. This is like when you take cough medicine to get all the junk out of your lungs in a short period of time.
The confession practice consists of 4 essential points: 1) motivation; 2) regret; 3) remedy; and 4) conviction. The first means that our intention for engaging in the purification should be to become better, more enlightened people so that we can help others. To make sure that this is so, we should sincerely, from the bottom of our hearts, go for Refuge to the Enlightened Teacher and his teachings, and to those who have realized his teachings and put them into practice. Then we should cultivate the altruistic intention to become enlightened, which means that we want both to help all sentient beings, and to become enlightened to do so. These two states of mind are the first essential to a proper confession.
The second, that of regret, means that we think back on the misdeed, whether it was a bad action, something unkind we said, or some cruel and negative thought we had, and feel deeply sorry. We feel sorry for hurting people, and we feel remorse that we will have to experience the painful result of that misdeed, maybe even one hundred-fold, sometime in the future.
The third essential is that we do something to fix the problem and purify the bad karma that comes from it. This can include a formal prayer, such as the General Confession, or the Thirty-five Buddha pledge, as well as some prostrations, offerings, or mantras. However, this is not enough. It should also be accompanied by some kind of reparation. Depending on what we did, this could be trying to pay back some of what we stole, trying to do some good for a community we vandalized, or admitting we were wrong and apologizing to someone, or to the family of someone, we hurt. By doing this over and over, we can purify all the negativity of our past and not have to feel guilty any more.
The fourth and final essential is that we pledge and sincerely promise that we will never, ever do that bad thing again. If we do make the same mistake again, we can always purify more, but it will mean that the first confession would have been incomplete, because the fourth essential was missing. The Tibetan saint Milarepa killed thirty-six people before becoming a Dharma practitioner, but in only one short lifetime he was able not only to purify all that negativity through confession, but also to accumulate enough merit and wisdom to become a perfectly enlightened Buddha. Atisha, another great master, used to ride everywhere with a small altar, and whenever he did or said anything bad, or even had a bad thought, he would stop his horse, dismount, and perform a confession. He, too, was greatly enlightened, so there is always a way to use one's time to make the mind be good and loving. And through this love and compassion comes the only true freedom.