OK, we haven’t exactly been angelic all our lives—and our “obscurations” are part of the cause. Buddhism prescribes certain steps to help purify our misdeeds. This clear description of those steps is adapted here from A Complete Guide to the Buddhist Path by Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen.
Application of the following four powers is an essential technique to purify obscurations. The four powers are (1) remorse, (2) antidote, (3) resolution, and (4) refuge or reliance.
Remorse. We must recognize that the negative thoughts and karma we have created are of no genuine benefit. Looking at things in this way is called the power of remorse. Deluded by attachment, anger, and ignorance, we think that we are protecting ourselves or destroying our enemies, but actually we are only creating negativity. However, at the time of death we will see clearly just how little benefit there was in attachment to ourselves and our relatives. The negative karma we created will follow us like a shadow and be a source of suffering lifetime after lifetime. Our activities may have resulted in some superficial benefit, but the negative karma we created is so much greater in comparison.
Remorse is not guilt. Rather, it is a recognition of the delusion that has caused us to exert so much effort without bringing happiness. It is like becoming aware that you have fallen into a filthy swamp. You feel embarrassed and urgently wish to wash as soon as possible to be free of the dirt. These teachings are based on reason, not mere “say-so.” So contemplate this well: despite the sacrifices we have made, we are left without much benefit in the long run.
Purification can be practiced through application of any one of the four powers, but it is more effective with all four together. But remorse is most important because, without it, the others are unlikely to arise. We should develop clear understanding that all deluded actions are unnecessary and are subject to purification, and that purification should be done as quickly as possible. For example, if someone has unwittingly taken poison, that individual will experience great remorse when he learns of his mistake. This will lead him to take urgent action to rid himself of the poison. Likewise, we should regard negative karma, even very small actions, as deadly poison.
Antidote. The power of antidote comes next. A feeling of remorse alone is not enough. Purification is incomplete if we only recognize the poison; we must act to get rid of it. This is like actually getting into the shower and washing the filth away. We must use all the methods we can to purify our obscurations—practice, meditation, and mantra recitation. What can we do? We can utilize many different Dharma practice techniques as an antidote to counteract the poison that causes suffering. For example, we can do Vajrasattva’s practice, recite Chenrezig’s mantra, or do Tara’s practice. We can cultivate loving-kindness and compassion and practice bodhicitta and emptiness.
Resolve. Having applied these methods of purification, we then resolve never to repeat our negative thoughts and actions again. Once the poison has been removed, we must be cautious not to take it again. Similarly, we resolve to watch our step so that we do not fall into a swamp again. Now that we know these negative karmas are unnecessary and only bring suffering, we pledge, “Even at the risk of my life, I will never commit this fault again. In the past, I did this without awareness and meaninglessly. Now and in the future, I will not act this way again.”
Reliance. The fourth power is reliance on the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Reliance is taking refuge, relying on the enlightened beings and on bodhicitta. It is thinking, “Right now, I have no ability to free myself from all obscurations.” So we have to rely on a good chef to prepare food that is not poisonous or on a dependable guide who will show us a path where we will not stumble. It is very important that we understand that every sentient being has buddha nature, for with this knowledge, we gain the confidence that “We, too, have the potential to attain buddhahood.” We can say with conviction, “If I practice the Dharma, enlightenment is genuinely possible just as it was for the buddhas of the past.” Once they were deluded beings like us, but they applied all their energy to studying and practicing the precious Dharma until they attained buddhahood which is free from suffering and its cause. So we too can rely on the antidotes with complete confidence that purification, and eventually enlightenment, will take place. For example, a farmer cultivates the field to grow his crops. He plows the ground, makes the ground soft, applies the fertilizer, moistens the soil, plants the seed, and protects it well until it is fully harvested. In the same way, we should cultivate our Dharma practice.