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Yom Kippur 2009: Atonement – Karma isn’t Just a Buddhist Thing

by Ethan Nichtern

As your typical half-jew, half-protestant, God-loving agnostic and Buddhist practitioner, I wanted to wish everyone a very fruitful Yom Kippur 2009. Someone mentioned to me that they think atonement and fasting, seem un-Buddhist, because of the possibility of both guilt and dwelling on the past. I just want to offer that the Dharma provides a whole array of purification and atonement practices. The simplest one is called the four powers, a simple four-step process for working with and purifying negative habits. It can apply to whatever you want to apply it to – weight lose, completing your manuscript (my personal atonement), quitting smoking, or anger management.


yom_kippur_prayer_jew.jpgThe Four Powers (or Four R’s – Props to Pema Chodron who teaches this impeccably):

1. Recognition – the practice of mindfulness meditation allows us to actually see how thought patterns work and link them to our actions in daily life.
2. Remorse – We take to heart that actions have consequence, and gently vow to shift our intention in the future.
3. Remedial Action – Simply put, we try something different, something outside our habitual reaction, whatever that might be. Maybe it’s just resting with the impulse of the habit for a few minutes before deciding what to do.
4. Repeating Again and Again – Habits are not superficial things. They require us to view awareness as a daily practice, and moment by moment to keep working with our mind.

Have a great holiday, everyone. Peace to all the Jews and non-Jews in the lotus!

Comments read comments(7)
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Lodro Rinzler

posted September 28, 2009 at 12:56 pm

Thanks for this Ethan. Good advice.

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Becca Faith

posted September 28, 2009 at 11:17 pm

Thanks for reminding us of this wonderful teaching! Raised as a JuBu, I am all-too-familiar with the post-Yom Kippur slump: all that fasting and atoning and emotional cleansing, then you wake up to a spiritual walk of shame that smells like cream cheese, pickled herring, and hopelessness. The Four Powers are a functional action plan — a way to take all that “sorry” and transform it into actual change. Those that take Yom Kippur to heart and really embrace the “opportunity” to transform* would do well to keep the Four Powers in mind…
*secret jedi buddhist mind trick: you don’t have to wait all year for over-priced synagogue tickets! you can transform RIGHT NOW!! and now, and now, and now…

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Anan E. Maus

posted September 29, 2009 at 9:18 am

The Gates of Heaven
Nobushige, a great samurai, sought out Hakuin and asked: “Is there really a heaven and a hell?”
“Who are you?” asked Hakuin.
“I am a samurai,” Nobushige replied.
“You?” Hakuin snorted. “What lord would employ you? You look like a begger!”
A furious Nobushige began to draw his sword, but then Hakuin said, “Here open the gates of hell.”
Nobushige took the point, sheathed his sword, and bowed.
“Here open the gates of heaven,” said Hakuin.
from :
“Here open the gates of heaven,” said Hakuin.

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posted September 29, 2009 at 2:36 pm

Thanks for this. I always find the combo of fasting and reflection pretty refreshing.
There’s an interesting reflection on the meaning of fasting now vs historically on, the website of a great environmentally conscious Jewish org (they are pro CSA, pro bike path, pro responsible consumption, all based on Jewish ethical principles). the point is that in the past, fasting was very common – even a weekly occurence – for most of the population, and it wasn’t always by choice. Today, in instant gratification land, it is a very different experience. Those guys were used to it; it was just putting a diff purpose on it. Today, we are so NOT used to it it’s a challenge to work with it. And it can be a very rewarding one.
And the Four Powers or Four R’s as a recommendation for a “functional action plan” works for me.

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posted September 30, 2009 at 4:05 pm

Just a (late) fyi for those Jubu’s on NYC, every year New York Insight, a theravadin meditation center, does a “Yom Kippur Day of Reflection” with lots of sitting, walking, and active contemplations on YK themes. There’s also a tradition of having delicious homemade challah and deviled eggs that people bring for breakfast. Yes, atonement can have delicious rewards! More info about it here:

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Gail Hathaway

posted June 14, 2010 at 8:25 am

Hehe I am really the first comment to your awesome read!?

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Mark - Anger Management for Children

posted July 29, 2010 at 6:16 pm

The four powers is a great method for getting rid of bad habits. I often use this process to help with anger management for children. I must say that I also like the Gates of Heaven story.

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