In the Pali texts the practice of confessing one's transgressions, or unskillful acts, is declared to be a valuable resource for one endeavoring to live a spiritual life. From a Buddhist perspective one does not make confession in order to absolve oneself of "sin," but rather as an aid to restraint in future. At any rate, this is the ideal; in actuality the making of confession in Theravada Buddhism has become, for the most part, a formal ritual, a kind of esoteric formula recited in order to expiate ecclesiastical offenses, i.e. broken rules. The practice of confession, as far as I know, is most prevalent among the Sangha of monks; although Buddhist laypeople also, at least in Burma, may make a practice of confessing their lapses from morality, especially to a monastic who is their teacher. But usually if a layperson breaks a precept she or he simply takes the precepts all over again, thereby pushing RESET (so to speak).
It should be emphasized that making confession in no way absolves one of the karma one has generated through some ethical misstep or other—sacred incantations and other rituals do not erase karma, at least not in an orthodox Buddhist universe. We reap what we sow. So if someone has created some bad karma, the best thing for him or her to do is to dilute it down by adding to it plenty of good karmic actions, and/or to accept the consequences with mindful equanimity. One makes confession to a teacher or fellow traveler primarily for the sake of helping one to restrain oneself in future. Plus, of course, it's good to be honest. Then again, on second thought, open honesty is probably the most important reason for not concealing one's lapses from established virtue. Concealment of the truth may not only require occasional lying or chronic hypocrisy, but it also generates and reinforces deep interpersonal alienation.
At some monasteries in Burma the monks make confession every day; and some—especially younger, ultra-careful ones—may waste no time and seek out another monk for confession practically as soon as they are aware of having broken a rule of discipline. On the other hand, the technical minimum for deferring confession for a monk who is not living alone, without even another monk within easy walking distance, is half a lunar month, since it is against the rules for a monk to participate in a full-moon or new-moon uposatha ceremony with unconfessed offenses, if there is someone he can confess to. In the first part of the recitation for Sangha uposatha, before the rules of the Pātimokkha are recited, it is stated explicitly that any monk who listens to the recitation and remains silent when he knows he has unexpiated offenses, is guilty of lying, which is a serious obstacle for one living the Holy Life (not to mention the breaking of another rule). In this case at least, one may technically qualify as a liar without saying a word, by keeping one's mouth shut when the reciter asks repeatedly, "I ask the venerable ones, are you entirely pure?" This becomes somewhat of an quagmire for monks who habitually commit nissaggiya pācittiya offenses ("to be expiated with relinquishment") such as using money or keeping extra (more than three) robes, since the only way to expiate such an offense is to relinquish the forbidden commodities before making confession—which most monks are unwilling to do. So they make confession, which does not absolve them of these offenses, and then they participate in uposatha, thereby committing yet another offense. This may eventually inspire monks to avoid confession and uposatha observances altogether. There are quite a few like that, actually. If any of them are reading this, then shame on you—tsk, tsk (←I click my tongue at you). Then again, one is not supposed to make confession if one is not aware of having committed any offense. There are a few monks out there who can go for weeks without breaking any rules (and there are lots of rules, and some are very easy to break); and if any of those are reading this, then congratulations, venerable sir. Please be careful not to despise those who are not as conscientious as you are.
The standard Burmese method for making confession is as follows. Two monks, A and B, squat down within arm's reach of each other, barefoot, with right shoulders bared, and with their own palms pressed together before them. Then they say:
A: ahaṁ bhante sabbā āpattiyo āvikaromi ("Venerable sir, I make plain all offenses.")
B: sādhu āvuso sādhu sādhu ("Very good, friend, very good, very good.")
A: ahaṁ bhante sambahulā nānāvatthukā sabbā āpattiyo āpajjiṁ, tā tumhamūle paṭidesemi ("Venerable sir, I have committed altogether several offenses of various types; at your feet I confess them.")
B: passasi āvuso tā āpattiyo ("Do you see, friend, those offenses?")
A: āma bhante passāmi ("Yes, venerable sir, I see.")
B: āyatiṁ āvuso saṁvareyyāsi ("In future, friend, you should restrain yourself.")
A: sādhu suṭṭhu bhante samvarissāmi ("Very good, very well, venerable sir, I will restrain myself.")
B: sādhu sādhu sādhu ("Very good, very good, very good.")
Then they switch roles, with A reciting B's part and vice versa, except that the senior monk is always Bhante and the junior one is always Āvuso, and with a little bit of modified grammar to indicate greater respect of Āvuso for Bhante than the other way round. There are a few minor variations to this procedure, and I'll mention at least one of them before I'm finished.
I've mentioned elsewhere that most formal acts in Theravadin monasticism, at least in Burma, have become corrupted into virtually pointless formalities, and this one is no exception to the general rule—you may notice that practically nothing is actually confessed, other than the vague assertion that one broke numerous unspecified rules, which is exactly what everyone else confesses. The rote, blah-blah-blah nature of it is so ingrained that often one monk will begin his line before the other has finished his, in order to get it over with more quickly. Also, sometimes two monks will "confess" their offenses to a third monk in unison, since their confessions are invariably exactly the same.
A common Thai method, or so I have heard, is to make five separate confessions, one for each general category of offense expiable via confession: namely, thullaccaya ("gross offense"), pācittiya ("to be expiated"), pāṭidesanīya ("to be confessed"), dukkaṭa ("wrongly done"), and dubbhāsita ("wrongly spoken"). I do not have a commentary handy, so I'm not sure whether orthodox tradition endorses this; but the method is more or less in accordance with the formula for confession given in a medieval, non-canonical vinaya handbook called Khuddasikkhā. The Khuddasikkhā, however, does not endorse making confession for un-committed offenses, whereas it is my understanding that the aforementioned Thai tradition makes all five confessions regardless of whether the monk is aware of having broken them, just to be thorough. So it attempts to be stricter, but actually winds up being even more nonsensical than the Burmese "blanket" method, considering that Burmese monks do not necessarily confess offenses they didn't commit. (And it is unlikely that a confessing monk has broken rules in all five categories, since one especially, pāṭidesanīya, is very difficult to break nowadays. There are only four of them for monks, with two of them involving interactions with fully ordained nuns which, according to the overwhelming majority of the Theravadin Sangha, have been extinct for centuries; one involving begging from a family determined to be "in training," which is interpreted by tradition to mean that they are designated Ariyas; and one involving a monk living in a dangerous forest who allows lay supporters to endanger themselves by bringing alms to his place. Another category, dubbhāsita, applies to only a single rule, against making a derisive joke at another person's expense.)
Thus it is fairly obvious that the standard formal procedure for making confession involves the speaking of untruth. Even monks who consider themselves to be Ariyas (a danger sign in itself) do the same, saying "Yes, I see," when they see nothing, and "I will restrain myself," when they know full well they'll break the same rule again. Plus if they're Thai, they may confess categories of offense they've never committed. This kind of talk is not necessarily lying, however, since one is lying only if one is deliberately trying to deceive someone; and most monks are too cynical or too ignorant with regard to Vinaya matters for anyone really to be deceived. They know how it is, kind of. But even if it's not lying it's still wrong speech of a sort, as it is talking nonsense, also known as B.S. And talking B.S., even in formal Pali, or especially in formal Pali, is not so good. Sometimes I've considered that the Catholics have a much better system for going about all this confession business.
Very early in my monastic career I adopted a compromise method, intermediate between the Burmese method and common sense, taught to me by my first Vinaya teacher, ven. U Tejaniya (not the famous one). In this method I make a single confession, but divide up the offenses by category, and distinguish between one (eka), two (dvi), and several (sambahulā) offenses per category, and between a single broken rule in one category and more than one "of various types." So, for example, if I killed mosquitoes, used water having doubt whether or not it had living beings in it, looked at a girl's face while she was offering alms, and tried to kill a few mosquitoes but failed, I'd confess one pācittiya and several dukkaṭas of various types, and nothing else (ahaṁ bhante ekaṁ pācittiyāpattiṁ ca sambahulā nānāvatthukā dukkaṭāpattiyo ca āpajjiṁ, tā tumhamūle paṭidesemi.) In situations where there was another monk around who was game, I have even named which rules I broke (in Burmese or English), not just the categories, before making the Pali confession. Burmese monks have shown no objection to my making confession like this, although sometimes they have remarked that I do it like a Thai monk. Then again, there are some monks who feel uncomfortable around any monk who seems to want to follow Vinaya correctly. It's best to make confession to monks who are more comfortable with that.
If one becomes used to the traditional way(s) and then reads the original Pali Vinaya, one may be surprised. The formula for confession as given in the Vinaya Mahāvagga Pali itself (section 92 in the Burmese Sixth Council edition, uposathakkandhaka, āpattipaṭikammavidhi) is simply as follows:
A: ahaṁ āvuso itthannāmaṁ āpattiṁ āpanno, taṁ paṭidesemi ("Friend, I committed the offense of such and such name. I confess it.")
B: passasi ("Do you see?")
A: āma passāmi ("Yes, I see.")
B: āyatiṁ saṁvareyyāsi ("In future you should restrain yourself.")
That's all there is to it. The key phrase here is iṭṭhannāmaṁ āpattiṁ, the offense of such and such name—which certainly entails naming which rule one broke, and not just the general category. Otherwise, this canonical, officially sanctioned method is much simpler than the later variations, and at least relieves one of the burden of quasi-lying about restraining oneself in future. And since one is specifically naming one's offenses, one is much less likely to quasi-lie about "seeing" also.
There is a difficulty, however, in stating in the Pali language exactly which offense one has committed, and in understanding it when another monk states it. This works, of course, only if both monks involved in the process of confession are sufficiently fluent in Pali, which is relatively rare. So it is presumably quite good enough for two monks to tell each other exactly which rules they broke in their own vernacular language, and then to recite the Pali formula—and they might as well do the one in the Vinaya, and not one of the later versions. For that matter, it might be best if they do the whole thing in their own language.
More obvious evidence that monks are expected to say exactly which rules they've broken, and not just the general categories, is the rule forbidding monks with the same unconfessed offense to make confession together. Clearly, the only way they could be sure that they hadn't committed the same offense would be to compare their broken rules. Vinaya states that if all the monks in the same community have broken the same rule, one of them is required to set out on foot to find a monk who is innocent of that offense, to make confession to him, and then to come back so the other monks can make confession to him. Almost needless to say, this particular rule is almost universally flouted in Burma, even at relatively strict monasteries. Rather, the standard method for avoiding this rule in Burma is, when a monk makes confession to another monk who also has not yet made confession, he makes his confession twice—once for his "several offenses of various types" and once for making confession to a monk with the same unexpiated offense. This method entails a fair amount of B.S., especially to the extent that the confessing monk says the standardized "I will restrain myself," while knowing full well that he's certain to break the very same rule the next time he makes confession, and also in the sense that, when he makes confession the second time, he confesses "several offenses of various types" when the only offense to confess is one dukkaṭa, of one type. If I remember the commentary correctly it declares that the rule against confessing with an equally guilty monk is broken and confessed simultaneously, which is rather convenient. It's still quasi-dishonest though, if one says "I will restrain myself" when one intends to keep breaking the same rule in future, as a matter of tradition. My way of avoiding this particular messiness is simply to wait for two Burmese monks to make confession together, and after they have magically purified themselves of offenses I make confession to one of them. I may as well let them take the hit, since it is their preferred, traditional way of doing it anyway.
The Vinaya Pali (in the paragraph immediately following the standard formula cited above) also gives a formula for confessing doubt about an offense:
ahaṁ āvuso itthannāmāya āpattiyā vematiko; yadā nibbematiko bhavissāmi, tadā taṁ āpattiṁ paṭikarissāmi ("Venerable sir, I am in doubt about the offense of such and such name; when I come to be without doubt, then I will rectify that offense.")
I have never actually seen or heard of this sort of confession being made by real live monks, but its existence in Vinaya further reinforces the rather obvious notion that one is not supposed to confess offenses of which one is oblivious, which one doesn't "see"—or even offenses of which one thinks one maybe committed. One should be sure before declaring that one has broken the rule.
It may be futile to criticize confession like this to traditional Asian monks, and to suggest that they adopt a practice that is a bit more meaningful than just mindlessly following tradition, but in the West there is really no good reason to import Asian corruptions—the West provides enough corruptions as it is.
Here is a debatable case of possible Western Vinaya corruption: Is it allowable to make confession by telephone? On the one hand, an act like confession should be carried out "face to face" (sammukhāvinayo), and, presumably, with the two monks involved squatting within arm's reach of each other. On the other hand, monks in the West are relatively scarce, and there may not be another monk within a hundred miles, and it may be better to make confession long-distance than not at all. In fact, even when there are other monks nearby, it may still be damned difficult to make confession. For example, once I was staying in an American city in which I was the only resident bhikkhu, and I had some broken rules to confess. It turned out that an American "ajahn" with several years since his ordination, along with a relatively senior Thai monk, came to town for the American one to deliver a Dhamma talk. When I met him I asked if I could make confession with him, whereupon he became clearly, acutely nervous, suggesting again and again that I should make confession to the Thai ajahn. I explained that the Thai monk understood little English, and I wouldn't be able to explain much to him. So finally the American monk admitted that he didn't know how to make confession; at his monastery they simply read the necessary blah-blah-blah off a card. (Can you imagine a Christian monk or priest who doesn't know how to do confession? And what kind of confession is reading something you don't understand off a card?) So, I went to the Thai monk, asked permission to make confession, and started my recitation, taking care to avoid the peculiar Burmese pronunciation of Pali. Before I got very far with it he interrupted me and instructed me to repeat after him; whereupon he proceeded to recite some Pali stuff that I had never heard before. I followed along once, but when he wanted me to repeat it a second time I just stood up in frustration and walked away. (What kind of confession is that, when someone who doesn't know you tells you what to confess?) So, shortly after that, I called a Burmese monk I know in California, squatting on the floor of the house where I was staying, with my hands together, right shoulder bared, and holding the phone to my ear with the other shoulder while reciting the ancient Pali words.
Burmese monks making confession