I saw a t-shirt recently that said across the front very simply and boldly, “Sinner”. I immediately wanted it. Because you see, I really am making it a goal of mine to be more of a sinner these days. The word sinner is really very “sticky”. Most people, myself included, tend to have a lot of baggage around the word. Very understandably so too. In the common religious context as its generally understood, its a guilt inducing word, utilized all too often to maintain control of a religious population. I know that I still cringe a little inside when its used in everyday conversation. But I think that maybe it can be reclaimed as a positive label. Maybe.
In the Buddhist tradition which has held my focus for the last 8 years or so, there really isn’t a concept of sin as its generally understood in popular culture, and promoted through much of conventional Christianity. Which is generally that sin is something evil or reprehensible. And a sinner is what people are by birth. Someone born fundamentally flawed in some unacceptable manner. Theres a bit more to it than that generally speaking, but thats basically it in a nutshell.
But in Buddhism, Zen Buddhism anyway, the closest thing to “sin” is what is often referred to as “unskillful”. An action, or thought, or speech, that leads to a harmful or unhelpful outcome of some kind. Something to be aware of. Something to practice being more “skillful” with. Sometimes a wrong needs to be rectified if and when appropriate or possible. But its not something that makes you evil or fundamentally broken. A skillful action, or thought, or speech in contrast, is something that leads to a helpful or beneficial outcome. Not in the selfish “as long as it benefits me personally” sense, but in a broader sense, taking into account those around you. Yourself being included, but not the sole consideration.
The thing is, from what I understand “unskillful” may be a better way to view “sin” than the common every day one is. Sin simply means moral imperfection. You’ve missed the mark of virtuous behaviour in someway. Harm was caused, to yourself, or another. No harm, no sin. And a “sinner” isn’t even necessarily someone that has just made mistakes or has committed an unskillful act or is morally corrupt in any sense. According to the Gospels, Jesus appears to have viewed a sinner a little differently, a “sinner” was someone that RECOGNIZES that they have caused harm in some way and repents (ie. feels genuine remorse, accepts responsibility for their action(s) and seeks to make amends if appropriate or possible). Likewise if you did something reprehensible, but DIDN’T feel genuine remorse and DIDN’T “repent”, then by this definition you are not a sinner. In this sense, a sinner isn’t at all a negative label. But something in fact to aspire too. Its part and parcel to becoming a more mature, caring and whole person. Its one aspect of becoming more fully human.
By this definition, I don’t know if I could rightly consider myself a sinner. Sometimes I am, but more often I miss the goal entirely. Walking around with that shirt labelled “Sinner” wouldn’t really be an accurate label of myself, or a boast. Just a reminder to myself of a goal I’ve set. One that I fail at more often than I get right. Its like when I wear my shirt “Meditate and Destroy”. Its a logo of Dharma Punx, a punk Buddhist group based out of California. The full logo being “Meditate and Destroy: Anger, Greed and Delusion”. Its not a shirt I put on to look cool. If anything, I think it looks a bit geeky. Its simply an occasional reminder to myself to be mindful throughout the day.
Maybe the word will forever have too much baggage associated with it now to ever be used positively. Perhaps “unskillful” is a better way to view our missteps in life in order to avoid an inappropriate stigma. But, one thing is for certain I think. This world needs more sinners. More people that are concerned with how their action impact those around them. Not less.