Q:Sometimes in spite of ourselves we do the wrong thing, knowing that it is wrong, but many other times I think we commit sins without even realizing it. Which type of evil is more horrible?
A:Buddhism teaches that the wrong we commit without recognizing evil as evil leads to more horrible consequences. Here is an analogy. A person who knows he is carrying tuberculosis bacteria realizes that coughing is bad, so he refrains from coughing indiscriminately around other people. Even if he forgets to take a face mask or handkerchief with him when he goes out and then can’t help but cough in front of others, because he knows this is a bad thing to do, from then on he will be at pains not to forget to wear a face mask when he goes out. In this way, the consequences of wrongs committed knowingly are limited and temporary.
In contrast, someone who is unknowingly infected with tuberculosis will cough wherever he goes without the least precaution. The consequences of that behavior are widespread and lasting. Ananda once asked Śākyamuni, “Which is more horrible, a sin committed knowingly or a sin committed unknowingly?” The episode comes up in the Milinda Panha (Questions of Milinda). Śākyamuni, answered flatly, “A sin committed unknowingly is heavier and more horrible.”
When Ananda asked the reason why, Śākyamuni countered, “Which do you think will be burned more severely, the one who grasps fire tongs knowing they are fire tongs, or the one who grasps them without knowing what they are?” “Of course, the person who does not know they are fire tongs will be burned more severely,” replied Ananda. “Exactly. Because a person does not know that what he is doing is wrong, he continually repeats the sin, and so it becomes heavier and more horrible.”
For twenty years the famous Cūda-panthaka devoted himself wordlessly to sweeping, as instructed by Śākyamuni. As a result, he realized that dust and dirt lay not only where he thought, but all the more so where he least suspected. “I know I am stupid, but my stupidity lies not just where I think it does. There’s no knowing how much more stupid I am in ways I don’t even suspect.” This revelation came to him, and he attained enlightenment, it is said. In the same way, the evil we are aware of is only the tip of the iceberg. The sins we commit without ever knowing it are much greater and more to be feared. We need to have them shown clearly to us through the mirror of Buddhism.
(The Petals of Shinran, The Wisteria volume, chapter 33)
Source: The Buddhist Village Times #47 | 2015, Sins Committed Knowingly and Unknowingly
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