“She abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!”
For those not carrying on like this,
Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.
(Dhp 3-5, Fronsdal)
I discovered something interesting as I was researching this article, essentially searching the Pali canon for “forgiveness.” What I found was that the term is almost never used in the canon, and I was unable to find, say, a sutta in which Gotama discusses the importance of forgiveness (if you know of one, let me know!). And yet, as we can tell by this excerpt from the first chapter of the Dhammapada, importance is given to the notion of relinquishing attachment to the sense of having been wronged.
Perhaps the reason for my surprise at the lack of discussion of forgiveness in the canon has to do with a disconnect between the way we in the contemporary West view the concept and the way Gotama understood the human condition. If I forgive you, I think I’m giving you a kind of free pass. You have done me an injustice — abused me, defeated me, robbed me — but I will be magnanimous and let you get away with it. This is why we often have such a hard time forgiving others — it feels as if we are aiding and abetting the injustice that was done to us. Does the person who wronged us deserve such a break? Are we not being weak push-overs if we forgive? If we do forgive, we might say “I forgive you, but I won’t forget,” as if to make it clearly known that we have not dropped our guard. Especially if the abuse we suffered was traumatic, forgiveness may seem wrong, or even dangerous.
This is also why the person we often have the most difficulty forgiving is ourself. If my sense of moral shame is engaged, I may feel I’m the last person on Earth who is empowered to cut myself slack for my failures and shortcomings. Even when the person I’ve wronged appears to have let me off the hook, I may still carry my sense of shame around with me — and if that person is no longer here to forgive me, I may carry that shame to my deathbed.
In the background, of course, is the context of the notion of sin and forgiveness in Christianity, in which transgression can only be forgiven by an all-powerful deity, if it is ever forgiven at all. Christian doctrine teaches that humans are born unworthy of forgiveness, which is only granted by divine grace. Given the deep imprint of Christianity on Western culture, it’s little wonder that many of us have such a hard time with forgiveness.
A very different conception of transgression seems to be represented in the Dhammapada passage. If we examine the lines, we notice that the “carrying on” of non-forgiveness involves a narrative, a story about self and other. I am the victim; he or she is the perpetrator, and what was done is some kind of outrage. In this story, the self has defined itself in terms of the abuse it received from the other. Immediately, many questions arise. Is the story true? Did the act even truly occur? If so, was it really an outrage? Might the “perpetrator” have simply been pursuing his or her own legitimate self interests? Were they in control of their actions? Are they even aware of the “crime” they committed? Has the victim never been a perpetrator, and the perpetrator never a victim? And we notice that, as long as we are telling ourselves this story, we are trapped in our victimhood, incapable of freeing ourselves from the suffering it imposes on us.
The resolution to these questions is suggested by the very next verse of the Dhammapada:
Many do not realize that
We here must die.
For those who realize this,
The key to the non-hate called for in verse 5 is just this: the recognition that we are all temporary, fallible mortals who want security, love and happiness and are confused about how to obtain them. That our time here is brief, and that soon our disputes will be over and forgotten. If I cling to my egoic identity as “victim”, then even an act of forgiveness will reinforce that sense of separateness and vulnerability. To truly forgive, I have to somehow see beyond my self-constructed victim/perpetrator roles and recognize that the fundamental facts of our common humanity bind us on a level far deeper than the accidental details of our impermanent interactions. Then I can release my grip on woundedness and alienation, and accept what has happened without generating additional suffering for myself. And, with mindfulness, my acts to make amends or prevent future injustices will be motivated by intentions of kindness and compassion instead of reactivity to the grasping, fear and delusion of the egoic self.
Just as forgiving others requires me to recognize that they share my humanity, forgiving myself requires me to accept myself in my humanity: my propensity to be driven by grasping and aversion, the limits of my knowledge and awareness, and the fact that, just like everyone else, I’m trying my best to be happy and not suffer.
What is crucial, then, is not simply making or receiving an expression of forgiveness, nor just making amends to those we have hurt, as important as those gestures can be. Forgiveness on a deep level requires that we see beyond the illusory divide between self and other, to see ourselves in others, and them in us. So, just as with the cultivation of equanimity, kindness and compassion, cultivating real forgiveness takes lots of practice. Just as with those other skillful states, we can use meditative practices that engage the imagination to help us generate the intention to forgive and strengthen our ability to recognize that the same life flows through all of us, that we share our desire for happiness and our capacity for love with everyone we meet, including those who have wronged us.
Tara Brach writes:
As the Buddha taught, our habitual perception of self is a mental construct–the idea of an entity who causes things to happen, who is victimized, who controls the show. When we say “I accept myself as I am,” we are not accepting a story about a good or bad self. Rather, we are accepting the immediate mental and sensory experiences we interpret as self. We are seing the familiar wants and fears, the judging and planning thoughts as part of the flow of life. Accepting them in this way actually enables us to recongnize that experience is impersonal and frees us from the trap of identifying ourselves as a deficient and limited self. (Radical Acceptance, pp. 41).
This Sunday, August 10, 2014, at 8 p.m. CDST, Practice Circle will be working with guided meditations to help cultivate the freedom of forgiveness. To learn how you can join us, please visit the Practice Circle Page and follow the links at the bottom. I hope to see you there!