‘He insulted me, he hurt me, he defeated me, he robbed me.’ Those who think such thoughts will not be free from hate. ‘He insulted me, he hurt me, he defeated me, he robbed me.’ Those who think not such thoughts will be free from hate. – The Dhammapada
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another … sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” – NRSV
Yes, we can all stand to be a bit more forgiving, can’t we? It’s a capacity that spiritually-oriented individuals will likely recognize as being worthy of cultivation – for the sake of community, for the sake of relationships, for the sake of our own well-being, for the sake of the world. But even as we aspire to being more forgiving we might also wonder at the possibility of being too forgiving, thereby condoning bad behavior that serves nobody well in the long run. Is it even possible to be too forgiving? Should we finally say “enough is enough” after being sinned against for the seventy-eighth time? I hope this exploration of forgiveness will allow us to both see it with greater clarity and open up to it much more readily.
I get the sense that some people – either out of a genuinely felt need to be more forgiving, accepting, compassionate, etc., or in reaction to some internalized image of how the "ideally spiritual being" should behave – come to think that the role of the spiritual practitioner is to unquestioningly place everyone else’s perceived needs ahead of his or her own. With respect to us Buddhist practitioners, I suspect that this tendency frequently arises from a fundamentally dualistic way of thinking about ourselves. On the one hand we recognize and honor the wisdom of our bodhicitta – the awakening buddha-mind that we embody – and on the other hand we believe that we have this malicious and unwaveringly self-centered ego that is never to be trusted and never to be listened to. It’s rather strange, I think, that we should strive to rid ourselves of all dualistic thinking when we are looking at the world “out there” even as we continue to think of the world “in here” in such starkly dualistic terms!
The more reactionary tendency to place everyone else’s perceived needs ahead of our own might also arise from confusion resulting from a more superficial or even nihilistic interpretation of teachings related to emptiness, in general (nothing exists!), and no-self, in particular (I don’t exist!). Consider how a tendency to look at the world through such a lens might influence our reading of the following passage – one in which the Buddha encourages his followers to maintain a forgiving attitude towards even the most violent of individuals:
Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That's how you should train yourselves. – Majjhima Nikaya 21
Despite containing quite an extreme hypothetical situation, this passage does indeed contain some very practical lessons for our modern world. One lesson to be gleaned is that, once you recognize that you can no longer escape from whatever abusive situation you might find yourself in, then feelings of hatred, enmity, and anger are pretty useless to entertain. Another lesson relates to the “even if” phrase of the first sentence. We can, in fact, approach all situations in this way – without hatred, enmity, or anger towards either the situation or those responsible for creating it. However, nothing in this passage suggests that we should willingly place ourselves in the hands of those who would abuse us. Thus, if anyone finds him or herself being approached by bandits wielding saws, then I hope they will run as fast and as far as they can without a single thought of hatred, enmity, or anger entering into their adrenaline-fueled brain. Likewise, if anyone finds him or herself in an abusive situation, then I hope they will take wise and compassionate action to either correct the situation or else extricate themselves from it – without a single thought of hatred, enmity, or anger crossing their minds. Ah, but isn’t that a tall order!
Why don’t we take a moment to consider a situation much more common than forced dismemberment – that of a woman or man presented with the reality that her or his partner continues to be unfaithful, untrustworthy, and insensitive in their relationship. Here’s a great Lyle Lovett song from his eponymous 1986 release – performed here by Patty Loveless:
Who keeps on trusting you
When you've been cheating
And spending your nights on the town
And who keeps on saying
That he still wants you
When you're through running around
And who keeps on loving you
When you've been lying
Saying things ain't what they seem
But I don't
But I won't
And that's the difference
Between God and me
So who says he'll forgive you
And says that he'll miss you
And dream of your sweet memory
But I don't
But I won't
And that's the difference
Between God and me
So, how should we as spiritual practitioners respond when we find ourselves in such situations for which there is no mutually satisfactory resolution? Should we strive to “forgive and forget” – continuing to remain invested in the relationship? Should we accept the circumstances with equanimity and strive to compassionately accommodate the perceived needs of the offending individual? (After all, it’s so much easier to accommodate a cheating partner than it is a band of murderous bandits!) Or should we look for a way to remove ourselves from the situation or the relationship as compassionately as we possibly can?
Now, perhaps you find this last option just a little bit unsettling. Perhaps it is difficult to reconcile your present image of the “idealized spiritual being” with this concept of legitimate self-interest – the legitimate interests of ‘the self that is not other.’ Towards that end, let’s look to another of the Buddha’s teachings for some practical guidance related to proper associations. Here is the Buddha addressing Sigala, a young householder who has come to hear him teach (I’ve edited the original in order to enable it to be read much more fluidly):
These…, young householder, should be understood as foes in the guise of friends:
…he who appropriates a friend's possessions, …renders lip-service, … flatters, …brings ruin; … he [who] appropriates his friend's wealth, …gives little and asks much, …does his duty out of fear, …associates for his own advantage; …he [who] makes friendly profession as regards the past, …makes friendly profession as regards the future, …tries to gain one's favor by empty words, … [but who] when opportunity for service has arisen, …expresses his inability; …he approves of his friend's evil deeds, … he disapproves [of] his friend's good deeds, …he praises him in his presence, …he speaks ill of him in his absence; …he is a companion in indulging in intoxicants that cause infatuation and heedlessness, …he is a companion in sauntering in streets at unseemly hours, …he is a companion in frequenting theatrical shows, …he is a companion in indulging in gambling which causes heedlessness.
These…, young householder, should be understood as warm-hearted friends:
…he who is a helpmate, …he who is the same in happiness and sorrow, …he who gives good counsel, …he who sympathises; …he guards the heedless, …he protects the wealth of the heedless, …he becomes a refuge when you are in danger, …when there are commitments he provides you with double the supply needed; …he reveals his secrets, …he conceals one's own secrets, …in misfortune he does not forsake one, …his life even he sacrifices for one's sake; …he restrains one from doing evil, …he encourages one to do good, …he informs one of what is unknown to oneself, …he points out the path to heaven; …he does not rejoice in one's misfortune, …he rejoices in one's prosperity, …he restrains others speaking ill of oneself, …he praises those who speak well of oneself. – Digha Nikaya 31
What we have here is some pretty good advice regarding the skillful and unskillful cultivation of associations. And if you take the time to read the entire sutra via the link below, you will be left with no doubt whatsoever regarding the more general question of whether or not there is room for legitimate self-interest in the practice of Buddhism. What does remain to be determined, however, is how to appropriately balance the needs of both self and other on a moment-by-moment basis. This, of course, is just one very practical reason for our continuous practice.
Practice shows us that we need not focus on the self in reaction to enmity or anger towards others (aversion), or vice versa; neither do we need to focus on the self on the basis of egoic self-centeredness (attachment), or vice versa. Continuous practice allows us to view these dynamic situations in their entirety with clarity, with equanimity, with a sense of compassion for both self and other, and with an eye on what is best in the long run for all beings. And this is where the discussion returns to forgiveness.
Forgiveness is the relinquishment of hatred, enmity, and anger towards those who we perceive as having offended us. Forgiveness is not predicated on the other person or persons changing, expressing contrition, or asking for forgiveness. It does not require us to be “nice” to them, nor does it require us to remain in close relationship with them – although it does behoove us to keep in mind that, in an ultimate sense, we remain in relationship with everything in the universe whether we choose to be or not.
Forgiveness does not require that we forget; forgetting is an unattainable goal, anyway, notwithstanding some neurological deficit. However, forgiveness might be accompanied by a new willingness to act as if the perceived offense or indiscretion had not happened – assuming that the offending party is sincerely agreeing to change, that is. For instance, if one’s partner has been unfaithful and dishonest and one wishes to remain in close relationship, then it might be in the best interest of the relationship (and therefore you) to behave as if your partner has indeed returned to faithfulness and honesty. You may still have twinges of doubt; suspicion may cross your mind from time to time; but you will be able to let these go without them having a corrosive effect on your relationship.
But even if our forgiveness is not accompanied by a willingness to act as if the perceived offense has not occurred, it nevertheless allows us to move more freely and seamlessly through both our outer and inner world by allowing the offending person to be in our presence or in our thoughts without the arising of afflictive emotions. For instance, we might very matter-of-factly not trust someone without having or displaying any particular animosity towards them. In this way forgiveness allows us to navigate in a world without people, places, and things having “negative charge,” so to speak. We just see them as they are. In this way, we might no longer feel the need to exile ourselves from gatherings where the offending individual might be present. We might be able to return once again to those activities that we’ve not allowed ourselves to enjoy ever since we last enjoyed them with our lover prior to our betrayal. Perhaps most importantly, though, we might open up once again to the very sort of trust and openness that allowed another to hurt us in the first place.
Forgiveness encompasses a greater sense of equanimity towards that which has occurred and those who have caused it to occur. While it is not a forgetting of that which has occurred, it is a recognition that what has occurred need not dictate who we are or who we will become. Forgiveness encompasses an acceptance of that which has occurred without any accompanying need for it to have been different. Forgiveness encompasses compassion for those who are perceived to have perpetrated harm by recognizing that they, like all human beings, are flawed individuals subject to their own measure of positive and negative karma.
Lastly, forgiveness of another may well encompass forgiveness of ourselves – for whatever role we might have played in creating the offending situation or interaction – for not being “perfect” spiritual practitioners willing and able to withstand any and all circumstances or to remain in close relationship with anyone and everyone no matter how much of our energy might be drained away in the process. Yes, certain aspects of our ego do tend to pull us toward self-centeredness; and so it is good to test the limits of our comfort zone and to look at ourselves deeply and unflinchingly. But we also embody great wisdom – wisdom that has resulted in us walking the spiritual path that we presently walk. Sometimes walking that path requires us to remain in place, using every last ounce of our energy in order to salvage what is good in the situation or relationship; but sometimes walking that path requires us to move toward greater solitude – thereby creating fertile space in which something new might grow. Either way, forgiveness will allow us to offer to the world the best of what we have to offer.
Digha Nikaya 31. Sigalovada sutta: The discourse to Sigala – The layperson's code of discipline (Narada Thera Tr.) Access to Insight, 24 March 2012,
Majjhima Nikaya 21. Kakacupama sutta: The simile of the saw (Thanissaro Bhikkhu Tr.). Access to Insight, 30 June 2010,
The Dhammapada – The path of perfection (Juan Mascaro Tr.). Published by Penguin Group, 1973.
Buddha and white dove via:
Copyright 2013 by Maku Mark Frank