Forgiveness


by Rev. Kinrei Bassis

 

Liberation, the goal of Buddhist training, is the unshakable deliverance of our hearts from all defilements, desire, ill will, and delusion. The problem is how we actually free our hearts from our passions and delusions. Often, the teachings and goals of Buddhism seem so vast and unachievable that many of us can find it overwhelming. Yet Buddhism is very practical. In all situations, the proper Buddhist response is the choice that will minimize suffering and maximize happiness. One very simple teaching, central to the Four Noble Truths, is that all suffering is not caused by what is happening to us, but that all suffering is caused by our wrong view and wrong thought. Circumstances and conditions are not making us suffer. Our delusions are making us suffer.

 

One way that we can ground the practice of Buddhism is to look carefully at all the ill will in our hearts. Whether it is anger and criticism of others, anger at groups of people and institutions, or anger and criticism of ourselves, the Buddhist teaching is to always try to offer everything our unconditional forgiveness. Whenever we choose not to forgive, we are closing our hearts to something and rejecting an aspect of reality. One of Rev. Master Jiyu’s favorite sayings was “when we look with the eyes of a Buddha, we will see the heart of a Buddha.”

 

Much delusion and ill will seems to be part of the normal human response to life. Someone hurts us, and we harbor anger and ill will towards them. The deluded feelings that accompany this ill will are that we are hurting the other people when we blame them and do not forgive them, and that we are not letting them get away with their harmful behavior. One important insight Buddhist training gives us is to see that when we are harboring anger and criticism in our hearts and minds, we are actually hurting ourselves. It is as if we are feeding poison into our hearts and thinking that the pain and discomfort we are generating is something to cherish. People are often almost completely insensitive to the suffering and discomfort they are experiencing when they are angry. When we are angry, we are usually wishing that the person we blame, will experience pain and discomfort. One important function of Buddhist practice is to get in touch with our deeper feelings and to realize how much better compassion feels than anger and how much better forgiveness feels than blame.

 

In the Dhammapada, the central collection of the sayings of the Buddha, these following verses are near the beginning of the collection, because they point to one of the most central and important teachings of the Buddha.

 

3. “He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me”, in those who harbor such thoughts, hatred is not appeased.

 

4. “He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me”, in those who do not harbor such thoughts, hatred is appeased.

 

5. Hatreds never cease through hatred in this world; through love alone they cease. This is an eternal law. 1

 

One important aspect of Buddhist training is recognizing the underlying viewpoints we hold that lead to suffering. Most of us feel that we have been the victim of others, the victim of their greed, hate and delusion. We all have memories of being unfairly criticized, ignored, belittled, and misunderstood. Often, the karma can even be more difficult, we may have been physically or psychologically hurt, abused, molested, or mistreated. How do we let these things go? How do we not cling to being damaged, to being a victim, to rail against the injustice, the unfairness, the evil of others? Yet the liberation of our hearts that we seek in Buddhism cannot come until we forgive everything and trust that nothing was ever fundamentally damaged or lost no matter what has happened.

 

The wondrous aspect of Buddhist training is that all hurt and all wounds will dissolve and wash away eventually if you are willing to apply the Dharma and stop clinging. When we hold on to the hurt and the damage, we actually feed suffering and keep it alive. We nurture these wounds in our hearts and keep replaying the conditions that hurt us. The compassion central to Buddhist practice brings us to open our hearts to what is being offered in the present and to let go of the past. Meditation points us to the realization that nothing binds us unless we allow it to and give the defiling emotions a home in our hearts and minds. The practice of meditation points us to the ideal we are striving to awaken. Whatever we think, whatever we feel, whatever we remember, we need to let everything go and trust in what is unfolding in our lives in this very moment. The whole practice of meditation is a practice of trying to let go and not let anything get between us and the ever-present life of Buddha.

 

To forgive everything is necessary if one is going to find the deepest truths of Buddhism. Also, forgiveness grounds our practice in seeing how the hardness of our heart is the problem, not the mistakes of others. When our hearts are closed with anger or blame, we can begin the process of converting our difficulties into something that brings healing by recognizing that our ill will is the problem, not what causes or triggers our harsh and bitter feelings. It is very liberating when we realize that to find peace, we do not need to change the world. All we need to do is to convert our own hearts and minds, and the way we experience the world and our selves will be transformed.

 

The Bodhisattva vows are a central part of Mahayana Buddhist practice. They can seem so vast and impossible that many Buddhist find them overwhelming.

 

However innumerable beings may be, I vow to save them all.

 

However inexhaustible the passions may be, I vow to transform them all.

 

However limitless the Dharma may be, I vow to comprehend it completely.

 

However infinite the Buddha’s Truth is, I vow to realize it.

 

The word Mahayana means great vehicle. It symbolizes that we are wishing to cross to the other shore of liberation with all sentient beings. These vows mean that we are willing to help everyone to find their way to this boat of liberation and that we will cross to the other shore with them. This willingness to help all sentient beings must include everyone, even those we find to be the most difficult and painful to be with. These vast and seemingly impossible vows; however, can be grounded into something that is much easier to grasp and to put into action. We can forgive everyone for whatever mistake they have made, whatever hurt they have caused, and whatever suffering they have inflicted. We can point our hearts to finding compassion for whomever has made mistakes and hurt us or others. We also need to include ourselves in the practice of forgiveness and forgive ourselves for whatever mistakes and wrongs we have committed.

 

Anger and hate just lead to more anger and hate, like a wheel that continues to turn in the wrong direction. As the Buddha said, Hatreds never cease through hatred in this world; through love alone they cease. This is an eternal law. When anger and hate arise in our hearts, we have a choice. We can recognize that our ill will is the real problem. We can stop complaining that others are acting from selfish and deluded feelings when we recognize that we are choosing to follow our own deluded feelings. The freedom in Buddhism shows us that we always have a choice. We are always free to choose the path of forgiveness and compassion, and we can transform our hearts from the hardness of hate and anger to the soft openness of compassion and love.

 

1 The Dhammapada, translated by Narada Thera (Buddhist Missionary Society, 1978) p.4-8