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Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Buddhism

 


As Buddhists, we have an unnatural pressure placed upon us to forgive people who harm us.  This is to be expected.  After all, humans are social creatures, and they hate conflict.  

Unfortunately, the quickest way to end conflict is ask the victim of an altercation to forgive their perpetrator; immediately and without question.

But this is an unhealthy practice.  It creates an environment where various types of abuse can occur.  

That said, forgiveness is an important part of practice.  And it can be helpful to have a working definition of the word.  According to dictionary.com, to forgive means, "to cease to feel resentment against." But the way in which we go about forgiving people is important.  There is a process that needs to be followed.

To put it a different way, if we cut our hand, it is foolish to expect it to heal immediately.  There are steps that must be followed to ensure the wound does not fester.  We clean the damaged area, apply pressure to stop the bleeding, and place a bandage over the wound.  It is only after these steps are taken that healing can begin.

Forgiveness works in the same way.  There are three steps (acceptance, reconciliation, forgiveness) that must be taken for absolution to take place.  Otherwise wounds fester and relationships become toxic.  It's important to note that reconciliation comes before forgiveness in this process.  

That's because our ability or lack thereof to find agreement with the people who hurt us frames the nature of our forgiveness

To understand this, we can use the example of coming home, and learning that our room mate, Sam, has stolen money from our wallet.

Acceptance 

We begin the forgiveness and reconciliation process by practicing acceptance towards any emotions that come into our minds.  That doesn't mean we act on those feelings, of course.  But in the same way that we watch our minds, and allow ourselves to feel things during meditation, we must do the same when we are harmed.

Chanting or mindful breathing can be helpful in this moment as we both honor our emotions and try to work with them skillfully.  We've been violated and it is important to acknowledge that wound in the same way that we acknowledge a cut on our hand.

The next step is to remind ourselves that we are a Buddha and so is the room mate that stole from us.  This reminder helps us to ease feelings of ill will that we have towards the person.  It also creates space for us to work through feelings of anger or betrayal that we experience without feeling that we are failing in our practice.

For an example of how this works we can look at the story of Bodhisattva Sadaparibhuta, which is found in the Lotus Sutra.  Sadaparibhuta lived when there was great animosity and discord within the Buddhist sangha.  He was disparaged and made fun of by his peers, but he responded to their insults by saying:

I do not belittle you

Practice the path

And you will all become Buddhas

Sadaparibhuta did this in order remind both himself and his oppressors of their shared Buddha-nature. Keeping this mindset helped him to not succumb to anger.  It is later revealed that he is reincarnated as Sakyamuni Buddha and his tormentors are reincarnated as his close friends and members of his monastic community!

So, in our example, reflecting on the Buddha hood that we share with the person who stole from us reminds us that both parties are worthy of love and respect, and creates a space where reconciliation is possible.

Reconciliation

During reconciliation, we discuss our feelings with the person who harmed us and work to find a resolution that leaves both parties feeling whole.  The goal is not to "wipe the slate clean."  Rather, we want to acknowledge the harm that has been done, and repair a damaged relationship.

There are many ways to have this conversation, but it is important for both parties to use nonviolent communication when speaking.  That is, they should strive to use language that is in-keeping with the Buddhist teaching of Right Speech, while still working to get their point across.

One resource that I use when having these conversations is a book by Marshall B. Rosenberg called Nonviolent Communication.  In it, he details various techniques for having difficult discussions, expressing our emotions, and resolving conflicts peacefully.  

Unfortunately, it is impossible to express the full nuance of this practice in a single article, however, the overview that Marshall lists for using nonviolent communication goes like this:

  • Express our own needs
  • Search for the needs of the other person
  • Verify that we both recognize the needs of the other person
  • Provide empathy so we can both hear each other's needs accurately
  • Propose strategies for resolving the conflict; framing them in positive action language

Going back to the example of money being stolen from our wallet.  If we use nonviolent communication techniques, the conversation might go like this:

Us: Hello, Sam, I'm feeling angry right now because money was taken from my wallet without my permission.  I need to feel safe in my home; like I can leave things out without having them disappear.  Does that make sense to you.

Sam: Yes, but it was only five dollars, so I don't see what the big deal is!

Us:  I hear what you're saying, but it's a big deal to me because I need to feel safe in my home.  And I'm concerned this could hurt our relationship.  I'd also like to know why the money was taken.

Sam: Okay...

Us:  Would you be willing to discuss this with me, and come up with a solution that makes us both feel safe since we live together?

Sam: Sure, I guess that sounds okay.

Based on how this conversation goes, we determine what our forgiveness will look like.

Forgiveness

In an ideal scenario, Same will apologize for what he did, return the stolen money, and promise to not steal from us again.

In that case, it's possible that nothing changes, and life goes on exactly as it did before.  But what if the conversation goes poorly?  What if he won't admit that he did anything wrong or refuses to have the conversation altogether?!

In that case, we are still able to forgive Sam for his transgressions, that is to say, we let go of our resentment toward him.  However, out of compassion for ourselves and him, we change the nature of the relationship, so we cannot be hurt again.

Maybe we stop giving him access to our valuables or we file a police report.  We may even choose to move out and get a new room mate.

As Bodhisattva Sadaparibhuta pointed out, we are Buddhas.  That means we are expected to show compassion towards ourselves in the same way that we show compassion towards other living beings.

We let go of our bitterness towards the person who hurt us, but we don't let them hurt us again

However, this isn't just for our benefit.  By taking steps to protect ourselves we are also protecting the other person.  In the case of Sam, the room mate who stole from us, the karma associated with stealing is terrible.  

By taking steps to keep our things from being taken we are protecting Sam from the negative karma associated with stealing.  We are fulfilling the Bodhisattva vow to save all sentient beings from suffering.

That being said, in an ideal scenario where both parties comes to a resolution, it's normal for there to be hurt feelings after the fact.  Even the best doctors can't stop the development of scars if a wound is too deep, and this is also true of any physical/ mental/ emotional injuries that we endure at the hands of other people.

Thus, it's important to note that the process of acceptance, reconciliation, and forgiveness is not a one time thing.  We may need to cycle through the steps more than once in order to repair broken relationships.  And it can be helpful to uses practices like Naikan, mindful breathing, and loving-kindness meditations in order to work through the pain that we experience.

The most important thing to remember about forgiveness is that the ball is in our court.  No one has the power to tell us that we must forgive someone or that the reconciliation should be completed in a certain amount of time.  And it is up to us to decide what forgiveness looks like in the end.

Namu Amida Butsu


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Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Buddhist Practice


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