Welcome to the fifth Interfaith Blog Event! In each installment of this series, which we're hoping to do on a monthly basis, we'll explore a single topic across three different religious traditions. I am, obviously, writing from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Jon, from Jesusfollowers Journal, will be writing from a Protestant Christian perspective, and Sojourner from A Pagan Sojourn, will be writing from a Pagan perspective.
The topic we'll be discussing today is the following:
What role does the concept and application of interpersonal forgiveness play in your spiritual tradition?
[Jon's Essay] [Sojourner's Essay]
At one time, in a life prior to that in which he became the Enlightened One, the soon-to-be-Buddha was a Bodhisattva named Khantivadi. One day, he visited the city of Benares and sat to meditate under a tree. While he was meditating, the King passed him with his harem and, having seen the Bodhisattva, interrupted his meditation to ask him what virtue he was practicing. The Bodhisattva replied that his practice was that of forbearance. The King, of the opinion that virtuous practice was worthless and a weakness, summoned his executioner and instructed him to cut off the hands and feet of the Bodhisattva. As the executioner did so, the King asked the Bodhisattva what value his practice of forbearance was now that his limbs were being cut off. The Bodhisattva replied that his forbearance and other virtues were not in his limbs but in his mind. He extended his loving-kindness to the King. The King, angered by his failure to upset the Bodhisattva, kicked him in the stomach and left him lying, without hands and feet, on the forest floor.
Soon thereafter, the King's minister heard of the King's cruel actions and hurried to the side of the Bodhisattva. Seeing him lying in the dirt, dying, the minister bowed deeply and said to him, "Venerable one, none of us agreed to this cruel act of the King and we are all sorrowing over what has been done to you by that devilish man. We ask you to curse the King but not us." The Bodhisattva responded, "May that king who has caused my hands and feet to be cut off, as well as you, live long in happiness." Having spoken thus, he died.
(The Elimination of Anger. Ven. K. Piyatissa Thera.)
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the verb "to forgive" has the following definition: "Stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw, or mistake." In the story I related above about one of the Buddha's past lives, we saw a most extreme example of cruelty toward the then-Bodhisattva. Such cruelty easily qualifies as an "offense, flaw, or mistake." And yet, the Bodhisattva did not respond in anger, nor experience any resentfulness. Therefore, in an ultimate sense, forgiveness plays no role in Buddhism, as anger or resentfulness toward someone for an offense does not occur.
Through observation of ourselves and our true nature, we learn that anger is solely the result of deluded thinking. Why do we feel anger or resentfulness when someone offends us? We experience such feelings because we think some combination of the following: "How dare they do that to me," "They should know better," and "Why me?" Slowing down and looking deeply at your anger will reveal the obvious truth that anger arises based on these factors. But it's not just the arising of these causes, but our attachment to them, that causes anger to escalate. Let's examine what happens when we get really angry. A person does something, and immediately our minds respond by flooding our system with adrenaline and thinking, "How DARE he do that to ME!" That thought consumes our minds--we become attached. We think it over and over, which stokes the flames of our anger. Soon we are white-hot. When our practice is strong, we can notice the initial cause of anger as it arises, and immediately douse the embers, as we know through our experience and deep looking that the only result of anger is to cause harm to us and harm to others. As we perfect our wisdom, anger and resentfulness do not arise at all, as in the case of the Bodhisattva above. Therefore, without the arising of anger or resentfulness, forgiveness has no relevance, as is clear from its definition.
All that being said, however, interpersonal forgiveness plays a very important role in Buddhism. The vast majority of us still become angry or resentful of others when we are wronged. In Buddhism, we speak of the three defilements of anger, greed, and delusion. These three defilements poison our minds and are the underlying causes of all suffering and the primary impediments to true love and compassion. Therefore, it is our primary practice as Buddhists to eradicate these defilements from our minds.
Since Buddhism is a path, not a dogmatic religion, it values any practice that will help one proceed along the path toward eliminating suffering and perfecting wisdom and compassion--even if that practice must ultimately be let go of after achieving its relative purpose. Forgiveness is such a practice. Even though, as I've explained above, forgiveness has no absolute relevance (i.e. after anger and resentfulness have been eliminated from the mind), it carries extreme importance on the Buddhist path in that it helps us eliminate suffering and perfect our wisdom and compassion. In Buddhism, we use the analogy of "seeds" being planted in the mind. We respond in anger because seeds of anger have been planted by our past actions (karma). For example, as children we watch our parents respond to certain things in anger. We love and respect our parents, and thereby we plant a seed of anger in our minds. Perhaps we try responding angrily ourselves, and thereby plant another seed. Each and every time we allow a seed of anger to sprout, we also plant another seed. The further we allow anger to escalate when it does sprout, the more seeds are planted. Hence, any practice that will help us to recognize anger early in the process and arrest its escalation will help us plant fewer and fewer seeds of anger in our unconscious. Forgiveness is such a practice.
Let's examine why this is so. Let's say our spouse forgets to pay an important bill. We notice the unpaid bill on the desk two days after it is due, and anger arises because we connect the unpaid bill to a worsening of our credit rating, a late payment fee, and our spouse's irresponsibility. A seed of anger planted previously has sprouted, and we now have two choices. We can choose to attach to the "results" of the unpaid bill, and let them stew in our minds, which will escalate our anger. We will eventually confront our spouse, and our anger will make such confrontation hostile and hurtful, in addition to planting further seeds of anger that will sprout in the future. We have a second choice of response, however. We can choose to forgive our spouse for this mistake, recognizing that she did not forget on purpose, but due to stress at work or some other similar cause. When we truly forgive our spouse, our anger immediately ceases. Then when we confront our spouse, we do so out of love and compassion, rather than anger. Forgiveness, therefore, is a beautiful Buddhist practice with many wonderful results: it stops the poison of anger in its tracks; it stops the personal suffering anger causes us; it protects us from causing harm to others when we act out of anger; it trains us to recognize and transcend anger earlier and earlier in the process; it prevents us from planting additional seeds of anger; and it teaches us how to act out of pure compassion and love.
Therefore, interpersonal forgiveness is a practice with a very important role in practical Buddhism. Eventually we will reach the point at which we have eliminated anger and, hence, the need for forgiveness. But until that time, forgiveness is a spiritual practice with innumerable benefits to all beings.