Buddhism and Forgiveness
- By Father Joseph S. O'Leary
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Christianity is based on the idea, or rather the event, of divine forgiveness: “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also [must forgive]” (Col. 3:13). Why was this reality so little actualized in Northern Ireland? Even now, when a measure of rational political coexistence has been achieved, there is little cordiality or friendship between the Christian communities of the area. Such cordiality would be the fruit of mutual apology and mutual forgiveness, but even that seems to be far from people’s minds. The word “forgiveness” is not a popular one; it sounds like the jargon of sentimental preachers. It is easier to forget than to forgive, for forgiveness implies a relationship with the one to be forgiven—that is not desired. But peace-building means cultivating a mutuality of concern with the one that had been comfortably categorized as the enemy. It also involves defusing the religious and national ideologies that have bred intolerance, hatred, or violence.
The topic of forgiveness may seem at first sight remote from the concerns of Buddhism. Buddhism does not conceive of ultimate truth in the guise of a personal God. Its concepts of error and defilement do not readily translate into the Biblical notions of sin and guilt. The Buddhist solution to unwholesome dispositions is to overcome them by following the path that leads to release; acts of pardon and grace have little to do with it. In some early Buddhist texts, the emphasis falls not on forgiving, but on the foolishness of taking offense in the first place:
He abused me, he struck me, he overcame me, he robbed me”—in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.
He abused me, he struck me, he overcame me, he robbed me”—in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease. "
-- Dhammapada 1.3–4; trans. Radhakrishnan
In contrast, Biblical rhetoric is full of references to enemies, slanderers, persecutors. Buddhism might unmask a delusion here, rather than go on to talk of forgiving one’s enemies and blessing one’s persecutors. Biblical salvation is atonement for evils that have already occurred; but Buddhist salvation is more an effort to prevent the evils from arising in the first place. When they have already arisen, it calmly proceeds to dismantle them by going back to their roots. One universal process of karmic causality presides over all evils and the cure for them. Even the ultimate goal of undoing the chains of karma and entering the freedom of nirvana is attained through following this analytical procedure. There is no supernatural dissolution of bondage to evil by an act of grace (at least in early Buddhism). Thus, when we seek resources in Buddhism for a clarification and underpinning of the Biblical ideas of sin, forgiveness, grace, reconciliation, and atonement, we face the risk that these notions themselves will disappear in light of Buddhism’s higher wisdom.
There is a deep tension between the Indian wisdom that grasps ultimate reality in impersonal terms and regards ideas of a personal creator as at best provisional skillful means (upaya) for those who need them, and the Christian conviction that ultimate reality is most fully and concretely known when it gives itself the voice and face of a personal God. Even as we remain convinced of the primacy of the personal God of Scripture, we can allow the impersonal conceptions to play against it critically, providing a perspective that prevents the drama of sin and forgiveness from being reduced to an infantilizing schema of placating an offended Father.
Mahayana ( “Great Vehicle”) Buddhism, with its plethora of savior figures, makes place for a warmer, more positive conception of forgiveness than we find in early Buddhism. But even there salvation centers not on forgiveness but on release from delusion and suffering through meditative insight into the nature of reality. Buddhism queries the reality of the passions that make forgiveness necessary and also queries the reality of the objects of those passions. My anger, resentment, and hatred are delusions, and so is the crime or offense the other is thought to have committed against me. Indeed, my very concept of “myself” and of “other” is pervaded by delusion and fixation. Even if these Buddhist ideas were totally untrue, it would still be very wholesome to meditate on them at a time when national, ethnic, and religious identity has so often shown a murderous face.
The person harboring resentful thoughts may as a matter of fact have been abused, struck, overcome, or robbed, yet his brooding on this imprisons him in delusion and fixation. Memory of past offenses plays a huge role in contemporary culture, and there is insufficient reflection on the dangers of clinging to such memory. Much current rhetoric makes the hurt, anger, traumatization felt by victims into a kind of sacred cow that cannot be questioned. Instead of seeking to heal and dispel their wounds, victims are encouraged to nag at them and to seek “closure” by some form of vindictive payback. Hatred is still regarded as a strength rather than a poison. One must seek to understand the rage of the oppressed, but without forgetting how rage tends to become blind and rigid, feeding on itself. Rage finds stereotyped expression in destructive acts. Its delusional aspects must be undone if the energy of indignation is to be converted into flexible and strategic action.
Equanimity is the attitude most prized in early Buddhism, not only because it is the condition for the effective practice of loving-kindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy, but because it excels these as a realization of spiritual freedom. The balanced person never takes offense. Yet in Mahayana Buddhism, balance tends to yield pride of place to compassion, and forgiveness becomes more than a matter of spiritual freedom. Within the altruistic bodhisattva ideal, the bodhisattva recognizes in the enemy an occasion for practicing forbearance. But he also practices forgiveness for the enemy’s sake.
To regard your enemy as your best friend, as a bodhisattva sent to help you, is an attitude enjoined by the Lotus Sutra, which shows the Buddha describing his arch-enemy, Devadatta, as one who benefited him in a previous existence and one who is destined to become a great buddha. What facilitates such attitudes in Buddhism is the notion that there is no permanent identity in either the offender or the offended. Practice of the art of forgiveness entails willingness to recognize our own lack of substantial being, the totally contingent, dependently arisen, empty texture of our existence and our history. Compassion (karuna) is based on realizing the equality of oneself and others and also practicing the substitution of others for one self.
First published in Dharma World 31, Nov.-Dec. 2004
Father Joseph S. O'Leary was born in Cork, Ireland. He taught theology at the University of Notre Dame and Duquesne University before moving to Japan in 1983. He has been teaching English Literature at Sophia University since 1988. His publications include theological works such as Questioning Back and Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth; in addition he has written extensively on James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.