Forgiveness As A Spiritual Practice

All of us want happiness.  When you look at our world you can see that all sentient beings right down to the smallest insect want only to be happy.  Yet when we hold resentment and anger against someone who has wronged us, it is impossible to be happy.  Anger and resentment destroy our happiness.

Rabbi Harold Kushner says that if after two days we have not forgiven someone who has wronged us, then it becomes our problem.  Letting go of our anger and resentment is important and if we can’t do that after two days then we are paying for it by letting it destroy our happiness.  Kushner is talking about forgiving the unforgivable – not just everyday kind of annoyances.

I think there are many misconceptions about the practice of forgiving.  Some mistakenly believe that by forgiving you are condoning or accepting a grievous act.  Or that by forgiving it implies you are weak and will not stand up against those who commit such acts.  Another misconception is that if you forgive, justice will be abandoned.  But forgiveness is not about helplessly giving up, surrendering, avoiding justice or being weak.  Forgiveness is about recognizing the terrible wrong that you hold in your heart, realizing that the wrong can be healed, and working to understand how you came to hold your anger and resentment so dearly so that you do not let it happen again.  This process helps you to develop compassion for yourself and others. Forgiveness can be understood as a spiritual practice and was taught by Jesus, Buddha and other great spiritual teachers.

There are many reasons that forgiveness is important.  First and foremost, through forgiveness we can begin to liberate our own feelings of anger and resentment.  Through the practice of forgiveness we can free our own inner rage.  When we forgive an offender, not only does the offender benefit but we also benefit by restoring our peace of mind and happiness.  Forgiveness is actually an act of compassion whereby very often we can find real meaning in the worst of life’s events.

It may surprise you but most people find it easiest to forgive a complete stranger, or someone they don’t know very well.  After all, if someone bumps your cart at the grocery store you don’t hold any resentment.  Even an automobile accident is fairly easy to forgive.  But what about forgiveness as we get closer in our circle of relationships?  Isn’t a friend who disappoints us more difficult to forgive?  And what about family members – aren’t they even more difficult to forgive?  We all know (or have personally experienced) members of families who have been estranged for years.  But the person most difficult of all to forgive is ourselves.  Most of us can be very hard on ourselves.  When we disappoint a loved one or harm ourselves or others through body, speech or mind, very often we hold the resentment against ourselves much longer than we would against a stranger.  Why is it more difficult for us to forgive ourselves than a stranger?

How to forgive the unforgivable?

It was while doing prison outreach that I met another Buddhist volunteer who had been visiting the prison regularly for several years.  To shield his identity I will call him John.  I was impressed by his devotion and dedication to the inmates.  Each religion at the prison has a locker where they keep books, videos and religious objects for practice.  When John first started visiting the prison the Buddhist locker was virtually empty.  John had solicited Buddhist publishers and in just a few short months the once empty locker was now brimming with Buddhist books, videos and audio tapes.  John was so devoted to visiting and teaching these inmates that the only time he missed the weekly visits was when he was out of town.

During one of our regular visits with the inmates, we discussed forgiveness as a practice.  John related to the inmates that he had a friend who had been horribly sexually abused as he was growing up.  John related how this deeply affected his friend all of his life.  It seems his friend later in life became a volunteer at a prison.  It was in volunteering at the prison that he realized he was in a particularly fortunate position to truly identify with many of the prisoners who also suffered abuse growing up.  As I listened I wondered if John might be talking about himself.  As we checked out of the prison that night I wondered if there was a way I could tactfully ask him if he was talking about himself.  I concluded that it would not be proper to ask him such a personal question.  As we stood in the parking lot saying good-bye, John lowered his eyes and while staring at the ground he said, “You know that friend I was talking about tonight is really me.”  With tears in my eyes I put my arm around his shoulder and told him how much I admired him.  John later told me he had come to the conclusion that had he not been abused as a child, he would never have been able to truly empathize with the inmates, many of whom had also been abused as children.  It was in forgiving the unforgivable that John was able to show real compassion for others.  What he suffered earlier in life turned out to be a blessing in disguise, and his nightmares ended.  John is an amazing example of how we cannot only forgive the unforgivable but we can actually transform it into the positive action of compassion to benefit others

Apology and forgiveness is implied throughout the Buddhist texts.  Even Jesus when asked how many times one should forgive one’s brother said that one should forgive seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22).  The Buddha also spoke of forgiveness.  But is it possible to forgive the unforgivable?  Can we possibly forgive those who commit unspeakable offenses?  The book “Chop Wood, Carry Water” relates the well-known poignant Tibetan Buddhist story about two Tibetan monks who encounter each other some years after being released from prison where they had been tortured by their captors.  “Have you forgiven them?” asks the first.  “I will never forgive them! Never!” replies the second.  “Well, I guess they still have you in prison, don’t they?” the first says.

Spiritual practices to cultivate forgiveness

There are many examples of the practice of forgiveness in the Buddhist texts.  One of my favorites is the story of Angulimala.  Angulimala had killed 999 persons and collected their fingers in a necklace around his neck.  His name, Angulimala , means garland of fingers.  It was in searching for his one thousandth victim that he met the Buddha and realized what he had been doing was wrong.  The terrible murderer was forgiven and eventually able to attain complete enlightenment.  He became one of the Buddha’s closest disciples.  There is also the story of Milarepa an 11th century Tibetan saint who also had killed many people.  He too realized what he was doing was wrong and changed his ways and turned toward spiritual practice.  Like Angulimala, he too attained complete enlightenment and became one of Buddhism’s most important teachers.

In the Buddhist tradition there are specific meditation practices that help us cultivate forgiveness.  I recommend doing a loving-kindness meditation in three parts.  First ask forgiveness of all those you may have harmed through thoughts, words or actions.  Second offer forgiveness for any harm others have caused you through their thoughts, words or actions.  And finally offer forgiveness to yourself for any harm you have done to yourself.  By using the power of meditation, these ideas of compassion become more and more ingrained as a true part of our life and experience.

Another very good practice for developing forgiveness is called tonglen.  Tonglen is a meditation practice whereby you exchange self for others in order to alleviate the suffering of others.  Tonglen is sometimes referred to as “receiving and taking.”  In this practice you actually imagine you are taking in another’s suffering as you transform and purify it.  Doing this practice for someone who has harmed you is difficult but a very powerful lesson in forgiveness.  The well-known Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, said, “Tonglen practice reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In the process, we become liberated from very ancient patterns of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both others and ourselves; we begin to take care of others and ourselves. Tonglen awakens our compassion and introduces us to a far bigger view of reality.  It introduces us to the unlimited spaciousness…”

How can we expect happiness if we are unwilling to forgive?  Mother Theresa said, “If we really want to love, we must learn how to forgive.”  My friend John who volunteered at the prison had learned to transform his hurt into compassion for others.  Through his practice of forgiveness he was helping others and in return he was also giving and receiving the love referred to by Mother Theresa.  So, look into your own heart and see what burdens you are still carrying.  Transform your anger, and your resentments into acts of compassion.  And like my friend John, you may discover that even the most grievous acts can be the catalyst to transform negative emotions into acts of real compassion through forgiveness.