Let me say, right at the start, that I am not going to be diplomatic. The extent to which the notion of forgiveness has insinuated itself into contemporary Buddhist thinking disturbs me deeply. Although many may disagree with me, I feel that current interpretations of forgiveness in the Buddhist community undermine the teachings of karma, encourage the cult of victimhood, weaken human relationships, and obfuscate the practice of purification.
In contemporary Buddhist settings, forgiveness is interpreted in several ways. One is as a way of letting go of our expectations and disappointments in others—in other words, letting go of our attachment to a different past. Another interpretation is as an extension of lovingkindness. In the Tibetan tradition, it is sometimes presented as an extension of patience or of compassion. These are all key practices, and they appear in virtually every Buddhist tradition, but to call them forgiveness? Well, that may be unforgivable. As Idries Shah writes in Knowing How to Know: A Practical Philosophy in the Sufi Tradition, when you adopt the methods developed in another culture, those methods and the ways of thinking associated with them eventually take over, and you lose touch with your own understanding and training. In the same way, by importing the foreign (to Buddhism) notion of forgiveness, contemporary Buddhists are unwittingly importing a very different system of thought and practice and undermining the powerful mystical practices in Buddhism that may have inspired them in the first place.
These various interpretations of forgiveness all overlook the fact that the meaning of forgiveness is grounded in the language of debt. In days of yore (and, in some cultures, not so yore), when I impugned your honor, I incurred an obligation to you, a debt that had to be paid somehow. From there, the notion developed that when I do any kind of wrong, to you or anyone else, I have incurred a debt, to you or to society or to God. When we view interactions with others in terms of debt, we are, wittingly or unwittingly, reducing our relationships with others to transactions. Human feeling, human understanding, human empathy all go out the door. “I owe you” or “You owe me” now becomes the defining expression of the relationship.
Whether the debt is a debt of honor or a material debt, if I am in debt to you and am unable or unwilling to honor the debt, you can choose to use whatever power you have to compel me to make good on what I owe, or you can choose to forgive the debt. In today’s world, the person owed has a certain moral power supported by custom, the law or the state. As the American anthropologist David Graeber writes in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, “There’s no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt—above all, because it immediately makes it seem that it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong.”
Forgiveness releases me from my obligation to you and from the threat that you will bring those instruments of power to bear on the issue. In this sense, forgiveness is itself an exercise of that power. In the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition, the four kinds of awakened activity (pacification, enrichment, magnetization, and destruction) provide an effective template for meeting conflict. One begins by trying to talk things out, and if that doesn’t work, then one brings in additional resources—time, money, a mediator, and so on. If those efforts fail, one may try to compel a resolution, but if that is not possible, the only course of action that remains is to sever or destroy the dynamic in the relationship that gave rise to the conflict. Forgiveness represents the implementation of the fourth stage—destruction. All other efforts at resolution having failed, we make the unilateral decision that the only way to be free from the shadow that the debt casts in our own life is to forgive the debt.
There is no grace in the operation of karma, just as there is no grace in the operation of gravity. The only way to stop the evolution of reactive patterns is to change our relationship with those patterns.
Such self-interested motivation is hardly awakened activity. Awakened activity is exclusively motivated by the wish to help others awaken (bodhicitta). The self-interest implicit in this exercise of power reinforces attachment to a sense of self. As taught by some Western Theravada teachers, this self-interest is made quite explicit: people are encouraged to practice forgiveness to make themselves feel better. For me, at least, such interpretations go against the basic tenets of Buddhist practice.
Related: Three Ways to Practice Forgiveness
The act of forgiveness changes the relationship. It does not go back to what it was before. Something necessarily comes to an end. Consider what happens with a bank loan. As long as I owe money to a bank, the bank and I are tied together. When the bank forgives the loan and writes it off, I am free to live my life without the threat of collection, foreclosure, or court action, and the bank frees itself from any further obligation to collect on the debt. The relationship between the bank and me with respect to the loan is ended. To forgive the loan is to end the relationship. This is one of the overlooked aspects of forgiveness—the dynamic in the relationship that tied the two parties together no longer holds. It is gone.
Forgiveness is also a way for you to step out of the transactional framework that has reduced our relationship to what is or is not owed. In this sense, forgiveness is about returning to the human quality in our relationship, but the power to do so still rests with you, not with me.
Because of this essential power imbalance, it is easy for me to regard myself as a victim, a victim of circumstance, a victim of your harshness or callousness, or a victim of societal or state power. Victimhood is always a temptation because the status of victim releases me from any moral or social obligation. Ironically, when you forgive my debt, you may reinforce my identity as a victim (which is precisely what the political right complains about).
All these aspects of forgiveness are often overlooked when people talk about forgiveness. To come closer to a measure of understanding, take a few minutes now and consider: What do you really mean when you say to someone, “I forgive you”?
What about personal responsibility and forgiveness? When you forgive me, you allow me to go on with my life without the burden of obligation. Others will see you as compassionate, and I will usually be grateful. But your forgiveness on its own does not and cannot do anything about whatever I did to incur the debt in the first place. That is out of your hands.
One of the central principles of karma is that no one can intervene in the way my actions evolve in me, not even a buddha. Only I can do something about that, through purification practice or other means. In Christianity, where the notion of forgiveness is central, the picture is quite different. Even here, the language of forgiveness operates in strange ways. When God forgives our sins, which are regarded as debts incurred to God, it does not mean that our relationship with God is over. On the contrary, it means that the relationship has been restored. But this restoration is possible only because of God’s grace (again, the power element), and God’s grace can enter only a mind that is sincere in its remorse. The words of Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet speak to such sincerity:
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below;
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
And the words of the hymn “Amazing Grace” speak to the entrance of God’s grace:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
When God’s grace enters a sincere mind, through the action of grace that person is freed from the reactivity that gave rise to the original transgression. But this direct intervention by a higher power into the mindstream of another person is not a Buddhist notion. You may forgive me—that is to say, you may forgive the supposed debt I owe because of my transgression. It may well be that by saying to me that you do not hold the transgression against me, you help me come to terms with the reactive process within myself. Yet it is still up to me to work through the reactive patterns that gave rise to that transgression.
In the Protestant context, the picture is a bit different. With the elimination in all but name of the mystery of God, forgiveness has evolved to a social protocol that functions to restore a sense of connection when a break or disruption has occurred. It would be easy for me to understand forgiveness in this context as an application or extension of lovingkindness, compassion, or patience, though in doing so, I would be ignoring the intrinsic power dynamic that lurks just beneath the surface of social interaction.
My concern here is that in today’s world, many people who practice Buddhism seem to feel that when someone forgives them, they have been absolved and the matter ends there. Forgiveness in their minds completes the transaction, albeit not as it would have ended if the debt had been paid. No mention is made of the power of grace, and not many individuals would claim that power for themselves. Karma does not work that way, however.
Karma is not based in transactions. It is based in evolution. Patterns of behavior set in motion by our actions in the world continue to evolve and shape our perception and predispositions. That process does not stop until we change our relationship with those patterns. As the 11th-century Tibetan teacher Gampopa wrote in The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, “Samsara is notorious for being without end.” There is no grace in the operation of karma, just as there is no grace in the operation of gravity. The only way to stop the evolution of reactive patterns is to change our relationship with those patterns. And that is what purification is about.
In Buddhist thinking, the analogy of dirt is used to understand how such actions affect us. When I do harm to you, I set in motion a process that will ripen in time in my own experience. I have, as it were, introduced some dirt, some impurity, into my experience of life. Purification is about removing that impurity so that it does not fester and generate problems in my stream of experience.
Related: Three Tactics from the Buddha to Forgive without Feeling Defeated
One set of traditional teachings on purification is called the four forces: regret, reliance, remedy, and resolution [see below]. Regret (or remorse) means to acknowledge the harm or wrong we have done, to know we have done wrong and to regret it. Reliance means to renew our connection with spiritual values. Remedy means to do what we can to remedy the harm or wrong or, if that is not possible, to do some good, not as compensation (let alone penance), but to set the evolution of habits in a different direction. Finally, resolution means to stop feeding the inner patterns that moved us to do that harm.
Apology is part of the third force, remedy. An apology can do much to mitigate the harm done and to set things in a more constructive direction. Even in serious medical situations, when a doctor does something wrong, in many cases what the aggrieved party wants most of all is a sincere apology. To know that the doctor knows he or she did something wrong and sincerely regrets it may put patients at ease, if only because now they have some confidence that no one else will suffer the same fate.
What constitutes a sincere apology? A sincere apology consists of an admission and expression of regret not for the results of an action but for the action itself. Feel the difference between the words “I’m sorry if I offended you” and “I’m sorry I spoke harshly to you,” or even “I’m sorry—that was insensitive on my part.” In the latter two versions, I am acknowledging my action. I am not making the apology conditional on your state of mind. We can only take responsibility for our actions and the intention motivating our actions.
Purification in the spiritual sense is about creating the conditions for reactive patterns to release themselves. More than this we cannot do. If we try to let go of a pattern directly, the survival mechanism on which the pattern is based goes into operation and the pattern is usually reinforced, not released. In neurological terms, purification often involves creating the conditions in which an experience from the past can move from intrinsic memory to narrative memory. The key capacity necessary for that transition is to be able to experience in open awareness the emotional material associated with what happened. All purification practices do precisely this. Some practices use ritual as a way to create a space for that material to be experienced without acting it out or reliving it. Other practices make use of specific behaviors to create that space for awareness. Still others use visualizations (deity practice in the Tibetan tradition, for instance), or powerful positive emotions (lovingkindness, compassion, joy, or equanimity). Through such practices, we experience what we could not or would not experience before, and our relationship with those reactive emotions change. They become experiences, and they no longer run the show. That shift changes everything.
Needless to say, the path of purification is not easy. It involves experiencing precisely what we have always ignored or suppressed. For instance, the Tibetan practice called tonglen, or “taking and sending,” extends and deepens our relationship with compassion. In this practice, we imagine taking in the pain, illness, negativity, confusion, and ignorance of others, freeing them from those afflictions, and then sending to them the joy, health, goodness, good fortune, well-being, and understanding that we experience in our own lives, giving it all away so that they may enjoy it, too. Practitioners are often surprised a few months into this practice by the deep and difficult emotions they find themselves experiencing in reaction to taking in pain and negativity. Understandably, they would prefer simply to be forgiven for their own negativity and to continue to repress their own pain.
One final point: purification is not about being pure. Purification is about changing our relationship with the reactive patterns that run our lives. Purity, on the other hand, is a spiritual ideal. Many religious traditions and many practices have been built around purity, usually by taking a practice of purification to an extreme and idealizing a hypothetical end state. However, the idealization of purity is a pattern based on a deep and often unacknowledged aversion to dirt. Sadly, unless open awareness plays a role in the practice (specifically by bringing acceptance and equanimity into the picture), every effort made to avoid dirt reinforces the aversion at the core of this pattern.
As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, forgiveness is a notion foreign to Buddhism. Many Asian teachers do not understand the nuances of forgiveness in Western usage, and they naively associate or equate it with teachings and practices with which they are deeply familiar. On the other hand, few Western teachers take time to consider, let alone understand, the Abrahamic resonances that color their interpretations of Buddhism.
Buddhism has sometimes been viewed as a science, an equivalence that was promoted in the late 19th century in an attempt to establish the legitimacy of Buddhist thought in the minds of the Western colonialists who occupied Asia. But it is not a science. Its objectives and methods are completely different. More recently, Buddhism has often been presented as a psychology or psychotherapy—again, an attempt to translate Buddhist thought into Western idiom. But it is not a form of psychotherapy. Psychotherapy’s aims are cultural. Buddhism’s aims are soteriological. Today, as Buddhism becomes more and more part of the spiritual landscape of Western culture, it risks being taken over by indigenous Western spiritual perspectives. For this reason, I encourage all those who find inspiration in Buddhism—teacher, student, monk or nun, working stiff or retreatant—to take care to understand, practice, and present Buddhism on its own terms, in its own vocabulary, so that all who seek a path of freedom as exemplified by the Buddha may find it.
The four forces: regret, reliance, remedy, and resolution
Regret means that we admit what we did and acknowledge the harmful consequences of our action. The intention of regret is to remove any defense or justification of the action in our mind. In Buddhism, nonvirtuous actions are regarded as negative because they grow into unpleasant and painful experiences, not because they violate an authority or law. Therefore, regret does not involve guilt. Suppose you unwittingly drink a glass of poison and learn right afterward that what you drank is poisonous. You haven’t violated a law. You don’t feel guilt, but you do feel regret because you will suffer from the poison. Reliance means that we renew our connection with spiritual practice, whether it be through devotion, compassion, awareness, or presence. Most of what we do that is negative happens when we fall out of attention and mindfulness. Reliance means that we deliberately reestablish our practice so that the conditions for negative action are no longer present in us. Remedy means that we act in a way that disrupts the operation of the pattern behind the negative action. If we can, we correct the negative action—apologize, make restitution, or make amends. If we cannot remedy the action itself, then we undertake a positive action with the explicit intention to remedy the negative—make a donation to charity, do some community service, help a friend, or better, help someone we don’t like. Remedying does not by itself remove the patterns of negativity established by the negative action, but the introduction of a positive dynamic changes the way the action develops into experienced results. Resolution means to form the intention not to act that way again. As long as we retain the slightest sense that we might repeat the action, the patterns associated with that action have a place to grow and develop. To stop the karmic process from evolving further, we renounce completely any defense of the action and any intention to act that way again. The resolution we make irrevocably commits us to cutting through the pattern and doing something different whenever that issue arises in the future.
Adapted from Wake Up to Your Life: Discovering the Buddhist Path of Attention © 2002. Reprinted courtesy HarperOne.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.