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.
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