NOT LONG AFTER 9/11, actor Richard Gere stood before a crowd at Madison Square Garden and spoke of compassion and understanding. When I read about it, I remember thinking that it was far too early for forgiveness. Who was ready to hear it? The crowd didn’t take it well; they booed.

At the time it seemed to me that forgiveness was the culmination of a process—it followed grief, anger, and any attempt to negotiate reality—a surrender to things as they are and a willingness to let go of an anger that ultimately turns on the aggrieved. That would take time. Forgiveness and compassion could hardly be felt when feelings were still so raw, and certainly not in the face of a grave threat. Yet to feel compassion and understanding at the very moment we’re faced with ill will finds clear (and graphic) expression in the earliest Buddhist texts, as in this exhortation from the Buddha in the Majjhima Nikaya:

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