Forgiveness is not simple. When we have been harmed, hurt, betrayed, abandoned, or abused, forgiveness can often seem to be out of the question. And yet, unless we find some way to forgive, we will hold that hatred and fear in our hearts forever. Imagine what the world would be like without forgiveness. Imagine what it would be like if every one of us carried every single hurt, every single resentment, all the anger that came up, when we felt betrayed. If we just kept that in our hearts and never let it go, it would be unbearable. Without forgiveness, we’re forced to carry the sufferings of the past. As Jack Kornfield says, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.” In that sense, forgiveness is really not about someone’s harmful behavior; it’s about our own relationship with our past. When we begin the work of forgiveness, it is primarily a practice for ourselves.

Maha Ghosananda, a Theravada monk who was known as “the Gandhi of Cambodia,” used to lead dhammayietra (“pilgrimage of truth”) walks in the early 1990s, after peace accords ending the civil war between the Khmer Rouge and the new Cambodian government had been signed. When Maha Ghosananda died in 2007 at the age of 78, an obituary in The Economistdetailed his experiences walking through Cambodia after the war: He often found war still raging. Shells screamed over the walkers, and firefights broke out round them. Some were killed. The more timid ran home, but Ghosananda had chosen his routes deliberately to pass through areas of conflict. Sometimes the walkers found themselves caught up in long lines of refugees, footsore like them, trudging alongside oxcarts and bicycles piled high with mattresses and pans and live chickens. “We must find the courage to leave our temples,” Ghosananda insisted, “and enter the suffering-filled temples of human experience.”

Now, though the Khmer Rouge had outlawed nostalgia, had razed the monasteries and thrown the mutilated Buddha statues into the rivers, old habits stirred. As they caught Ghosanada’s chant, “Hate can never be appeased by hate; hate can only be appeased by love,” soldiers laid down their arms and knelt by the side of the road. Villagers brought water to be blessed and plunged glowing incense sticks into it to signal the end of war. . . . He could not stay out of the world. Rather than devoting himself to monastic scholarship, he built hut-temples in the refugee camps.

Maha Ghosananda built those temples even though he was told by the remnants of the Khmer Rouge that if he dared to open these temples he would be killed. As thousands of refugees arrived at the temples, Maha Ghosanada handed out dog-eared photocopies of the Buddha’s Metta Sutta:

With a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings:
Radiating kindness over the entire world,
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depth.

This story is a powerful reminder of what forgiveness can do. Maha Ghosananda’s family was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, and during their reign Buddhist monks were labeled as social parasites. They were defrocked, forced into labor fields, or murdered: out of 60,000 monks, only 3,000 remained in Cambodia after the war. But despite all that he had suffered during the Khmer Rouge regime, Maha Ghosananda was able to find forgiveness in his heart.

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