65 – What Does it Mean to Forgive?

The Buddhist approach to forgiveness is about changing our relationship with the reactive patterns that run our lives. It’s a form of introspection that allows me to understand my reactive patterns and then, more importantly, to change my relationship with those patterns.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.

Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 65. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about the Buddhist understanding of forgiveness. About a month or two ago, I received a message on Facebook from a gentleman named [Dax 00:00:27]. I meant to respond in depth regarding the question he had. It was around the topic of forgiveness, specifically this notion of feeling compelled to forgive didn’t seem very useful or helpful and he wondered why some spiritual paths seem to focus on this message of having to forgive. Anyway, I didn’t spend a long time replying to his message at the time, because I told him that it had been on my radar to have a podcast episode dedicate specifically to the topic of forgiveness.

Well, several months later I still hadn’t had a chance to record this podcast, so this has been in the works for quite some time now, and then I recently read an article on Tricycle Magazine called Forgiveness Is Not Buddhist. This motivated me to once again take up this topic and try to explain or address the Buddhist perspective on forgiveness. In order to understand the Buddhist approach, first I want to explore the topic of forgiveness from the Western approach that most of us are familiar with. This is the way we view the concept of forgiveness here in our society, and it’s influenced in general by the Judeo-Christian understanding of forgiveness and this is a form of forgiveness that is generally laid out in the language of debt.

For example, think of the example of a bank loan. You go in and you get a loan from the bank, and now you have this relationship established between you and the bank. If the terms of the loan are met, eventually you pay it off and now you no longer owe them, and that relationship changes again. Now you’re not indebted to them. Now, for me, growing up there was a little video that I saw at church that was about a gentleman who borrows money, but ultimately he has a bad year, I guess, as a farmer and he’s not able to pay back his creditor, and the creditor comes calling, demanding justice. This whole video was about how justice cannot be robbed, so the creditor is owed, the debtor is stuck in a position where there’s just no way to pay. Well, then comes an intermediary, so this mediator steps in and assumes the debt. Justice is met for the creditor, because he gets his money back, and mercy is extended to the person who borrowed.

I remember this video was all about how mercy cannot rob justice, and if you look at this from the Judeo-Christian background what this is implying is Jesus, for example, is the one who steps in and assumes the debt, absolving us of that debt. In this sense, it ends the old relationship and it establishes an entirely new relationship, so the situation that we were in is that we need to be saved, right? So Christ comes in and takes in this role as the savior, and establishes a new relationship between us and him now, and this sort of change happens due to that external source, that third party, the intermediary or the mediator. This is problematic from the Buddhist perspective because the power is not with you. The power lies in that third party to come in and step in and save you, so this isn’t a Buddhist concept, like I mentioned before.

From the Buddhist perspective, we’re looking at spending time looking inward and discovering everything that you’re looking for is in you, so I want to elaborate on this a little bit. Ken McLeod, who is the author of that article, Forgiveness Is Not Buddhist from Tricycle Magazine, he says, “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.”

He goes on to say, “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.'” Again, this way of viewing forgiveness is not necessarily compatible with the Buddhist approach. From the Buddhist approach we strive to look inward. We find that happiness, enlightenment, forgiveness, all these things are internal processes, not external, and one of the central teachings in Buddhism is the understanding of karma as the law of causation.

This implies that no one can intervene in the way my actions evolve me. There is no savior, so to speak, when it comes to my actions, because it’s still entirely up to me to discover the reactive patterns they gave rise to the transgression in the first place, so the Buddhist approach to forgiveness moves away from the language of debt and towards the language of harmony. When you think of forgiveness from the Western approach, it’s transactional in nature, and in the Buddhist approach it’s more along the lines of conflict resolution and reconciliation. In other words, harmony, so to understand forgiveness we have to understand karma.

Remember, karma is not a cosmic justice system. It’s not a form of transitions. There is no account where you accrue positive or negative transitions. It’s not system that’s taking notes. It’s more of a form of evolution of actions. What I did then is what determines what I’m doing now and what I’m doing now determines what I’ll be doing next. The Tibetan teacher Gampopa said, “The only way to stop the evolution of reactive patterns is to change our relationship with those patterns.” To me, this is what forgiveness is all about. It’s an introspective process where the forgiveness that matters most is the forgiveness I extend to myself through the proper understanding of my own actions. It’s a form of introspection that allows me to understand my reactive patterns and then, more importantly, to change my relationship to those patterns.

The Buddhist approach to forgiveness invites us to look deeply, to see deeply in ourselves and others, and let me share three examples of this to help clarify this concept. When we’re talking about forgiveness toward others, this is one of the most common ways that we think about forgiveness, somebody has wronged us and then we decide whether or not we forgive them. Last week I was talking to a coworker, a friend of mine, who was telling the story of a boy who was really mean to her in high school. He would say things that were mean or derogatory, somewhat of a bully, so to speak. This goes on for the entire time that they were classmates in high school, and she said that she was really angry with him.

Over the years she kind of forgot about him, and later found out on Facebook, saw him and found out that he was gay. He had come out and kind of changed his lifestyle to be more open and authentic with who he was, and in this process of discovering what he had gone through, she imagined the high school version of him, still in the closet. She said she could only imagine how difficult that must have been, to be in high school and to be having those feelings of inauthenticity, living a lie. She said, “No wonder he was mean.” Well, in that moment, as she shared this with me, I realized this is what it means to forgive from the Buddhist perspective. In other words, there’s nothing to forgive when you understand. What melted away for her was the feeling of resentment or hatred, even anger, because it was replaced by a deeper perspective of understanding.

Now, that doesn’t excuse what he did and it doesn’t change the fact that he was mean. It doesn’t change the fact that those mean and hurtful things affected her. Maybe caused her to act a certain way or to do certain things, like it had set in motions causes and conditions that continued till this day, so forgiveness from the Buddhist perspective, you can’t go back and change the past, right? Forgiveness is not about condoning or saying, “You know what? Everything that you did, that’s fine,” because it’s not. It’s already happened. Whatever damage happened because of those actions cannot be repaired.

You cannot go back and fix that, but from this moment on she feels no hatred, no resentment, and no anger towards him because she gained a more clear understanding, so this is the form of forgiveness applied to others. From the Buddhist perspective there’s no compelling, right? It’s not like, “Hey, you need to forgive,” but there is this possibility at any given moment that through greater understanding you can have more peace, and I’ve experienced this in my own life. I’ll go into that later in the podcast. This is the approach of forgiveness toward others. We’re trying to understand others, and through that understanding we can let go of the hatred.

Next I want to talk about forgiving ourselves. It’s a similar concept, that we want to look into our own actions. One of the stories that comes to mind for me when I think about this, when I was about 12 I was a boy scout and we would go on these weekly scouting activities, and I remember one time our troupe got together and we were going to go ride go-karts. We went to this place and we all got in line, and when the time came to run out and pick your car, I just happened to pick a car that seemed quite a bit faster than all the other cars. You know, how they tune those and throttle them so that they can’t go over a certain speed. I think mine happened to … somebody messed with that and it was definitely faster than the other cars.

We start the race and we’re going around in loops, and I’m passing everyone. It’s not that I’m the better driver. It’s that the car that I’m in is faster than the other cars. Well, I noticed one of the other cars had a similar thing going on, but in reverse. It was much slower than all the rest of the cars and it seemed no matter what the driver did, his car couldn’t keep up with the rest of us, so not only was I beating everyone in the race, but I was severely beating this poor kid, passing him, as I recall, on multiple occasions. So the race is finally over. This was my friend Kevin who was driving that car. We all go out and it was fun, and then our leaders tell us, “Hey, do you want to do one more round?”

Well, we did. We all jumped back in line and as soon as they opened that gate, we ran out to our cars. I knew which car I wanted and I booked it. Well, Kevin, who had the slow car, had also noticed this pattern that my car was fast and his car was slow, so he was running towards my car and I was able to get there just ahead of him and kind of nudged him, almost like with my shoulder, kind of nudged him out of the way and I said, “No, this was my car. This is the car that I had.” He backed off and he turned around to look for his car, or any car, I should say. The only car left happened to be the slow one that he had the first round and everybody in the group knew that that was the slow car. They didn’t want it and they had all picked other cars by then, so Kevin walked slowly, defeated, back towards his go-kart.

I remember that feeling of, “Oh, man. That was not very nice,” but I stayed in my car. We did the other round, and I won again and I was all excited about that, but not really. I felt bad, and unfortunately this feeling lingered for years, because after that we moved. I moved down to Mexico with my family. We had been childhood friends, and this incident stayed with my mind for years. Well, fast forward, I don’t know, 10 years or so, my twin brother ends up marrying Kevin’s sister, so suddenly we were family again. Well, we were friends that were going to be close now, and this incident always lingered with me.

One day I finally brought it up to him and I apologized all these years later. I said I was so sorry for what happened that day on the go-kart and he didn’t even remember the story. I had to remind him of the whole thing. So getting to this concept of forgiving ourselves, rather than me just saying, “Oh, well, I was just a kid and whatever,” I tried to sit with this and say, “What caused those actions?” What was fascinating is out of that process came a lot of introspection about myself. Why did I feel the need to win again? Why did I fear being stuck in that slow car? What would that say about me?

I replayed all of these things and I was able to look into my actions, which is kind of what the Buddhist approach to all of this is trying to do. Like I mentioned before, we’re trying to understand our relationship to our habitual patterns. Well, this incident in my life allowed me on multiple occasions since then to evaluate my actions. What am I about to do and why am I doing this? Is there something else driving this specific action? I think a lot of that stemmed from that process early on of trying to understand the behavior and the patterns that allowed me to do that to Kevin, so that’s just one simple example of forgiving ourselves.

Then there’s the third type. So we’ve got forgiveness toward others, forgiveness toward ourselves, and then we have forgiveness that we receive from others or from … yeah, forgiveness from others. This is a form of a peace that we receive. To me, this one is just kind of icing on the cake because we may or may not receive this, because this is entirely out of our hands, right? If others choose to forgive us, that’s a decision they make and we can’t force that on them. Recently I was talking to a friend and I thought of this analogy of … he was kind of upset because he had done something that hurt somebody else, and then he had asked for forgiveness and he felt like things should be okay now.

I said, “Well, sometimes wanting the other person to heal, it’s like picking at a scab.” It’s a wound, right? Then you’ve got the scab and you’re picking at it to see, “Hey, is this healed yet?” And you pick at it and you pick at it, and the very picking is what prevents it from healing, because we don’t control that timeframe. It happens on its own. We just want others to forgive us because of how we feel. We don’t like the discomfort. we really just want to feel understood. In this sense, forgiveness is the gift of understanding, so this allows us to again look inward and ask, “Why do I feel the need to be forgiven by someone else for whatever wrong I’ve caused? What if I was able to allow them to forgive me on their timeframe, whenever they want, if and when they want? What if they never want to forgive me for whatever actions I’ve done? What if I was okay with that?” There’s a form of peace that comes from that as well.

Those are the three kind of areas of forgiveness, but ultimately what I want to get at is that forgiveness in a way, from the Buddhist perspective, it’s the gift of understanding, because see, when we understand, we don’t need to forgive. The irony here is that we forgive when we realize we don’t need to forgive. You know, in nature, if lightning strikes a tree and the tree catches fire, and then it falls over and crushes our car, we don’t have this sense of, “Oh, I need to forgive that tree or I need to forgive the lightning.” Or when it rains on us, we don’t feel the need to, “Oh, I need to forgive the clouds because it rained and it ruined my day or it ruined my clothes.” Who do we forgive and for what? What debt have we incurred? This is more along the lines of the Buddhist understanding.

From the Buddhist perspective there is no moral commandment or no compelling of any kind to forgive. There’s no Buddhist equivalent of sin. There’s especially no original sin. There’s no offending god. There’s no concept of god. So furthermore, forgiveness is for our own sake. Gaining a deeper understanding of things is a gift that we give ourselves. It’s a way to let go of the pain we are experiencing, but we are the main beneficiaries. If you’ll recall, I talked about Buddhaghosa and his teaching of the hot ember, that you can hold a hot ember with the intent of throwing it at someone else, but while you’re holding it, it’s only affecting you, or he talks about picking up a piece of dung, a piece of poop with the intention of making somebody else stink.

Well, while I’m holding that, I’m the one who stinks. I’m making myself stink because I won’t let go of the dung. This is more along the lines of how the Buddhist perspective on forgiveness, it’s like, well, you don’t have to, but why wouldn’t you? You’re the only one who suffers when you hold on to this stuff? So forgiveness is more along the lines of deeper understanding. It’s a change in our relationship to our own reactive patterns. No matter what I did to you, it’s still entirely my own responsibility to discover and work through the reactive patterns that gave rise to that offense or transgression in the first place, so it puts this back on me. It’s all on me.

Sometimes it seems forgiveness is seen as a sign of weakness. It’s like, “Oh, you’re soft, you’re going to forgive,” but in reality it takes strength and it takes courage to spend time gaining a deeper understanding of our own actions and the actions of others. Forgiving can bring about the peace that we all so desperately seek, but it’s not because we absolve others of their actions; it’s because we spend time trying to understand others. The wrong understanding of forgiveness, I think gives rise to more suffering. An example that I’ll give you from my own life was a deep betrayal of trust that I experienced from somebody that I care for and I love deeply, and to be betrayed, to be lied to, it’s very hurtful.

Part of my experience of going through a betrayal was that I felt the need to forgive. I felt compelled. I felt like it was the requirement for this relationship to be able to continue or to be healthy. I felt like, in the language of debt, that I was owed and something had to happen for this debt to be re-payed, so I kind of viewed it like this for years. I held on to resentment and then I would think, “It’s finally all over. I’ve forgiven,” and then a trigger would cause me to experience all of the emotions all over again, and I would realize, “No, I’m still angry and I’m not ready to forgive.” This was kind of the cycle of emotions that I was experiencing for quite some time.

Well, it occurred to me one day, through studying mindfulness and studying Buddhism, that I had personalized this experience. I made it about me, that what happened was we are going to collaborate and really do something to hurt you, as if this had to do with me. This had to do with them and the decisions that were made there and this betrayal, so I spent time processing this and really trying to understand the intentions and the motivations behind the actions of the people who had wronged me. By spending time doing this, what happened is I gained a deeper understanding of the person in some ways as a victim of their own actions. You know, I don’t think that the intention of those actions was targeting me personally. Now, I was certainly on the receiving end of that pain and hurt, but it wasn’t about me.

Then this continued to unfold as I spent time understanding this person and understanding the possible causes and conditions that led to that, and the causes and conditions behind those causes and conditions, and with time it painted an entirely new picture of how I viewed this person and I couldn’t view them through this lens of hatred or resentment or anger the way that I did before. Now, none of that changed the feelings and the emotions of being hurt or being betrayed or being let down. None of that changed, but what changed was my understanding of this person as the tail end of countless causes and conditions that allowed that one instance, that one moment to arise the way that it did, and that was a profound shift in perspective for me.

At that point I didn’t feel the need to forgive anymore, because what was there to forgive? What I saw was actions, causes and conditions, and causes and conditions of causes and conditions, and on and on and on, this giant web of interdependent things that happened for that one moment to be the way that it was for however long that phase was in my life. That was really profound, and through that understanding I lost. It’s not that I forgave. It’s that I lost the anger. I lost the hatred. It just wasn’t there anymore because I couldn’t hate. I understood too much to be able to hate this person, and that was the moment that I felt this entire process was finally over.

I had truly forgiven, and the irony is I didn’t forgive. There was no need to forgive at that point. That’s when I realized I had forgiven is because what was there to forgive? I don’t know if that makes sense. If you’ve ever experienced something like that where through greater understanding there’s no longer the need to forgive, that’s what I felt. You know, we’ve all been hurt and we’ve all hurt others. Whether we did that knowingly or unknowingly, it’s true. Whether I was rushing while I was driving and cut someone off and I set in motion further actions, I may have been completely unaware of that. Or bigger stuff. The things that I said to kids in school that I don’t remember.

Whether this is knowingly or unknowingly, we’ve all been hurt and we’ve all hurt others, so the Buddhist approach to forgiveness really is about changing our relationship with the reactive patterns that run our lives. It’s just another tool to help end the cycle of habitual reactivity and the suffering that our reactivity causes for ourselves and others. I think this is really the main difference here. There’s no compelling. You don’t have to forgive, but why wouldn’t you? You’re the one that suffers when you don’t. Now, that’s where it gets tricky because then it would feel like, “Well, then now I have to forgive.” That’s the paradox. You don’t, but the peace and the contentment that you’ll feel upon gaining greater understanding, that’s the reward. That’s the benefit of it.

I guess from the Buddhist perspective, instead of feeling like I need to forgive others, the invitation is, try to understand. Whatever it is that happened, don’t entertain the, “How can I forgive you?” If anything, ask yourself, “How can I understand this better? Why did this happen? What were the causes and conditions? What is the reactivity?” Whether this is for yourself or for others, that’s where you want to spend time with, understanding. Try to understand more. Now, for me, I like to ask specific questions, introspective questions with my behavioral patterns. For example, am I motivated by vengeance? Am I trying to get back at someone? If someone is hurt or offended by something I’ve done or said, I ask myself, “What were my words or actions and what were the intentions behind those words and actions?” Because there’s always something to learn there.

If I can discover what the intentions were, I may even be able to discover what the intention behind the intention was, because you are entirely responsible for your conscious choices, and knowing this can be very empowering. Everything that you do affects others. This is karma. Everything that I do, everything that I say affects others, and that for me is really empowering, so this concept of forgiveness from the Buddhist perspective, maybe forgiveness is the word that’s problematic because it means something different to so many people. Some people will say, “Well, forgiveness is great,” and they’re right. And some people will say, “Well, forgiveness is wrong. It causes pain.” Well, they’re also right, so maybe reframing this and understanding what we want is greater understanding. When we understand interdependence, that all things inter-are, this gives us the ability to see deeply. Like I mentioned in a previous podcast, to see, “Here’s the thing, but what’s the thing behind the thing? What’s the thing behind the thing behind the thing?” That is the topic of forgiveness.

I want to end this topic with a quick note about friendship. Well, good friends are instrumental in this process of forgiveness. We should regard those who point out our faults as treasures. In fact, the Buddha in the Dhammapada said, “Should you find a wise critic to point out your faults, follow him as you would a guide to a hidden treasure.” I want to end it on that note, because as we go through our lives and especially on this path where we’re trying to be more mindful, we should be mindful of the fact that having somebody who can point out our faults, and this is often the people closest to us, our family members, our spouse or partner or significant other, when they do point stuff out to us, we take it personally, and we get really upset and we get angry because we don’t want people to highlight these things about ourselves. Yet we have this treasure there, in a way. You know, what if you were to view this as an opportunity to become more introspective about yourself by learning what someone else has seen about you?

This was pretty powerful for me. I used to really hate the feeling of being told, “Hey, you need to do this,” or, “Stop doing that,” or, “You’re not helping a lot with chores around the house,” or things like that. I would feel kind of upset and offended, but as time as gone past this has become something that I value now. It’s like, I want to be told, “How can I be better? In what areas can I contribute more? Where do I need more clarity with what I’m doing wrong?” And you get that from the people close to you if you ask for it, and this can be one of the ways where you really learn about yourself and you become more aware of your habitual patterns. Anyway, I thought that would be a fun way to end the topic forgiveness.

If you want to read up a little bit more about this topic, there’s a book by Ken McLeod called Wake Up To Your Life: Discovering the Buddhist Path of Attention. In that book he discusses this concept of forgiveness. You can also, if you’re a subscriber to Tricycle Magazine, you can look up that article called Forgiveness Is Not Buddhist. But that’s the topic that I wanted to share today, forgiveness, and I hope that you can take some of these ideas and concepts, and look at them deeply in your own life or in the lives of others, and wherever you feel that need of, “There’s this person or that person or this event that I need to eventually forgive,” try to reframe that in your mind and rather than thinking you need to forgive anyone about anything, try to say, “I want to have to more understanding about what happened. What did it happen? what were the causes and conditions?”

Because I believe that with introspection and understanding and clarity, suddenly you realize maybe there’s nothing to forgive; there’s just what happened. Then you’ll have that same peace, that same sense of liberation that comes through truly forgiven, but it’s not concocted and it’s not fake and it’s not temporary. In my experience with forgiveness, every time I thought I had forgiven, it was temporary even though I didn’t know that. At that point a trigger or something would come back and I’d realize, “No, I haven’t forgiven,” but through understanding that’s gone away. There’s nothing that triggers those emotions the way that that used to when I would think about that specific incident that happened to me in my life, because there’s no longer the need to forgive. I had something better. I had understanding and clarity around what happened, but that was uncomfortable to get to that because you do have to spend time with it, and really break it down and analyze it and look at it and ask yourself those difficult questions. Why did this happen? I hope this clarifies a little bit the Buddhist understanding of forgiveness.

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About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids.