“Forgive them; they know not what they do.” – Jesus
There is a story about the Dalai Lama in which he is asked whether he hates the Chinese. His answer was, to paraphrase, that since the Chinese had taken his homeland and his people from him, “should I let them take my mind as well? No, I don’t hate the Chinese.” He goes on to say the Chinese responsible for the crimes against Tibet are people just like you and me who only want to not suffer, but they are mistaken in believing they will find happiness by taking what does not belong to them and disregarding the rights and needs of people they see not like themselves.
In other words, the Dalai Lama forgives the Chinese “for they know not what they do,” and in the paradoxical turn typical of the Buddhist perspective, to forgive, to not hold resentment and hatred, is compassionate not only of the person who has harmed you, it is compassionate toward yourself. WE are the principle benefactor of our forgiveness and compassion because we do not give our minds over to that which vexes and harms us by polluting our experience with toxic thoughts and emotions toward those people and toward Life. Our freedom to be peaceful and happy in our lives requires forgiveness.
In the course of my work, people tell me of life-experiences that are meant to give context and explanation, to give justification, as to why they suffer with significant anger and resentment. They tell stories of abuse, betrayal, loss, trauma, injury, exploitation, debilitating illness, all the ways a person can come to feel that others and life are handing them a raw deal. With genuine caring and sympathy, I will typically respond in a manner as to say, “Yes, that must be very hard. You are indeed justified in your feelings. I want to know though, justified as those feelings may be – how is that working for you?”
After the person opens and acknowledges that it really isn’t working very well for them, which is why they are seeking my counsel, I will share that there is another way, and though it is truly very challenging, it is the only way for a person to really get their life back. We must forgive the injury, whether the source is another person, group of persons, agencies, institutions, or the seemingly cruel finger of Nature bestowing sickness, pain and death. We must let go of the stories of our injuries, of our pain, of our grievances and our victimization, and we do this not for the benefit of those who injured us, or to make peace with God, but first and foremost, for peace with ourselves. We must let go of personalizing injury and loss. It is not about us, no matter how personal it seems and feels. It is Life and the human condition, and it is our argument with Life and the human condition that is the culprit.
There is a Zen story of a man who, on a fine and beautiful day, having rowed his boat to the middle of a calm and serene lake, decided to take a nap. He slept peacefully and deeply for a time when Whap! Another rowboat bumped into him, jolting him awake. He arose, angrily, shouting: “What’s the matter with you!? Look where you’re going!” In a moment, as full orientation came to him, he realized the other rowboat was empty. It had become unmoored and had been steered, just as had the sleeping man’s rowboat, only by the wind and the currents. There was no one steering either boat. He, of course, felt foolish at his outburst, and his anger evaporated.
This story is a parable that is teaching “they know not what they do,” for the teaching continues in Zen koanic fashion: “And the rowboat is always empty.” As long as we live our lives unawakened to the truth of who we are, and the nature of conditioning as the source of our suffering, we are the rowboats, unmoored, drifting through life, the currents and winds of our conditioning causing us to collide with each other, not by true conscious choice, but rather through unconscious drives to assert our egoic self. It is our ego that wants to shout: “What’s the matter with you!?” We have been taught, conditioned, to be aggressive, thoughtless, selfish, manipulative, complaining, negative, dishonest, lazy, irresponsible, all the panoply of sins. As Buddhism teaches, this is not who we are. Steering our boats are conditions and conditioning, like the waves and the wind, and we will collide because there is no real conscious person steering our lives. We are unmoored from the truth of who we and others are. For our tendency to anger and blame, that which serves as cover for our egoic excesses, to evaporate, we must realize this. What is the purpose of screaming at the wind and currents? It does not really make us feel any better, nor give steerage of our lives back to us.
The essence of Buddhist compassion is the recognition that as human-beings we all share in this enslavement, this prison of conditioning and identity in ego. We are taught through Buddhist instruction and meditation to ask of our own and others’ harmful or thoughtless behavior, what is its source? Is a person the source of their own behavior, or do we need to look to conditioning factors – their parents, their communities, culture, their experiences? Are they, and we, really steering our boats, or are a whole matrix of conditioning factors streaming back into the unfathomable past actually at the helm?
Compassion also teaches us that as human-beings we all share in common our essential beingness, our “original mind,” as Buddhism calls it. “Show me your face before you were conceived by your mother and father,” instructs a famous koan. We are pure and perfect beings, and we are human persons who are defiled and betrayed by the conditioning of our egoic identity. You and I are exactly the same in this way. Our conditioning is different, but the fact of being imprisoned, of being asleep inside of conditioning, is the same. We know not what we do – until we awake and become conscious of this human-being dilemma and tragedy, and through contemplative, meditative examination take true responsibility for who we are, and realize that who we are is Life, the full Yin-Yang of birth and death, happiness and sorrow, triumph and tragedy, and there is no one or anything to blame, nor should we want to blame, for blame only distracts us from effective living and the celebration of the full mystery.
With this wise and natural mind at the helm, forgiveness then, comes naturally. And it is a great liberation. To release false judgment of ourselves and others allows us to own our mind, to not be owned by our conditioning with its prejudices, resentments, fears, judgments, anger and hatreds, as well as our biases for what and who we like and favor only because they are familiar. Yes, of course, we and others are responsible for the harm we do, and are to be held accountable, and like a fair legal arbiter, we can, when awake and honest, pronounce the needed amends-making appropriate to the transgression. Now, however, we know it is not personal. It is not about me, nor, in truth, others. We are getting closer to living in conscious discernment and acceptance of what is.
Yes, even for the most heinous of acts, we can create boundary, take action to stop the harm, hold the person (including ourselves, if it be the case) responsible, all without anger and hatred, because we compassionately understand the truth of the multiplicity of conditioning factors that are the true culprit. Then, even, as with Jesus on the cross or the Dalai Lama in exile, when there is no boundary that can be enforced, no stopping the injury, no amends received, we can remain the owners of our own minds, free of anger and resentment, possessors of a “peace that surpasseth understanding,” through the very radical act of forgiveness that goes beyond the personal into forgiveness based in clear understanding of the human condition.
Importantly, compassion for others, with its commensurate ability to forgive, is only truly possible when it is first applied to ourselves. We must realize our original face. We must be “nobody” who neither gives nor takes offense, for giving and taking offense is the domain of ego. To have the ability to genuinely extend compassion and forgiveness to others and to Life, without it being just another egoic one-up, a way of indulging in moral superiority, we must fully forgive ourselves our conditioning. We must humbly and courageously own our own minds and know what we are doing, and then naturally, we will be able to follow the spiritual instructions ubiquitous to all religious traditions to forgive who and whatever challenges and harms us, to forgive those who would be our enemies, most particularly when the enemy turns out to be ourselves. As Jesus and Buddha both taught: through this radical wise and compassionate forgiveness we can learn peace within ourselves, in our relationships and eventually with Life and all the world.