Forgiving Others

When we shift our focus from someone’s offense or mistake to the person and realize they were upset or confused, we avoid getting angry and, with compassion, forgive them.

Explanation

According to the Oxford dictionary, forgiveness means to stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw, or mistake. For some people, it has the additional connotation of the person offended or some higher authority granting a pardon, which then frees the offender from any punishment for their acts. 

The Buddhist analysis of mental factors does not explicitly include a term for forgiveness, but it does include anger, resentment (which includes holding a grudge) and their opponents, namely not being angry and not being cruel. 

  • Not getting angry is not wishing to retaliate and cause harm in response to others or to ourselves who, because of our actions, are or will suffer. 
  • Not being cruel adds to this compassion, the wish for them to be free of their suffering and its causes. 

So, from a Buddhist point of view, we wish for others or ourselves to be free of any suffering as the result of our harmful actions. But no one has the power to pardon someone from the karmic consequences of their misdeeds, so there is no danger of an inflated sense of a holier-than-thou self, like a priest or a court judge might have, pardoning criminals.

The key to the Buddhist approach to forgiveness is differentiating the person – whether someone else or ourselves – from their harmful or destructive actions or from their mistakes. Remember, we act destructively and make mistakes not because we are bad, but because we are confused about behavioral cause and effect and about reality, and also because our understanding is limited and so we make mistakes. We are limited samsaric creatures, with uncontrollably recurring confusion and problems, and therefore appropriate objects of compassion. We cause enough harm and suffering to ourselves, we don’t need to add more. 

So, forgiveness in the Buddhist context means: 

  • Differentiating the person from the act – whether someone else or ourselves.
  • Not getting angry or being cruel toward them or ourselves, but instead, 
  • Feeling compassion with the wish that we or they be free of whatever caused us to act destructively or to make a mistake. 

But in terms of the harmful behavior or mistake, we don’t just sit back and do nothing. We take whatever steps we can to stop further destructive behavior and to correct mistakes – but without anger or holding a grudge, or some haughty feeling that we are pardoning them.

Meditation 

Although we need to develop forgiveness with both others and ourselves, today we’ll focus on others. Next time, we’ll focus on ourselves.

  • Calm down by focusing on the breath.
  • Recall someone who did something that hurt you or annoyed you that you got angry at and felt resentful about and maybe even held a grudge, so that later on you kept thinking about what they did and were angry and upset.
  • Try to recall how you felt and note that feeling like this was not a happy or comfortable state of mind.
  • Now, try to differentiate in your mind the person from their deed. This is just one incident, even if it has occurred many times, in the context of their entire life. 
  • The person, like everyone else, including myself, wanted to be happy and not unhappy, but was confused about what would bring them happiness and so because of being unhappy, then out of unawareness and ignorance they acted destructively by hurting you or doing something that annoyed you. 
  • Note how the more you focus on this understanding the more your anger and resentment subsides.
  • Generate compassion for them, the wish for them to be free of the confusion and unhappiness that caused them to hurt you or to do something annoying.
  • Resolve that at some appropriate time, when you are calm and they are receptive, you point out what they did that hurt you and try to resolve the problem.

Repeat with someone who made a mistake:

  • Recall the mistake they made and how you got angry with them.
  • Try to recall how you felt and note that feeling like this was not a happy or comfortable state of mind.
  • Now, try to differentiate in your mind the person from their action of making a mistake. 
  • The person, like everyone else, including myself, wanted to be helpful and not make a mistake, but was confused about what was the best way to do something or the best way to act, or maybe wasn’t paying attention, or was lazy, or whatever, and so out of ignorance and disturbing emotions, they made a mistake. They’re a limited samsaric being, so it is unrealistic to expect that they will always be perfect and never make a mistake.
  • Note how the more you focus on the understanding, the more your anger subsides.
  • Generate compassion for them, the wish for them to be free of the confusion, ignorance and disturbing emotions that caused them to make a mistake.
  • Resolve that at some appropriate time, when you are calm and they are receptive, you will point out their mistake and help them correct it. 

Summary

Forgiveness does not mean pardoning someone for their destructive behavior or their mistakes, as if we were holier and more perfect than they are, they are worse than we are, and so with our haughty authority, we pardon and forgive them, even if they don’t repent. Forgiveness means not getting angry, not feeling resentful and not holding a grudge and wanting to retaliate. We differentiate the person from their deed or mistake, develop compassion for the person and take steps to correct their deed or to help them not repeat their mistake. In this way, we avoid the pitfalls and unhappiness that anger causes us, especially when anger leads to angry thoughts, aggressive, hostile speech and enraged, reckless behavior.

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