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Ask A Buddhist: On Forgiveness

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By Ven. Thubten Chonyi

Does being Buddhist mean that one must forgive pain brought on by others and if yes, should one allow the hurt to be repeated?

The English terms “forgive” and “forget” were coupled as far back as 1300, and the idea has pervaded our culture ever since. However, they are two distinctly different activities. While forgiveness is prized across spiritual traditions—and in psychology as well—forgetting may not be wise.

In Buddhism, forgiveness means letting go of anger. Forgiveness doesn’t condone others’ destructive actions. Instead, it frees us from the continued suffering of holding resentment and hatred against those who have harmed us.

Sometimes the injury is very real: emotional or physical violence hurt when they occur and leave lasting marks that require our attention in order to heal.

On the other hand, we sometimes develop grudges over perceived harms, meaning we misinterpret someone’s actions by projecting negative motivations onto them that they actually didn’t have. Or we have emotional sensitivity about certain issues and someone unwittingly stumbles into us, pressing that tender “button.”

Either way—whether the harm is deliberate or unintentional—we suffer, and the common response to suffering is to either lash out or withdraw in some form of anger. Over time, as we re-live the harm in our minds again and again, the angry response accumulates into a thick and solid grudge.

Eventually, the grudge itself can bring us as much or more misery and harm than the original hurt. Our outlook on life gets cloudy and dark, we mistrust others, and it may even affect our health.

Here’s the Buddha’s advice on this topic from a well-known, ancient text, “The Dhammapda” –

When we hold fast to such thoughts as ‘They harmed me, they mistreated me, they molested me, they robbed me,’ we keep hatred alive.

If we thoroughly release ourselves from such thoughts as ‘They harmed me, they mistreated me, they molested me, they robbed me,’ hatred is vanquished.

Never by hatred is hatred conquered, but by readiness to love.

This is eternal law.

Forgiveness, therefore, benefits us, the receiver of harm. When we let go of anger and resentment, our mind is at peace. We no longer repeat the injury to ourselves by dwelling on the experience. We can go on with our lives with an open heart, cleansed of the poisons of anger and hatred. We can learn to trust again.

Notice that the Buddha’s quote doesn’t say anything about forgetting the harm or allowing it to continue. If we are in a threatening or dangerous situation—physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually—we should try to get out of it or change the circumstance. That’s wisdom. Suffering is not glorified in Buddhism. In fact, all Buddhist practices are focused on relieving suffering and increasing happiness and well-being.

In short, to answer your question directly: yes, it’s good to forgive and no, there’s no reason to allow the harm to continue.

My teacher, the Buddhist nun Venerable Thubten Chodron, has given numerous teachings on the topic of forgiveness. Here’s a short guided meditation that helps to cultivate internal forgiveness—forgiving ourselves—and shows how forgiveness affects our external actions. For many more teachings on the topic, go to her website, Thubten Chodron.org, and enter forgiveness in the search box. I also recommend The Wisdom of Forgiveness by the 14th Dalai Lama and Victor Chan, published by River Head Books, NY.

Wishing you freedom from harm and from the suffering of anger.

Ven. Thubten Chonyi

About Ven. Thubten Chonyi

Ven. Thubten Chonyi is a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She has studied with Sravasti Abbey founder and abbess Ven. Thubten Chodron since 1996. She received novice ordination at the Abbey in 2008 and full ordination in 2011 in Taiwan. Ven. Chonyi regularly teaches Buddhism and meditation at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane and other local locations.

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