This article is based on episode 9 of the Prajna Sparks podcast. It is edited for ease of reading and to include additional content. Click the image above to listen to the original episode, or subscribe through your favorite podcast player.
It is a wonderful ritual that can be a part of secular life as well as spiritual life, a way of setting things aside and moving forward with a clean slate.
This makes me think of another big topic that is important in both secular and spiritual life: forgiveness. Today. I thought I would look at forgiveness and see how that plays out in Buddhist practice
The word for forgiveness in Tibetan is zopa. Zopa is actually one of my favorite Tibetan words, because it means so much. Zopa relates to forgiveness, but also means patience. Actually zopa is most often translated as patience. That is one of the energetic streams in the word. It also means forbearance, or endurance: that property of solidity, like a mountain, grounded in something larger, that is able to transcend.
For all these reasons. I like to translate sopa as magnanimity, which encompasses all of these incredible qualities and virtues.
Magnanimity may be even more resonant individually when we speak of the strand of zopa that means forgiveness.
Forgiveness and the practice of forgiveness is a natural result of the Buddhist focus on non-violence: non-violence towards our own mind and non-violence towards others as well. The focus on non-violence recognizes the power of habitual tendencies, and the power of emptiness, which, in everyday life, can often play out as there being many different sides to a single story.
So how is forgiveness magnanimous?
Basically the Buddhist view of forgiveness is magnanimous because of what forgiveness is not. It is not about holding onto our view of what happened as the only story. It is not about denying the pain that our view of what happened causes us. Nor is it about letting someone else off the hook.
It is about letting ourselves off the hook: off the hook of our stories, our habits, our pain. Off the hook of playing an endless loop of pain that drowns out the beauty, the love, the potential, and yes, the heartbreak of all experience.
It drowns out the fullness of the emptiness by focusing on the pain that the past did not happen just away we wanted it to.
From that perspective, we could say forgiveness is what allows us to make peace with a past that did not fulfill our fondest hopes. And it is not going to. Whether in small circumstances or enormous ones, the past is not going to change. It did not fulfill our fondest hopes. Forgiveness is the practice of making peace with that.
Forgiveness frees us to engage the beautiful, and the terrible, as it is. To let go of grudges and hurts and grievances, and any number of big or small pains that keep us from our fullest manifestation. It clears our eyes to the fact that, while we cannot control things exactly--even how we feel--we are nevertheless the prime mover in how we feel.
Forgiveness is empowering, and empowers us to take the reins of our life: to bear (another aspect of zopa) a special kind of heartbreak. The shared heartbreak of all beings, of lacking full control to make things as we wish, of being at times overpowered by our past actions, by habit, by interconnections that go awry, by that underlying vulnerability that undercuts our highest aspirations for ourselves and others.
This is why forgiveness is so magnanimous. It holds ourselves and others with incredible tenderness, recognizing the vulnerability in all of our lives.
So, how do we do it?
From a Buddhist standpoint, all practice is about one thing: undercutting self-importance, all the way up to the painfully limiting belief that we are a separate, monolithic, lasting self.
As Buddhists, we practice with deep breathing and rest to calm the mind; with letting go of storylines that work a recurring violence on our mind; with refocusing our view on potentiality and on what is positive in all our experience. Simply put, we work with rewiring our mind to purify negative habits and reinforce positive ones.
Tibetan Buddhism refers to this as “purifying obscurations” and “gathering accumulations,” or stores of positivity. These two, purifying and gathering, encompass all practice.
There are formal practices of purification that can be immensely powerful and transformative. The underlying principles of those formal practices can also inform ways to go about releasing into forgiveness in everyday life.
Let's use the example of a rift in a friendship that feels painful. Perhaps both friends have done and said things that are hurtful to the other. Or maybe only one of us has, or maybe we have, and we feel unsure how to recover that friendship, whatever it may be.
In this example, now the friendship has become distant. Hurt feelings fester. How do we go about this?
Tibetan Buddhist purification practices are premised on what are known as the “four purifying powers.” These four powers make purification practice efficacious. What are they? My translation is: remorse, reliance, remedy, and resolve. How does they relate to everyday life? The four powers have very particular, intricate meaning in the context of purification practice.
Yet, even without going into the intricacies of formal purification practice, these four powers can inform an everyday practice of forgiveness from a Buddhist perspective.
Remorse may be about ways we did not act in line with our own best hopes, or perhaps, how another's actions did not mesh with what we wanted them to be. In more large-scale, painful circumstances than our example of a friendship that has become distant Perhaps it is a trauma or death or other devastating loss that seems objectively unfair, it may be simply tenderness that life did not pan out the way we would like.
So remorse is not just about regret. It is about the sadness that things did not go the way we like, whether big or small, whether in our hands or not. There is a wistful quality to it, an acknowledging that we are still holding out against hope that the past will somehow become something it is not, that it will meet our demands, our wishes for everything to go just as we prefer.
There is a sense of accepting things not being as we would like. Remorse comes with both regret for our own action, when that is the case, and sadness that things did not work out as we wanted. When the remorse is about our own conduct it is also about acknowledging how much part of our pain arises from this unspoken demand for life to treat us just so.
The next power is reliance. Reliance refers to reconfiguring our support structure. Rather than holding tight to our grudge or grievance or expectation from our friend in our example of a relationship that has become distant--maybe even our righteous anger--we choose to rely on goodness, both within us and around us.
Reliance can be a tricky one to understand. Basically, it focuses on where we lay our trust. In forgiveness practice, the question becomes: do we lay our trust in pain and grievance or in goodness? In other words, we are relying on--laying our trust in--not being violent and harmful to our own mind, not replaying the grievances within us again and again, causing repeated damage to our own mind.
In our example, relying on grievance may make the distance in the friendship grow larger still, without even realizing it, perhaps even without any interaction between the friends.
Reliance on being nonviolent towards our own mind is the very foundation for being nonviolent towards others. We choose to go forward in a more wholesome and healthy way towards ourselves, and that breeds the fertile ground for developing a wholesome healthy relation to others.
How so? Through the third power, remedy.
Remedy refers to ways of resetting our habits away from reinforcing painful storylines and in towards relying on the goodness available here and now. In formal practice there are powerful methods for doing this, immense in their reach. In everyday life, we choose to reinforce our attentiveness to the beauty, the fragility, the glory of life, even amidst pain. There is much to be grateful for in life, even when things are not going as we would wish,
First, reliance empowers us to prioritize gratitude. Then, remedy becomes a kind of living meditation in this everyday context. Indeed, even formal meditation is in part about strengthening the power to choose, place, and remain with a wholesome object of attention.
The remedy of reinforcing reliance on goodness in everyday life is thus a kind of meditation we can do on our feet. We place our reliance in gratitude for goodness, rather than replaying continued pain. Remedy refers to technique, so the form it takes t differs substantially in formal practice and in everyday contexts, but this is the common core.
Next comes the power of resolve.
Resolve is the power that seals the previous three powers. It means being committed to a new way of being, a new way of going forward without falling back. Of course, this does not mean that we do not make mistakes or take steps back sometimes. That is going to happen. What it means is that we resolve, we commit, to get up again, and keep moving forward even when we fall or take a step (or two) back. We resolve to continue to open to new ways of being in line with wholesome and healthy conditions for our mind.
All these factors are very much about us: our mind, our view, our purification. They work when we have acted unskillfully ourselves, when we are in pain because of how we perceive others’ actions, even when we suffer due to loss that seems objectively unfair. They purified the view we bring to the world, and necessarily how we interpret what comes.
This is a cornerstone of Buddhist practice. Buddhist practice is very much focused on our attitudes, acknowledging our role in our own experience. By purifying and realigning our view, our attitude or mindset, through meditation on and off the cushion the conduct that naturally follows, flows in accord with that tenderly cultivated attitude.
That is forgiveness. That is magnanimous, both to ourselves and others.
TANIA: Thank you, What a lovely teaching! I really appreciate the tenderness and kindness of this perspective on forgiveness.
I looked up magnanimous in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
YESHE: Ah, you know how I love driving people to the dictionary!
TANIA: I thought well, it is great when you translate things from Tibetan into words in English, but not everyone knows the meaning. I decided to help everyone, including myself, out and make sure that I really got what this word means.
So the definition that I found was: “loftiness of spirit enabling one to bear trouble calmly; to disdain meanness and pettiness and to display a noble generosity.”
I love the noble generosity.
I thought that was so fitting and I think that this generosity of spirit is such a treasured aspiration At the same time, it is hard for people to do that.
So I want to talk about a couple of things that are challenging for people. I think in terms of that forgiveness piece and that generosity piece.
YESHE: Fabulous. Good.
TANIA: My first question is about whether there are situations where fault needs to be assigned or accepted in a way. Sometimes people are concerned that if blame is not placed and somebody does not accept that blame, then they are likely to continue to do that behavior or do it again in the future. That it can be dangerous not to hold someone accountable for their actions.
So, what would you say about that?
YESHE: You said a couple of words there that really are the key to this question. Fault is not the point. From a Buddhist standpoint, we do not blame. Not ourself, not others. Still, that differs from holding ourself or others accountable. So fault and blame are distinguished from accountability.
It may well be that we are working with a situation and trying to see if forgiveness is even possible with someone who has done something that we consider heinous either on an individual level or maybe a much grander scale and we say, “How can I forgive somebody who does not even hold themselves accountable?”
That is very different than blame. Blame does not have that quality of magnanimity to it, looking past our own pain and grievance. That is not to say that we do not acknowledge our pain and our grievance. For example, a child is murdered by a drunk driver. Very hard to say, “Oh you should not have pain, you should not have a grievance. That is natural. It is appropriate to hold the driver accountable, whether they do so or not.
Forgiveness is on another plane altogether.
Blame and accountability are actually running in parallel. Part of the difficulty we have with forgiveness is precisely issues of blame and that sense of letting somebody else off the hook, We are not letting the drunk driver off the hook here. Remember, this perspective of forgiveness is really about letting ourselves off the hook, keeping ourselves out of that place where we are basically giving over our tranquility, our piece of mind, to someone who will not perhaps even hold themselves accountable.
How does that conduce to our own happiness or to changing circumstances? It will not. This perspective of forgiveness is very much a Buddhist one in the sense that it is working with our own attitude, our own mindset, aimed at ensuring that we are cultivating a mindset that has more flowers than weeds.
TANIA: That is very helpful. it is also a very different perspective than I feel like we hear sometimes. often forgiveness is somehow connected to whether or not the same thing is going to happen again. I hear you talk about letting ourselves off the hook. it sounds like either way, whether we consider someone else or ourselves to be at primary fault for something occurring or something not going as we hoped. Is there any distinction between how we might work with that if we feel like something was our own fault. or that we primarily brought it about, versus if we feel like someone else primarily brought that about?
YESHE: To be clear, there is not only one way to work with forgiveness in Buddhist practice. What I am talking about here is getting some insights from the four powers applied in Tibetan Buddhist purification practice to bring into everyday life in the context of forgiveness.
One of those powers is remedy. What exactly do we do? That is remedy. The remedy itself relies on something. That is reliance. What is it we are relying on? From a Buddhist standpoint the remedy has to rely on goodness to be effective as purification, as forgiveness.
What goodness? The positivity in our own mind, that is the mind's nature, and that we can find around us if we are willing to open to it. There are many different kinds of remedy that can be used. What I am talking about here is detailed in Fred Luskin's book, Forgive for Good, I could not recommend the book too highly. I use it frequently in spiritual counseling with various individuals, and it is quite helpful.
What I like about it is that it has a framework of techniques that are very Buddhist in flavor, in style. The techniques are applicable whether it is something that we want to forgive ourself for or something for which we are trying to forgive someone else. It is even applicable to extremely devastating loss. To use an example from the book, Luskin worked with women, Catholic and Protestant, in Northern Ireland who lost their sons in the political violence there. And it was effective, even transformative for them.
The point of working on this from the Buddhist angle is to brighten our attitude around whatever happened. It is not just so that we feel better, although that is definitely part of what happens. But also, that attitude informs conduct. Conduct that is in line with that brighter attitude, an attitude that is more at peace with one’s life, as it is.
One way of thinking about it is that, when it is something that somebody else did, even if it is something as horrible as the drunk driver killing someone we love, part of our pain is a sort of unenforceable rule. That is another way of thinking about it in this context. We have this idea that “I will live my life and a drunk driver will not kill my child.”
That is a wonderful aspiration. Everybody would agree it is good. And it is entirely unenforceable. there is no way to ensure that will happen. That is part of our lack of control, that underlying vulnerability that all beings have to some kind of pain.
The attitude of forgiveness in this perspective is meant to lighten our load of trying to get life, and somebody else, and even ourselves to fulfill all of these unenforceable rules. which most of the time, we do not even notice, much less acknowledge, that we have. Yet we do.
Somewhere in our mind, there is a long list of unenforceable rules posted. And that’s not all! We have a great checklist of who is and who is not meeting those rules. We just have no way to enforce them.
How is it different when it is our own “violation,” or we might say in a more gentle way, or our own conduct that has not met our highest aspirations for ourselves, as opposed to someone else's conduct?
If it is something that someone else has done, and they will not take accountability for it, then if forgiveness is about being okay with them, or them being contrite, then whether we let ourself off the hook or not is in their hands. We are actually giving away our power to someone who perhaps will not even acknowledge anything has happened.
That brings us back to what is within our purview? What we can do to improve our mindset, our life.
Looking at the example we talked about earlier, of friendship that has gone awry, Sometimes it gets entangled. it is complicated; hard to know who did what. Perhaps we do one thing without any particularly bad intention, but somebody else misinterprets that, and back and forth. Again, not so helpful to start saying “Well, it is because of what they did. It is because of what I did.”
Nevertheless, if we are seeing it as something along the lines of “I acted in a way that hurt my friend even though I did not mean to, we can certainly take steps to purify our own conduct either in informal ways as we are discussion here, or if we have an active Buddhist practice there are formal meditation practices that involve prayer and visualization and mantra recitation that really accentuate that purification. We cannot purify somebody else's conduct. That is part of why this framework for forgiveness is more aimed at what we can do.
But when it is in our hands, of course, there is a lot more we can do. In addition to what we would do to forgive the past for not meeting our unenforceable rules, if it is our conduct that has gone awry, we can certainly purify, and out of that, do things to make up for our missteps.
Maybe we apologize to somebody. That is a point in and of itself.
I know you have other questions, but I do want to stop here because I am seeing a lot around apology lately, and I could not be happier about that.
One of the eight branches of the True Path the Buddha teaches in the Four Truths is Right Speech. Apology is a kind of speech. When we are apologizing for our conduct, however, as you said earlier, it is important to really hold ourselves accountable.
We first have to acknowledge to ourselves where we have misstepped, get off the pedestal of self-importance enough to be able to say, “Hey this is what I did. I was wrong. I hurt you. I am sorry.”
It is a good practice to check in with ourselves from that space of accountability and ask: Am I saying something like, “If I hurt you” or “If I did anything that made you upset.”
Is that actually apologizing? Or are we asking the other person to carry the burden of our discomfort, to tell us what we did wrong or what they think we did wrong or whatever it may be, so that we do not have to do it ourselves? To what extent does that kind of speech serve as a foundation for a genuine apology?
Working with our own conduct that has not met our own highest aspirations, one of the first things we do internally is to acknowledge that misconduct for ourselves. that is the basis of that remorse. Without acknowledging that we have done something to purify, the purification has no legs to stand on. Similarly, any apology we try to make to the other person is not likely to land as something that feels sincere, alive in the heart.
TANIA: Let me continue with that for a moment, since you are talking about the apology piece. I do have a question about whether that process of remorse is an individual act, or if it needs to engage someone who we might have wronged.
I know that there are other religious traditions, such as Judaism, that have practices related to atonement and also secular processes, such as 12-step programs, where there is a step that involves making amends. Is this something that is formally laid out in any way within the Buddhist path?
YESHE: There is no formal prescription of things such as making amends or atonement. Why is that?
I think I have mentioned it before, but I will probably mention it a hundred times more, so I will just do it now. The Tibetan word for Buddhist is nang pa, which means “inwarder. one who looks inward.” Or another way of thinking about it is “one who starts from the inside out.”
There are not a lot of prescriptions about how we should go about things in relation to others, because, first of all, situations are necessarily contextual. It is difficult to maintain hard and fast rules about circumstances that differ substantially.
Second, the remorse of the purification process is one that is very internal, individual. It starts with acknowledging our misconduct and really feeling the pain of having acted in that way. Or it might be the pain of life not going the way we wanted, whatever it may be. Then you go through that purification process, whether informally as mentioned earlier, or more formally.
What happens when that process is repeated and integrated, really brought into mind, is that our whole attitude shifts. that is where Buddhism is really focused: shifting our attitude, that is to say, our mindset, perspective or view.
Why? Because mind, in this case our view, attitude, or perspective, is in the lead. Conduct follows on view. This is the case whether we have a spiritual practice or not; we can see that in our experience. Our actions follow on our view, our beliefs. Meditation literally refers to the practice of cultivating, familiarizing, and habituating ourselves to a view in accord with our highest intentions. That view (which I also refer to as attitude, mindset, perspective, and the like) then serves as the steady basis out of which conduct flows.
In the context of forgiveness practice, making amends follows on attitude. Atonement follows on attitude. What Buddhism is saying is, if the attitude is not there, then the actions of making amends or atonement or whatever it may be are incomplete. They are not everything they could be. Amends or atonement worth its salt arises out of and is imbues with an attitude authentically in line with the wish to repair.
An apology, or any kind of expression, that is not coupled with an internal attitude in line with the words or the action is just not complete. It is not as forceful, and more often than not, even if the other individual involved could not pinpoint it, something does not feel quite right when they hear it.
From a Buddhist standpoint, we work with view--in other words, with attitude, mindset, and perspective. When the attitude is present, there is no question that the making amends, the atonement, the remorse, the paying forward will happen.
Simply put: from view, conduct in accord with that naturally follows. there is no way to stop it.
TANIA: I really appreciate that way of thinking about the process inwardly versus the outward manifestation of that.
I had an experience actually just this week where I had a rocky conversation with somebody. Shortly afterwards, I started a cloister, so I spent a lot of time reflecting on it inwardly and felt very bad about my part in that conversation, my conduct. As soon as I was done with the cloister, I reached out to that person and I apologized.
They were completely ready to tell me all the reasons that my behavior was problematic! I could actually just accept it. I did not feel defensive in the least. I think honestly if we had had that conversation immediately after the rocky one, It would have been harder for me to have my defenses completely down.
I had really spent a lot of time inwardly reflecting and working with things. I think that there is a real benefit to not skimming over that inward part and just sort of reflexively apologizing, or reflexively saying okay, we need to deal with this and we need to atone or make amends or whatever, and instead, really spending that time and practice working with it.
YESHE: that is exactly right and we all know situations where something that seemed pretty minor at first just keep snowballing. Part of it is that, if, for example, you did not take your time inward before you talked to this other person, then maybe rather than sensing that you are ready to hear what they had to say and telling you what they thought, they would hold a grudge. Or perhaps they would tell you what they thought, but from a very different standpoint. Then it goes back and forth and feelings get hurt.
Instead of becoming a seed for more understanding and communication, it becomes a seed for more storylines that feed the flames. Each person is now going off in different directions. The stories get larger and larger.
A good deal of the work around forgiveness focuses on looking at what stories we are holding. That is not to say that, for example the parent of the child killed by the drunk driver, to use that extreme example, is going to have a story that will change a great deal over time. But the tone will: are we the hero or the victim of our story?
The stories we foster can really circumscribe our understanding of our own reality and that is a really good place to start when we want to look at those unenforceable rules, and whether there is something that we can do to loosen our hold on insisting on how we want things to be.
TANIA: I want to get back to that piece that we were talking about earlier, where if it is somebody else's conduct that we are working with forgiving, we will often hear it said, “Forgive and forget.” that is a phrase we use a lot. I am wondering, does forgiving mean forgetting? It seems like when it is our own behavior in some ways, it means not forgetting but working with it, maybe so that we can let it go eventually.
I am also wondering, can we use that information of what happened, even if we forgive, even if we are not roiled up about it in our minds, can we change our behavior with that person, or our relationship to them? Is that consistent with the Buddhist perspective on forgiveness?
YESHE Oh yeah, so it certainly is. I do not know that “forgive and forget” is necessarily something that falls in line with this particular attitude. As I see it, the term that is usually translated as “mindfulness” literally means “recollection,” that is to say, to not forget the object of our attention.
that is not to say that mindfulness applies in the forgiveness context, but there is something of value, as you say, to remembering. Still, there is a difference, and a big one, between remembering, or recollecting, and resenting.
Buddhist thought is exceedingly precise about mental states. It is one of the most exciting aspects of Buddhist study and practice for me, the acuity of the Buddhist experiential lexicon. In the teachings described as “Abhidharma,” the Buddha lays out with surgical precision a taxonomy of what are termed mental states, or events, and the effect these states have for our healing and wellbeing in the short term, and liberation in the long run.
Resentment is categorized as a species of hostility, or aggression. It is the mental state of continually carrying a grudge and not letting go, described as being tied up in knots. In simple terms, it is not magnanimous. It serves as the support for continuing in unforgiveness. Recollection and remembering, by contrast, support an unbroken stream of forgiveness.
That is the key distinction to make here. We can remember, we can recollect, we can be aware, for example, that perhaps we are not in a place where we can interact well with an individual on a one-to-one basis, dealing with them in a way that is non-violent for us. That means a way that is not harmful to our mind.
Out of the recollection and understanding that comes of introspection and acknowledgement, we make boundaries. That is very different from writing somebody off, nursing a grudge out of resentment, is it not?
Forgiveness practice is not about taking down wholesome boundaries. That would be contrary to its intent of settling the mind and opening the heart.
Nor does forgiveness necessarily mean we reconcile. Perhaps we do. Perhaps not. We may never want to reconcile with someone who killed our child. Or perhaps the person to forgive has passed away, or we have no interest in contacting them, or they have no interest in us or in reconciling themselves.
The inward trajectory of this forgiveness practice means we are not dependent on extraneous circumstances for forgiveness to be complete. It is between us and our past. That much is, to some extent, in our hands. It does not depend on someone else.
We can forgive the past for not being what we want it to be, irrespective of the externals. This is forgiveness in the sense of making peace with the fact that life did not pan out according to all of our unenforceable rules.
What is there to remember, to recollect? Our tenderness, our mental state. What nourishes and what hinders a peaceful mind and open heart within us. We recall that this person or that situation is something that is tender for us, at least for now, perhaps more.
Out of our practice of nonviolence towards our own mind, we make whatever boundaries are necessary, including not reconciling or contacting or interacting with that person if it gets to that extreme. The point is that these choices are grounded in introspection and acknowledgement of our own involvement in the situation.
In some cases, particularly if we are talking about devastating losses such as a child being killed by a drunk driver, or the mothers in Luskin’s study, whose sons were killed in the political violence in Northern Ireland--that scale of harm--then our part in the story may be limited in breadth. Nevertheless, it boils down to the grandest of unenforceable rules: that life never present us with any suffering, only happiness.
That simply is not possible in samsara, that world that we inhabit with the mindset of distorted view, which the Buddha calls samsara.
Other situations are usually a lot more complicated than that. We may be more actively involved. We have to at least be willing to acknowledge that we may be seeing things in the wrong way, that we may have done things we did not understand were inappropriate, or were experienced in a painful way by someone else.
Sometimes we cannot see our own conduct clearly, for any number of reasons. For this style of forgiveness to work, we have to be at least willing to do so. That may require some attention before we are ready to engage forgiveness in this way. Therapeutic techniques are helpful in laying a foundation for introspection that is clear but not hostile towards our mind.
All of the things we discover in looking into our conduct, our mind, our inward state, are part and parcel of how we understand what is right for us to do--what remedy to employ. Out of that understanding, then appropriate boundaries, whether or not to reconcile, whether we interact or reach out with the other, and so forth go step by step in accord with that mindset of forgiveness, making peace with life, as it is.
TANIA: From what you are saying, it seems like the process is really the same whether it is our own conduct or someone else's, whether it is something that is a very small thing, like a rocky conversation, or something much bigger and and tragic, even violent. Is that right?
YESHE: Yes, as always, Buddhist practice brings things back to our own individual responsibility for our own peace of mind.
We do not have complete control over even that much. We certainly do not have control over how much someone else is willing to reach out to us, for example. We might even try to reach out to our distanced friend, to make things better, yet, because of the storyline snowballing for them, what we do is folded into their story. Things can just keep getting worse. What to do?
The reference point is always where we are. The practice brightens our mindset in the sense of making peace with what happened and opening our heart. Out of that clear, clean attitude, things are much more likely to go more smoothly, if we do want to reconcile.
There is always a basis on how we want to proceed going forward. Do we want to let go of any grievances we might still have about the situation big or small? Also what about our openness to hearing the other person's point of view, even if we totally disagree with their interpretation of our conduct?
If we are in a conversation like you described, how open are we to hearing the other person's point of view about what happened or could have happened? It sounded like in your example you were quite open to that. If you had not been so open, that would have been a very different circumstance. Very likely, it would have just moved things one step further in the direction away from each other.
So yes, in a certain light, there is not a whole lot of difference between whether the situation we are working with is something that we did or that someone else did. From a Buddhist perspective everything has a subjective element that defines it. Things happen, but it only happens in the particular way. I experience it in my mind.
We know this. Ten witnesses on the street corner see an accident happen and there are ten different versions of what went on there. That does not mean that there was no accident. Simply that everything we experience is necessarily 100% colored by our own subjectivity, which is built out of countless conditions feeding our experience in that moment.
TANIA: It seems like the focus is not as much about assigning blame for that. I feel like, in our litigious society, we tend to focus more on fairness and blame in terms of who should actually take some action to resolve it.
This is a very different kind of process. I sometimes call this emotional socialism: from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs. We go through this process of forgiveness not because of, who is to blame or what is fair, but because this is our aspiration--to work on forgiveness.
YESHE: Precisely. There is not a separate set of practices aimed at forgiveness. What we are talking about here is very much part and parcel of all Buddhist practice.
For example, I mentioned things like having a peaceful and restful mind, having an open heart. These are not exclusive to forgiveness. We do that because, like all things, forgiveness in the Buddhist view is about cultivating the mind that is a cause for positive results that we truly want for ourself and others.
It is part and parcel of a lifestyle. His Holiness the Dalia Lama likes to say is that Buddhism is more a science of mind than a religion. While I do think it is a religion, it is a science of mind as well. It really is a lifestyle, even a vocation. And it really is founded in understanding our own mind. working with it to cultivate it, so that it is a more beautiful landscape to inhabit.
TANIA: What you are talking about reminds me of Pema Chodron talking about “taking off your armor.”
YESHE: Oh yes! We talked in one of the episodes recently about the common idea of Buddhists as sort of tiptoeing through the tulips and levitating and having this lovely soft life.
It is not like that. Buddhist practice is challenging. This is one of the ways it is most challenging. Practices such as forgiveness, loving-kindness, compassion, even taking delight and rejoicing in others’ goodness, and equanimity can bring up a lot of that vulnerability, that feeling of having the armor off and just being wrong.
One thing that I always think about when I think about forgiveness is the time that I spent in my three-year meditation retreat. If you talk to anybody who has sat the traditional Tibetan Buddhist three-year cloistered retreat, you will find few who had an idyllic experience.
It is challenging. Everybody is facing their own issues. Stuff is coming up for everyone. Everybody is bouncing off each other.
The only thing that worked for me (and it was an arduous process, I assure you), is this style of forgiveness, focused on myself and letting go of my ideas, my interpretations as being real. It took me a lot of repetition and a lot of mistakes for that to get through to me.
Ultimately, what I call the process is “continual, gratuitous forgiveness.” I cannot think of anything that takes the armor.
It is continual because it is just happening constantly. People are ornery. Life is not everything we would like it to be. This process of forgiving, in the sense of making peace with things not being as we like and welcoming what we can of it, happens continually.
It is gratuitous, because, more often than not, people do not ask for forgiveness, or necessarily think they need to do so. Life never asks for forgiveness. It is gratuitous in that we offer up forgiveness freely.
Here is that sense again, of working from the inside out. So yes, very raw. No armor. Continual. Gratuitous. It takes magnanimity to make that happen.
For this practice, we will work with forgiveness as discussed above.
First, let’s bring our attention to our seat. Come into our body, into this present moment.
Then take a couple of breaths. Ground ourselves in the here and now. In our experience.
Out of this grounding, connect with your intention.
Connect with that deep heartfelt resolve that really is the fundamental aspect of Mahayana path, where we genuinely wish, from the depths of our heart, for ourselves and all beings to be liberated from suffering, from discontent.
Make the resolve that this is what we will put our energy, our effort, our life into accomplishing.
Take a moment to connect with that intention, however it rings true for you at this moment.
This practice focuses particularly on the aspect of forgiveness as a way of reclaiming our power, benefiting ourselves and others.
This is forgiveness as it frees us to engage with what is.
In this process, we work with forgiveness through the lense of the four purifying powers that Lama Yeshe mentioned, namely remorse, reliance, remedy, and resolve.
We will practice the power of remedy, in which we really reinforce our attentiveness, cultivate awareness, and bring its healing quality to whatever trouble we may be having.
As we practice the power of remedy, this will take us experientially through the power of remorse, where we feel regret for any misconduct or negative action That we ourselves may have performed, as well as just allowing ourselves really to touch into that sadness that things did not go the way we wanted them to, that the past did not live up to our highest aspirations.
It can be intimidating to touch into that sadness.
Still, there is such a powerful mode of healing that occurs when we allow ourselves just to open to what is, to allow ourselves to see it clearly, to be with it tenderly, without trying to escape it. That is part of what we will do with this power of remorse.
Then there is the power of relying. Reliance is where, instead of holding tight to a grievance, we turn our attention to the goodness. We rely on the goodness within and that we recognize all around us, recognizing that we ourselves are enough, just as we are. All of that helps us heal.
It also builds the power of our resolve, where we are committed to a new way of being that is in line with our highest intentions, with the good that we want to be and bring into the world.
So now, settle into your seat. Begin by bringing to mind a hurt, or a disappointment, a frustration that you may have experienced. Perhaps you were triggered by a person, or an event.
As usual, with most of these experiential practices, it can be helpful to start with something small. On the other hand, if it is difficult to call up something, it can be helpful to start with whatever is most emotionally present for us right now.
Take a moment just to bring to mind a situation as a focus of practice.
As this is a meditation, remember to cultivate attentiveness. Anytime you find yourself going off of the intended meditation object, simply recognize that and call your attention back to it.
When you have this hurt or this frustration this disappointment clearly in mind, turn your attention away from the storyline.
Examine when this happened. What did you experience? In your body. Emotionally. Your thoughts. Took a moment to connect with that experience.
As you are remembering what it felt like physically or emotionally recognize how those feelings are present right now.
Where do you sense them in the body? Where are you holding it? What does it feel like? Feel the energy of that tension.
Allow the experience of the hurt, but also allow it to flow. do not solidify and fixate on it. Become curious about your experience, again, letting the storyline drop as much as you can and sensing where you feel it in your body.
What does the energy feel like? Let's just breathe with that for a couple of moments.
Now investigate. In this particular circumstance, what was I afraid of? What was I trying to protect?
In that stance of guardedness. What was harmful or toxic about this to myself? What might be harmful or toxic about it to the other person, to what I was putting out there into the world?
Now take a deep breath. Scan your body. Release any tension that you may be experiencing. Feel it flow out of you with your breath.
Come fully present into this moment.
Bring your attention to your heart center, visualizing light and love there. You can visualize it in the form of the Buddha sitting on a lotus in your heart center. Or your spiritual master. Or if it feels better, you can just visualize it as a ball of radiant white light.
Whatever the form, radiant white light is emanating fro mit, filling you completely, surrounding you with a sense of wellbeing. Breathe in and feel that. Really take it in. Experience it. Feel your connection to your body. To your heart. To this warm, wonderful light emanating from inside of you. To the place where you are. To the earth. To life. To goodness.
The point is not just to visualize it Experience it, with all of your senses. With all of your body. Present right here.
As you are in this place, call to mind the experience of hurt. Experience it from this place of inner calm and well-being. Where you recognize that you in and of yourself are enough. Let that be bigger, holding the hurt feeling with tenderness.
Forgive yourself for any judgments you place on yourself or anyone else.
Allow the tightness and the tension of that interaction that you have been carrying around to dissipate and flow out of you, fully absorbed and melted into light that is emanating brilliantly from your heart center, filling you with the wellbeing that is your birthright.
When you are ready. Open your eyes if they were closed.
Just come back to this room. To this place. To your breath.
How are you feeling? Pay attention. To what is going on in your body. Your mind.
Honor and acknowledge the sense of calm. That sense of well-being. That is a part of you that you carry.
Finally, to close, give away any of the goodness that may have come of this meditation to all beings, who, just like you, have all that they need right there, within their minds, their hearts, and yet are tormented by the hurt, the pain, the vulnerability that we try to armor ourselves against.
Tormented by the deception that is samsaric mind.
Would it not be wonderful if all of them, ourselves included, could be free?