The Act of Forgiveness is not simply the gesture of forgiving someone for a specific injury or offense; it is rather an attitude that one nurtures until one lives it without effort or conscious intent.
Of all the religions, it is probably Christianity that emphasizes forgiveness more than any other. I think Jesus got the ball rolling in Mathew 5:38, when he told the people, “You have learned how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say unto you: offer the wicked man no resistance.”
The Buddhists teach forgiveness by way of compassion. People who hurt others are themselves hurting; practicing Buddhists learn to turn their pain or anger into empathy and compassion. The act of forgiveness brings peace to both.
In Zen, we learn that the act of forgiveness is in itself the act of vengeance. By constantly responding to injury with indifference and pardon, the other is eventually worn down to a need for negotiations or departure.
When we study all the religions and philosophies and narrow down the subject of forgiveness to a common denominator, we come up with ‘healing’. In forgiving, there is healing.
The act of forgiveness can be very difficult; societal norms do not support it. As they are growing up, people are being conditioned to not show or even admit their pain – pain translates as weakness. Instead, we learn to turn our pain into anger. It is much easier to raise our voice and growl and exclaim ‘he/she made me mad!’ rather than ‘he/she hurt me’.
The presence of anger, in the accepted norm of thinking, justifies retaliation, some form of violence; it could just as well be verbal, psychological, or emotional. In acts of retaliation, the pain (or anger) is transferred to the other, and there is a likelihood that it can reciprocate over and over and over. When it does not, one will experience recurrences of the pain and the anger.
Anger eventually generates resentment, which doesn’t take long to fester into hate. And some people can bear such hate throughout their lives. It really can be like lugging around a boulder or a stuffed garbage bag, or it can be like a thorn in one’s ribcage, that they just tolerate as much as they can. The aggravation from that burden is released in little spates of obnoxiousness, grumpiness, or criticism.
We all know people like this. Their idea of humor is always at someone else’s discomfort or embarrassment; and they never miss a chance to fling anger, criticism, or insult to those around.
Because of the societal norms that define pain as weakness, some people very often take the attitude that we forgive because God is going to get our revenge for us anyway. You see, in order to let go, we still have to believe that there will be payback. While that might be the gist of the matter, we must remember that forgiveness is not about revenge at all; and whatever justice is meted out has nothing to do with how we feel or what we think.
There is a little story about a warrior whose teacher was killed by an enemy, and the warrior set off on a quest of vengeance. It took much effort, endurance, and time, but the warrior finally caught up with the enemy. And he rushed at him, attacked him, and stood over him angrily; ready to chop off his head. But then, he stopped and walked away.
He realized that he was about to unleash his own personal anger, and this would not be about his beloved master. He had to prepare himself first; he had to acquire composure, approach the enemy with all due respect, and then, in the name of his master, take the enemy’s life, deliberately but calmly. Obviously, this is a story about martial arts.
In our own circles, we tell this story with a different conclusion. After he had prepared himself and tracked down his enemy again, defeated him with serene precision, and now saw him on his knees, the warrior stopped himself once again and said, “Would you be willing to atone yourself in service?”
The matter of vengeance was accomplished in a second defeat, justice was served through humble servitude, and ‘healing’ came about in the new accord, the mutualism, the choosing of life, perhaps even in a new friendship emerging out of respect. But above all, the teacher was honored, because the warrior chose to forgive the assailant in the teacher’s name.
The first step of forgiveness is to accept the injury for what it is; there can be no forgiving in denial. One should then examine the true feelings that are being experienced; we often confuse our feelings with our thoughts, our opinions, or our preconceptions. And we have to own our feelings; others are not to blame for our emotions or for the actions we might take to alleviate those emotions.
So, it is important that we are clear in our minds before we make any decisions about forgiveness or revenge and then act. Instead of visualizing the scenario with which we are familiar, the accepted practice of ‘eye for eye and tooth for tooth’, we could look for ways of reconciliation. But why would we want to do this?
In a number of different cultures, there is a reference to what is known as a warrior’s attitude. Among other things, it is an attitude in which one sees oneself in the world and the world in oneself – I take from the world and the world takes from me. This is perhaps the highest form of forgiveness, at least among humans.
A person can spend a lifetime developing this attitude. It does not come easy, and it cannot be done without a teacher. It is not an awareness that the ordinary person walks around with 24/7.
This is an attitude that pierces through the preconceived ideas about living and dying, right and wrong, or good and evil. As one continues to cultivate this attitude, one begins to see the Cosmic Illusion for what it is; and one learns to appreciate the very little span of time that each of us is allotted in the physical plane.
Many, many people have the attitude that it is alright to take life – some people make use of everything that will serve some purpose, and other people kill and take only a specific part; other people still believe that it is perfectly alright to kill indiscriminately, if only for the purpose of eradicating. And other people kill for no purpose at all.
The warrior accepts that this is the way of the world – for him or her, it could just as well be him or her that is being killed. And no one is to blame. We all die; and when it is one’s time, the warrior understands that it is not his or her call.
There may come a time when one realizes that this is all the concept and creation of one mind; it was that mind that brought us into a cruel world, and it is that mind that takes us from it. In cultivating a warrior’s attitude, we accept, we forgive, and we make the best of it; the attitude is not a way of acting but a way of life.
Knowing and understanding the act of forgiveness means that we learn to forgive God for putting us through this, we forgive the world for being harsh and cruel, we forgive ourselves for our weaknesses and our iniquities – and then, and only then, can we begin to forgive those individuals who have hurt us.
Revenge and forgiveness are very much related; they are on the opposite ends of the same scale. One’s conscience and one’s feelings have much to do with how that scale tips, as will one’s attitude. For the ones being forgiven, it might be enough to just hear the words ‘I forgive you’; but, in the forgiving mind, just saying the words is not in itself the act of forgiveness.
It is, however, a very good start.