In Buddhism, There Is No Forgiveness
A few months ago, I attended a webinar in which the presenter stated that, in Buddhism, there is no forgiveness. This was not an idea I’d heard before. Because the presenter did not explain what she meant by this, I tried to guess. Could it be that if we dwell in the present moment, the past is gone, so forgiveness is unimportant?
I thought of the story of the two monks who were walking along a road. They came to a river. There stood a woman, dressed in finery, looking uncertainly at the rushing water. She asked the monks to carry her across.
The elder one lifted her onto his back and brought her safely to the other bank. There he set her gently down. The two monks then continued on their journey.
After traveling in silence for a few miles, the younger monk turned on his companion. “How could you do that? Our vows say we are not to touch women, yet you carried her across the river.”
“The woman back there? Are you still carrying her?” the other monk asked. “I set her down long ago.”
Forgiveness as Power Over
This parable contains multiple lessons. For instance, it highlights the foolishness of self-righteous adherence to rules and encourages us to let go of our thoughts, judgments, and pettiness.
Perhaps such letting go is a kind of forgiveness. Yet what did the younger monk have to forgive? There was no harm done to him, unless he took personally some imagined threat to the good name of their order. Yet even if he had taken offense, what gave him the right to forgive the older monk something that had not hurt him directly? Does he himself not offend by presuming to forgive one who hasn’t asked for forgiveness?
If the webinar presenter was correct and forgiveness isn’t a Buddhist concept, perhaps this is why. When we assume we have the right to forgive another, does this not create a power imbalance? When we claim power over another in this way, do we not make him a victim and ourselves a victimizer?
This is what Ken McLeod argues in his article, “Forgiveness Is Not Buddhist.” He states that when we forgive someone else, we claim power. The act of nobly bestowing forgiveness on another, of assuring her that we will not retaliate nor use our power to harm her, is itself “an exercise of that power.” 
Thus we create victims. Forgiveness, McLeod writes, turns us into victims, whether we become “a victim of circumstance, a victim of [the other’s] harshness or callousness, or a victim of state or societal power.” 
Debt, Power, and Forgiveness
McLeod bases the core of his argument on an understanding of debt described by David Graeber in his anthropological history of debt. Graeber explains that for millennia, humans have convinced the populace that they and other victims of their violence are the true debtors, the ones who are in the wrong. 
For instance, we all assume it’s wrong not to pay our debts. Graeber shows that if all debt were paid, financial systems would collapse. Yet it is only the rich who are rewarded for this endless debt cycle; poor are not. They are labeled bad or selfish or foolhardy if they fall into debt, even if their debt is caused by manipulative capitalists or corrupt regimes that leave them no choice but to borrow to survive. Then they are pressured, taxed, and oppressed until they cannot possibly pay back what they are said to owe. At that point, according to this myth of debt, they should be punished for being irresponsible.
Using the Mafia and generations of conquering armies as examples, Graeber writes, “For thousands of years, violent men have been able to tell their victims that those victims owe them something. If nothing else, they ‘owe them their lives’ . . . because they haven’t been killed.” 
These examples might seem extreme. How many of us have been abused and manipulated by the Mafia or live in a country that has been overrun by dictators? Yet the same dynamic plays out in our own country every day.
The Value of Debt
Still, debt is not always bad. In some small communities, gifts and practical help are seen as forms of debt. They are meant to be paid back, but not in exact amounts. Therefore, the debt cycle continues indefinitely, keeping relationships among neighbors alive. If the debt were paid off entirely, then the two parties in the relationship would be free to walk away from one another. When we owe money to a bank for our car or home, we are glad to pay off the loan and walk away. When we owe a friend or neighbor, however, such contractual settling of accounts can damage an important bond.
This is part of McLeod’s concern. Not only does the forgiveness of debts create victims, but it also ends relationships. Thus, instead of forgiveness, or the complete paying off debts, we could focus on making amends, offering service, or giving a gift that imperfectly settles our account. Since we wouldn’t know for sure how much is owed to whom, this would restore equality to the relationship and allow it to continue.
Forgiveness and Power Imbalances
In spite of his concern about victimization or the rupturing of relationships, McLeod sees some benefits to what people call forgiveness. He acknowledges that it can, along with ending relationships, also restore them when they have become broken. Rather than calling this type of healing activity “forgiveness,” though, he would use terms such as “lovingkindness, compassion, or patience.” Besides, he worries that in the practice of forgiveness, there is an “intrinsic power dynamic that lurks just beneath the surface of social interaction.”  The one doing the forgiving has all the power, and this disturbs him.
In a healthy relationship, though, this power will be centered first in one individual, then in another. We won’t mind this much, nor even notice it all the time, because a healthy relationship is based on trust. When we have the best interests of our partner at heart, we strive to be compassionate, generous, and kind.
Besides, to one degree or another, we all lack power in relationships. That’s because none of us can control how the other will respond. Whether or not we ask for forgiveness, we cannot make another person release her anger or her lust for revenge. If our friend or neighbor doesn’t want to forgive us, there’s little we can do about. We can make amends and repay our debt, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be forgiven. After all, those who feel victimized sometimes hold forgiveness over their abusers like a weapon. On the other hand, the powerful sometimes forgive as a form of manipulation, making the powerless more beholden. But that doesn’t make forgiveness itself is wrong.
In answer to McLeod, Thanissaro Bikkhu writes about the importance of karma and how bad karma hurts us now and in future lives. He acknowledges that we can’t undo our past karma by forgiving someone else, yet when we do forgive, we avoid bad karma in the future. He points to a particular type of bad karma called vera. This Pali term can be translated as “hostility.” It’s our desire for revenge, our anger and antagonism. Forgiveness is the means by which we clear this bad karma from ourselves. 
The rest of Bikkhu’s article describes how we can “find a truly safe victory in life” by forgiving, by showing others that we “want to pose no danger to anyone at all, regardless of the wrong they’ve done.”  This is how we create good karma for our future.
I doubt McLeod would disagree with this. He appreciates Buddhist concepts like compassion, patience, releasing bad thoughts, and avoiding bad karma. Yet he stops short of suggesting forgiveness as a remedy. Instead, he describes four steps we can take to deal with wrong things that we have done. These are: regret, reliance, remedy, and resolution. McLeod explains how these function from a Buddhist perspective.
Regret, Reliance, Remedy, and Resolution
For instance, though those of us who have grown up in a Christian country might think of regret as being filled with remorse and guilt, McLeod states that for a Buddhist, guilt is not part of regret. We might wish that we hadn’t done something, and that might make us feel unhappy, but not because we violated some authority or law. Rather, we feel regret because “nonvirtuous actions . . . grow into unpleasant and painful experiences.” 
The next step, reliance, means to renew our connection with our spiritual practice. When we lose attentiveness, when we slip out of mindfulness, we do things we regret. Thus it is important to return to that center, that grounding. To do this, we must renew our spiritual practice, commit to mindful action.
Third is remedy. We do what we can to make things better. This could be apologizing or making recompense, whether directly to the person we’ve harmed or indirectly by volunteering or donating to charity.
Finally we “form the intention not to act that way again.”  This is the resolution.
Is This Not Forgiveness?
But when McLeod suggests this remedy for bad karma, he’s not talking about how to release the anger we feel toward one we believe has harmed us, as Bikkhu is. He’s talking about how to cope with the harmful things we ourselves have done. Thus, Bikkhu’s article doesn’t fully address McLeod’s concerns.
Even so, McLeod is describing a process many would call forgiveness, or at least a precursor to it. Perhaps we don’t need to be forgiven, at least not by another person, but doesn’t it make us feel better when we acknowledge the wrong we’ve done, do what we can to make things right, pledge not to do such a thing again, and commit to a spiritual practice that will help us avoid bad karma in the future? This sounds like forgiveness to me.
Living In the Moment
But maybe, in the end, the webinar presenter and McLeod are right that forgiveness isn’t Buddhist. As we mentioned above, the story of the two monks is about letting go of the past, including any resentment and regret we might feel. The older monk did this easily, while the younger one spent an hour or more rehearsing his outrage. He couldn’t put down his vera.
If, instead, the younger monk had lived according to the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness, he would have noticed his thoughts and let them go. He would have returned to the present moment. When we are immersed in the present, there is no bad karma. There is nothing to forgive.
Of course, this becomes an easy way out for those who care nothing for the harm they have done. Had the older monk, instead of bringing the woman safely through the water, dropped her into the river and let her drown, would it have been as acceptable for him to continue his journey as if the past meant nothing? Perhaps the woman’s family could use mindfulness and lovingkindness to release their antagonism toward the monk, to realize that in this present moment, there is nothing to forgive. But does the older monk get not owe the family something? Is there not a debt here that requires redemption, and does redemption not come from forgiveness? It’s one thing to seek to release our own anger and another to refuse to hold perpetrators to account because the past no longer exists. It’s another to use that fact to discount the harm we have done.
Yet perhaps the issue of forgiveness in Buddhist philosophy has less to do with that letting go of the past and more to do with the concept of impermanence. The First Noble Truth teaches us that all is impermanent. Suffering comes because we cling to things we like and try to push away that which we do not like. To escape this cycle of suffering, we must understand that our “self” is an illusion. We must practice non-attachment. In this way, we can remain peaceful no matter what. We will not experience anger or offense. There will be nothing to forgive.
In the Kakacupama Sutta, the Buddha says that no matter what is done to us, whether others yell at us, spit on us, tells lies about us, or carve us up “savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled sword,” we can sustain equanimity. Rather than getting angry, the sutta teaches us, we should work to become so centered and calm so that “[o]ur minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.” 
If we can do this, we will experience no hurt nor offense. Because we are not wounded, there is nothing to forgive. If the other person has “bad karma” or vera they need to address, this is not our concern.
Forgiving Our Inner Child; Forgiving our Parents
Buddhist teachers talk about how to release old wounds and feel compassion for those who have harmed us. Thich Nhat Hanh leads listeners in an exercise designed to help us forgive ourselves and our parents by imaging us and them as children. In a video about forgiveness, he suggests that we say to ourselves: “I see myself as a five-year-old child. I hold that five-year-old child in me . . . I see my father as a five-year-old boy. I smile to my father as a five-year-old boy.” 
Perhaps there are ways in which forgiveness is foreign to Buddhism, such as the Christian belief that we are sinful and need redemption or salvation from some force outside us. Yet we live in a world where debt is real, where relationships sometimes do need mending, and where emotions can be wounded. To deal with this concrete world we inhabit, we need a process to release resentment, to help us give up our insistence that we deserve revenge, and to restore equanimity. McLeod’s four-step process is one example.
Whether we call this process forgiveness or something else, it helps each of us be more compassionate and equanimous, to create “good karma” for ourselves and others. It helps us heal, which is an important part of creating a just, free, and peaceful world.
In faith and fondness,
- McLeod, Ken, “Forgiveness Is Not Buddhist,” Tricycle, Winter 2017, https://tricycle.org/magazine/forgiveness-not-buddhist/, accessed 10/16/19.
- Graeber, David, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2014.
- Graeber ebook 30.
- Bikkhu, Thanissaro, “Three Tactics from the Buddha to Forgive without Feeling Defeated,” Tricycle, February 17, 2018, https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/three-tactics-forgive-without-defeat/, accessed 9/19/19.
- Kakacupama Sutta: The Simile of the Saw” (MN 21), translated from the Pail by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), November 30, 2013, https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.021x.than.html#saw, accessed 10/19/19.
- Thich Nhat Hanh, The Power of Forgiveness –Part 2, Journey Films, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6VycjCq6sE, accessed 10/19/19.
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