A First Look into Forgiveness

by Hon Sing, Lee, June 9 2003
Forgive: Pardon an offense or an offender; give up resentment against a person etc.” - Oxford English Dictionary.

“To forgive or not to forgive, is a personal choice.  We have some control over our own choice, we have little control over other’s choice.”

"The greatest power of all is the power to forgive" - Oscar Schindler.

“Forgiving does not erase the bitter past.  A healed memory is not a deleted memory.  Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember.  We change the perspective of our past into a hope for our future.” - Anonymous.
Many phenomena happen every day, by the Law of Cause and Effect.  As these phenomena come and go, they generate something else in us, that may not go away as easily.  Among these some things are feelings of anger, hatred, disappointment, and sadness.  These feelings cause ripples in our hearts, disrupt the peace of our minds, torment our souls and spiral us into deeper sufferings.  However, to some extend, we do have a choice of letting go of these feelings.  

Alexander Pope said, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”  I feel that this line not only describes how noble it is to forgive, it also describes how difficult sometimes it is to forgive.  Some things are so easy to forgive, that the choice of “to forgive or not to forgive” does not even enter one’s mind.  Some things are more difficult to forgive, that the choice must be consciously made.  Some things are even more difficult to forgive, that it takes days, or months, or years to forgive.  Some things are so difficult to forgive that they seem eternally unforgivable.  It depends on the person’s mood and wisdom too.  Some things can be easy to forgive at one time, and hard to forgive at another time.  It depends on the culprit as well.  For example, it may be easier to forgive strangers and friends, but it may be harder to forgive closed ones and enemies.

Forgiveness is a personal choice, and we are personally responsible for our choice as well.  No one else can do it for us, or force us into forgiveness. A forced forgiveness is similar to an emotional abuse, like a 'threat' per se.  If a person wants to forgive, he or she must realize that the incident that caused the hurt or hatred is not worth dwelling on. He or she would have to rationalize that point within himself or herself. People around him or her can tell all kinds of perspective to this person, but this person has to make this choice of forgiveness.  Buddhists often hear the words like, 'If you call yourself a Buddhist, then why is it that you are holding on to this feeling of hatred or anger etc?' This would make that person feel ashamed of himself or herself, thus forcing him or her to 'forgive' the other person. This is not a real forgiveness since he or she may still feel unhappy about it. Forgiveness has to be done wholeheartedly and with the understanding that future mention of that incident would not cause a stir of emotions again.

If it is so hard, then why the need to overcome the difficulties and forgive? Just as forgiving is a form of letting go, non-forgiving is a form of attachment.  In fact, this is a very strong form of emotional attachment, filled with tremendous negative energies and emotional burden.  These negative energies can easily fuel other negative energies in us, and drain our positive energies.  It is dangerous for us to bottle up these negative energies for a long time.  Thus the sooner we can get rid of these negative energies, the better.  Forgiveness is the only chance that these negative energies be dissipated.  As mentioned in the Dhammapada,

“Hatred is never appeased
by hatred in this world.
By non-hatred alone
is hatred appeased.
This is a law eternal.”
--Dhammapada verse 5

Thus contrary to common beliefs, non-forgiveness is not a good way to punish the culprit, because the non-forgiver has to carry the suffering as well.  Non-forgiveness does not show ‘character’ or ‘coolness’.  We do not need to use ‘non-forgiveness’ to help us remember an injustice done to us.  Forgiveness is not a form of weakness or cowardice.  On the contrary, as mentioned above, forgiveness is divine.

How then can we cultivate better forgiveness?  In an old Hong Kong movie, a guy taught a weird mantra which seemed to work.  He said, “Every time you think of the culprit again and feel the resentment, just recite: ‘I forgive, I forget.’”  In fact, that guy in the movie even had a cheerful tune to that mantra.  Of course in that movie, the mantra worked.

How Mindfulness Practice Improves Forgiveness

“Mindfulness help us regain control over our Citta Niyama.  We re-inherit our free choice of not harping over past grievances.”
In the Mindfulness meditation, we not only train to watch our breath, we also train to watch our stray thoughts.  With some training, we will be able to see our stray thoughts come and go - the arising and falling of phenomena as mentioned by the Buddha, without being led astray by them.  This helps us in two ways to improve our forgiveness.

First we realize that the process of the phenomenon is impermanent.  It happened, and there is nothing we can do to erase that from history.  Non-forgiveness does not undo the phenomenon.  It is only by forgiveness, the letting go, that we can all put the phenomenon behind us and move on to more meaningful things - perhaps to remedy the situation, or to rebuild into a better world.  

“The world has moved on, why not us?”

Second whenever we are plagued by the memories of the injustice or bitterness, we can use our mindfulness to detect it and let go of it quickly.  As mentioned above, non-forgiveness bottles up a lot of negative energies within us.  These negative energies are so strong, that a single stray thought about the event, could spark an entire ‘forest fire’ burning our minds away.  If we are mindful, we can detect the stray thought, and let the stray thought pass by without igniting a fire.  If we are less mindful, and the fire has already started in our mind, we can still detect it and put out the fire before it gets large.  With constant effort, the negative energies will become smaller and it will be easier and easier to put out that fire.  Eventually, the negative energies could become under control, and we may even be able to forgive the event easily!

How Loving Kindness and Compassion Improves Forgiveness

“Loving kindness and compassion are the direct remedies for anger and hatred.”
There is a concept of the Four Immeasurables in Buddhism.  These Four Immeasurables are Loving Kindness, Compassion, Equanimity and Rejoice.  They are called Immeasurables because the more one generates them, the more one has the capacity to generate more of them.  There are effective Buddhist trainings on how to generate the Four Immeasurables in us.

Loving kindness and compassion are the direct remedies for anger and hatred.  Thus by generating loving kindness and compassion for someone, it is often easier to grant forgiveness to that someone.  This may sound like a paradox: how can we love someone who we cannot forgive?

There are many reasons why we should love others.  (Love as in Loving Kindness, not other form of worldly love.)  We love others because in previous lives, others could be our loved ones who had taken care of us.  We love others to show our gratitude that others loved us, granted mercy on us, and forgave us.  We love others as a celebration of the precious human life, it is the way we show that we cherish life.  We love others because we are all interconnected (interbeing), whatever we do, goes through others and comes back to us.  Last but not least, we love others because everyone is a future Buddha.

To forgive, sometimes it means to let go of imposing one’s principles and beliefs onto someone else.  This is very difficult to do.  The more we learn and the more we mature in our beliefs, the more we are attached to our principles and beliefs.  The attachment energy is so strong, that only the immeasurable energy of love, could help us bend it for a moment, to let us exercise forgiveness.  Thus the more we practice loving kindness and compassion, the more we can forgive.

Give It Time

Ultimately when we attain perfect wisdom, forgiveness becomes almost natural.  Till then, we do have to be realistic with ourselves.  We may not be able to forgive everyone.  As mentioned above, some things are simply too challenging for us to forgive.  Instead of shunting away from these difficult cases, these cases precisely are our training ground.  We can learn mindfulness, non-attachment and loving kindness from these cases.  Slowly, we weaken and purify the negative energies until one day, they could no longer control us.  Then we would truly be free from that phenomenon which started it, and ceased so long time ago!

Give it time, don’t be frustrated by it.  It is only human to find difficulty in forgiving.  It is divine to be able to forgive.  Let us all reach for that divinity!

Further Thoughts

What is not mentioned in this first exploration, but are issues very close to my heart include:
  1. Forgiving oneself
  2. Forgiving the society or the world
  3. Forgiving events that do not directly affect us.
May we have the good karma to explore this further one day.  Meanwhile, may this short piece of exploration bring peace to your heart.  What are your thoughts on this topic?

Email the author, Hon Sing Lee.