Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Forgiveness

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manaḥ śamaṃ na gṛhṇāti na prītisukham aśnute
na nidrāṃ na dhṛtiṃ yāti dveṣaśalye hṛdi sthite

The mind does not attain peace, nor does it experience the pleasure of joy,
nor does it find rest or stability, so long as the arrow of hatred is stuck in the heart.

Those words from Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra 6.3 are part of a chapter dedicated to the necessity of cultivating forgiveness and patience. Being the victim of someone else’s harmful behavior, whether the harm was deliberately engineered or the by-product of carelessness and negligence, is pain enough to deal with. Nothing good comes of magnifying the pain by harboring ill will or desires of revenge. When people are harmful to others, says Śāntideva, is precisely when they most need our compassion, our active attempts to alleviate their suffering. Given that contented people do not try to bring misery to others and indeed usually try to establish harmony with others, the best strategy for finding relief from those who are making others miserable is to help them find relief from what is making them miserable.

In the past few days statements have been made by well-known people that show very little understanding of the importance of forgiveness as part of establishing peace and well-being for everyone. One statement was Sarah Palin’s plea to Muslims to drop their plans to establish a mosque near the site of where the World Trade Center used to be in New York. The other was British Prime Minister David Cameron’s strongly expressed disagreement with the decision of the Scottish Parliament last year to allow Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi to return to Libya rather than die of a terminal illness in a Scottish prison. Mass murderers like al-Megrahi, said PM Cameron, do not deserve compassion.

Both Mrs. Palin and PM Cameron seemed to be voicing the views of those who say forgiveness of wrong-doing would add to the burden of pain borne by those whose loved ones died in the airplane bombed over Lockerbie or in the attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. What they apparently believe is that people are more likely to be pained and vexed by compassion than by their own inability to cultivate compassion. But that is surely not universally true. Without a doubt there are those who have found transformative comfort as a result of finding a way to love those who have harmed their loved ones, just as there are those who will carry their bitterly vindictive feelings with them to the grave. The range of response to deep misfortune is as varied as any other aspect of being human. There is a saying in Sanskrit that hardship is like a rapidly spinning grindstone; when clay is touched to it, it crumbles, but when gold is touched to it, it gets polished. When it was announced that al-Megrahi was being allowed to return to Libya on compassionate grounds, some Scots who had lost loved ones rejoiced at the nobility of the decision, while others ground their teeth and spoke venomous words. It is disappointing to see public figures who have attracted the attention of wide audiences siding only with those who are unable to find forgiveness in their hearts.

The displeasure that has been voiced by those who would like to prevent a mosque from being built in the neighborhood of what has come to be called Ground Zero is psychologically understandable, but it is such a raw emotion that it is difficult to know what kind of decision would not be offensive to those who harbor their unwillingness to forgive. The issue seems to be that placing a mosque near Ground Zero would be a desecration of the memories of those who died. But what distance would be far enough away for these people? Should the nearest mosque be at least a mile away? Or should it be off the island of Manhattan? Outside greater New York City area? One hundred miles away? There are probably some individuals so overcome with bitterness that they would like to see an America entirely free of any publicly visible signs of Muslim worship. Should they be the ones whose feelings determine public policy? If so, one can hardly imagine a deeper tragedy for American culture, since it would be a sure sign of the death of the values that lay at the heart of the formation of the American republic.

There is no calculus for compassion. No one is any more or less deserving of compassion than anyone else. Everyone who is in pain needs relief. Those who cannot forgive need the help of those who can. Those who blame others and attack those whom they blame need the help of those who have no need to find scapegoats. Those who suffer from the arrow of hatred stuck in their hearts need the help of those who have learned to love. Contrary to what some theology says, love is not a grace. It is not a gift that God gives to some and withholds from others. It is a skill. It is something one can learn to do. Like all skills, it is one that improves with practice. The more one loves, the more one can love. The less one forgives, the less one can forgive. The less one can forgive, the more unbearable becomes the burden of life.

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, July 22, 2010 at 14:47

Posted in Faith and practice

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