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“I don’t need to fight to prove I’m right. I don’t need to be forgiven.” Baba O’Riley

Dear Sensei Tony- My name is Charles. My question is about forgiveness.  Is forgiveness all or none?  Or can you forgive parts of someone’s behavior but not other parts? My example would be a family member who chose to shut out the family for decades. The hurt was so great and we missed so many opportunities to grow as a family. There is still a lot of resentment. Say I choose to forgive this family member. Do I need to let go of those feelings to be completely forgiving?  Could I be hanging on to resentment because it’s the only control I have?  I am deeply hurt.  I feel like my resolve to forgive teeters.  Is that still forgiveness?  

Hi Charles- This is a question that I get a lot from folks. I think the reason is twofold: one, we culturally come out of an Abrahamic faith background where the concept of forgiveness is theologically central. Two, we’ve all had the experience of someone treating us wrongly. Sometimes this is more a perception without proof and other times it is more obvious. This mistreatment might be mild or it might be very harsh. So, while there are many ways I could come at this, let’s use the following three points as our template.

  1. Buddhism does not teach the classical view of sin or forgiveness. This is very important. In the Buddhist faith tradition, when someone does something harmful, it is due to delusion. We cause harm because we are not awakened. We do not understand the true Oneness of all things. We act out of hatred and greed because we believe that we are separate and survival is our only purpose. We unconsciously desire connection but believe that it has been or will be thwarted. So we try to use power instead of love. Whenever we act out of this “sleeping” state, it is as if we are blindly trying to hit a target. Our “misses” are what constitutes the pain we bring into the world and the suffering we cause for ourselves. Sin is classically defined as an “immoral act considered to be a transgression against sacred law” which can only be made right through divine forgiveness. I would redefine sin as a “blind act borne of ignorance” and forgiveness as a deeper state of understanding and the desire to be free of suffering.

  2. Our reaction to being treated wrongly (whether real or perceived) is also usually coming from a delusional place. We react out of hurt and we either repressively withdraw or strike out in anger. That is why revenge themes are so captivating: they appeal to our isolated sense of justice. Now, does that mean no one is ever culpable or that we shouldn’t defend ourselves? I don’t think so. Rather, it means that we come at the situation from the cosmic perspective of Oneness. From this perspective, no one is innocent and all have fallen short. We’ve all missed the mark or taken the wrong trail.

  3. So that leads me to another word that is often used in this context: grace. I believe that grace is a very important concept. In the Abrahamic faith, grace is the unearned gift of a benevolent and supreme being. In Buddhism, grace is the action that comes from understanding our interdependence. My understanding of this interconnectedness helps me to realize that “there but for grace, go I.” In other words, if I had been conditioned differently, perhaps I would have done the exact painful thing that was done to me. Does understanding excuse such behavior? No, but it does help us to understand why.

So, in summary, what can we do to reconcile all of this? We can commit to ending our own suffering. We will not always be able to stop the pain that we experience in life but we can choose what we believe about the pain. Forgiveness, to me, is about ending my own suffering and letting go of the wrong that has been done. It does not exist anymore, except in my own mind. I end this suffering by mindfully avoiding new pain when I can. I try to stop the conflict before it develops. And when I can’t, I try to end the pain as compassionately as possible and move on. I end the suffering by changing the narrative running in my head. I choose the story line that serves me best and is based upon Oneness. This creates in me an attitude of both/and where I leave the shackles of perfectionism behind. And this creativity transforms me, opening my heart and mind to a boundless sense of possibility, where I don’t have to define myself or what I do by someone else’s script and timetable. It brings forth a clarity and charity that heals and harmonizes both myself and the world.

I can’t tell you what you should do, but to each of your queries, my opinion:

“Is forgiveness all or none?  Or can you forgive parts of someone’s behavior but not other parts?” There is no either/or in Oneness. We deal with each situation as it arises. There is no need to judge or anticipate. When the beliefs and thoughts change, so will the feelings and thus the actions and consequences, too.

“Do I need to let go of those feelings to be completely forgiving?” No. Feelings are caused by thoughts and thoughts are caused by the interaction of beliefs and experiences. Change your beliefs and thoughts and you will change your feelings.

“Could I be hanging on to resentment because it’s the only control I have?” Yes. We hang on because the pain has become part of our self narrative. Change that storyline to one based upon Oneness and you will stop trying to control the outside world; you will stop defining yourself by it and realize that the only locus of control you have is within. Remember, it’s your movie.

“I am deeply hurt.  I feel like my resolve to forgive teeters.  Is that still forgiveness?” Yes. Feelings will come and go like the weather and some will hit us badly. Whenever that happens, return to mindfulness and dismantle the delusion before it takes hold.

I hope this was helpful and please contact me to go deeper.


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