Do you forgive the sun for your sunburn?
Or do you get into the shade, and thank it for shining?
Lately, there has been quite a bit of talk about the medical benefits of forgiveness. Even the prestigious Mayo Clinic -- if you ever get a bill from them you will know just how prestigious -- has chimed in with definite findings. According to Big Medicine, forgiving others will:
Lower your blood pressure;
Diminish anger and hostility;
Reduce symptoms of depression.
This is admirable, though certainly nothing new. Tibetan medicine explains lymphatic cancer as originating in "retained anger or grudge." While "medical" forgiveness ought to be encouraged, today I am interested in forgiveness as a natural extension of one's own spontaneous appreciation of that which arises. Or, to put it another way: forgiveness without expected benefits. Forgiveness without selfish reasons.
It is all well and good to convince one's self to forgive others, but the very premise of this -- "self" and "others" -- is the cause of all human misery. As Buddhists, our principal task is to get past that sort of thinking just as quickly as possible. As Buddhists, we think of ourselves as travelers on a path -- a journey without a goal -- and much of the imagery that surrounds our belief is seen in just such terms. We see life's challenges as a continuous opportunity to express our faith: to put "compassion into action" if you like such phrases.
In this light then, exercising forgiveness is one of the pivotal moments in one's journey as a human being. Yet, some of us turn this marvelous opportunity for clarity into yet another excuse for letting ego off the leash.
- We become regal: "I forgive thee in my munificence, for I am Holy."
- We become self-satisfied: "I am wondrous because I forgive."
- We even start counting scalps: "I have forgiven fifteen more villains in my munificent wondrousness today, for a total of thirty-two forgiven villains this week."
- We reinforce excuses: "My [insert scapegoat here] was a no good, skirt chasing, whiskey guzzling gambler who ruined my life, but I have forgiven him."
Forgiveness turns into an industry: all sorts of carpetbaggers (well, yoga mat baggers maybe) pop up to help us explain our feelings to ourselves. You see advice like, "Move away from your role as victim and release the control and power the offending person and situation have had on your life." Sounds great doesn't it? Maybe so, but it is what I call "bargain basement" forgiveness. It is completely transactional, and fundamentally wrong: a selfish act in disguise, predicated on material notions of "victims," "perpetrators," "power," and so forth.
That plays on Oprah, but Oprah is off the air, and your mortal clock is ticking in a realm way, way beyond victim culture and televised schmaltz.
Only when forgiveness ceases to be transactional does it become genuine. Forgiveness ceases to be transactional when you are able to proceed from a fundamentally sane view:
"All the outer and inner characteristics of the world of form and content in their entirety,
Although appearing, are simply to be left in a state devoid of grasping at a self.
Purification of the grasping subject and grasped at object is the divine form, manifest yet empty.... "
--"The Prayer Requested by Namkha'i Nyingpo," Le'u bDun Ma
So, what we are talking about is eliminating the concept of forgiver and forgiven, and instead relaxing into what might be called the ultimate forgiveness: the forgiveness that comes from understanding the nature of things. We don't need anybody to mediate this. We don't need anybody to explain this. We don't need anybody to interpret this.
People have been reading some of the posts I published following my sojourn in the hoosegow, and they have written to ask, "How could you ever forgive that bunch?" I've been asked that question so many times lately, I actually sat down and thought about how to answer.
I suppose my answer is the idea of forgiveness never came up because I never felt the necessity. Even ostensibly unpleasant episodes have their purpose. If you look at things equally, this idea of pleasant and unpleasant starts to blur and fade. You live long enough, you come to understand that people will hurt you out of blind ignorance. You can understand it for whatever benefit understanding brings, and then let it go for whatever benefit that might bring. This is samsara. The bus is crowded. Somebody is going to step on your foot, and not say, "Excuse me." Somebody is going to fart in the elevator.
You can just let these things go without much effort at all. Now, people with a guilty conscience, or people with a sorely limited view, tend to judge the actions of others by comparison with their own smallness. They will say, "Yeah... forgive me... so what? Your forgiveness is just a feint in some evil plan." Maybe they will repeatedly smack you, just to test if your forgiveness is real. If the concept of forgiveness is a dialectical exercise for you, then such things will occupy your attention and disturb your mind. There are a whole lot of skunks stinking up the woods, and the thing is to roll up the window until you get a little farther down the road. Forgiving a skunk for being a skunk is a mighty neurotic waste of time.
Really, the best forgiveness is to experience no wrong.
Really, the best forgiveness is to accept the divine form, manifest yet empty.
If that just isn't in the cards for you, sit down out back of the house, visualize everything and everybody that ever pissed you off right in front of you, take a big drink of whatever you use to cure snakebite, and say, "Oh, what the Hell. None of us is getting any younger."
For that suggestion, may I be forgiven.