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Zen And The Power of Forgiveness

Wildflowers in blues, whites, yellows to the left - Scrabble tiles spelling forgiveness in the foreground

“Forgive and forget.”

 “You need to forgive and move on.” 

 “Stop holding a grudge!  Forgive them..”

How many times have you been given advice close to any (or all) of these?

Forgiving is sometimes really haaard.

Offering forgiveness to someone who has deeply hurt us is perhaps one of the hardest, and at the same time one of the most transformative actions we can take. The path of forgiveness is not an act of mercy towards those who have hurt us, but a profound practice that can open dharma gates to inner peace and awakening. 

The heart of forgiveness lies in being able to let go. If you’re reading this, I’m sure you already know how difficult letting go can be.  It’s not a once and done act of exoneration.  Forgiveness and letting go are skills we work on for a lifetime. Zen teachings emphasize the impermanence of all things, encouraging practitioners to release attachments that bind them to resentment and grudges. 

What does “attachment” mean?

Another word for  “attachment” could be “wanting.” We want things to be different than they are, and we focus on that want. It could be that we want someone to believe us or recognize that “we” are right and “they” are wrong. Attachment could mean the continued wanting for the person who hurt us to change. For example, holding on to the belief that they need to change or apologize first or otherwise see the error of their ways, or change who they are altogether.  This wanting holds us in the dance of hurt, anger, sadness, and resentment. This dance of feelings and emotions keeps us bound to the past - which we cannot change, or to a person or people - whom we also cannot change. We have no power to change anyone but ourselves. 

The ability to forgive then, becomes a powerful tool to sever the ties that keep us bound to our pain. If we can learn to release our grasp on things we cannot change, we can emerge from the burden of emotions that hold us down and churn constantly within us. It’s like carrying around a heavy backpack filled with grudges and resentments. Zen practice invites us to drop that baggage and walk freely. It's not about saying what happened was okay, but about saying, "I choose not to carry this with me anymore." Nadia Bolz Weber, a Lutheran minister said it well when she said that when someone does us harm, we become connected to that wrong like a chain (the backpack).  The more we stay connected (carry the backpack) the more we might feel like *We are Fighting Evil.  In reality, all the anger, all the resentment that stays with us poisons us, by stealing happiness and peace. In time, anger can become us by making us bitter. So forgiveness is NOT an act of niceness. It's not an act of mercy for the perpetrator of the hurt. Rev. Nadia says forgiveness is like wielding bolt cutters, disconnecting the chain to the wrong that was done to us (taking the backpack off our shoulders!). 

From a Zen perspective forgiveness allows us to renew ourselves to the very first vows we take as Buddhists: I vow to renounce evil. I vow to do good. I vow to bring about abundant good for others. All three of these vows guide us toward walking the path of forgiveness.

What other Buddhist teachings support forgiveness?  

Right Action: The Noble Eightfold Path might be a good starting point. In this teaching, the Buddha’s guidance is to not hurt others and to work at bringing peace and harmony. Sounds ideal, doesn’t it?  Remember that the word right, used here, doesn’t mean the opposite of wrong. It means the ideal—something to work for. The “Rights” of the Noble Eightfold Path are guideposts.  We are not always going to hit the mark, or even come close. We are human after all. 

Right Speech includes not throwing gasoline on the flames of angry words. It means not being passive-aggressive. Right Speech is to take time to be able to approach hurtful situations with honesty and calmness. It also includes apologizing when we have caused harm. Right Speech comes from a place of clarity and compassion. It's hard to do when in the heat of the moment. Taking a step away - for however long it's needed to gain some equanimity is all encompassed in Right Speech.

Likewise, the Paramitas are guideposts. Applying the paramita of generosity and patience are two more teachings that support forgiveness.  Finally, the Bodhisattva Precepts support forgiveness, especially the ninth precept which is to “Not BE Angry.” Being angry is the point where anger becomes us. Feeling anger is normal. Living as an angry person is to get stuck in a quagmire of suffering, and that suffering also affects others in our lives.

So in Zen, forgiveness is not just about “wielding the bolt cutters.” It’s not forgiving so our Father (or anyone else) in Heaven will forgive us ( see Matthew 6:14). Forgiveness in Zen is about taking radical, liberating, responsibility for our own feelings and the reactions we have to those feelings. It’s about realizing that anger, resentment, and bitterness don’t serve us or anyone else well. It's about taking responsibility for how we want to live our lives, and recognizing that we can only change ourselves.  

By looking deeply and acknowledging who we are, we can gain a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of all things. What I mean by this is that if we take the focus off the ‘other’ and look deeply within ourselves, it’s like holding up a mirror that reflects our own vulnerabilities, insecurities, and humanity. By forgiving others, we forgive ourselves. All the anger, resentment, and judgments - the walls we build that we think justify our feelings and keep us safe from further hurt, but keep us chained in the dance of reliving the past, drop away. Our True Nature peeks up from under the muck that has kept us bound, like a lotus rising in a pond. 

Also, Zen teaching,  learning to live in the present moment is of great importance. Forgiveness, then, is not an act just assigned to the past. It is a continuous practice that unfolds in every moment. By staying rooted in the present, we can cultivate forgiveness as a living, breathing force that shapes our interactions with family, friends, and everyone we meet. 

Perhaps the groundwork for forgiveness begins on the cushion, in Zazen (zen meditation). As we sit silently, breathing in…and out… thoughts come and our practice is to release them, like people walking past us on a street. Thoughts come, linger for a second and then we let them pass. With meditation practice, equanimity or calmness grows. Breath by breath it comes to us. Our zazen practice teaches us to let go of the mental chatter, to let go of the stories we create in our heads, to stop the analyzing. In time, we learn to forgive ourselves and in turn, we can extend that same forgiveness to others.

Another meditation practice, specifically to foster compassion and loving-kindness is the practice of Metta meditation. To do this practice, sit in a comfortable position, you can close your eyes, or keep them open.  You might want to light a candle and some incense. Then, starting with yourself, repeat phrases like: "May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be safe. May I be at ease” Direct these phrases towards yourself three times (or for how long it feels comfortable). Then direct these phrases to someone you love, then someone you have difficulties with, and eventually, all beings.

Metta meditation cultivates a sense of compassion and goodwill. By extending these wishes to ourselves and others, we’re actively nurturing positive emotions. This practice helps soften the heart and create an inner quality that makes forgiveness possible.

Writing practice or journaling is another practice that can help us on the path to forgiveness. Set aside time for constructive journaling about the situation that requires forgiveness. Write about your feelings and the impact the incident has had on you. Then step away. When you’re ready, go back and read what you’ve written with this question in mind, “What is real about this situation?” Write just about the facts without inserting emotions, step away. Then, look at those facts, challenge yourself to explore alternative perspectives, and consider the humanity of those involved.

Journal sitting opened on a picnic table with a pen on top of the pages

Journaling can provide a tangible outlet for our emotions and thoughts. It allows us to process feelings and gain clarity. This self-reflection can become the mirror (as in above) that helps us to discover new insights and a deeper understanding, making it easier to release resentment and embrace forgiveness.

The practice of forgiveness may sound like an ideal but it can become a reality. By embracing forgiveness, we also embrace a journey of self-discovery, compassion, impermanence, and interconnectedness. Taking on forgiveness is a path that leads us to transcend the ego and invites us into a life of loving-kindness, and compassion for ourselves and others.

Forgiveness epitomizes compassion. The act of forgiveness extends beyond words; it is a lived experience that enhances every aspect of our lives. Forgiving frees us. As human beings, as Zen practitioners, and certainly as Precept holders, we are called to embody compassion in action, offering forgiveness not as a distant idea, or an act of mercy but as a tangible expression of loving-kindness and empathy.

Remember that forgiveness is a process, and these practices are tools to support a journey. Start by forgiving small things first. Move forward in small manageable steps. 

There might be something you’re really struggling to forgive. I have something. It’s so hard. But I’d rather be free of the hurt, so I work on it when it comes up. We’re human, so we can’t forget but the more we work to forgive, the less power the past and the person have on us. We learn to discern the Truth behind Ego's Wall of Protectiveness.

Every time I choose to forgive, I take my power back. Be patient with yourself. You can too. 



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Thank you for this guidance. Forgiving can be hard. Even if we manage to more towards it, as you say, "it is not a one time exoneration." nor is it an act of mercy. I'm reminded of:

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