by Walt Opie, BP3 Executive Director

Forgiveness was the main theme of our recent 2017 BP3 retreat, facilitated by Buddhist Chaplain Susan Shannon, who serves the men on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison. Forgiveness includes forgiving ourselves as well as forgiving others. Susan shared a memorable quote from Max Lucato during her presentation at the BP3 retreat:

“Forgiveness is unlocking the door to set someone free and realizing you were the prisoner.”

Jack Kornfield has a wonderful book entitled The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace that offers some helpful comments about forgiveness from his perspective as a Buddhist teacher and psychologist. Perhaps the best known quote of Jack’s on this topic is:

“Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past.”

Jack also says, “Forgiveness is the necessary ground for any healing.” A few of the key truths about forgiveness that Jack encourages us to remember include: “Forgiveness is not weak or naive. Forgiveness does not happen quickly. Forgiveness does not forget, nor does it condone the past. Forgiveness does not mean that we have to continue to relate to those who have done us harm. [And] in the end, forgiveness simply means never putting another person out of our heart.”

One of the best quotes I’ve ever heard that at least indirectly addresses forgiveness is attributed to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should see sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

Susan also gave us some similar reminders about forgiveness during the retreat, including that “forgiving does not mean forgetting” and “we’re forgiving the person, not the act.”

BP3 Founder Diane Wilde recently attended a retreat with well-known Buddhist monk and scholar Ven. Analayo (author of Satipatthaha: The Direct Path to Realization) and asked him about what the Buddha specifically taught on forgiveness. Here is her story:

“I had a few minutes with him (Ven. Analayo) and told him about an inmate who has dedicated his life to his victim. He killed a rival gang member when he was sixteen. It took years, but he has forgiven himself and says he has dedicated his life to his victim who was a Buddhist. He started coming to Buddhist services because he wanted to know his victim’s spiritual tradition. Ironically, he found a path which he is now devoted to (as a result). Due to Proposition 57, he is now being considered for parole. He is 40 years old. However, his victim’s family will not forgive him, and he said he is often reduced to tears when he thinks about what he did to them. He recently asked me to give a talk about forgiveness and what the Buddha had to say. I’ve never found anything specifically about forgiveness (attributed to the Buddha). Ven Analayo said forgiveness is a Christian concept and there is nothing in particular on it in the early Buddhist teachings. He suggested the Angulimala Sutta (MN 86) which I reference frequently.”
Diane asked another one of her teachers, Gil Fronsdal, if he had any thoughts on this same subject. Here is Gil’s reply, which came via email:
“I agree with what Ven. Analayo told you about the absence in Theravada Buddhism and the suttas of forgiveness as we often know it in the West. Part of the difference is that forgiveness is an important concern in theistic religions where a god’s forgiveness is crucial. For karmic religions no one can “forgive” you of your karma. Buddhists come to a very similar healing of social relationships through the combination of letting go of anger/resentment, cultivating metta (lovingkindness) and karuna (compassion), and understanding and seeking reconciliation. I think it is OK for Buddhists to use the word forgiveness but define it through these four processes.”
Sometimes it is easier to forgive others than it is to forgive ourselves. Buddhist teacher Noah Levine describes his own arduous journey of self-forgiveness in his book Against the Stream: A Buddhist Manual for Spiritual Revolutionaries (page 75):
“As I began the long process of forgiveness, I found it much easier to forgive myself as a confused child than to approach my adult pain. Recognizing that, I placed a picture of myself as a child on the altar where I meditate. Every day when practicing meditation, I sent forgiveness to that kid who became the man who had experienced and caused great harm. Gradually, I became friendly with the child in the photograph. I began to care about him and all the confusion he experienced. Eventually, I was able to forgive him–the younger version of me–for allowing his confusion to hurt me and so many others. From that place of understanding and mercy, I was then able to touch myself as an adult with the same forgiveness.”
Quite often, Ven. De Hong offers a guided forgiveness practice when he leads groups in prison. He shared this letter (see image below) from one of the women he met at California Institution for Women (CIW):
“Today I wrote to my Dad who I haven’t seen for over 20 years. It was my resentment and unforgiveness (sic) which kept me so distant from him all these years. Coming to this meditation group and seeing your dedication and generosity made me have the courage to write my dad a very loving letter. I had discovered there was still solid love toward him deep inside hidden in my heart. Thank you for everything, I’m very grateful.”
-Walt Opie