Forgiveness is a three-dimensional road with its foundation built solidly in the bedrock of our spiritual nature. I wrote previously about forgiving ourselves - recognizing and accepting our own mistakes instead of hiding in their shadows, defending our mistakes as if they weren't mistakes at all. Honesty, integrity, humility and courage are all essential ingredients in the mix that forms the sturdy road on which we travel our lives. But a road is not complete with just a foundation and some compressed detritus - it needs width. We need to build it wide enough for others to travel upon it with us; it's selfish to travel the road we build alone. In fact, one of our Mahayana Buddhist tenants, expressed in the Great Bodhisattva Vow, is to work toward saving all sentient beings. It's not enough merely to save ourselves. We must go a step further. In terms of Forgiveness, this means reaching out to others we may have harmed and making amends. It means accepting their forgiveness, or their lack of forgiveness, with compassion. It means giving them back their humanity.
Religions the world over have ways of helping people work with forgiveness. Prayer for forgiveness from God (in Buddhist terms, our "True Self") is a method all religions share in common to help us lighten our load and heal. But they have methods for helping others heal from our mistakes as well. Catholics have the sacrament of reconciliation, often called penance or confession, where the penitent person confesses his sins to a priest, who then grants absolution and forgiveness; Protestant Christians are encouraged to "confess with the mouth" [Romans 10:8-10] often to a preacher or in front of a congregation; and even 12-step groups such as Alcoholic's Anonymous incorporate forgiveness into their plan for self-healing. Their Ninth Step is to make direct amends to all the people we have harmed (assuming it does no harm to them or anyone else).
Forgiveness always requires that we take responsibility for our actions and do what we can to set things right. It requires that we reach a final resolution in our hearts -- that point at which we can truly let by-gones be by-gones.
Yet, the words "I'm sorry" seem to be some of the most difficult words to say for many of us. This is why forgiving ourselves must precede all else. When we forgive ourselves, we admit our failures and our humanity. We recognize ourselves as we truly are - the good, bad, and ugly - and see that this is our own nature, and the nature of all people. Only once we have come this far with forgiveness, are we ready for the final step: living it -- saying "I'm Sorry." Unless we feel it in our hearts, our words are fraudulent.
Dr. Seuss (whose works are usually considered for children but, by his own account, were for adults) describes the power of these words in Bartholomew and the Oobleck:
The inhabitants of the kingdom of Didd called it "The-Year-the-King-Got-Angry-with-the-Sky." It was the year the King learned a great lesson and transformed his kingdom. As the story goes, in the King's grandiosity, he had decided that he was tired of the same four things coming down from the sky: snow, fog, sunshine, and rain. He wanted something NEW to come down from the sky. And, since he was king, he would have his way, for he always got what he wanted, when he wanted it. He called upon his spooky magicians, and with magic words they made it happen. It rained oobleck! Green, gooey, molassesy stuff that stuck to everyone and wouldn't let go. The entire kingdom was paralyzed. Birds stuck to their nests, the royal musicians stuck to their instruments, and even the bell used to warn the citizens was silenced by the green, yucky stuff. The king sat on his throne, his royal crown stuck to his royal head.
Finally, Bartholomew Cubbins could hold his tongue no longer. "It's going to keep on falling," he shouted, "until your whole great marble palace tumbles down!" Then he reprimanded the king: "Don't waste your time saying foolish magic words. YOU ought to be saying some plain, simple words!"
"SIMPLE words? What do you mean, boy?"
"I mean," said Bartholomew, "this is all your fault! Now, the least you can do is say the simple words, 'I'm sorry.'"
No one had ever talked to the king like this before.
"What!" he bellowed. "ME . . . ME say 'I'm sorry!' Kings never say 'I'm sorry!'"
"But you're sitting in oobleck up to your chin. And so is everyone else in your land. And if you won't even say you're sorry, you're no sort of king at all!"
But then Bartholomew heard a great, deep sob. The old King was crying! "You're right! It is all my fault! And I am sorry! I'm awfully, awfully sorry!"
And the moment the King spoke those words, something happened.
Maybe there was magic in those simple words, "I'm sorry."
Maybe there was magic in those simple words, "It's all my fault."
They say that as soon as the old King spoke them, the sun began to shine and all the oobleck that was stuck on all the people and on all the animals of the Kingdom of Didd just simply, quietly, melted away.
Apologizing, accepting responsibility and making amends, not only helps relieve our own burdens, it also helps relieve the suffering of others - something which we, as Buddhists, have vowed to help with. By working to set things right, we may actually help ease someone else's pain.
Forgiveness must first be felt in the heart. It must be genuine. If it's not, we are merely adding to our list of wrongs. The King was not concerned about how his apologies would be accepted - he merely felt the dreaded load of doing wrong and the urgent need to make amends. It was his sincerity that brought back the sun. It was his offering that changed everyone's lives.
Whether or not others are ready to hear our forgiveness is not always within our ability to know, but if our forgiveness is honest, and we are not giving it in order to receive something in return, it can do no harm. True compassion has no boundaries and can not be tainted. If our apologies are rejected, it is sad, but it may be the beginning for the person who rejected them to work on forgiveness themselves. We must always recognize the potential for silver linings where they may exist.
As we progress in Chan, we become more acutely aware of harms we've caused, to ourselves and to others. The step of making amends becomes a heart-felt need for us. Proceed without hesitation. Remember all the many wars and conflicts the world has seen over simple misunderstandings and failures to admit fault. Let go of ego and pride. All people are our brothers and sisters - we're all family. It is not possible to rise above the suffering of the world as long as the world suffers, for everything affects everything else. Karma. We can do our part though to make the world a better place. All we need to do is share the healing process with others.
We all have the ability to climb out of the darkness of our sins (our karmic existence in samsara). The foundation is already there. Once we've paved the road by turning inward to see ourselves as the frail, fallible humans we are, we can widen that road merely by offering to share it with others. We owe it to our own nature to be generous. To empty ourselves of ourselves.
Like the moon, Come out from behind the clouds! Shine! -- the Buddha [Dhammapada]
It's so hard for the Buddha to save us!
We take a wrong turn a thousand times.
Those who truly crave liberation
Must quickly take advantage of their time.
The Buddha's words will shine like the white moon,
Illuminating the path that's otherwise unlit.
The Temple Bell will awaken the sincere but sleeping...
Dong... Dong... again, again, it calls.
Think about the chances! Born as human beings!
Intelligent and strong! But our minds are seared with troubles
And we're desperate for refuge from ourselves.
I've learned the teachings of the Dharma
And store that knowledge in my heart.
Guarding it keeps me safely here at home.
-- Empty Cloud