How to forgive people for being *ssholes

Posted by on Oct 16, 2013 in Buddhism | 11 Comments

A little while ago I asked people on my Facebook page what they’d like me to write about. I got some challenging responses! I wrote the first one last week. This is the second.

The request was “Is forgiveness whole or complete without trust?”

Now I have to admit, I’m not the best at forgiveness. A bloke in a BMW who’d been driving for six months crashed into me on a roundabout a few years ago while trying to overtake and misjudging the distances.

He made up a pack of lies about what happened and despite the fact that I’d had 17 years of accident-free driving and he’d had six months of erratic idiocy, the insurance company decided it was 50-50 and my insurance was sky-high for the next few years.

When I think about it now, I’m still angry. And I have a whole list of little injustices, and a few big ones, to draw on whenever I fancy winding myself up for an hour or so.

Fortunately, the Buddhist tradition has a lot of useful stuff to say about forgiveness. And to answer the question, yes, I think forgiveness can be complete without trust.

Why it’s possible to forgive people without trusting them

In the 8th century, a bloke called Shantideva wrote a text about a whole bunch of stuff. It’s called the Bodhicaryavatara and it’s a classic. You can buy a translation of it called ‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life”.

One of the chapters is about why it’s silly to have a problem with people who do you wrong. It’s a strong sales pitch for chilling out about injustice and it’s pretty overwhelming. A few of the points that follow come from that book. Others I’ve gathered over the years.

  1. Just as it is fire’s nature to burn, because of actions in previous lives, it is some people’s nature to cause harm. Just as it’s silly to get angry with fire for doing its thing, it makes just as little sense to get angry with people who do you wrong.
  2. In any situation where you experience harm, there are a multitude of factors, causes and conditions involved. We tend to focus on the other person and direct our anger at them, but if we look at the wider picture, we can see everything else. For example, when that donkey crashed into me, there was the entirety of his past conditioning, the fact that right now humans use cars as a form of transport, perhaps he was late for something, perhaps I set off 30 seconds earlier than I could’ve done, I was heading somewhere for a bunch of reasons when I could’ve been heading somewhere else, there were a certain number of other cars on the road, the insurance system is set up in a certain way in the UK, and we both had the karma to be born in this time and place as humans. How much of that is his fault? (I must admit, I find this one a little difficult to swallow).
  3. If you have someone causing you harm you are very lucky. It is a wonderful opportunity to develop your heart and mind. We don’t develop much when everything’s going well. This is the main reason (in Buddhist cosmology) that gods are eventually reborn in lower realms. They sit on their backsides and enjoy the heavenly vibes. Why not? For spiritual development to take place, we need just the right amount of suffering. Too much and it’s impossible to do anything but feel extreme aversion. But in the human realm, we often get smaller things where we have an opportunity to move forward.
  4. When you feel angry at injustice, you experience pain, but the other person experiences nothing. It makes no sense to continue.
  5. When you experience injustice, you have the opportunity to generate positive karma, but the other person has generated negative karma. You should thank them for being so selfless!
  6. Once the injustice has passed, it only exists in your mind. Right now, there is no injustice, only your own mental impression of it. This is for you to work with. It has nothing to do with the situation or the other person.
  7. Since there is fundamentally nothing that can be called a ‘self’, there is really no one to be angry with, and no one to be angry. This is a tough one to get your head around, but briefly, consider a dining table. Go on, consider it! We see a thing called a dining table. But actually, this is a temporary coming together of a wide number of factors. A carpenter, a tree, a truck to deliver it, rain and sun to grow the tree, carbon dioxide in the air, the tree’s parents, their parents back throughout time, etc. And right now, that table is degrading. It looks solid but it’s decaying back into the void. For now we call it ‘table’ but actually it’s just one point in a complex of processes that we’re choosing to fix our minds on. This is true of humans too. Both you, and the *sshole that did you harm. In this light, your anger is the result of a deluded perspective. There is no one to forgive and no one to trust.
  8. The person isn’t only an *sshole. They are a whole bunch of things to a whole bunch of people. They are different depending on the situation. When they were a baby they were different. When they’re old they’ll be different. When they’re happy they’re different. When they’re asleep, dead, waiting for a bus, rocking their kid to sleep, opening presents on their birthday. We tend to focus on the one point where the injustice took place and get caught up in it. This causes us pain.

Why it’s OK to feel angry and hurt and not forgive people till you’re good and ready

One of the unfortunate side effects of consuming these sorts of ideas is you can start to feel like a bit of a loser. That’s not what this is about.

As well as the ‘top level’ knowledge, we need to function in the world, as we are.

If someone is doing harm to you, do what you need to do to stop them. Don’t feel bad about being assertive. Tolerance isn’t about taking other people’s crap.

People go through all kinds of terrible stuff. I got crashed into once by someone I didn’t know and I still get annoyed about it. Imagine systematic abuse by someone in your immediate family over years. Imagine experiencing people you love tortured or killed by representatives of an oppressive regime.

These aren’t just news headlines. These are people’s lives. Some of them are friends of mine. And afterwards, that person has to keep on getting out of bed, walking around, having relationships with others, going to work.

If that’s your experience, you can’t expect to simply read some clever ideas and get over it. You need to get help to work through this stuff. There are people that can help and there is a way to go beyond your current experience. The future is coming. Don’t give up hope.


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