Monday, July 26, 2010



I was much troubled last week by the response of a valued online friend to the words I wrote last week in The Buddha Diaries about forgiveness and compassion. I was reflecting in the piece on the experience of molestation, as a child, and she was the victim of an offense so much more severe than the one I was recalling, that she is unable to this day to find compassion in her heart for her attacker, and continues to wish him great suffering even after many years.

Her response is completely understandable to me. It’s completely human. It set me to thinking about the relative gravity of offenses, and to what extent this might contribute to our ability to feel compassion. Are there crimes so hideous that they can never be forgiven? Are there people so vile in their actions that they are unworthy of compassion? From this point of view, I was merely diddled as a twelve-year old boy; my friend was raped by a stranger at the age of eighteen. There are those whose children have been brutally killed by psychopaths. Are they to exercise compassion? And what about punishment? Do we have the right to mete out punishment to those who commit harmful acts against us? Society, clearly must have some recourse; but individuals?

These are vexing questions. Moved by my friend’s anger, and wanting to better understand what light the teaching of the Buddha might shed on them, I brought my dilemma to our sitting group yesterday, Sunday. What, I had been trying to recall, had Than Geoff (Thanissaro Bhikkhu) had to say on the subject? I remembered that he had spoken once, in a dharma talk, about a distinction between forgiveness and some other concept, but I had forgotten the other side of the equation. It was reconciliation, I was reminded. I can do forgiveness by myself; reconciliation requires a coming together, an agreement, an action on the part of the other party in the grievance—some act of contrition, perhaps, a make-up, a commitment to change the harmful behavior in the future.

Compassion is not the same as forgiveness, and not the same as tolerance for the offense. I can be compassionate for the perpetrator of an act I am unable to forgive. Indeed, as I understand the Buddhist teachings in the matter, I am not empowered to forgive. The responsibility for absolution and redemption lies primarily with the perpetrator, not the victim. Compassion, though I project it outward toward others, or another person specifically, is about releasing myself from the suffering that results from the painful experience. Its benefits may touch others than myself, but are most clearly evident in my own heart and the way I live my life. It’s possible, otherwise, to become addicted to something I have no power to change and which can only bring me further suffering.

The difficulty in all this, as I see it—and I mentioned this in our discussion—is that the theory is much easier than the practice. We are, after all, humans, and what lodges in the heart, what we nurse there, in our most powerful organ, comes to feel like a part of us that would require surgery to remove. It’s a part of our identity, of who we think we are. (And perhaps, then, an opportunity to exercise that mantra I keep coming back to: This is not me, this is not mine, this is not who I am…)

Compassion—and I speak here, as always, strictly for myself—needs to become a matter of practice as much as a matter of choice. I might not readily choose it, if I consider the magnitude or the repugnance of the offense. But if I choose to adopt it simply as a habit and enact it every day at the start of my meditation sit, I find that I can do it without question or doubt. I no longer debate the worthiness of the recipient of my compassion and choose, instead, to heal the wound in my own heart.

Reading back over what I have written, I worry that the words might seem self-righteous or complacent. I’m far from intending my reflections as a sermon to others, because what I may seem to preach I find incredibly hard to practice for myself. For me, every act of writing is an effort to learn, and this one is no exception.


Paul said...

A very provocative topic, Peter, with lots of avenues to explore. But here's what comes to mind at the moment. From a Buddhist point of view compassion begins with the acknowledgment of one's own suffering. When I fully understand my own suffering I know that this dukkha is not unique to me. To believe that it is, is a conceit.

Knowing my own suffering - and my wish for it to be acknowledged and understood by others (right?) - I can make an effort to know and understand the suffering of others. This is compassion.

The idea that Person A deserves my compassion and Person B does not is another matter altogether. Once I go down that path, I enter into "a thicket of views." Among other things, it means that someone else (many individuals, that is) gets to have an opinion about what I deserve. I'd rather they have compassion for me rather than judgment and the desire that I "get what I deserve."

mandt said...

"I worry that the words might seem self-righteous or complacent. " Not at all Peter.This essential dilemma is an ongoing matrix of being human and constantly renews our 'practice' of compassion----especially when/and on those occasions when we cannot forgive or forget. One of the 'blessings' of practice is that eventually the 'energy' leaves our attachment to wounds and we move on. Well done Peter---an excellent discussion.

robin andrea said...

I think the comment I left last week made it seem that I have been consumed for the past 40 years with desire for my attacker's suffering. I really have not. Forty years have passed, and not on any one of those days has compassion for him risen in me. I guess that's not the same as wishing him to suffer.

To be perfectly honest, I rarely think of the man who attacked me, and I have moved on physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I do not find compassion nor forgiveness in my heart for him. I find nothing. A fire of contempt does not smolder there, but neither does the light of enlightenment.

I do not think the world serves me by being the instrument of my lessons. Some people walk the planet hardened and brutal. If my path crosses with theirs, I may pay with my body, but if I'm lucky I won't pay with my essential being. I owe the brutal ones nothing. Their awakenings are their own. I hate to think my compassion is a trick to keep the duality of the universe intact (or something like!).

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks for the clarification and further discussion, Paul. I respect your insights whenever they appear.

And thanks, too, mandt. I know we have areas of disagreement, and it's always good to know when I've said something that finds resonance with you.

Robin, I wrote a separate email to you. I fear I did not make it clear enough that the "trouble" I mention is in my head, and I did not mean to attribute it to you! Your comment in response to the original "Mr. Ellis" post provoked my interior debate, and allowed me to pursue my own thinking a bit further here. I honor the wisdom that you make so evident in your blog.

robin andrea said...

Peter, I'm glad my comment sparked some dialogue both internal and external. I don't mind at all that what I wrote was a catalyst. It was interesting to go back and re-read the comment and see how blunt and brief it was. I think I was being a bit flippant about suffering. But I am quite serious about not harboring any feelings... including compassion.


Two brave and compassionate writings ....Reconciliation between victim and perpertrator of the abuse must be the hardest of all roads to take, and what a leading example Mandela gave the world. Here in Spain there is a big move in that direction with a programme to mediate in individual cases,where there is a willingness on both sides on the one hand to express regret and sorrow and the other to forgive. This is partuclarly aimed at families of those victims of the separatist Basque terrorists who are imprisoned and are up for release.