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The Karma of Compassion (or Forgiveness)

April 18, 2018

‘You give love a bad name (now with added robin!)’ by id-iom via

“So what is the Buddhists understanding forgiveness and mercy?”

That was the gist of the question I received in a public conversation on religion this week.

“Well, first, there is no the Buddhist understanding of much of anything. Buddhism is an extremely diverse religion,” I started. “But in general, forgiveness and mercy are not words you will hear often from Buddhists or in Buddhist writing. The sentiment is certainly present, but expressed differently.”

I spoke instead about compassion. We sat is a small circle of chairs, so I tried not to make it into a Dharma talk or a lecture. Instead, I spoke of my own struggles to come to terms with those who had harmed me.

Before I can extend compassion to the one who has harmed me, I must first extend compassion to myself for the harm done. (I’ve tried it the other way round and it just doesn’t work.) I must pop the bubble of my egoistic delusion that I am unassailable. I must admit that my Buddhist practice is not yet so advanced that insults to my pride do not sting or that I do not sometimes wish misfortune to befall those who irritate or hinder me.

“Let’s say, to put it bluntly, that someone screws with me,” I told the gathered group. “What do I do with that?”

I realized later, the choice of language was telling, though perhaps not obvious. What do I do with that? Not about that or about them, but with the situation and my response to it.

Usually, when we are wronged, we jump straight to a response. ‘Ef, with me, will you? I’ll ef you up!’ or something along those lines.

But Shantideva advised,

When the urge arises in your mind
To feelings of desire or angry hate,
Do not act! Be silent, do not speak!
And like a log of wood be sure to stay.

– Bodhicharyāvatāra 5.48

Do not act on anger, irritation, mockery, pride, arrogance, envy, or jealousy, Shantideva warns us. Instead,

Examine thus yourself from every side.
Take note of your defilements and your pointless efforts.
For thus the heroes on the Bodhisattva path
Seize firmly on such faults with proper remedies.

– Bodhicharyāvatāra 5.54

The buddhadharma is filled with such remedies. The one that work best for me are compassion and patience. For others, it may be loving-kindness or equanimity or wisdom.

Shantideva tells us not to act from these poisonous emotions, but he does not say they are unwise or that we ought do nothing at all. Instead, we must examine them. Where do they come from?

Anger can point us in the direction of injustices to be remedied. But it can also just as easily point to our own thwarted selfish desires. Pride can point towards our skills, which we can use to benefit others. But it can also just as easily point towards delusions we hold about ourselves and others.

Thus, take note of your defilements and your pointless efforts. Do not act if it is pointless! Act where you can do good, starting with yourself! (But don’t stop there, for humanity’s sake.)

When someone has harmed me, I must first acknowledge the harm, acknowledge that I am vulnerable, and acknowledge that often this is a good thing. We are vulnerable because we are interconnected and because phenomena are impermanent.

Change is very good news. Because of change, enlightenment is possible. Hurt and suffering are possible, too, but so are joy and nirvana.

I must acknowledge that I have been harmed. I have been struck by an arrow. And then I have compounded my own suffering by being angry at the person who shot the arrow, by railing against the unfair circumstances that allowed me, me!, to be struck, by resisting anyone who wanted to pull the arrow out, afraid that it might hurt more.

Naturally, I have a good rant against my attacker in my head (or not so silently). They are stupid and mean and selfish and every bad name in the book. And they are also suffering.

When I acknowledge my own suffering, I can start to see the suffering in others, the suffering all around me. When I turn away from my own suffering, I turn away from the suffering around me.

I breathe in and acknowledge the suffering. I breathe out and wish myself liberation from suffering. Then, I feel better. Slowly but surely, I feel better, and slowly but surely, I see their suffering also.

When our suffering is acute, it is hard to see suffering in others. We must clear the air around ourselves before we can see even into even the near distance.

I told the story of Angulimala, the mass murder who tried to kill the Buddha. Angulimala chased the Buddha, but could not catch him, and called out for him to stop. The Buddha replied,

“I have stopped, Angulimala. You stop.”

…”I have stopped, Angulimala, once & for all, having cast off violence toward all living beings. You, though, are unrestrained toward beings. That’s how I’ve stopped and you haven’t.”

Angulimala Sutta, MN 86, Access to Insight

When I first learned of this story, it usually ended with Angulimala renouncing his murderous ways, becoming a monk, and achieving enlightenment. When I read it for myself, I realized, the story doesn’t end there.

First, the king comes with soldiers and chariots to kill the murderer Angulimala, but the Buddha talks him out of it. The words forgiveness and mercy are not used in this passage (or their equivalents), though clearly the king had every legal right to execute Angulimala and, seeing he was now entirely peaceful, chose not to.

So Angulimala remained with the Buddha and, no longer focused intently on his mission to kill, began to see the suffering of people all around him. He learned from the Buddha how to wish for their wellbeing.

But although his intentions had been purified, he could not undo what he had done in the past. The suffering he had inflicted on others followed him. They suffered grief for lost loved ones, fear for their own lives, and anger towards him. And even though he was now a monk, wearing a monk’s robes, they assaulted him.

Then Venerable Angulimala, early in the morning, having put on his robes and carrying his outer robe & bowl, went into Savatthi for alms. Now at that time a clod thrown by one person hit Venerable Angulimala on the body, a stone thrown by another person hit him on the body, and a potsherd thrown by still another person hit him on the body. So Venerable Angulimala — his head broken open and dripping with blood, his bowl broken, and his outer robe ripped to shreds — went to the Blessed One. The Blessed One saw him coming from afar and on seeing him said to him: “Bear with it, brahman! Bear with it! The fruit of the kamma that would have burned you in hell for many years, many hundreds of years, many thousands of years, you are now experiencing in the here-&-now!”

Angulimala Sutta, MN 86, Access to Insight

Angulimala bore with it because he saw that these people were also suffering. In time, he attained enlightenment and release from all suffering. And this story has been used by Buddhists for centuries to teach forgiveness, mercy, and redemption.

Whether we believe in the fires of hell or not, we can see the suffering caused in the here and now. We feel our own suffering keenly and we begin to notice the suffering of others.

It has always helped me to remind myself “Hurt people hurt people.” Suffering begets suffering. This does not excuse it (we cannot escape our karma), but it clarifies a chain of causation that needs addressing.

It helps me have compassion. When I have compassion, I suffer less, I act more skillfully, and I do not compound the situation with further anger.

Then, I can often reach out and help alleviate the suffering of the person who hurt me, not immediately, but after I have first had compassion for myself and developed a bit of calm and insight. When their suffering is addressed, they do less harm to me and others. They may even work to redress the harm they have already caused.

This is why patience is often described as the antidote for anger. In order to serve as an remedy, it has to be an active sort of patience. It is patience that does something. While outwardly, we remain like a log, inwardly we are working hard, applying the antidote to the poison.

To use active patience, sometimes we need time and space in which to work. We remove ourselves from the immediate situation and return after the antidote has neutralized some of the previous animosity. I prefer to go home, take a shower, take a nap, take a walk around the block with my dog, sit is stillness and silence for a bit, sleep on it, maybe write about it, all the while breathing in my suffering and breathing out compassion for myself, then compassion for others.

It is important to have healthy boundaries and a keen ability to spot when we have been harmed. This is not always easy, because some of us (myself included) like to think we are invulnerable. Other people tend to think they deserved the harm and so should excuse it. Neither idea is skillful. Healthy boundaries help us know when harm has been done and prompt us to start considering how to both protect ourselves and deal with the perpetrator. But this is another blog post in what has already become quite a long reflection.

Religions play an important role in teaching us how to respond skillfully when, to put it bluntly, someone screws with us. Almost all religions call for some manner of forbearance. Call it forgiveness and mercy. Call it compassion and loving-kindness. Call it remaining like a log!

These teachings are wise in a way not immediately obvious. We think we ought to forgive altruistically or have compassion altruistically, but in my experience, I have compassion because it reduces my suffering first. Maybe that’s selfish, but that’s just how it works. As my suffering is alleviated, I am better able to help others and more inclined to do so. That’s the karma of compassion, the chain of causation it sets in motion. And this, in my opinion, is a very good karma.

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