Christopher Titmuss Dharma Blog

A Buddhist Perspective

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Forgive or not to Forgive? That is the question

Forgive or not to Forgive?

That is the question


The relationship to the one who inflicts suffering and to the one who suffers deserves a depth of exploration.

There are countless events where the one who suffers has no responsibility whatsoever for the suffering that somebody else has inflicted upon him or her. It is not the person’s fault. The person did not bring it upon themselves. It is not their karma. The person is innocent without fault in anyway whatsoever – whether it is bomb dropping from the sky, sexual abuse of adults or children or a car accident due to a careless driver.

There is the one who causes the suffering and the person who endures the suffering, whether inflicted upon themselves or loved ones. The innocent may hear the words from secular/religious/spiritual authorities, as well as from family and friends, such lines as: “You have to forgive and forget.”

Why must a person be expected to forgive the one who inflicts suffering whether intentional, impulsive behaviour, neglect or downright carelessness?

Forgiveness amounts to a huge turnaround of the heart from anguish, pain and anger to love and forgiveness. A person who suffers may only think about what he or she has endured and desires revenge. It is an all too human response.

Forgiveness does not rank as a spiritual absolute in the Buddha’s teachings, as some might imagine. It is not even easy to find a word in the Pali language of the Buddha that corresponds easily with forgiveness.

The Buddha took a more measured view. He made reference to the practice and application of equanimity, namely the capacity to stay firm and steady during or after a traumatic experience. The practice gives priority to the dissolving of the desire for revenge and dissolving the anguish through feeling sorry for oneself. To find this resolution, it will probably need wise counsel, breathing in and out through the emotional storms and thoughts, reflection on the possible conditions that led up to the person behaving in such a manner and finding skilful ways to hold the person (s) responsible and accountable for their actions.

We should not place any pressure upon ourselves to forgive those who instil suffering. If we can find clarity in heart and mind, find steadiness in our being, that means we have found the wisdom to deal with the situation. That is more than enough. If we continue to feel sorry for ourselves, we continue to feed the identity of being the victim. We are giving more power and authority to the perpetuator of our suffering.

Under orders from Pilate, the Roman soldiers nailed Jesus to the cross to die an agonising death. Jesus did not say “I forgive you.” He said: “Abba (Father or Foundation of Everything) forgive them for they know not what they do.” Jesus spoke a timeless truth that the Buddha also concurred. From ignorance, from not knowing, from not realising, people inflict all manner of suffering on others.

The Innocent and the Guilty

Sometimes the lines between the innocent and guilty may be blurred. A situation is not as white and black as we sometimes conclude.

A businessman came on a meditation retreat with me. He told me he had just find out that his wife was having an affair with a close friend of his.  He said he felt hurt, angry, betrayed and had murderous thoughts at times. “How could she do this to me? We have been married for 10 years. We have two young children. I would never do anything like this to her. How could he do this to me? I treated him like a brother. I can never forgive the two of them.”

I asked him several questions. He admitted he worked long hours in the office, came home at night and worked more in his small office at home. He and his wife had little conversation and they often slumped in front of the television set. Passion had faded away between them. Lovemaking had become a rare event, brief and ritualistic.

It would be a step too far to say that the businessman brought such events upon himself. His wife still has to take full responsibility for her actions. Yet, he has to take some responsibility for the condition of the marriage. It is not easy to get a relationship back on track after a betrayal of trust. It takes immense willingness, with or without forgiveness, to renew the intimacy of love and friendship.

The division of the innocent (the husband) and the guilty (the wife and his close friend) does not seem appropriate since the indifference and neglect within the marriage slowly but surely led to a drifting apart of the married couple.

 The Power of Forgiveness

We hear and read of the remarkable accounts of the capacity of human beings to forgive others and also to forgive themselves for what he or she did or did not do that would have made such a difference to a specific situation.

The human capacity for forgiveness enables the inner life to feel at peace with circumstances through freedom from resentment and blame that burn up happiness and love within. We need to allow forgiveness to come naturally rather than a forced expectation upon ourselves or others. We may never be able to forgive. That’s the fact. We can be at peace with that fact, too.

We endeavour to be clear about events and clear about what led up to events. Wisdom knows where primary responsibility rests and also clear about any secondary areas of responsibility.

Like Jesus, we may have to ask for forgiveness to come from somewhere else than ourselves. Like the Buddha, we may have to develop and establish a ground of equanimity to the unfair, unkind and unwarranted impacts of events on our lives and the lives of others. The Buddha gave the highest recognition to such equanimity in the face of the unforgiveable. He said such equanimity is an ‘abiding in the divine.’

We can then act wisely without revenge, without the desire to hurt the other and without feeling any obligation to forgive another. It is not as easy process. What is the alternative? To wallow in self-pity and blame spinning in various directions? This perpetuates the nightmare.

Let us endeavour to keep to a firm resolve not to let our inner life succumb to abuse or exploitation from another, so that we remain committed to keeping our dignity and uprightness as human beings. It means we maintain our capacity to take care of our inner life rather than let another (s) continue to have a grip upon us.

May all beings live with equanimity

May all beings live with clarity

May all beings live with wisdom



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