Buddha on Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Right & Wrong

I’ve been studying the thoughts of Buddhist teachers recently. It started like it usually does; I find one thing and then that leads to another and so on and so on. I think this particular find started with the Buddhist concept of “rapture.”

And so I read about rapture and then that leads to jhana and then that leads to right concentration and finally I ended up at the Access to Insight website. [link]

Access to Insight is a popular Theravada Buddhist website. Thervada is the oldest surviving school of Buddhism still in practice around the world.

I guess one could say the Theravada are like the professors (or clergy if you like) in Buddhism. The Access website was created for and is dedicated to, “providing accurate, reliable, and useful information concerning the practice and study of Theravada Buddhism, as it has been handed down to us through both the written word of the Pali canon and the living example of the Sangha.”

So back to the subject — forgiveness, reconciliation, and right and wrong.

For a pointed reason, I wanted to read what the view on forgiveness was in Buddhism. Aside from the philosophizing,

“These two are fools. Which two? The one who doesn’t see his/her transgression as a transgression, and the one who doesn’t rightfully pardon another who has confessed his/her transgression. These two are fools.

“These two are wise. Which two? The one who sees his/her transgression as a transgression, and the one who rightfully pardons another who has confessed his/her transgression. These two are wise.”

there was a lot of sound, sensible, advice that I appreciate and think anyone trying to find their “self” in the world would appreciate. I’ve posted what I like below.

First off, the Buddha, through his insight, believed that forgiveness is one thing and reconciliation is something else.

On forgiveness:

When you forgive me for harming you, you decide not to retaliate, to seek no revenge. You don’t have to like me. You simply unburden yourself of the weight of resentment and cut the cycle of retribution that would otherwise keep us ensnarled in an ugly samsaric wrestling match. This is a gift you can give us both, totally on your own, without my having to know or understand what you’ve done.

On reconciliation:

Reconciliation — patisaraniya-kamma — means a return to amicability, and that requires more than forgiveness. It requires the reestablishing of trust. If I deny responsibility for my actions, or maintain that I did no wrong, there’s no way we can be reconciled. Similarly, if I insist that your feelings don’t matter, or that you have no right to hold me to your standards of right and wrong, you won’t trust me not to hurt you again. To regain your trust, I have to show my respect for you and for our mutual standards of what is and is not acceptable behavior; to admit that I hurt you and that I was wrong to do so; and to promise to exercise restraint in the future. At the same time, you have to inspire my trust, too, in the respectful way you conduct the process of reconciliation. Only then can our friendship regain a solid footing.

Pretty sensible yeah?

The Buddha also outlined the skillful ways in which one would attempt reconciliation in different situations. The first step in all cases is “an acknowledgment of wrongdoing.” What follows are the directions on how to heal a split between a community but I think this would work well for any two people suffering from a split.

To heal a full split in the Sangha, the two sides are instructed first to inquire into the root intentions on both sides that led to the split, for if those intentions were irredeemably malicious or dishonest, reconciliation is impossible. If the group tries to patch things up without getting to the root of the split, nothing has really been healed. Only when the root intentions have been shown to be reconcilable and the differences resolved can the Sangha perform the brief ceremony that reestablishes harmony.

Pervading these instructions is the realization that genuine reconciliation cannot be based simply on the desire for harmony. It requires a mutual understanding of what actions served to create disharmony, and a promise to try to avoid those actions in the future. This in turn requires a clearly articulated agreement about — and commitment to — mutual standards of right and wrong. Even if the parties to a reconciliation agree to disagree, their agreement needs to distinguish between right and wrong ways of handling their differences.

The article also touches upon the myth that there is no right or wrong in Buddhism. It’s not that there is no right or wrong as much as right and wrong has been perverted.

…right and wrong have gotten a bad rap in Western Buddhist circles, largely because of the ways in which we have seen right and wrong abused in our own culture — as when one person tries to impose arbitrary standards or mean-spirited punishments on others, or hypocritically demands that others obey standards that he himself does not.

To avoid these abuses, some people have recommended living by a non-dual vision that transcends attachment to right and wrong. This vision, however, is open to abuse as well. In communities where it is espoused, irresponsible members can use the rhetoric of non-duality and non-attachment to excuse genuinely harmful behavior; their victims are left adrift, with no commonly accepted standards on which to base their appeals for redress. Even the act of forgiveness is suspect in such a context, for what right do the victims have to judge actions as requiring forgiveness or not? All too often, the victims are the ones held at fault for imposing their standards on others and not being able to rise above dualistic views.

This means that right and wrong have not really been transcended in such a community. They’ve simply been realigned: If you can claim a non-dual perspective, you’re in the right no matter what you’ve done. If you complain about another person’s behavior, you’re in the wrong. And because this realignment is not openly acknowledged as such, it creates an atmosphere of hypocrisy in which genuine reconciliation is impossible.

So the solution lies not in abandoning right and wrong, but in learning how to use them wisely.

The Buddha created a culture of values in which right and wrong become aids rather than hindrances to reconciliation. For example, for the person in the right, the Buddha created a checklist of questions for the person to ask themselves in order to prevent abuse of their position.

  • Am I free from unreconciled offenses of my own?
  • Am I motivated by kindness, rather than vengeance?
  • Am I really clear on our mutual standards?

The Buddha also recommended this for those in the right.

That they determine to speak only words that are true, timely, gentle, to the point, and prompted by kindness. Their motivation should be compassion, solicitude for the welfare of all parties involved, and the desire to see the wrong-doer rehabilitated, together with an overriding desire to hold to fair principles of right and wrong.

And for the wrongdoer, it is encouraged to help them see “reconciliation as a winning rather than a losing proposition” and to help them see that the honest acceptance of blame is an honorable rather than a shameful act. In fact, this honorable acceptance should be seen as the means for progress in spiritual practice.

Another aspect of the culture of values are the 5 moral responsibilities that keep a wrongdoer on the path of denial. Modern sociologist have identified 5 strategies that wrongdoers use to deny responsibility for their actions. They are the following:

  • Deny responsibility.
  • Deny that harm was actually done.
  • Deny the worth of the victim.
  • Attack the accuser. And,
  • Claim that they were acting in the service of a higher cause.

The 5 moral responsibilities that undercut these strategies are:

  1. We are always responsible for our conscious choices.
  2. We should always put ourselves in the other person’s place.
  3. All beings are worthy of respect.
  4. We should regard those who point out our faults as if they were pointing out treasure. (Monks, in fact, are required not to show disrespect to people who criticize them, even if they don’t plan to abide by the criticism.)
  5. There are no — repeat, no — higher purposes that excuse breaking the basic precepts of ethical behavior.

The teaching concludes with this:

The Buddha admitted that not all disputes can be reconciled. There are times when one or both parties are unwilling to exercise the honesty and restraint that true reconciliation requires. Even then, though, forgiveness is still an option. This is why the distinction between reconciliation and forgiveness is so important. It encourages us not to settle for mere forgiveness when the genuine healing of right reconciliation is possible; and it allows us to be generous with our forgiveness even when it is not.

So what do you think? You can read the full text here. [link]


Photo from Wikimedia Commons, Eric Pouhier. [link]

17 thoughts on “Buddha on Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Right & Wrong

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  3. I am totally into reconciliation and forgiveness. However, it is difficult with someone who will not participate in an open honest discussion. Some individuals only see their “side” as right and did not see beyond that. Defensiveness and blame is their perspective and fail to see the bigger picture. I have chosen forgiveness in my mind and extend it outwardly.

    • When you say “I have chosen forgiveness in my mind and extended it outward,” it seems like you are doing it in such a way that you expect some type of tit for tat. And that seems like conditional forgiveness. Like a favor or love or kindness, these things are traditionally given without expectation of anything in return and with good reason, since when you give with that type of expectation you can get caught in a nasty trap of only giving for receiving and that’s not love.

      The way I read this is, the forgiveness is something you do for yourself. You don’t have to talk to them to forgive them. As a buddhist, the gates of dharma (lessons of buddhism) are many. So this is one gate or lesson, can you forgive them? Can you not? If you can’t then why not, you may never get to pass through this gate and that’s okay (you can try if you want though). Not all lessons are easy.

      For me, a person offended me horribly on multiple levels (as a woman — just because a woman is angry doesn’t mean you get to treat me as you’ve treated all women, as a friend — you should have more respect for what you do and say to me, and as a human –disrespected in my home), and when confronted they decided to try and shame me about being angry about how they treated me.

      Have I forgiven them? Nope and that’s okay.To me they were and still are an asshole. Sometimes the lesson is learning your own mind and your own boundaries and limitations. However the issue with not finding a way to forgive or finding a way to let go is that others can be hurt by you because you were hurt by some other person. So if this is really hurting you, find a way to let go or forgive or perhaps be mindful of how this hurt in you can change how you treat others.

      If the person matters then find a way to communicate with them even if it means dealing with “their side.” If the person doesn’t matter it may be time to say adios! Also I suggest you getting the book Difficult Conversations, it may help even if you never have another fight again.

    • wow, tes that is really awesome! forgiveness is a difficult thing to overcome. I am learning it myself. I have the utmost respect for you. you are an excellent role model. thank you for sharing your story.

  4. For those coming from outofthefog.net, this page may help the original forum poster.


    To people looking at Buddhism through the medium of English, the practice of compassion and detachment can appear incompatible, especially for those who consider themselves to be socially and politically engaged. In contemporary usage, compassion brings to mind outward-moving concern for others, while detachment suggests aloofness and withdrawal from the world. Yet Buddhism recommends both as admirable and necessary qualities to be cultivated. This raises questions such as the following:

    ***If compassion means to relieve suffering in a positive way, and detachment to remain aloof from the world, how can the two be practiced together?

    ***Does detachment in Buddhism imply lack of concern for humanity?

    ***Is the concept of compassion in Buddhism too passive, connected only with the inward-looking eye of meditation, or can it create real change in society?

    Read the rest here:

    Or I may post a quick and dirty version on the site, eventually. =)

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  6. I have a friend who is from Burma and he is a Buddhist. He is in his 20’s and is dating a teenager, also from Burma. She is not a practicing Buddhist. Before their relationship, his girlfriend engaged in sexual behavior with her ex-boyfriend. My Burmese friend, the guy, will NOT let it go. He constantly harps at her about her past mistakes. When she asked the (seemingly fair) question: “What about your past and your previous relationships?” he told her that it’s none of her business.

    He also tells her that she will never find a real husband, and that he is her only option. (Translation: she is “spoiled goods.”)

    He has gotten her pregnant but refuses to marry her.

    When I confronted my friend and told him he was exhibiting behavior typical of emotional abuse toward his girlfriend, and advised him to just let it go and move on, he responded with “You wouldn’t understand. It’s part of my religion.”

    He wouldn’t go any further and break it down as to what exact teachings of Buddhism would justify this behavior. I asked him if there were any spiritual advisors, monks or whatnot, in our city whom he could approach for spiritual guidance regarding this matter, and he said that monks do not give advice to couples.

    I am a little suspicious that he is twisting, or maybe misunderstanding, the Buddhist teachings of his youth into something that he can use to excuse his behavior.

    I also understand that while Buddhism is universal, in that it’s not divided into hundreds of sects, the traditions of Buddhist practices do tend to vary in different countries. Burmese Buddhists may practice or teach the religion a little differently than Chinese Buddhists, for example.

    My question is: Is it possible that my friend is actually right? Does Buddhist teaching allow, in some cases, for constantly reminding a romantic partner of her past mistakes and subsequently putting her down without the possibility of letting it go and moving on emotionally? Is there a Burmese-specific tradition that allows for it? Or does anybody know of a Buddhist teaching that my friend may be thinking of but not really understanding correctly?

    • I am not a monk or a teacher.

      Most if not all Buddhist practices have their own ways of reaching enlightenment.

      So I can’t give you a specific answer.

      It would seem though, your friend has an attachment to an idea of being and that is where I would wonder… that type of attachment, is it the kind that causes suffering? Not just for her but for him. Imagine the kind of pain you would have to suffer through in order to create more suffering, if indeed his partner is suffering.

      And what is your intentin this I wonder. Is it to help your friend? Is it to prove him wrong?

      The gates of dharma are many; we all strive to practice right speech, intention, effort, intention, etc. In other words, we all have obstacles we learn to jump and sometimes we don’t jump them all at once or even quickly. But that’s why we practice.

      I for example am a very horrible person who has a problem with right speech when I am experiencing horrible suffering brought on by anxiety. It causes me to cause suffering to others and sometimes to myself. I say horrible horrid things.

      On one hand I am okay with that, on the other hand, I’ve just remembered my Eightfold path and well, “shit, I forgot.” On one hand, sometimes we must be able to go down that path of suffering because it offers us something we missed along the way. In my case, a voice. A voice to speak to my suffering, because suffering without a voice or knowing you are suffering or not being able to say “I am suffering” is a worse fate. (Suppression) Once you are able to speak then you are able to hopefully change your voice into that of right speech but without first having a voice you have nothing to turn into right speech.

      But the path to right speech, right intention, etc. takes practice and community. You break eggs.

      So this is where a compassionate community can come in. It can help you re-focus yourself, add advice, give solace, (realtalk), etc.

      A compassionate community doesn’t mean saying yes to everything but it does mean creating a space of equanimity for those who seek shelter within the community.

      Which brings me back to your intent. What is it when you talk to this friend?

      A bit rambly but hope it helps.

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  8. Thank you so much for making clear distinctions and guidelines that make sense
    and are healthy – and I can see will work much better for me and help me
    make a happier life going forward.
    Very grateful: Cathryn.

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  10. this is very true , I was born a Buddhist and struggle with other methods on this subject at present I am struggling to regain love and respect from family and my husband who cut me off after a very bad year these words give me hope and hoping soon my relationships will be whole once more, I have forgiven means them for the hurt they caused. My depth of compassion has always been deep but others aren’t the same …

    • Thanks for sharing your story. Reconciliation and learning that others may not be able to see eye-to-eye with you is a difficult and sometime very emotional process. I try to console myself with, “When we look at the garden, we must try to appreciate the flowers as well as the weeds because all of it is the garden.”

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