Anger and Forgiveness

Last Friday at Western Connecticut State University, in Danbury, CT, the Dalai Lama gave a one-hour public talk titled “Advice for Daily Life.” The Buddhist Examiner reports that he said in part,

Forgiveness does not mean bowing down to others who have wronged you . . . It means not letting negative feeling toward the wrongdoing increase fear and distance . . . Forgiveness is a sign of strength. Anger is a sign of weakness.”

This is simple advice. It is the sort of practical guidance that any person regardless of their religion or outlook at life can benefit from, and actually, it only should serve as a reminder, since most of us already know that anger is destructive and forgiveness sublime.

“Anger destroys virtue.” – Dalai Lama

By the way, for anyone dealing with the issue of anger in his or her life, I recommend the Dalai Lama’s book, Healing Anger, which is based on a teaching he gave on Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara (“A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”). It”s a very useful book, and I’ll discuss a bit more about Shantideva’s text below.

While there are many traditional Buddhist teachings that discuss the subject of anger, I am not aware of any that deal directly with the concept of forgiveness. Ksamate and kshaamati are two Sanskrit words that have the meaning “forgive.” Kshaamati is related to another word, khamati (also Pali) that according to the A.P. Buddhadatta Mahathera’s Concise Pali-English and English-Pali Dictionary means “to be patient, to endure, to forgive; to forgive a fault,” although it seems that it is used most often in the sense of “apology.”

Khamati is related to kshanti or “patience, endurance and forgiveness.” This word appears quite frequently in Buddhist teachings, especially in Mahayana, because kshanti is one of the Six Paramitas (or Perfections) that is a crucial part of the path of the Bodhisattva.

Perhaps the definitive text concerning this path is the aforementioned Bodhicaryavatara by Shantideva. Many consider the chapter on the practice of patience (kshanti-paramita) the most important chapter of the book.

The paramita of patience encompasses the ideal of forgiveness. In verse 102 of the Patience chapter [1. A guide to the bodhisattva way of life (Bodhicaryavatara) by Santideva, Vesna A. Wallace and B. Alan Wallace, Snow Lion Publications] Shantideva says,

It is wrong to feel anger toward someone, thinking that person impedes my merit. As there is no austerity equal to patience, shall I not abide in that?”

And in verse 107:

Therefore, since my adversary assists me in my Bodhisattva way of life, I should long for him like a treasure discovered in the house and acquired without effort.”

Thich Nhat Hanh says that with the practice of patience, the kshanti-paramita, “what has made you suffer in the past is no longer capable of making you suffer anymore.”

If no person ever did us wrong, injured or slighted us, then we would never have the opportunity to practice patience, or for that matter compassion. For this reason, we can say that our so-called adversaries are “helpful.” They afford us the opening through which to win over ourselves, to destroy the seeds of our own desire to cause harm, to resent others, and to hate. To be grateful toward one who has hurt us, I think, implies, and requires, a great deal of forgiveness.

Until recently there was no scientific research on the power of forgiveness. Now, thanks to folks like A Campaign for Forgiveness Research, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, and others, a number of forgiveness studies have been completed that have looked into the role of forgiveness in such areas as reducing heart disease, preventing crime, healing troubled marriages, and even how forgiveness was a factor in rebuilding South Africa after apartheid.

Dr. Fred Luskin, Senior Consultant in Health Promotion at Stanford University, who has conducted his own studies, says that forgiveness can be learned, and that

Our research has also shown that forgiveness has physical health benefits. People who learn to forgive report significantly fewer symptoms of stress such as backache, muscle tension, dizziness, headaches and upset stomachs. In addition people report improvements in appetite, sleep patterns, energy and general well being. Finally, one research project showed that angry people with high blood pressure showed a decrease in both anger and blood pressure when they were taught to forgive.”

Forgiveness is not easy, but as I have heard the Dalai Lama say, it is rather foolish not to practice it. We might harbor anger and resentment toward someone who has harmed us, carrying all the heavy negative emotion around until it weighs us down, until we are unable to move from that place of hate and anger. Meanwhile the person who we viewed as our “adversary” has gone on, and likely forgotten about all about us, and our petty antagonism.

Forgiveness is the perfection of patience, the practice of loving-kindness, a way to freedom:

‘He insulted me, he hurt me, he defeated me, and he deprived me.’ Those who do not harbor such thoughts will be free from hatred.

Buddha, The Dhammapada

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