The terrorist incident of September 11, 2001, did not elicit many memorable responses from religious thinkers. Buddhists floated some tentative ideas on the Internet about “the causes and conditions giving rise to suffering” (Gene Reeves) and the need “to see our own karmic responsibility for the terrible acts that have befallen us” (David R. Loy). The Christian rhetoric of forgiveness and reconciliation was scarcely heard at all. Here, I wish to suggest, with reference to the failure of Christianity in Northern Ireland, that in order to formulate the message of forgiveness intelligently and persuasively, we should root it in the Buddhist analysis of causes and conditions.
The thirty-year nightmare in Northern Ireland has inspired poems and dramas and many volumes of sociological and political reflection. It is only now, as the dust begins to settle, that the deepest theological lessons can be drawn from the conflict. These lessons will not amount to a total understanding, for theological inquiry often deepens our sense of ultimate bafflement. But at least the effort to reflect on the painful episode prevents us from simply writing it off as a regrettable lapse into “unchristian” behavior, or as merely a political imbroglio in which religion had no essential role. One hypothesis that theology might explore is that our entire way of constructing our identities, especially our religious identities, has been fundamentally deluded. Such delusive constructions of rigid identities are just the kind of thing Buddhism is good at diagnosing and healing.
Here I shall examine some Buddhist literature in the hope of finding some grains of healing insight. The Christian resources have come to seem a futile rhetoric, and talk of forgiveness and reconciliation has fallen on jaded ears as a facile, predictable response or a noxious moralizing. What makes Buddhism a promising resource for dealing with entrenched attitudes of fear and hatred is its capacity for probing analysis. This analysis aims at a practical therapeutic effect, but it also has a keen intellectual grip. Its systematic pursuit of psychological and ontological insight gives its approach to the human condition an invigorating quality, and allows it to form close connections with the modern anthropological sciences. It can help to revitalize the tired Christian ideas of love and forgiveness and restore to them a compelling logic and a grounding in the real, showing that the Gospel message too is not mere idealism but has immediate practical force. Buddhist therapy aims to be precisely tailored to the ailments it would address. Christian language needs to find the same precise functionality, cutting away the accumulated bombast of centuries and soberly adjusting our words to realities. For such a reform, a cool gaze from the outside is required, and Buddhism is the most constructive and enlightening of such external perspectives.
The Northern Ireland conflict has had a paralyzing effect on the minds of many in the Irish Republic. We have been reluctant to waste mental energy on a situation that has generated so much heated rhetoric with so little fruitful discussion. Buddhism brings a fresh, neutral perspective, allowing calm examination of the problem. When the Three Poisons—clinging, aversion, and delusion—put forth such ripe fruits as in Northern Ireland, they provide promising material for a diagnosis of bondage that can become a map of release. Most nations and churches prefer to forget historical trauma rather than to learn from it. But our responsibilities toward later generations may demand an unflinching gaze at the historical record and what it reveals. Otherwise the new generations will be condemned to repeat the mistakes of the old.
If fixated notions of identity acerbated the strife in Northern Ireland, the Buddhist dismantling of such notions could remove the seeds of future conflict. Each of the Three Poisons brings the others in its wake. To hate is to grasp at a fixated sense of one’s own identity and a delusive image of what one hates. Buddhist meditation discerns and dissolves these unwholesome passions and the reifications they project. It produces the calm insight that can create a less toxic world by dissolving the basis of many forms of violence. People in the grip of rage or fear are unlikely to be open to the arcane wisdom of Buddhism. But that wisdom becomes less arcane when conveyed through a method of immanent analysis or deconstruction, logically showing the illusoriness of rage and fear themselves. In this sense, folly is its own undoing, and “the evil passions themselves are enlightenment.”
Buddhist Approaches to Forgiveness
Christianity is based on the idea, or rather the event, of divine forgiveness: “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also [must forgive]” (Col. 3:13). Why was this reality so little actualized in Northern Ireland? Even now, when a measure of rational political coexistence has been achieved, there is little cordiality or friendship between the Christian communities of the area. Such cordiality would be the fruit of mutual apology and mutual forgiveness, but even that seems to be far from people’s minds. The word “forgiveness” is not a popular one; it sounds like the jargon of sentimental preachers. It is easier to forget than to forgive, for forgiveness implies a relationship with the one to be forgiven—that is not desired. But peace-building means cultivating a mutuality of concern with the one that had been comfortably categorized as the enemy. It also involves defusing the religious and national ideologies that have bred intolerance, hatred, or violence.
The topic of forgiveness may seem at first sight remote from the concerns of Buddhism. Buddhism does not conceive of ultimate truth in the guise of a personal God. Its concepts of error and defilement do not readily translate into the Biblical notions of sin and guilt. The Buddhist solution to unwholesome dispositions is to overcome them by following the path that leads to release; acts of pardon and grace have little to do with it. In some early Buddhist texts, the emphasis falls not on forgiving, but on the foolishness of taking offense in the first place:
“He abused me, he struck me, he overcame me, he robbed me”—in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.
“He abused me, he struck me, he overcame me, he robbed me”—in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.
(Dhammapada 1.3–4; trans. Radhakrishnan)
In contrast, Biblical rhetoric is full of references to enemies, slanderers, persecutors. Buddhism might unmask a delusion here, rather than go on to talk of forgiving one’s enemies and blessing one’s persecutors. Biblical salvation is atonement for evils that have already occurred; but Buddhist salvation is more an effort to prevent the evils from arising in the first place. When they have already arisen, it calmly proceeds to dismantle them by going back to their roots. One universal process of karmic causality presides over all evils and the cure for them. Even the ultimate goal of undoing the chains of karma and entering the freedom of nirvana is attained through following this analytical procedure. There is no supernatural dissolution of bondage to evil by an act of grace (at least in early Buddhism). Thus, when we seek resources in Buddhism for a clarification and underpinning of the Biblical ideas of sin, forgiveness, grace, reconciliation, and atonement, we face the risk that these notions themselves will disappear in light of Buddhism’s higher wisdom.
There is a deep tension between the Indian wisdom that grasps ultimate reality in impersonal terms and regards ideas of a personal creator as at best provisional skillful means (upaya) for those who need them, and the Christian conviction that ultimate reality is most fully and concretely known when it gives itself the voice and face of a personal God. Even as we remain convinced of the primacy of the personal God of Scripture, we can allow the impersonal conceptions to play against it critically, providing a perspective that prevents the drama of sin and forgiveness from being reduced to an infantilizing schema of placating an offended Father.
Mahayana ( “Great Vehicle”) Buddhism, with its plethora of savior figures, makes place for a warmer, more positive conception of forgiveness than we find in early Buddhism. But even there salvation centers not on forgiveness but on release from delusion and suffering through meditative insight into the nature of reality. Buddhism queries the reality of the passions that make forgiveness necessary and also queries the reality of the objects of those passions. My anger, resentment, and hatred are delusions, and so is the crime or offense the other is thought to have committed against me. Indeed, my very concept of “myself” and of “other” is pervaded by delusion and fixation. Even if these Buddhist ideas were totally untrue, it would still be very wholesome to meditate on them at a time when national, ethnic, and religious identity has so often shown a murderous face.
The person harboring resentful thoughts may as a matter of fact have been abused, struck, overcome, or robbed, yet his brooding on this imprisons him in delusion and fixation. Memory of past offenses plays a huge role in contemporary culture, and there is insufficient reflection on the dangers of clinging to such memory. Much current rhetoric makes the hurt, anger, traumatization felt by victims into a kind of sacred cow that cannot be questioned. Instead of seeking to heal and dispel their wounds, victims are encouraged to nag at them and to seek “closure” by some form of vindictive payback. Hatred is still regarded as a strength rather than a poison. One must seek to understand the rage of the oppressed, but without forgetting how rage tends to become blind and rigid, feeding on itself. Rage finds stereotyped expression in destructive acts. Its delusional aspects must be undone if the energy of indignation is to be converted into flexible and strategic action.
Equanimity is the attitude most prized in early Buddhism, not only because it is the condition for the effective practice of loving-kindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy, but because it excels these as a realization of spiritual freedom. The balanced person never takes offense. Yet in Mahayana Buddhism, balance tends to yield pride of place to compassion, and forgiveness becomes more than a matter of spiritual freedom. Within the altruistic bodhisattva ideal, the bodhisattva recognizes in the enemy an occasion for practicing forbearance. But he also practices forgiveness for the enemy’s sake.
To regard your enemy as your best friend, as a bodhisattva sent to help you, is an attitude enjoined by the Lotus Sutra, which shows the Buddha describing his arch-enemy, Devadatta, as one who benefited him in a previous existence and one who is destined to become a great buddha. What facilitates such attitudes in Buddhism is the notion that there is no permanent identity in either the offender or the offended. Practice of the art of forgiveness entails willingness to recognize our own lack of substantial being, the totally contingent, dependently arisen, empty texture of our existence and our history. Compassion (karuna) is based on realizing the equality of oneself and others and also practicing the substitution of others for one self.
Note that when the bodhisattva discovers some offense that might induce rage, he sees it instead as an occasion to practice forgiveness. The memory of past wrongs is put to a spiritually profitable use. Following the lead given by the Vatican on Ash Wednesday, 2000, churches everywhere should integrate into their liturgies ceremonies of apology for wrongs inflicted in the past and also ceremonies of forgiveness for wrongs suffered. The point of this is freedom—freedom from the burdens of guilt and of bitterness, and freedom to relate with other communities from whom we have been alienated for centuries by a refusal to apologize or to forgive.
The Kenosis of the Collective Ego
The Northern Ireland tragedy thrived on essentialism, which in Buddhism is the most fundamental form of ignorance (avidya). “Irish” and “British,” “Unionist” and “Nationalist,” “Catholic” and “Protestant” were positioned against one another in rigid contrast. The powerful hold of these abstractions is difficult to explain. Consider the fear and rage we feel when our inflated image of our self is dinted by telling criticism, or by the Buddhist teaching that there is no separate self and that we exist only as a sequence of dependently co-arising occasions. Adherents of religious traditions are gripped by the same fear and rage when their tradition is convicted of error or wrongdoing. They will elude the criticism by pointing to an inner core of the tradition that is immune from error or sin, just as we cling to the image of an inner self. From a Buddhist point of view, religions are merely skillful means, shaped in function by constantly changing historical conditions, so that a religion that boasts of its unchanging core is by that very token becoming an unskillful, dysfunctional affair, a blockage to enlightenment. It is certainly no coincidence that two Christian cultures notoriously resistant to change—Ulster Protestantism and Irish Catholicism—should have been involved in the Northern Ireland conflict. The dispute between Nationalism and Unionism is on its own a deadly clash of essentialisms, but its religious underpinning fits it like a glove. Like faded beauties who are blind to their wrinkles, these traditions are oblivious to the mismatch between their self-image and the political and religious realities of contemporary Europe. It may be that the more deluded one’s self-perception, and the more ridiculous it makes one look to bemused observers, the more resistant it is to correction.
The Buddhist middle way is the way of balance between substantialism (or essentialism) and nihilism (or total loss of identity). There is no separate self. The self is dependently co-arising at every moment in intricate interaction with the various conditions of its existence, including past moments on the continuum of its karma. The self that exists now is not the self that existed in the past, nor will the future self be the self that exists now. Instead of grasping at self as a separate reality and worrying about its survival, we should deal with the here and now, with the conditions making for bondage and for release.
Letting go of representations of a fixed ego is a way to reconnect ourselves with the total interrelationships within which our existence in reality is taking place, to reconnect ourselves with the cosmos or with the dependently arising thusness of things.
Formations of continuity, such notions as career, success, lifework, vocation, marriage, or such notions as the soul, variously subject to the disease of sin and the healing of grace, are products of grasping. The temporal continuum such notions attempt to reify is full of discontinuities between one moment and the next. The self is a sequence of fleeting occasions. Formations such as church, nation, race, and ancestry are also products of grasping, collective ego-obsessions, painful delusions. Studying the historical process of the formation of the discourse that produced these entities, one realizes that their dissolution is inscribed in their construction. Their continuity is that of a constantly rewoven story, and when the web entangles us it is time to start retelling the story, differently, or even tearing the conventional web to let some ultimate awareness come through—awareness that there exists nothing but dependently arising occasions.
The substantialized self is provided with a grandiose mythic history. The same is true of a nation’s idealized self-image. Revisionists seek out facts that show the heterogeneity of history and its shifting alliances in order to reveal the unitary nationalist reading of history as a product of the imaginaire. As the differences between the present and the past come into sharper focus, the pure identities posited by ideologically shaped history are shown to be constructs of recent vintage. Revisionism does not fix the absolute objective truth about history, for that too is a delusory goal. But it can free us in the present from the fixated stories about ourselves that prevent us from apologizing for or forgiving the crimes of the past.
The extreme of substantialism, whereby one asserts oneself, goes hand in hand with the extreme of nihilism, whereby one negates the other. Only we are real and substantial. When we insist on the purity and completeness of the Catholic faith, we tend in the next breath to negate the Protestant faith, failing to see that a blow against the Christian faith is a blow at Catholicism itself. Dogma itself can hardly be taken as an ambiguously benign achievement, given the amount of blood spilled in its name. It breeds “attachment to views” by its very nature, and instills in those with right views a sense of superiority over those with wrong. True, “right view” is the first step on the Buddhist Eightfold Path. If dogma were a wholesome, right view in a Buddhist sense, it would only be our excessive attachment to it that would be diagnosed as unwholesome. In any case, the fundamental Mahayana scriptures, the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, consider all views to be ultimately wrong views. We are familiar with the idea that objectifications of God may be distortions. But for Mahayana, objectification of anything at all, as when we name or conceive such items as chairs and tables, is a false way of thinking, having at best a provisional, conventional validity.
Language about God—like language about self, nation, world—has at best only a conventional validity. To insist emphatically on any view about God is to build too much on a fragile foundation. Dogmatic assertion has a very limited and modest role and is always outstripped and overshadowed by a sense of its inadequacy to the ultimate reality that it seeks to point to from within conventional discourse.
Religious traditions are dependently arisen formations, human language serving as conventional vehicles of ultimacy, skillful means that often become unskillful when we forget their function as a mere means and try to make them substantial ends in themselves. What does Christianity’s very concrete identification of God, culminating in Christ as the incarnate Word of God, really mean? Buddhism strongly affirms that the ultimate cannot be defined. The Johannine God is not substance but spirit, love, light. The Incarnation of this God means that a certain disposition of conventional forms allows the emptiness of God to shine through—thus the story of Jesus becomes an eloquent Word revealing the empty face of God.
In traditional usage “God” functions like the stable character in a traditional novel, anchoring the coherence of religious and philosophical discourse. In current discourse, God as stable character is yielding to God as space of deconstruction. If we think of God as a gracious encompassing reality, we also know that it is a reality that cannot be securely pinned down, and that reveals itself in its withdrawal as what forever eludes our grasp. Similarly the stable self to be redeemed, the soul, is yielding place to a process of liberation or redemption that goes on collectively and in which the individual’s story finds its context. When we try to pin down our individual identity and its destiny, we fall back on some frozen myth about who we are and miss out on the changing life that is going on all around us. Joyce, who spent his life battling against the rigidity of mind he found in his homeland, pushes awareness of the constructedness and fluidity of identity almost to the point of a Buddhist deconstruction of self, as he shows how character is pieced together out of an ever-changing bundle of possibilities. The self arising and passing is a non-self, a self that knows itself to be an ephemeral conventional construct. Joyce’s soundings of Irish speech and consciousness reveal how the mind is bound by cultural stereotypes and how a web of fabrications interposes between it and the real.
The Ontology of Apology
Today we are taking the first steps to a culture of forgiveness when it will be normal for nations to work at forgiving those who have injured them and seeking forgiveness from those they have injured. When nations actively set out to seek forgiveness for the wrongs they have inflicted, they make it easier for the wronged nations to express forgiveness, and even in some cases to ask for forgiveness in return. The hour of apology has struck for the churches in particular, for crimes of the past were often sanctioned by Christian rhetoric that allowed them to be committed in good conscience. Popes launched crusades with the cry, “Dieu le veut! (God wills it!),” and not until Islam had ceased to threaten Europe did people doubt this. Elizabeth I congratulated her genocidal adventurers in Ireland, telling them they had given glory to God.
The scandal of religious crime is a topic for endless meditation and analysis, not to be swept away by an opportunistic expression of regret. The crimes of the past are too often seen as something ultimately unintelligible, part of the unfathomable mystery of evil, of original sin. Instead of seeking healing through radical analysis it is easier to shrug and sigh about being a Church of sinners, with the fatalistic implication that we are bound to sin again in the future. Such language is designed to prevent recognition of the fact that it was not weak, lukewarm Catholics but saintly and orthodox ones, including Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, and Saint Robert Bellarmine, who vilified Jews, preached Crusades, and lit the fires of the Inquisition. Is it not food for reflection that if even our canonized saints did not escape such blindness, how can we ever hope to do so? Perhaps we cannot forgive the crimes of the past on behalf of their victims, but we can learn that our own crimes, conscious and unconscious, will also need forgiveness, unless we have indeed attained a state of enlightenment that both Christianity and Buddhism agree to be rare. Seeing the errors of the past should be the first step to seeing our own errors. The depths of blindness that history reveals are the depths in which we still grope, but the study of history makes us aware of our state, and can be a step to awakening.
Apology is still not popular in Christian circles. The Stuttgart Confession of 1945, in which German church leaders repented for the suffering caused by Nazism (no mention of the Holocaust), provoked widespread anger in German churches, media, and politics. What makes apology and forgiveness difficult is that they imply an emptying of the self, a humiliating kenosis. Institutions are as self-protective as individuals, fearing that too much humility will result in a sell-out, a dissolution of inherited identity.
Religion has performed a noble task in upholding the victim’s memory and using it to instill vigilance for the rights and freedoms of oppressed people. To expose the sacred history of these wrongs to a revisionist reading, it is felt, would be a betrayal of the dead and a form of blaming the victim. It is true that one of the effects of historical oppression is to induce a great lack of self-confidence in the victims—Jews, gays, and colonized peoples have often suffered from self-hatred. Ancestral memory turns poisonous when it becomes a source of resentment and self-righteousness, breeding the sense that revenge is a sacred duty, or that the results of historic injustice must be undone by such methods as ethnic cleansing.
The fixated quality of such memory is based on the purism with which the myth of identity is upheld. Ireland, cast in the role of eternal victim, fails to see that the role has become stale and rotten, and that the crimes recently committed in the name of that victimhood are not a glorious affirmation of unchanging identity but a proof that identity is a process of perpetual change, for the glorious patriot of yesterday is revealed as the contemptible terrorist of today. People feel that it is wholesome and uplifting to swear by an unchanging identity, religious or national. To realize that any identity, any orthodoxy, is no more than a provisional arrangement allows one to engage with the treasured past of one’s ethnic or religious tradition in a more skillful way. This frees one to criticize the past with the confidence that one’s always shifting identity will benefit from the exercise.
The practice of apologizing for the crimes of one’s predecessors or accepting forgiveness in their name raises many tantalizing problems. By what right do we speak on their behalf? And what good does our apologizing do for their victims? It is good to meditate on this issue, for it is another path leading to the Buddhist insight into the non-substantiality of the self. To recognize the gap between the present “Ireland” and the past “Ireland” is to be freed from a fixated sense of identity.
Even when apology or forgiveness bear on a crime committed by an individual in his past life, the one forgiven is no longer precisely the one who committed the crime. The crime was the product of a myriad of conditions that can neither be recreated nor undone. Apology and forgiveness in regard to long past events are bound to work with simplistic reifications of those events and with feelings about them that are full of delusion. But the effect of these practices is to break the hold of this reification and delusion, for it replaces one set of attitudes toward the past with another set that lays a better basis for present and future relationships. Apology and forgiveness allow the past to be past, so that it need no longer shed its blinding shadow on the present. Coming to terms with the past is futile if pursued as an end in itself. The active initiative of apology and forgiveness takes the past as theme for addressing present relations between the one who apologizes and the one who forgives. To be skillfully brought off, such initiatives must be more than arbitrary spur-of-the-moment gestures. They should be the result of long reflection, just as the realization of non-self comes from long practice of meditation and analysis.
For people to discuss the injuries and grudges that have poisoned their relations for centuries, working together on them so as to build toward radical reconciliation is not only a realization of the central Christian and Buddhist aims; it is a task that has become imperative for all nations today, given what we know of the lethal potency of unrepented and unforgiven historical crimes. The forces that unleash mass carnage may seem more powerful than those behind our first faltering steps toward a culture of reconciliation. But those are the forces of illusion and fixation; these are the forces of reality. In a world of total interdependence and constant change, the fixated discourse of hate declares war on reality, and is immediately obsolescent, though it may persist in its delusion for a long time, creating a hell on earth.
(Dharma World 31, Nov.-Dec. 2004)