Norman gives the Dharma talk at Green Gulch Zen Center on Forgiveness. This is part of the 2011 Everyday Zen practice period and there is a supplement to this talk at the Practice Period meeting the same day entitled “Practice Period Meeting 2011”.
Forgiveness – Green Gulch October 2011
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | October 2, 2011
Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum
I think that most Western people who come with an interest to practice Zen, or any other kind of Buddhist practice, come because they are burned out on sin and guilt and confession. We have his feeling that we have somehow caught in the wind, or gotten more directly from our parents or our churches or synagogues, that somehow we have done something wrong. We are not even sure what. Sometimes we do know what, but sometimes we're not sure. So we have burned out on these bad feelings. We think this is a Christian or Jewish obsession, and we can escape from it by going to Buddhism.
It seems like we don't find all that in Buddhism. But, actually, you do. This great inspiring conception that Buddhism has of liberation, of awakening, of freedom, might sound like an escape from all that, but it isn't really an escape into some kind of immunity or irresponsibility or freedom from right and wrong. That is not the freedom that liberation promises. In fact, in all schools of Buddhism, Zen included, liberation depends on purity of heart. Taking precepts and keeping precepts is a basic part of the practice in all the schools of Buddhism, as is confession and repentance and remorse and forgiveness.
In Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other theistic religions, morality is ordained by God. In other words, morality comes from a source greater than ourselves. It comes from something more than our self-interest or our understanding. But this is also true in Buddhism, even though Buddhism does not have an idea of God or a Supreme Being. Buddhism does have the Triple Treasure at its center – the Buddha, dharma, and sangha.
The Triple Treasure in Zen and Mahayana Buddhist understanding is identical to cause and effect – to karma. Karma is a force, a dynamic, which is greater than ourselves and larger than our understanding or our interests. Having deep faith in karma, deep faith in cause and effect, deep faith in the Triple Treasure, is actually just as important in Buddhist practice as having deep faith in God in theistic practices. Now, to be sure, you can certainly begin Buddhist practice without this faith, and most of us in the West who are not born into a Buddhist understanding or faith do begin this way, without having that faith in the beginning. We can effectively practice meditation for a long time without that faith. But eventually, if you continue your practice, and you pay close attention to what is going on, and you have honest observation of your own heart and mind, this practice will cast a soft but persistent light on your heart.
You do develop this faith, whatever language you use for it, because your direct experience will show you that when you do say or think something harmful or hurtful, your heart gets twisted and occluded. It's painful. When you behave like that in thought, word, or deed, the liberation that you are seeking becomes more distant from you. Instead of liberation, you feel pain, inner distortion, stubbornness, clinging, and unhappiness. And you notice that when you do the opposite, when your speech, deeds, and thoughts have their source in compassion, loving-kindness, and concern for others, then you feel good, you feel happy. You feel like liberation is right there.
So freedom in dharma doesn't mean being free of moral constraint. It turns out that freedom exactly is morality. To live in a relaxed and happy manner, free and easy, it turns out, is to live in goodness and kindness.
Your meditation cushion will show you that your conduct is probably not as good as you thought it was. Sitting and breathing steadily over time, it becomes more difficult to be dishonest with yourself, much more difficult to believe in the various self-defensive rationalizations and self-serving perspectives that we all have, and that we usually deny that we have.
A meditation practice has the effect of making us pretty humble and realistic about ourselves and about one another. But also, I hope, at the same time, exactly because of this, it makes us a lot more forgiving of ourselves and of others, because human beings are human beings, and we will always be human beings, which means imperfect beings, who can imagine and long for perfection.
As long as we are alive, we need to practice forgiveness. We need to forgive ourselves, we need to forgive others, we need to forgive cause and effect, and we need to forgive the world for being what it is and not what we would like it to be.
This is not so easy, forgiving ourselves. I have thought about this a lot, and I have come to the conclusion that not only is it not easy to forgive ourselves, it's actually impossible. When it comes to ourselves, I think that we are all quite unforgiving.
It seems to me that there is a built-in suffering of self. This is something that Buddha noticed right at the beginning of his life of practice. No matter how much you protect and justify the self, it never quite works. The self always comes out suffering in the end, because the isolated, self-protected self is inherently lonely and desperate.
So on a profound level, we have to forgive ourselves for being ourselves; and since this is completely impossible, we have to rely on others to forgive us for being ourselves. You can go and offer incense to the Buddha and confess to the Buddha, "Please, Buddha, forgive me." The Buddha will always forgive you, because that is the Buddha's practice. It is just the same in our great theistic religions. God forgives you, because God is inherently forgiving. Forgiven by God, you can then forgive yourself.
Now forgiving yourself is not quite the same thing as excusing yourself. You can, by yourself, excuse yourself. You can say, "Well, yes I did this, but it is not so bad after all. It's okay." But to really forgive yourself, which is to say to be profoundly forgiven, is to know that I am not so good after all, and I will never stop addressing that imperfection in my life, but with the help of others, I can do it, and I can be happy anyway, every minute.
So a certain amount of bad feeling or remorse is necessary in this process. If we hurt someone else, we can't just go up to them and say, "Forgive me so that I can feel better." We have to suffer some remorse for what we have done, and when we approach the other person with the weight of that remorse on our shoulders, and with the understanding that we can't expect them to forgive us, and that is honest and real, then maybe the person can forgive us. If they don't forgive us, we can still cherish the remorse itself, because it makes us stronger and deeper human beings. It helps keep us straightened out and, after awhile, we appreciate it as a kind of treasure.
I have some things that I did long, long ago, and I still feel painful remorse for these things. I don't expect that I am going to get over this. Probably when I am dying, I will be thinking about these things, if I can still think straight. But I don't mind, because these are the deeds, and these are the feelings, that connect me with others and connect me with an essential part of myself. And I think that is a good thing. It took me awhile to come to this feeling about it, but that's how I feel now.
So it is hard to forgive yourself. Also not so easy to forgive someone else when they have hurt you. Everybody in this room has been hurt. If you are human, it's normal to have been hurt deeply. We are living in a world in which everyone is running around having been deeply hurt. They are confused by that and acting out of that wound. It is this scar in the human heart that is the reason why, whenever you find a human community from any time, you always find some form of religious life. And religious life, once it develops and articulates itself, always has some form of forgiveness practice. It is always part of any religious culture.
The opposite of forgiveness is resentment. Resentment means to re-feel – to feel again and again and again and again. So someone hurts us, and naturally we feel the pain, but then long after the event, we feel it again and again and again, and that is resentment. Sometimes we are aware that we feel this resentment, and sometimes we don't even know that we are feeling it. Sometimes the hurt and the subsequent resentment goes deep underground and blends into our general attitude toward life, so without even realizing it, we become generally resentful, easily offended, suspicious, disappointed people, constantly expecting things not to work out. When it turns out that they don't work out, or sometimes even when they do work out, we continue to feel this underground resentment.
It is possible that most people are like this almost all the time. In this case, forgiveness goes beyond, "I forgive you for what you did to me last week." It is much deeper than that. Maybe the person who originally hurt us is long gone from our lives, but the resentment is still in our hearts, so forgiveness is something that we need to do for ourselves. It actually doesn't have to do with the other person so much. It is really something that we need to do for ourselves, to free ourselves, to release our heart from the hurt that is making us so hard-hearted and preventing us from loving.
So liberation is becoming free of this deep habit of heart and mind, so that our heart can be open and soft instead of hard. We can have a general feeling of gratitude and appreciation even if things don't work out.
When you think about it in a completely dispassionate way, think about life, what a fantastic thing it is to be alive in this world! It's a beautiful world. The sun shines. What could be better? The trees, sky. We couldn't have designed this so well. It is just fantastic. All these little details that are so bright and pure and beautiful.
Of course, there are problems, and things happen that we don't like, but at least we are alive to feel all that. That in itself is a fantastic thing, that we could feel joy and sorrow. We could feel happiness and sadness. We could feel love, and we could feel alone. This is a fantastic thing, that if any one of us thought about it reasonably, we would be celebrating every minute. That we could smell, that we could see, that we could hear.
The alternative to this – that we are not here; that we're not alive; that we don't hear and see and feel and think and experience anything – is not that great. Right? The alternative? In fact, it is exactly nothing. The alternative to this is nothing. So, in other words, instead of nothing, we have something. This incredible something.
So how come we are not falling all over ourselves constantly with gratitude and delight and joy? Because it would really make sense that we would feel this way. But usually we don't feel this way. It is very unusual. To have a day where we say, "I am so happy to be alive today, I can't believe it!" We might have experienced that, but not every day. I don't think once a week, even. I don't think once a month. Maybe once a year, but maybe decades have gone by, and you haven't had a day like that. But why wouldn't you feel that way every single day?
So we have to practice forgiveness, because the reason that we don't feel like that when it makes sense that we would, is because our hearts have been occluded, wounded, hardened, and scarred in all kinds of ways.
The antidote to our occluded, scarred hearts is forgiveness. It starts locally with forgiving the person or persons who have hurt us, and then we go beyond the local to the universal. When we profoundly practice forgiveness, we will have a feeling of gratitude for our life, whatever it is today. That is liberation, being happy and grateful for our life. Resentment is replaced by gratitude, and that is the fruit of the religious life, a life of gratitude and appreciation for this day, for this life.