The Practice of Forgiveness

He beat me, he robbed me, he hurt me. Abandon these thoughts. Live in love. – The Buddha

As human beings, we are guaranteed at one time or another to suffer from betrayal, conflict, loss, and pain. We will encounter betrayal and conflict in our families and communities. At times, these difficulties can feel insurmountable and we long for a way out of the suffering and conflict. The first step we need to take is to protect ourselves and others, to set limits, to minimize harm. Then, what is also necessary for us to move forward through our pain is forgiveness—of ourselves and others, and of the events that have caused our suffering.


It’s important to remember that forgiveness doesn’t happen all at once. You can’t achieve forgiveness by covering up your genuine hurt feelings. There are times when it is important to fully experience feelings of grief and rage and despair and pain before we can move on. Sometimes, there are also events in your life that you believe to be absolutely unforgivable. But sooner or later, for your own good, your heart will realize that you need to let go. As my friend and teacher Maha Ghosananda, the Gandhi of Cambodia, said to thousands of refugees who had suffered enormously, “Remember these teachings from Buddha, ‘Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is the ancient and eternal law.’”

Sometimes the only thing you can do is let it go. Start a new.

“This instruction appeals to the nobility of our hearts. To find peace we must bring an end to hatred through love. “Oh nobly born,” say the Buddhist texts, “remember who you really are. Know that a great and forgiving heart lies within you too.” There is an awareness inside us—even in those who experienced the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields in Cambodia—that as long as we harbor anger and resentment in our hearts we will never find peace. Without forgiveness, we are trapped in the past, carrying forward and repeating the sufferings we’ve experienced, from generation to generation. Without forgiveness, the Northern Irish Protestants and Catholics have continued their battles for centuries. Without forgiveness, the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, the Bosnians and Serbs and Croats, the Palestinians and Israelis will continue to sentence their children and their children’s children to generations of suffering and conflict. To free ourselves, each of us will have to say, “These cycles of suffering and retribution stop here, with me. I refuse to pass this suffering on to my children. I refuse to carry hate.”

In this way, forgiveness is not primarily for others, but for ourselves. It is a release of our burdens, a relief to our hearts. A story I like to tell is about two ex-prisoners of war who met again years later. One said to the other, “Have you forgiven our captors yet?” And the second one answered through gritted teeth, “No, never.” With this the first one looked at him kindly and said, “Well then, they still have you in prison, don’t they?” Only by learning to forgive, can we let go of what is holding us back and move on with our lives. Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.

Forgiveness is not a single act but a practice that one undertakes, sometimes over a long period of time. When one of my teachers taught me this forgiveness practice, he said, “Why don’t you try it twice a day for five minutes, then after six months, let me know how it’s going.” I found that my understanding of this practice changed and deepened month by month. By the time the six months were completed, I realized that my teacher had asked me to practice forgiveness three hundred times before I evaluated its effects.

Release the past. Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Don’t harden your heart.

What I discovered by practicing forgiveness over this period of time was that sometimes I felt true forgiveness in my heart, and sometimes I felt its opposite: deep resentment that I refused to let go. Sometimes I experienced pain and at other times I was overcome with rage and anger. But eventually tears would come that brought emotional healing. And little by little, the way water wears away a stone, the pain in my heart melted.

Excerpt From: Jack Kornfield. “A Lamp in the Darkness,.”

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