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On forgiveness

By Matthieu Ricard on June 10, 2009

From a Buddhist perspective, at a personal level forgiveness is always possible and one should always forgive. Although many claim that one has no right to forgive harm that has been done to others, one must consider forgiving in terms of the well-being of society. Society does not need the kind of forgiving that goes with lack of concern, leniency, or even worse, that is an endorsement of the evil that has been done to others. That would leave the door open for the same horrors to happen again. Society needs forgiveness so that grudges, venom and hatred that will inevitably mature into new sufferings are not perpetuated. Hate devastates our minds and causes us to devastate others' lives. Forgiving means breaking the cycle of hatred.
As an individual can fall prey to hatred, so can a whole society. Yet hatred can disappear from people's minds. A stream can become polluted and poisonous, yet it can be purified again. Without the possibility of inner change, humankind would be caught in an inescapable whirlpool of evil, a self-defeating despair. A Buddhist saying goes, ‟the only good thing about evil is that it can be purified.” Human beings can change, and if someone has truly changed, forgiveness is not indulgence toward his past deeds, but an acknowledgment of what he has become. Thus, forgiveness is intimately linked with the possibility of human transformation.
From a Buddhist point of view, the basic goodness of a human being remains deep within, even if he or she deviates into a very malevolent person. The simile given is that of a piece of gold, which remains unchanged even when buried in filth. There is always a possibility of cleansing the filth. This does not amount to ignoring the base quality of the filth, but to knowing that it can be removed and that the gold within it can shine again.
(to be continued)