Forgive and Forget:Practising social reconciliation through the teachings of Buddha


Phra Anil Sakya is the assistant secretary to His Holiness Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara, Supreme Patriarch of Thailand. He is deputy dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Mahamakut Buddhist University and a visiting professor at Mahidol, Kasetsart, Santa Clara and Oxford universities.

This is an edited excerpt of his speech presented at the ‘Symposium of the 25th General Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists’ held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from November 14 to 17 2009.

In almost every place in the world there is conflict unrest and rebellion, revolt against law and order and consequential unhappiness and misery. Moreover, there is war in the minds of many, even among those not actually engaged in fighting. This does not exclude Buddhist countries. Recently, Oxford University Press published a book entitled Buddhist Warfare, edited by two American professors of religious studies and sociology – Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer. They write in the beginning:

Violence is found in all religious traditions, and Buddhism is no exception. This may surprise those who think of Buddhism as a religion based solely on peace. Indeed, one of the principal reasons for producing this book was to address such a misconception. … This volume investigates this dark underbelly of Buddhisms (all schools of Buddhism), with particular attention to the monastic interplay with warfare.

How do you feel after reading this? Personally, I too often get asked similar questions about Buddhism and why civil and ethnic wars take place in Buddhist countries. This question is often raised when various events are examined such as the genocide of a few million Cambodian Buddhists in the 1970s, the recently ended ethnic and terrorist conflict in Sri Lanka, the crushing of Buddhist monks by the Burmese military and more recently the civil unrest caused by the “war between red-and-yellow shirts” in Bangkok that led to killings of many Thai Buddhists, some even on monastic grounds. All these events occurred in countries that primarily follow Theravada Buddhism. Many attribute the cause for such turmoil and violent struggle to various political problems, civil unrest, corrupt politicians, poor economic infrastructure and ethnic prejudices. It apparently has nothing to do with Buddhism per se, but is this true?

As a Buddhist monk, I find it a truly awkward question for someone who follows the unconditional Buddhist doctrine of peace and non-violence. True, it is hard to deny the fact that violence takes place in Buddhist countries but I always get away with a tongue-in-cheek answer saying that such violence is politically rather than religiously motivated. Simply, there is no just war in Buddhism. But I know deep in my heart that is not the case. Killing and violence take place even among Buddhists themselves. In the worst cases, the violence is sometimes directly or indirectly blessed by members of the Sangha. When it is asked for an explanation the Sangha always uses stock responses such as “for the sake of nation”, “for the greater benefit” or even “to alleviate suffering”. We tend to value an abstract notion of a nation over a precious human life.

Some go to the extreme and say that Buddhism needs to be kept out of politics. It’s a good suggestion, but is it possible to separate politics? It’s everywhere, even within the World Fellowship of Buddhists organisation! Needless to say that everything in our life is politically motivated. Therefore, if Buddhism is not reducible to its socio-political and economic contexts, there may be something more disturbing in it. What if the discourse on metta and karuna, or loving-kindness and compassion turns out to be merely a form of lip service or wishful thinking? I strongly believe that public life, all over the world, is in desperate need of the Buddha’s wisdom.

Regarding the Sangha and politics, Prof Richard Gombrich of Oxford University interestingly stated in his recent paper, “Buddhism as a Resource of Peace and Progress – but who is prepare to use it?”:

The Sangha and politicians have quite different parts to play. From the very beginning it has been essential to Buddhism that the Sangha and the laity have roles that are complementary. Those who take the Buddha’s message seriously are to renounce the world, giving up both the burdens and the pleasures of lay life, and devote themselves to Buddhist principles. It is the role of the Sangha to keep the Buddha’s message alive, and that means to preserve Buddhist values and ethical principles. The Sangha are moral leaders, or they are nothing. Many things, from economics to sexology, they are to leave to the laity. Monks and nuns are no more expected to get into the rough and tumble of political detail than they are expected to carry arms and fight; but it is their duty to advise political leaders on the moral principles which must guide how they govern, and even how they make war, if that cannot be avoided. Why should Buddhist principles, under that name, be kept out of government and politics? Buddhism is not some kind of frivolous game or pastime: It is there to be applied to the whole of life.

So how can Buddhism and politics go together hand in hand? In the 3rd century BC, Emperor Ashoka proved for all time that it can. He ruled almost the whole of the Indian subcontinent for 30 years. In the many edicts which survive to this day he showed how a ruler can follow Buddhist principles – in many ways, but above all, in limiting the use of violence.

Gombrich continues:

Let us be clear: Buddhism is not pacifist. Here the difference between the public and the private sphere becomes crucial. If someone attacks me, I may decide not to respond. .. But if a population has chosen me to look after their interests, and they are attacked or threatened with attack, the situation is different: I have a responsibility to protect them, just as parents must do whatever they can to protect the lives of their children. Countries need defence forces to deter attack, and potential aggressors need to know that those forces may be used. So there is all the difference between aggression and defence, between initiating violence and responding to it. In his thirteenth major rock edict, Emperor Asoka told the world how much he regretted having waged war on the people of Kalinga. He hoped never to have to do such a thing again. But he also warned his neighbours that while he would ‘tolerate what could be tolerated’ (his words), they should not provoke him. That surely is the right way for a government to minimise violence.

For non-violence and peace, we talk on two different levels: doctrinal and practical. Unfortunately, we lean more towards the doctrinal approach. Indeed, the Buddha’s dharma is akaliko or timeless. It is the Noble Truth, which means it was true then, is true now and will stay true forever. After all, it is the Noble Truth. Therefore, whenever we take refuge in the teachings of Buddha we feel safe. For that reason, we always use the teachings as a point of reference just like reference books in a library. What we really need is not mere references but a practical road map, a path, a built-in way of life that leads to those virtues becoming a part of who we are. In the past, Buddhism was influential and resourceful because it was intertwined with people’s thought process and way of life. But these days, there is more of a gap between theory and practice. We are getting better with theory but weakening in practice.

Let me go straight to the heart of the matter. Violence starts with an act by an individual or group. Once it has begun, retaliation takes place and it rolls on endlessly. So how do we stop this cycle of retaliation? The significance of the Buddha’s teachings of forgiveness and reconciliation directly apple here. In the earliest corpus of Buddhist Canon, the Buddha does not have a great deal to say directly about reconciliation; but what he does say deserves to be read and taken to heart by every citizen the world over. The most important principle is stated in the famous Dhammapada: Never in this world is hostility appeased by hostility; it is appeased by an absence of hostility.

In practical term, to forgive is a crucial Buddhist practice. The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to eradicate mental defilements: greed, aversion and illusion. The plain and simple antidote to those mental defilements are giving, forgiving and giving wisdom. Accordingly, we can witness the importance of generosity in most Buddhist societies. Sadly, we sometimes lose ourselves in a web of material giving and fail to give away our anger, hatred and retaliation, the true practice of forgiveness. Indeed, to forgive is not easy as giving materials but our ancestors developed the habit of asking for forgiveness as a daily practice. For example, in many Buddhist communities we have a saying along the lines of, “Please, I request that you forgive me for whatever wrong I have done with the three doors of body, speech, and mind.” This is a culture of forgiveness we are taught during our childhood. It is embedded in many Buddhist ceremonies and ideas. Sadly, for many it has become only a ritual.

Forgiveness, or khama in Pali, also means “the Earth”. Thus being a forgiving person means having a mind like the Earth – non-reactive and unperturbed. When you forgive someone for harming you, you decide not to retaliate, to seek no revenge. You don’t have to like the person. You simply unburden yourself of the weight of resentment and cut the cycle of retribution that would otherwise degenerate into an ugly samsaric wrestling match.

In any post-conflict society, everyone knows by their hearts that the simple way to reach reconciliation is by pardoning. As in Anguttara Nikaya (AN 2.21), the Buddha talks of pardoning as a quality of the wise:

One who sees his/her transgression as a transgression, and one who rightfully pardons another who has confessed his/her transgression. These two are wise.

The word “reconciliation” derives from the Latin expression conciliatus, which means “coming together”. Strictly speaking, reconciliation implies a process of restoring the shattered relationship between two sides. Reconciliation is sacrosanct in post-conflict societies. Such societies inherit a shattered political system, a fragmented society, and a devastated economy. A universal feature of post-conflict societies is the pervasive antagonism, mistrust and hostility between the former adversaries, even though peace has been brokered.

Therefore, reconciliation means a return to amicability, which requires more than forgiveness. It requires the re-establishing of trust. If I deny responsibility for my actions or maintain that I did no wrong, there’s no chance of reconciliation. Similarly, if I insist that your feelings don’t matter, or that you have no right to hold me to your standards of right and wrong, you won’t trust me not to hurt you again. To regain your trust, I have to show my respect for you and for our mutual standards of what is and is not acceptable behaviour. I have to admit that I hurt you, that I was wrong to do so, and promise to exercise restraint in the future. At the same time, you have to inspire my trust, too, in the respectful way you conduct the process of reconciliation. Only then can our friendship regain a solid footing.

To encourage right reconciliation among his followers, the Buddha formulated detailed methods for achieving it, along with a culture of values that encourages putting those methods to use. These methods are contained in the Vinaya, the Buddha’s code of monastic discipline. The Vinaya suggests how monks should confess their offences to one another, how they should seek reconciliation with lay people they have wronged, how they should settle protracted disputes, and how a full split in the Sangha and the monastic community should be healed. Although directed at monks, these instructions embody principles that apply to anyone seeking reconciliation, whether of personal or political differences.

The first step in every case is an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. When a monk confesses an offense, such as insulting another monk, he should first admit to having said the insult. Then he should agree that the insult really was an offense. Finally, he must promise to restrain from repeating the offense in the future. A monk seeking reconciliation with a lay person should follow a similar pattern, with another monk, on friendly terms with the lay person, acting as mediator.

If a dispute has broken the Sangha into factions that have both behaved in unseemly ways, then when the factions seek reconciliation they are advised first to clear the air in a procedure called tinavattharaka, or “covering over with grass”. Both sides make a blanket confession of wrongdoing and a promise not to dig up each other’s minor offences.

To heal a full split in a community, the two battling sides are instructed first to inquire into the root intentions that led to the split, for if those intentions are found to be malicious or dishonest, reconciliation is impossible. If the group tries to patch things up without getting to the root of the split, nothing has really been healed. Only when the root intentions have been shown to be reconcilable and the differences resolved can the Sangha perform the brief ceremony that re-establishes harmony.

Pervading these instructions is the realisation that genuine reconciliation cannot be based simply on the desire for harmony. It requires a mutual understanding, or ditthisamannata, of what actions served to create the disharmony, and sila samannata a promise to try to avoid those actions in the future.

The procedures for handling disputes were especially important. To prevent those in the right from abusing their position, the Buddha counselled them to reflect on themselves before they accuse another of wrongdoing. The checklist of questions he recommended boils down to this: “Am I free from unreconciled offences of my own? Am I motivated by kindness, rather than vengeance? Am I really clear on our mutual standards?” Only if they can answer “Yes” to these questions should they bring up the issue.

Therefore, I request everyone who always likes to point their finger at others to see where the other three fingers of the hand are pointing. This means when you blame others you are really to blame thrice.

To encourage a wrongdoer to see reconciliation as a winning rather than losing proposition, the Buddha praised the honest acceptance of blame as an honourable rather than a shameful act: Not just a means, but the means for progress in spiritual practice. As he told his son, Rahula, the ability to recognise one’s mistakes and admit them to others is the essential factor in achieving purity in thought, word and deed. Or, as written in the Dhammapada, people who recognise their own mistakes and change their ways “illumine the world like the moon when freed from a cloud”.

Therefore, according to the teachings of Buddha there are at least five thoughts that can lead to reconciliation: (1) We are always responsible for our conscious choices. (2) We should always put ourselves in other people’s place. (3) All beings are worthy of respect. (4) We should regard those who point out our faults as if they were pointing out treasure. And (5) There is no – repeat, no – higher purpose that excuses breaking the basic precepts of ethical behaviour.

In setting out these standards, the Buddha created a context of values that encourages both parties entering into a process of reconciliation to employ the right speech and to engage in the honest, responsible self-reflection that is basic to all Buddhist practice. In addition to creating external harmony conducive to practice, the process of reconciliation thus also becomes an opportunity for inner growth.

Although the Buddha designed this culture of reconciliation for his monastic community, its influence did not end there. Lay supporters of the Sangha adopted it for their own use – parliamentary procedure in Thailand, for example, still uses terminology from the Vinaya. Moreover, Niradosakarma, or the legal procedure for pardoning a political crime, is often used in Thailand to solve a political dispute.

If Buddhist groups are to bring reconciliation to modern society, they have to master the hard task of achieving reconciliation among themselves. Only then will their example be an inspiration to others. The Buddha admitted that not all disputes can be reconciled. There are times when one or both parties are unwilling to exercise the honesty and restraint that true reconciliation requires. Even then, though, forgiveness is still an option. This is why the distinction between reconciliation and forgiveness is so important. It encourages us not to settle for mere forgiveness when the genuine healing of right reconciliation is possible, and it allows us to be generous with our forgiveness even when it is not.

I truly admire the efforts made by Aung San Suu Kyi, and she has shown to the world a Buddhist approach to reconciliation. On November 13, after being released from house imprisonment, a BBC reporter, John Simpson, asked her if she despised the military government for all the punishment she had received throughout the years. She calmly replied that she never despises any government personnel. They were doing their duty and it is not their fault. It is the system which is wrong. This is a truly Buddhist approach to reconciliation.

When it comes to a collective effort, the solution becomes psychologically different because of the strength that develops from being united for a common cause. Here are some key issues that are important for achieving social reconciliation:

1. Accountability for reconciliation: The wounds are fresh and deep in the hearts of those who have lost their loved ones in war and violence. What would a terrorist say to a mother who has lost her son? What would a government say to an orphan who has lost her whole family? How would the head of a government address his people who are suffering? Let us not talk about who is to blame, or who to take revenge on. All sides should take responsibility for the atrocities that have happened and work towards ensuring that they do not happen again. Also, various programmes should be introduced to heal the victims of war and violence on a psychological, economic and political level.

2. Self interest and reconciliation: There is no point in talking about reconciliation if personal interests are sacrosanct. The only thing that should be sacrificed in the name of reconciliation is self-interest, not lives. As long as people are working for their own self-interests, then reconciliation will never be achieved.

3. Relationship between peace and power: In most cases, peace and power are closely linked, similar to two facades of a coin. The relationship between peace and power can easily be seen in any marriage. A working marriage means the couple equally respects each others’ rights by dispensing some self-interests for the benefit of the union. Therefore, reconciliation is only possible when we can balance the urge of peace and power between the parties concerned.

The Buddha’s lessons on how to treat all humans with respect and generosity so they will never feel impelled to take up arms in anger, need to be learned and acted upon. “Never in this world is hostility appeased by hostility; it is appeased by an absence of hostility.” We all know it makes sense. The resources are at hand. But will anyone decide to use them?


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