Forgiveness, hara and tanden

Traditional Zen is not sentimental – frugal with words, and not showing emotions. It may be due to its origin – monastic, warrior e.g. Japanese samurai-like ethos or simply because for centuries it was a male domain. But we must not forget that Zen teachings are grounded in Buddhism: in its religious form compassion, gratitude and magnanimity are woven into Zen practice. Teaching of these virtues happens in an oblique way, often through koans, but also through stories about famous Zen personages, both masters and accomplished laymen. A serious Zennist would not dream of saying ‘I want to become a good person’ or ‘I do zazen in order to become a Buddha’. The lovely story of a master polishing a tile to make it into a mirror mocks such an aspiration of a hapless monk.

So how do we go about improving ourselves, to become truly grateful, compassionate with the respect of all sentient beings, and be able to put past hurts behind? The typical reply from a master would be ‘more zazen’, ‘sitting, sitting and more sitting’. A modern Zen master may give some pointers such as look at your actions, not just at actions of others. And be generous: magnanimity has a lot to do with forgiving.

For example: recall a situation or person when you were badly hurt and can’t forget. Then start sitting with the intention of forgiveness, maybe saying aloud or mentally ‘I forgive you’. Likely it will not work straightaway, but persistence will eventually bring about a shift in our attitude. After time a grudge will dissolve, making us healthier and happier.

That all sounds a bit mysterious. We want to know how it works, and more importantly how to confidently set this process working. Here the modern psychology comes to aid. Dr Fred Luskin, the cofounder and director of the Stanford University Forgiveness project, devised the nine-steps to forgiveness method. To find a link to our Zen practice, let us inspect the first four steps (Forgive for Good, p. 211):

  1. Know exactly how you feel about what happened, and be able to articulate what about the situation is not OK. Then tell a couple of trusted people about your experience.
  2. Make a commitment to yourself to do what you have to do to feel better. Forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else. No one else even has to know about your decisions.
  3. Understand your goal. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciling with the person who upset you or condoning their action. What you are after is peace. Forgiveness can be defined as the peace and understanding that comes from blaming less that which has hurt you, taking the experience less personally and changing your grievance story.
  4. Get the right perspectives on what is happening. Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts, and physical upset you are suffering now, not what offended you or hurt two minutes – or ten years – ago.

Let’s look at the first point. How can we find out how we feel or felt about what happened? Here the unborn mind practice – fusho or Shikantaza to give it the Japanese name – comes to aid. We just sit, like a mirror which reflects everything which comes and passes. Let emotions and feelings come, let them go but we don’t engage with them, we don’t follow. If you like it’s like watching a movie where you play one of the main roles. This distance brings some objectivity: we may not like what unfolds but stay with our practice. Some things can dissolve on their own, some will merit further inspection, or they will fade away when we return to our practice next time. Feelings and emotions are just what they are. We may even feel a bit silly mulling over things past that we cannot influence as they are gone.

We may or may not tell others the new story. What’s important that we’ll recognise on the bodymind level, that it’s just a story which can be retold or maybe dropped altogether.
On the second point of making a commitment: I’d link this one to the intention when we start sitting. Perhaps it’d be very specific: I want to forgive X for not helping me when I really needed it. It may be simply that you undertake facing whatever comes up in zazen, and sitting through it until it resolves. In this form, it is less specific that determining what makes you feel better as sometimes zazen can be walking through hell. It’s good once we get out.

Understanding your goal: once your bodymind let go of the grudge, maybe in a convoluted way, you’re more likely to be at peace with yourself. In this process working with a variation on the koan ‘Who am I?’ is helpful. You can rephrase it as ‘Who is hurt?’ Once we really reach the core of this koan, many things pale in significance.

The fourth point, getting the right perspective, is self-explanatory. This what happens almost organically when we sincerely engage in Zen practice. We resolve matters by having more emphasis on the body – through breathing and posture – then by mentally working through them. I don’t want to diminish the importance of various strains of psychotherapy: I merely am saying that the main work happens in the body.

The remaining five steps have a greater intellectual and psychological overlay than just sitting. After all, forgiving is one of the ways of letting go, and often zazen on its own is not sufficient. Help may be sought in therapy or self-help books. But the beginning and the end is in zazen – steering through stormy seas, and arriving at calm waters.