On Love and Forgiveness
by Lama Surya Das
What I want to talk about tonight is a subject we don't hear much about in Buddhist circles. It is the real meaning of Bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is said to have two sides: the conventional side -selfless or unselfish altruism, aspiration to relieve the suffering of all, compassion, services, and so on- and the ultimate side, which is wisdom itself, sunyata, appreciation of the infinite openness.
Still, if we bring all that together, if we talk about it in English today, if we really think about what it all means, I think it is all about love. We hear the word compassion a lot these days; it's become a buzzword. But I think it is about what we used to call in English before we heard about Buddhism, love.
The Christian notion of love means unconditional love, acceptance, forgiveness, openness, oneness with all, treating others as you yourself would be treated. But let's go deeper and look into what it really means to love, to learn to love. What comes up for us when we first hear the word love. Do we think of Prince Charming or Princess Charming? Do we think of our child, our parents, our pet? What? Do we think of nature, our garden, the lake we live near? What do we think of when we think of love? Our ex-wife or ex-husband? Maybe not!
When we talk about Dharma or truth or love, it all really comes down to the same thing: an appreciation of something, someone, or a certain moment in life. An appreciation of something that is perhaps beautiful or at least beautiful to us. Like the quality of our relationship. That's really what we love, isn't it? How we feel in that moment. We might say we love the other person, but if we really look into it, what are we really loving? We probably love how we feel with them.
So if we look more deeply into what this Bodhicitta, this luminous heart of the spirituality, is, I think it comes down to love. And love really is more a matter of openness, which includes things like acceptance and forgiveness. It's almost like an equanimity that appreciates things no matter how they fluctuate, rather than an attachment like "I love how I feel when I'm with you-most of the time." So what does that mean? That you don't love the person when they don't give you a good buzz. Or, "I love my work, but I can't wait until I retire." Love is not an expedient to get to retirement. Love is much deeper than that. It is where we come from, not just what we are going towards. It's like how we are when we were children. That child-like quality of wonder and appreciation that is open to everything. That's why I called it equanimity. It is appreciating everything, because everything is new. We perceive things with fresh eyes and ears. Everything is new and therefore miraculous, marvelous. We love it.
So how can we take off the veils, the obscurations that tarnish our eyes and ears and heart and mind? How can we learn to love, to be open to things as they are, which is truth according to Buddha's definition: things as they are. How can we learn to love not just our mate or ourselves or our work? How can we learn to appreciate all beings, to appreciate everything as it is? To being open to learning to love through whatever experience we have? That would be a spiritual life, a way of awakening; not just a religious thing, but a way of awakening, to learn from everything that happens. That would be to love life and to love the world. I think that is the luminous heart of the Dharma, beyond Buddhism, beyond Dharma, beyond heart and mind or body or even soul.
When we talk about love we are talking about something that is very soulful, not very abstract. Not just, "Ah, emptiness! The infinite!" Do we love ourselves well enough to give us space to be? We are all involved in all kinds of self-improvement programs. Is that love for ourselves or not? Are we doing the best by ourselves as we are trying to change for the better? Or is that just one more symptom of self-hate, of low self-esteem, or non-self-acceptance? If we don't love ourselves, how can we love others and love our life?
When we enter into the heart of the Dharma, I think it comes down to some sort of love, to speak English. It is something we can really explore and actualize, to bring out from within. Not just find love, seek love. But practice loving, be open to love. Receive love. We hear about radiating love and loving-kindness. But what about receiving it? Are we open to receiving it? How open are each of us to receiving it? We all like the idea of it, but when it comes, doesn't it make us a little nervous? Isn't it a little scary? "What does this mean? Does she really love me? Does he love me for my good looks? What does she want? Can I love equally well in return?" So many neurotic thoughts.We all have these same thoughts. We are all just junior Woody Allens. As Woody likes to say, "I am two with everything."
Even when we practice loving-kindness meditation, I feel like sometimes we are focusing on loving, fixing, solving something, but not on appreciating everything, on opening, on forgiveness. We don't hear much about forgiveness in Buddhist circles, do we? Has anybody heard any Buddhist teacher talking about forgiveness? How is that possible? And yet, it is a fact.
Forgiveness is a big part of acceptance. Can we accept, can we forgive? Not just forgiving others, but can we forgive ourselves? Aren't we all carrying around some neurosis, some guilt, some inadequacy, some feeling of failure from something in our life? I think that from the point of view of Bodhicitta, we should think about working on forgiveness. Forgiving ourselves. And notice what that brings up. Last time I said this I was in Jerusalem. You can imagine what an earful I got, about the people that we shouldn't forgive. But think about that. Who is hurting whom by carrying this unforgivingness around all the time? How much does it cost oneself?
Rabbi Kushner said that if after two days you still haven't forgiven something, now it has become your problem. You are paying everyday. If you can't let go of it in two days, you should really take care. And he was talking about the most grievous things, not just about that someone cutting you off in traffic or something.
So I would like you to think about forgiveness. Forgiveness of others and forgiveness of yourself. Even of those who wronged us, abused us, victimized us. But we are still carrying all that. Let's see if we can loosen some of that burden. It doesn't mean to exonerate the others. Actually, it is their karma, whatever they did. But after two days it becomes our karma if we are still carrying it, if we haven't let it go. Then we are victimizing ourselves. In a way, life is about learning to love, to love others, to love ourselves, and to love life itself; to dance with it, to play with it, to be one with it, even with those you hate and those you think are unforgiveable.
There is a way we can recognize that we abhor someone's actions, but we don't abhor the person. We judge the action, not the person. Then we can drop some of our burden, which is just weighing ourself down. The burden of anger, of bitterness, of resentment, perhaps towards our parents. But when you become a parent, it changes your perspective on parents, doesn't it, as you see what happens to your kids and what you inflict on them, no matter how hard you try to be a great parent. You realize that your own parents are just human too, poor things! It's a circle. We are all being recycled continuously.
I myself have been looking into this a lot, feeling that I have been suffering from those things. And feeling that these Bodhicitta teachings have helped me to lighten my heart about that. I think it is a very important practice when things are difficult. We talked about the practice of tonglen, of putting yourself in the other's shoes, exchanging self and others. That's a great practice for when things are difficult. To stay in there, not to reject, not to run away, not to withdraw. To be with it a little longer, to learn from it. And sense it holistically, not just the part that's pushing your buttons. What about the rest of it? There's a lot more to any person than that action that pushes your button. I want to recomment a new book by Ani Pema Chodron: It's called 'When Things Fall Apart.' She's an expert on the subject. Check it out if you like to read books.
And do consider forgiveness and equanimity and putting down that burden. And when you reflect on this in your own time, notice what comes up in your mind, in your heart, in your psyche. Who or what comes up. It might be illuminating to see what one is still harboring. What grudges, what vendetta, what prejudices we are still carrying. It doesn't mean we have to feel guilty about those things. The bogeymen go away in the light of awareness. Let's give them a good look. What stays unconscious still drives us and afflicts us.
Lama Surya Das
Cambridge, January 27, 1997
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