Reflections from a conversation with the Dalai Lama

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Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama arrives for a long-life prayer offering dedicated to him at Tsuglagkhang Temple in McLeod Ganj in India. LOBSANG WANGYAL/AFP

Is forgiveness a phenomenon that is learned or is it something that some of us are inherently better at than others?

It’s been just over two weeks since my return from India where I was invited to attend this year’s Mind and Life Conversations with the Dalai Lama under the themes of compassion, interconnection, and transformation.

I sat through the two-day event, where two thought leaders joined in conversations with the Dalai Lama Dharamsala at his residence in exile, with significant discomfort.

The first day of the event highlighted the importance of interconnectedness – communication and collaboration for survival.

According to recent experiments conducted in the fields of evolutionary biology (which now takes into account both genetic as well as cultural evolution), both compassion and aggression are inheritable.

And from a cultural evolution perspective, compassion is the only way a species can survive.

Unless we practise a collective compassion, in a few generations, we will all be extinct.

This was neither an uncomfortable realisation for me, nor surprising.

It was only during the second day that the discomfort really began to sink in. The topic of the day was an African tradition, called ubuntu, often translated as “I am because we are”, or “humanity towards others”.

The term is often used in a more philosophical sense to mean “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”, enabling a culture of forgiveness threaded through the very fabric of Africa, through her language and deep communal structures.

‘Opportunity to learn patience’

We Bangladeshis, on the other hand, at risk of evoking nationalistic defensiveness, aren’t exactly great at forgiveness, primarily as a result of two things: 1) we are a nation formed through a genocide, which is, largely, yet to be recognised as one; and 2) the political rhetoric that is continually perpetuated doesn’t allow us to forgive and/or forget.

But Dr Pumla Gobodo Madikizela, the speaker of the day, who served as a member of post-genocidal South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, had also come from a post-genocidal nation.

One that was subjected to gross violations of human rights, dehumanisation resulting from a system of institutionalised racial segregation and unimaginable violence known as the apartheid.

So when she spoke of mothers who had watched their children being murdered in front of them but forgave the murderers anyway, I was intrigued.

But that was only the beginning. The Dalai Lama’s response, unwaveringly grounded in compassion, spoke of feeling gratitude toward his enemies for giving him the opportunity to learn and practise forgiveness.

“We don’t expect the ones who are close to us to hurt us, to betray us. Who else but the enemy, through antagonising us, would give us the opportunity to learn patience?”

Then I started to wonder about the pain that is inflicted upon us by those who we believe are our closest.

Or what do we do when those who we trust not to hurt us, hurt us?

I had grown up with the idea that if you perceive an assault on yourself and your body as too wrong to forgive, you are not necessarily being small-minded.

Even though we are often told that we’ll feel better if we forgive people who have done us wrong, the very act of forgiveness – by its very nature – can be an act of denial.

So can’t the decision to not forgive represent a legitimate response to an offender’s continuing actions and place in society and/or our personal lives?

‘I am because we are’

Should we then, in order to reach peace or spiritual enlightenment, practice coerced forgiveness – a forgiveness granted because it is believed to be the only virtuous or healthy thing to do?

But according to the Dalai Lama, there is no alternative to forgiveness. He laid the foundation of his response with the following Tibetan prayer:

“When it comes to suffering, I do not want an iota of it;When it comes to joy, I cannot have enough of it;In this regard, there is no difference between me and another;

May I be blessed so that I can take joy in the joy of others.”

It all starts with the recognition of the fact that we exist only in relation to others. “I am because we are.”

If we see ourselves as only a part of an interconnected whole, there is no Self that is separate from the Other.

There is no “I versus you”.

There is only a collective We. And then forgiveness becomes the only way of being because not forgiving entails perpetuating a kind of unkindness toward oneself.

This, then, also necessitates a better understanding of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a conscious, difficult choice that is a learned process and takes significant work even after the decision to forgive has been made.

It is a decision to let the past be what it was and not what we wish it had been; and an openness to meeting the present moment freshly.

It is a willingness to drop the existing narrative on a particular injustice, to stop telling ourselves over and over again the story of what happened, what this other person did, how we were injured, and all the rest of the things we keep reminding ourselves of in relation to this unforgivable-ness.

In doing so, we stop employing the present moment to validate, correct, vindicate or punish the past.

We show up, maybe, forever changed as a result of the past, but nonetheless with all of our senses wide open and available to Right Now in all its possibilities.

So the process of forgiveness of the other, interestingly, invites and guides our attention away from the other, away from what they did, haven’t done, or need to do.

We no longer wait for or want them to be different.

There is no further need to get compassion or acknowledgment out of the other, to get them to see and know our pain, to show us that our suffering matters.

Forgiveness means that we lose interest or simply give up the fight to have the other get it, get what they’ve done, get that we matter.

We move towards ourselves, our own experience, our heart. Through forgiving you, I come into being.

What an empowering thought. Now, how do we go about it?

The Daily Star (Bangladesh)/Asia News Network