The Buddha succeeded in establishing a religion that has been a genuine force for peace and harmony, not only because of the high value he placed on these qualities but also because of the precise instructions he gave on how to achieve them through forgiveness and reconciliation. Central to these instructions is his insight that forgiveness is one thing, reconciliation is something else.
The Pali word for forgiveness—khama—also means “the earth.” A mind like the earth is nonreactive and unperturbed. When you forgive me for harming you, you decide not to retaliate, not to seek revenge. You don’t have to like me. You simply unburden yourself of the weight of resentment and cut the cycle of retribution that would otherwise keep us ensnarled in an ugly samsaric wrestling match. This is a gift you can give us both, totally on your own, without my having to know or understand what you’ve done.
Reconciliation—patisaraniya-kamma—means a return to amicability, and that requires more than forgiveness. It requires the reestablishing of trust. If I deny responsibility for my actions or maintain that I did no wrong, there’s no way we can be reconciled. 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 behavior; I have to admit that I hurt you and that I was wrong to do so; and I have to 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.
Thus, there are right and wrong ways of attempting reconciliation: those that skillfully meet the requirements for reestablishing trust and those that don’t. 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.
The methods are contained in the Pali vinaya’s instructions for how monks should confess their offenses to one another, how they should seek reconciliation with laypersons they have wronged, how they should settle protracted disputes, and how a full split in the Sangha should be healed. Although directed to monks, these instructions embody principles that apply to anyone seeking reconciliation of differences, whether personal or political.
The first step in every case is an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. When a monk confesses an offense, such as having insulted another monk, he first admits to having said the insult. Then he agrees that the insult really was an offense. Finally, he promises to restrain himself from repeating the offense in the future. A monk seeking reconciliation with a layperson follows a similar pattern, with another monk who is on friendly terms with the layperson 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 “covering over with grass.” Both sides make a blanket confession of wrongdoing and promise not to dig up each other’s minor offenses. This frees them to focus on the major wrongdoings, if any, that caused or exacerbated the dispute.
To heal a full split in the Sangha, the two sides are instructed first to inquire into the root intentions on both sides that led to the split, for if those intentions were irredeemably 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 have been resolved can the Sangha perform the brief ceremony that reestablishes harmony.
Pervading these instructions is the realization that genuine reconciliation cannot be based simply on the desire for harmony. It requires a mutual understanding of what actions served to create disharmony, and a promise to try to avoid those actions in the future. This in turn requires a clearly articulated agreement about—and commitment to—mutual standards of right and wrong. Even if the parties to a reconciliation agree to disagree, their agreement needs to distinguish between right and wrong ways of handling their differences.
Yet right and wrong have gotten a bad rap in Western Buddhist circles, largely because of the ways in which we have seen right and wrong abused in our own culture—as when one person tries to impose arbitrary standards or mean-spirited punishments on others, or hypocritically demands that others obey standards that he himself does not.
To avoid these abuses, some people have recommended living by a nondual vision that transcends attachment to right and wrong. This vision, however, is open to abuse as well. In communities where it is espoused, irresponsible members can use the rhetoric of nonduality and nonattachment to excuse genuinely harmful behavior; their victims are left adrift, with no commonly accepted standards on which to base their appeals for redress. Even the act of forgiveness is suspect in such a context, for what right do the victims have to judge actions as requiring forgiveness or not? All too often, the victims are the ones held at fault for imposing their standards on others and not being able to rise above dualistic views.
This means that right and wrong have not really been transcended in such a community. They’ve simply been realigned: If you can claim a nondual perspective, you’re in the right no matter what you’ve done. If you complain about another person’s behavior, you’re in the wrong. And because this realignment is not openly acknowledged as such, it creates an atmosphere of hypocrisy in which genuine reconciliation is impossible.
So the solution lies not in abandoning right and wrong but in learning how to use them wisely. Thus, the Buddha backed up his methods for reconciliation with a culture of values whereby right and wrong become aids rather than hindrances to reconciliation. To prevent those in the right from abusing their position, he counseled that they reflect on themselves before they accuse another of wrongdoing. The checklist of questions he recommended boils down to this: “Am I free from unreconciled offenses 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. Furthermore, the Buddha recommended that they determine to speak only words that are true, timely, gentle, to the point, and prompted by kindness. Their motivation should be compassion, solicitude for the welfare of all parties involved, and desire to see the wrongdoer rehabilitated, together with an overriding desire to hold to fair principles of right and wrong.
To encourage a wrongdoer to see reconciliation as a winning rather than a losing proposition, the Buddha praised the honest acceptance of blame as an honorable rather than a shameful act: not just a means but the means for progress in spiritual practice. As the Buddha told his son, Rahula, the ability to recognize one’s mistakes and admit them to others is the essential factor in achieving purity in thought, word and deed. Or as he said in the Dhammapada, people who recognize their own mistakes and change their ways “illumine the world like the moon when freed from a cloud.”
In addition to providing these incentives for honestly admitting misbehavior, the Buddha blocked the paths to denial. Modern sociologists have identified five basic strategies that people use to avoid accepting blame when they’ve caused harm, and it’s noteworthy that the Pali teaching on moral responsibility serves to undercut all five. The strategies are: to deny responsibility, to deny that harm was actually done, to deny the worth of the victim, to attack the accuser, and to claim that they were acting in the service of a higher cause. The Pali responses to these strategies are: (1) We are always responsible for our conscious choices. (2) We should always put ourselves in the other person’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. (Monks, in fact, are required not to show disrespect to people who criticize them, even if they don’t plan to abide by the criticism.)
(5) There are no—repeat, no—higher purposes that excuse breaking the basic precepts of ethical behavior.
In setting out these standards, the Buddha created a context of values that encourages both parties entering into a reconciliation to employ right speech and to engage in the honest, responsible self-reflection basic to all Dhamma practice. In this way, standards of right and wrong behavior, instead of being oppressive or petty, engender deep and long-lasting trust. In addition to creating the external harmony conducive to Dhamma practice, the process of reconciliation thus also becomes an opportunity for inner growth.
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.