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Buddhism and Forgiveness: an interview with Terry Hyland

Posted: Mon, March 13, 2017 | By: Humanism

“Forgiveness” is a subject of contemporary scientific research by psychologists, neurologists, physicians, and international mediators, who are intrigued by the virtue’s multiple benefits. It is increasingly clear that individuals and communities who ‘let go’ of their grievances move forward with healthier lives.

Learning to forgive has also been championed, for thousands of years, by numerous religions and philosophies. To learn more about Buddhism’s perspective on forgiveness, I interviewed Terry Hyland - he’s Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Bolton, UK, Lecturer in Philosophy at the Free University of Ireland, and a lifelong learner in mindfulness theory and practice. He’s written over 150 articles, plus 19 book chapters and 6 books.

Hank Pellissier: Did Buddha himself directly address the value of Forgiveness? Is there a Buddhist definition of Forgiveness ?

Terry Hyland: Buddhist views on forgiveness stem from the general overriding project of seeking to alleviate suffering in ourselves and others. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of forgiveness includes the key phrases “cease to resent or claim requital for” and “give up resentment, anger against a person” and this clearly directs our attention to the fact that forgiveness is undertaken – at least in the first instance – for the benefit of the forgivers, in order to release us from the pain which accompanies the afflictive emotions of anger, hatred, regret and resentment. Of course, as with Shakespeare’s famous words on the quality of mercy, it is two-sided, benefitting both forgiver and forgiven. Such wholesome and skilful activities – closely related to the key virtues of loving-kindness and compassion – have a central place in Buddhist ethics, and are addressed directly in the dharma. In Chapter 1 of the Dhammapada we find the following teaching:

“They insulted me; they hurt me;
they defeated me; they cheated me.”
In those who harbour such thoughts,
hate will never cease.

“They insulted me; they hurt me;
they defeated me; they cheated me.”
In those who do not harbour such thoughts,
hate will cease.

For hate is never conquered by hate.
Hate is conquered by love.
This is an eternal law.
Many do not realize that we must all come to an end here;
but those who do realize this, end their quarrels at once.

Jack Kornfield devotes much time to discussing forgiveness in The Wise Heart (Rider, 2008) in which he asserts powerfully that forgiveness “is to be understood as a way to end suffering…is fundamentally for our own sake, for our own mental health” (p.346). Of course, the relational aspect of forgiveness means that there must always be someone or something to forgive, and this brings in the role of forgiveness in the process of healing and reconciliation. Moreover, forgiveness (like compassion/self-compassion which are cognate concepts) is an inside-out activity, we need to forgive ourselves before directing forgiveness outwards if the process is to be sincere and effective.

HP: What is the Buddhist process of “forgiving” - ? Is there a meditation on it, or a series of steps to take, to help one forgive?

Terry Hyland: Forgiveness is a process, not simply a singular act of saying “I forgive you” but the result of practice and training the mind. There is a standard metta (loving-kindness or friendliness) meditation which involves wishing for freedom from suffering and well-being directed towards, sequentially, ourselves, our loved ones, people we find difficult, and all sentient beings. Kornfield and Jon Kabat-Zinn recommend such practices as part of general training in vipassana (insight) meditation, and the processes are to be found in most contemporary texts on Buddhist mindfulness. Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance (Bantam, 2003) also addresses such issues and demonstrates how unconditional friendliness (a prerequisite of forgiveness) is such a powerful force for healing and wholeness which is neither passive nor weak but, on the contrary, an active and dynamic process of engaging in an imperfect world with the aim of improving the lives of everyone.

The burgeoning interest and popularity of research and writings in the area of forgiveness over the last decade or so has – as with the McMindfulness phenomenon – led to a flurry of activity in the self-help and pop psychology field and a proliferation of forgiveness training programmes (see using/ forgiveness.php). My preference would be to stay close to training which is directly linked to Buddhist principles and ethics and, in this area, Paul Gilbert’s work with the Compassionate Mind Foundation (( is well worth looking at by anyone interested in forgiveness. Their definition of compassion as “a sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it” provides an excellent summary and leitmotif for any attempt to understand and achieve forgiveness.

HP: If we are incapable of forgiving someone—is there a relationship that we should have with them - or should communication be cut off?

Terry Hyland: If we are incapable of forgiveness, we are doomed to carry the hatred and resentment which goes with this lack of capacity around with us in a way which prolongs our suffering and that of others. As the processes mentioned above can reveal, self-compassion and self-forgiveness may lead to general compassion and forgiveness of others, and it is never too late to seek an escape from destructive emotions. The Buddha taught that no-one was beyond redemption or training, and in the Angulimala Sutta we learn how the Buddha – on encountering the notorious bandit and murderer Angulimala who was “bloody-handed, given to blows and violence, merciless to living beings…was constantly murdering people and wore their fingers as a garland”(Bhikku Bodhi, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom Publications,2009,p.710) – persuaded him to renounce violence and join the monastic community as a result of the teachings on compassion and the sources of suffering. It should be emphasized that the bandit’s murderous acts were not excused here, just placed in the context of causes and conditions which lead to suffering in the world but which, through meditation and training, also point towards the possibility of adopting the skilful means through which suffering may be alleviated. And the fruits of such transformations are well worth striving for as Sri Chinmoy’s little poem reminds us.

Means transformation
Of a human heart
Into a divine life.

HP: What is the damage caused to people, if they keep resentments? And brood obsessively about how they can never forgive someone?

Terry Hyland: It would be self-evidently irrational and self-destructive to despair of ever forgiving someone, thus condemning ourselves to a lifetime of painful emotions. In recent years, the process of forgiving has been investigated within mainstream science, and important research funded by the Templeton Foundation – under the aegis of the Campaign for Forgiveness Research led Dr. Robert Enright, a developmental psychologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison – has revealed how an inability to forgive can be seriously damaging to psychosomatic health. Similar work by Dr. Frederic Luskin, the co-founder of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, has demonstrated the potency of forgiveness in terms of its impact on general health ( Luskin’s research has established evidence that:

“When you don’t forgive you release all the chemicals of the stress response.. Each time you react, adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine enter the body. When it’s a chronic grudge, you could think about it twenty times a day, and those chemicals limit creativity, they limit problem-solving. Cortisol and norepinephrine cause your brain to enter what we call ‘the no- thinking zone,’ and over time, they lead you to feel helpless and like a victim. When you forgive, you wipe all of that clean.”

Brooding is itself a primary source of suffering, often consisting in trying to escape from destructive emotions by intellectual “doing” of some kind. If we harbour resentments over some hurt inflicted upon us we are carrying with us afflictive emotions which can only be relieved by a “being” mode which involves accepting the source of our suffering in a way which allows us to develop an understanding of the means of escaping the vicious cycle of painful and futile rumination. Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings on mindfulness are full of wise words of guidance in this respect, especially in relation to hatred, anger and reconciliation practice. Through practices such as deep listening and loving speech we may, according to Hanh, learn to “embrace anger with the sunshine of mindfulness” (Anger, Rider, 2001, p.27) thus transforming this destructive emotion – the “howling baby, suffering and crying” as he describes it – into a compassionate acceptance which can free us from pain and suffering. We cannot forgive until we have attended to the ‘howling baby’!

HP: Do you believe Forgiveness Training can be used to heal deep animosities between nations, like between Israel and Palestine, for example? Or India and Pakistan?

Terry Hyland: Some long-standing conflicts such as the ones you mention – and we could add to these such conflicts as the Catholic-Protestant troubles in Northern Ireland and the contemporary war between fundamentalist Islamic jihadism and all those considered enemies – seem to be hopeless causes and incapable of resolution by any means. In Buddhist writings forgiveness though a first step towards reconciliation does not always necessarily bring this about since forgiveness – though relieving suffering in those forgiving – may fail to have an impact on those being forgiven. However, despair over the grave difficulties and obstacles in the way of healing would simply prolong and exacerbate suffering, thus Buddhist teaching outlines skilful ways of seeking to overcome obstacles in the way of reconciliation (for an excellent summary of these issues see .

It is at this stage of potential impasse that the wisdom aspect of Kornfield’s ‘wise heart’ comes into its own. In his recent book Against Empathy (Bodley Head, 2016) Paul Bloom advances some cogent arguments in favour of displacing empathy – which in some instances may distort moral judgments and counter-productively cause harm to others – with compassion (specifically drawn from Buddhist sources) and reason. He suggests that “what really matters for kindness in our everyday interactions is not empathy but capacities such as self-control and intelligence and a more diffuse compassion” (p.35). Bloom’s notion of ‘rational compassion’ is similar to the Buddhist concept of ‘great compassion’ which arises, not from the total identification with another’s suffering (which can be exhausting and debilitating), but by standing back and mindfully understanding the causes and conditions which have led to another’s suffering (anger, hatred, violence) thus enabling the generation of sufficient sympathy to maintain engagement with even the bitterest of enemies. This is what motivates all the various groups mentioned on the International Learning Resource Site involved in ‘engaged practice’ in fields as diverse as consumerism, the environment, race and gender, globalisation, work in prisons and hospices, in addition to peace-making in every part of the world (

Although despair is not an option for engaged Buddhists such as Thich Nhat Hanh who has led peace and reconciliation retreats in conflict areas around the world, rational compassion also understands that some people are not susceptible to reason or reconciliation attempts. Until the causes and conditions of the suffering of all parties are dealt with, transformations cannot take place, and sometimes this will require social, political and economic changes as a necessary preliminary to or corollary of the deep listening, forgiveness and reconciliation processes. A good example of this would be the long history of segregated work, education and social conditions experienced by Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Although formal, official forgiveness for the horrors of the troubles has been established, the segregated social, educational and economic framework remains in place. Until such segregation is ended, formal forgiveness is unlikely to lead to full-blooded and sincere forgiveness and reconciliation. Similar changes to the causes and conditions of enmity in the cases of the India/Pakistan and Israel/Palestine conflicts would have to take place before reconciliation can take place. However, forgiveness on both an individual and group level can take place without complete reconciliation, and there is now enough evidence to demonstrate the value and power of this for all of us.

HP: It seems like (in America) people are very angry with each other about politics. I am sure many people “never forgive” someone if they vote for a different candidate. Does Buddhism offer a way of understanding that people are different, with different points of view, and we should accept this?

Terry Hyland: Yes, Hank I understand such political tensions only too well since the recent Brexit referendum decision in Britain has led to divisions and hostilities between those who wish to remain in the European Union and those opposed to this (approx 52/48 in favour of leaving Europe). I am aware that similar – perhaps more serious and bitter - divisions exist in the United States as a result of the result of the 2016 presidential election. Anger over such conflicting views would ideally be dealt with in the ways suggested above in relation to long-standing conflicts. In spite of our differences – in opinions, values, beliefs, etc. – Buddhism reminds us that we are all thrown into a world in which suffering in the form of loss, disappointment, sickness, ageing and death prevail. This first noble truth is a great leveller; none can escape this predicament though the Buddhist path shows us ways to alleviate the suffering as opposed to exacerbating it. Holding on to grudges, harbouring resentment of people with different views, and refusing to acknowledge alternative perspectives is an absolutely certain way of exacerbating and prolonging the pain and suffering. Reflections on Interdependence might just remind us that we all have imperfections which cause suffering to ourselves and others. Huffington Post journalists recently visited Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreat centre at Plum Village, France, to question the monastics about the best ways of dealing with the election of President Trump ( They were more than a little surprised at the following view expressed by Brother Phap Dung who was previously an architect based in Los Angeles.

“Non-action sometimes is very powerful,” Brother Phap Dung pronounced. “Sometimes we underestimate someone sitting very calm, very solid and not reacting and that they can touch a place of peace, a place of love, a place of nondiscrimination. That is not inaction.”

Brother Phap Dung also added that (shock! Horror!) everybody has “elements of Trump in us.” He said: “We have the wrong perception that we are separate from the other,” he said. “So in a way Trump is a product of a certain way of being in this world so it is very easy to have him as a scapegoat. But if we look closely, we have elements of Trump in us and it is helpful to have time to reflect on that.”

No one is claiming that the Buddhist path is an easy one to follow!

HP: Should political leaders be considered for “forgiveness”—even though they are too powerful to ever have “justice” brought to bear upon them? Terry Hyland: Yes, political leaders would be suitable candidates for forgiveness in the light of all the reasons and justifications already presented. However, I think that rational compassion of both the Bloom and Buddhist variety has much to offer here. Perhaps I can illustrate this with a personal example. I once harboured the bitterest feelings of resentment and loathing over the actions of Tony Blair when – as UK Prime Minister – he involved Britain in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 on grounds which are now revealed to have been false and duplicitous. Moreover, he ignored the views of millions of citizens in doing so, has never apologized and now spends his time accumulating wealth by dubious means. However, following Phap Dung’s reasoning referred to above, I should be able to acknowledge Blair-like characteristics in myself and understand that he must be suffering like the rest of us (and probably more than most of us in the light of his political career). Yes, I am just about able to achieve this act of rational cognitive empathy (i.e. compassionate reasoning) and this process is greatly helped by watching Blair still desperately trying to justify his actions in his replies to the official UK government enquiry last year which reported his many faults, shortcomings and outright duplicity in the tawdry affair. Reminiscent of Nixon during the Watergate scandal, the man is nervous, anxious, and – with a haunted expression, drawn features and perspiring top lip – attempts to make his case in a halting and jittery voice to audiences who are overwhelmingly hostile and unbelieving. But, please note, I am neither excusing nor forgetting the heinous nature of Blair’s political crimes here, and I still believe he should be brought to justice in some way.

However, I am able to forgive for all the reasons mentioned above, though I readily admit that such a process would probably be considerably more tortuous and difficult in the case of brutal dictators of the past. Here it is worth remembering the value and healing power of forgiveness for ourselves both as individuals and societies, and I am sure this is the only reasonable way of making sense of, for example, the British government apologizing for its role in the 18th century slave trade, for atrocities in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, or for its former treatment of gay men such as the scientist (and acknowledged inventor of modern computing) Alan Turing who committed suicide in 1954 as a result of State persecution for his homosexuality. Thich Nhat Hanh has a wonderful poem – Please Call Me By My True Names (Parallax Press, 1999) – which captures beautifully such acts of forgiveness and compassion. Here are some representative stanzas:

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea
pirate, and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my
hands, and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to, my
people, dying slowly in a forced labour camp…

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.


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