“Somebody once told me that she practices forgiveness. I said, ‘Don’t try to practice forgiveness.’ ‘What! Why not?’ she exclaimed. ‘What we are learning to do is to forget.’”—Phakchok Rinpoche, In the Footsteps of Bodhisattvas
If you saw the previous post (Opening the Doorway to Authentic Meditation) on In the Footsteps of Bodhisattvas, you read that the highest form of meditation described by the Buddha in the Samadhi Raja Sutra is not an absorption. The highest meditation is our fundamental nature, which becomes vivid when we have cleared away our torturous mental habits and the deep cognitive obscurations that keep us enmeshed in the false belief in a permanent “I.” Phakchok Rinpoche, elaborating on the words of Shakyamuni Buddha, teaches that we need to rely upon a multi-pronged approach with a variety of methods in order to unburden ourselves from these obscurations. One such prong is to practice forgetting.
Seeing the Complexity of Others
When someone harms us while under the sway of their ignorance and negative emotions, our go-to reaction is to squash their complexity and reduce them to an emotional texture—a simple “enemy.” “He is such a moron!” or “She is so incredibly selfish!” or “That’s just the way they are!” In that moment we have violently reduced the entire world of a person to an illusory label. How many times have you held someone in casual disdain, only to see their depth later, or even come to admire their view? How much relief do you feel when your tensions with another finally dissolve?
People are very sensitive, and their emotions change frequently. Think about the myriad states of mind that occur within your own experience in a single hour, let alone a day or a week. The shifting waves of hope, fear, protectionism, altruism, or general paralysis course through us continuously. Any of the words that escape our lips in a moment of anger or stupidity are born from an endless chain of interpenetrating causes and conditions. Buddhists are taught from the beginning to examine how our intention colors and guides our words and actions—but can any of the infinite beings who are whipped around by the winds of karma and negative emotions, who have never been taught that the quality of their speech and the movements of their body are solely contingent upon the their current mental state, and have never trained in adjusting their motivation, rightfully be held in the cross-hairs of a singular vengeance?
Notice the Gnawing
Phakchok Rinpoche teaches that if we are holding any anger, we are not free. When you’re even mildly annoyed at someone, the mind is disturbed and there is some pain. When you are holding on to a twenty-year grudge, you are enmeshed in a story that is only issuing out distress moment after painful moment. From the standpoint of someone practicing to become free from suffering to help others, how can any grudge be worth holding on to? It makes no sense, actually, to teethe on a point of pain when the causes that produced that pain point have long ago come and gone. It is only the ego that feels the need to gnaw.
It is through gnawing that the dualistic clinging to self and other, which lies at the heart of all suffering, remains intact: “He harmed me fifteen years ago,” is a textbook dualistic reification of self and other. If we find ourselves in the grip of holding tightly to a long-term sense of being wronged, or that our friends have been wronged, or that our children have been wronged, and yet still have not found relief in our clinging, then we can be sure that resolution—which is what we are actually desiring to achieve through vengeful clinging—will not ever occur unless we “forget.”
We might aim for forgiveness, but as Phakchok Rinpoche teaches us in In the Footsteps of Bodhisattvas, when you forgive, you still subtly cling to the narrative of having been harmed. Rinpoche says:
I am not telling you to suppress, I’m saying that clinging to a narrative of forgiveness always reminds us of a ‘wrong.’ When we are reminded, we hold on.
If we have forgiven but not forgotten, then we still savor some cloying indulgence of the ego which thinks subtly, “How noble I am, to have forgiven.” Hidden here remains the whisper of the wrong that was committed. So again, the key instruction from the masters is to forget. Phakchok Rinpoche says:
If you can do this, then it means you are not holding on to the past. It means you are not attached to the dualistic narrative of harm. It means you do not go back in time. You do not internalize the sense of being a victim.
I have received this exact instruction independently from both of my main teachers, and Phakchok Rinpoche made a point of communicating this teaching directly within In the Footsteps of Bodhisattvas. When a teaching is repeated again and again, it is often because it is both hard to do and very important that we do it.
Dropping the Stone, Responding with Skill
To forget wrongs doesn’t mean to walk blindly, taking abuse from everyone. It means understanding that our negative emotions and the negative emotions of others are the root of all suffering. It means understanding how they obscure the fundamental nature that is the unity of emptiness and compassion lying at the heart of every being. Practicing “forgetting” also means attending to this compassionate nature very closely, and courageously, not feeding the dualistic narratives that hang on our bodies and minds like bags of stones, overpowering our attempts at flight in formal meditation sessions.
If we learn to “forget” while still vigilantly observing cause and effect, interdependent arising, and our intrinsic, unconditioned wisdom, then we are free to see things as they are. We can attend to the web of causes that produce harm and benefit; and, contrary to the general assumption that a vast view ignores the locus of individuals, we become even more capable of meeting the sensitive people directly in front of us. Our precision to accomplish the aims of others becomes even more sharp when we become comfortable recalling the vast net of causes that produce harmful and helpful actions. We let go of the view that reduces the complexity of others to a painful label, and through that, as Phakchok Rinpoche says, “You don’t carry a stone in your heart.”
In the Footsteps of Bodhisattvas is available in bookstores and from Amazon and Shambhala. Free shipping is available on international orders via Book Depository.
For a preview of the book, including a foreword by Kyabjé Chökyi Nyima Rinpoché, click here.
About Jack deTar
Jack deTar trains under the guidance of Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche and Phakchok Rinpoche. He tries to serve others, hold in devotion those who have realized the Buddha’s teachings, and become familiar with the mind “as it is.” In that light, Jack wishes to help connect students and practitioners with authentic teachers and provide support for anyone who wants to genuinely study, reflect, and meditate. Jack currently serves as the Shedrub Mandala Coordinator for Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche’s centers and activities, and as the Executive Director of Rangjung Yeshe Gomde California, a Buddhist retreat center nestled in the forested mountains of Northern California’s Mendocino County.