Forgiving is not about or for the other person, until it is.

Reversing time is not the only paradox about forgiving.  When we forgive someone, we are not doing it for the person who hurt us. In fact, forgiving is not about that person at all. It’s about and for me. But forgiving only works if I let go of “me.” After all, that’s what forgiving does—let’s go of “me.”

Here, I would like to digress a moment to recommend a movie, The Cup, a delightful story of the adventures of young Tibetan monks in India and their schemes to get to watch the World Cup on TV. At the end of the movie, the abbot is lecturing the young monks on seemingly mystical line from the eighth century Indian philosopher Santideva. Santideva was an appropriate choice for these young monks with their minds on football. He was mocked as the “eat-sleep-walk around” monk, until he recited his classic work The Way of the Bodhisattva.

I first paid attention to the line the abbot is teaching in the movie when I received it as one of Tricycle magazine’s Daily Dharmas during the very trying time described in the flat tire incident.

Where would I possibly find enough leather
With which to cover the surface of the earth?
But just leather on the soles of my shoes
Is equivalent to covering the earth with it.

In the movie, the old monk illustrates Santideva’s advice with the Buddhist virtue of compassion. I cannot possibly overcome all enemies, he says. But during each moment that I act with compassion, I will remove hatred from the world in which I live. You can’t get more practical than that.

Santideva tells us to wear shoes since we can’t cover all the rough surfaces of the world to protect our feet. When we forgive, we practice the same principle, even though we’re taking our shoes off, along with all our body armor. When we forgive, we free our feet to heal. We let our body-self with all its bumps, bruises, cuts and wounds breathe the open air.

We walk lightly over, through, or around the broken glass, sharp stones, and thorns still in our path. We couldn’t possibly sweep them all up. We don’t worry about that. We just walk lightly because we’re not wearing the heavy shoes of defensiveness, nor carrying heavy loads of resentment.

We don’t bother about trying to sweep up all the broken glass in the world. That’s another paradox of forgiving. To forgive is not to forget. That glass is still there. We need to be aware of that broken glass so that we can step lightly over, through and around it.

And the final, double paradox of forgiving is that we can’t stop there. We do care about others’ stepping on those shards of glass. Once we stop thinking about “me” and the wrong done to “me,” once we become aware of all the broken glass, sharp stones and thorns in our way, and we become light enough to avoid them, we realize that Santideva’s shoes, the open-toed shoes of compassion, don’t fit unless we share them with others.


  1. Whatever is for oneself – is for others too.
    Sometimes it’s beneficial to others to point out that … spreading broken glass, or hurtful words or deeds may actually cause hurt. A child who is not told (or shown) that, might grow up mightily self-centered and unaware of both ‘taking responsibility’ and ‘consequences’. That goes with adults too.
    After pointing that out, it’s beneficial to let others know one has forgiven… and beneficial to let them know they’re loved all the same.. (even if forgiveness = letting go)
    i’m not so sure it’s beneficial to only share with others the art of walking lightly and avoiding broken glass… and wearing shoes (literally or figuratively)……… and i’m not sure a lack of engagement, and a lack of confrontation is always beneficial (except for oneself)

    Comment by Kenneth Daly
    Florence, I think that what Jean Améry means by refusing to forgive the Nazis is the kind of confrontation you are talking about. The Buddha also confronted his abuser, even as he cared for him.

    Comment by Florence Rastogi
    Kenneth, forgiving can never be for oneself alone. Forgiving, like love, is unconditional.
    But again, for the sake of others, i would, like Jean Amery, challenge those who try to push past atrocities under the rug. Confrontation is not equal to ‘not forgiving’… i’m surprised that Amery calls it a ‘refusal to forgive’.

    Comment by Kenneth Daly
    Améry’s description of his position as refusing to forgive has also been a challenge for me to understand. So far the closest I’ve come is what I said in the post linked in my last comment: “To me Améry’s refusal to forgive sounds like the Buddha’s “It’s all yours” in the Akkosa Sutta. Améry does not want to cling to past pain and suffering. But he does want us to recognize that the best way to let go of the past is to pay attention to how we really feel about what happened to us (as victims) and to how we continue to benefit from past crimes (as perpetrators and as all who were not victims), to really be aware that the poisoned food is still on the table. If we can do that, we can really change.”

    Comment by Florence Rastogi
    The Buddha doesn’t show forgiveness, he shows ‘distancing’ and discrimination. He will have nothing to do with the poisoned food, or words, or even the company of this angry man. He returns the ‘gift’ to the sender……. but these were only angry words (the gift). i wonder what he would have done, say…, if the ‘angry gift’ had been the slaughter of all the monks. ….. would ‘distancing’ have been appropriate then?
    In the story of Angulimala, who murdered 99 men to make himself a garland of their thumb, the Buddha shows more concern and compassion to that murderer who was stalking him to kill him in order to complete his 100 thumbs mala. He distances himself in a magical way – but at the same time seeks the company of this man to trigger a transformation. (Presumably, only the right thumb was used..)

    Comment by Kenneth Daly
    Good point about the Buddha’s showing distancing and discrimination. I had the same question about the applicability of the sutta about abuse to situations of physical harm. Thanks for reminding me of the Angulimala Sutta. I will have to study it again. One initial question would be if the difference in the Buddha’s actions in the Akkosa and the Angulimala suttas is what actions the Buddha makes Bhikkhu Angulimala take to teach him about kamma?

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