Monday, February 16, 2015

Needing a Better Word for "Forgiveness"

Our temple hosted the Treasures of Uptown Interfaith Coalition event – watching and discussing the film “Unlikely Friends” ( I heard about it from Tricycle Magazine which time to time notifies its subscribers about small films dealing with big issues, and I recommended it to Treasures for an upcoming event. The film was a nice follow-up to “The Power of Forgiveness” which we showed at a previous event. But it was more intimate, focusing on a few individuals, not famous or tied to big organizations, who come together to know each other as friends – the convicted perpetrators and the people harmed by them.

With the wintry weather, we didn’t have the turnout we hoped for, but the twenty or so people who came were a good cross-section of community members. In our discussion we noted that people in the film kept saying that “forgiveness” of criminals doesn’t mean condoning their destructive acts. But as Seth from Peoples Church commented, the word “forgiveness” is commonly used to mean “wipe away,” such as a debt or fees are “forgiven.” He said we probably need a better word for what “Unlikely Friends” illustrated for us – to see the other as human and not categorized on the basis of one act.

As seen in my rant in the last entry and some other entries, I don’t like to be put in a category and looked upon as an object – whether as a “Buddhist,” “Asian,” “female” etc. In the “Brief Introduction to Buddhism” classes I tell the students they probably all know what it’s like to be categorized, when they hear “your kind” or “you people.” I tell them what the Buddha taught is to get us out of that thinking – about ourselves and other beings. Whether it’s reading from Pure and Simple by Upasika Kee Nanayon or The Record of Lin-chi, we hear the great teachers telling us to approach life with an open heart/mind and not make the mistake of imposing “name and form” on our experiences.

As I heard on a recent broadcast of the NPR show “Invisibilia” (, it’s useful for us as infants and children to put things in categories, but real people don’t fit neatly into any kinds of categories. In our discussion of the film “Unlikely Friends,” we acknowledged how easy it is to talk of “criminals” and “victims” as one-dimensional objects. The individuals in the film bravely proved to themselves and each other that they won’t let one terrible act in the past define who they are and will be and how they interact with mutual respect.

In Buddhism the principle of kshanti comes close to the idea of forgiveness. The Sino-Japanese translation nin-niku could be interpreted as “forbear abuse,” but the character nin is also used in Buddhist translations to indicate “insight.” It’s one thing to forbear “put up with” things, but it’s another to strive for insight – understanding of the situation, one’s self and the others involved. In the film, it was not only the people who were harmed who tried to understand the perpetrator, but the convicts were grateful for the chance to get to know those victims. As “Mark” said, he had seen “Steve,” the policeman he shot several times as “just something in the way,” but in their correspondence and meeting together, he has to recognize Steve as a person living with the physical pain and disability from that assault. The film notes that convicts tend to blame their victims for what happened but for those who get to meet the victims (or the grieving family members of the person murdered) they learn to take responsibility for their own actions and be freed from the paralyzing bonds of self-pity.

Remarkably the film didn’t delve into the shameful problem of racism in the American justice system – the three pairs of individuals presented in the film were all looked Caucasian (one convict had a Spanish-sounding name). Only in the commentary of Azim Khamisa (who was featured in “The Power of Forgiveness”) is there a story where the perpetrator is African American. Mr. Khamisa with powerful insight recognizes the deprived circumstances of the boy who murdered his son, circumstances common to urban segregated neighborhoods. In the footage from various prisons shown during the commentaries, one can’t help notice the great majority of prisoners are dark-skinned.

In our discussion group we were fortunate to have Fate, a worker in the Violence Prevention project of Cease Fire, who spent twelve years in prison after committing crimes with a youth gang. He brought to our attention the problem of ex-convicts still judged as “criminals.” That is one area for we religious leaders to raise our voices – to ask our members as employers and landlords to put the teachings of non-prejudice into practice. Though most of us may not be convicted criminals, according to the Teachings, we have already committed and keep committing crimes (of thought, word and deed) against other living beings, and we wouldn’t want anyone to keep bringing up our defilements as a reason to deny us jobs and housing.

Several years ago at our temple we were blessed to have the participation of the late Johnny King, an activist for violence prevention who got me involved in the expungement campaign (Illinois Senate Bill 788 signed in 2003). One time when he didn’t show up for study class I found out he was arrested for parole violation and I had to navigate the online prisoner registry to find out where he was so I could send him the reading materials. Now we have a presently attending member who confided his past conviction to me but I’m not identifying him to other members so that he won’t be stigmatized. There may be others in our midst who were and maybe are criminals, but the important thing is for them to be accepted totally as our fellow Dharma-learners at the temple.
[Post script Feb. 21 - I should add that as we well know in the Chicago area, that the person convicted for a crime is not necessarily guilty. Too many people, especially those of color, get caught up in the justice system serving prison terms for crimes they didn't commit while the actual perpetrators can't be found or have managed to escape prosecution. So we should keep in mind that the ex-cons returning to our communities may not have been criminals at all.]

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