The first, and primary focal point of forgiveness in our Christian tradition has been “God,” and, irreligious as it sounds, it no longer applies.
We once believed that “God” was a person who “owned” human beings and had a right to their acquiescence in what “he” wanted from them. Failure to obey the will of “God” was considered an injustice against “God” who was deprived of what was owed to him. “God’s” rights were violated; and as with any person, such an offence needs to be redressed to the satisfaction of the one aggrieved and/or forgiven.
Seeking forgiveness from “God” is accepted wisdom that runs very deep in our tradition. But as we become aware of what really constitutes the sacred, it is not a rational pursuit. For the “God” we have come to understand as the source of creative evolution and our sense of the sacred is not a “person,” it is the living energy of matter. It has no “will” for us beyond the survival and integrity of what has been brought into existence. Obedience in this context is not a valid category and therefore being forgiven for the failure to obey has no meaning.
But this is nothing new. Asking forgiveness from “God” was problematic in our tradition even prior to the modern age. By the standard mediaeval interpretations, “God” was conceived as Pure Spirit, living in a state of impassable perfection and happiness in an eternal “now” outside time. “God” could not be affected in any way either for better or worse by anything occurring in the world of matter. He could not be injured, much less insulted. Since he has everything, “God” really does not want anything, not even our obedience — except as part of a general benevolence for the welfare of all things. No injustice could be done to “God;” nothing can be taken from “God,” especially unintentionally, and I think it can be reasonably assumed that the last thing on any normal sinner’s mind is an intention to insult “God.” So forgiveness, literally speaking, made no sense. There is no objective damage. And yet we pursued it.
Damage in the world of time
No matter what the “offense” perpetrated by a sinner, the only changes that occur are in the world of time. The primary effect is the loss of the moral integrity of the sinning human being who places himself out of sync with the natural order. The individual distorts himself in the perpetration of an act of selfish injustice. But damage is also done to other people by immoral behavior, and indeed, the very definition of immorality is the intentional causing of injury. Injury can also be done to organisms other-than-human and even the earth itself and its life-support systems. These are all potentially vulnerable. Forgiveness is not appropriate in these latter cases, however, because despite the objective damage they are not conscious agents capable of an act of forgiveness.
Trying to understand how “forgiveness” came to be such a transcendent category for us, despite the fact that it only makes sense within human society, and not with “God” or nature, I am led to consider the fear factor, a derivative of the experience of autocratic rule characteristic of the early governments of civilized man where our ancestral Judaism was born. Since “God” was imagined as “king,” disobedience and offense was expected to bring severe punishment as was usual from kings. Even after damage was repaired, the kings’ need to maintain control meant nipping disobedience in the bud. It demanded punishment, unless the offense was forgiven.
In the case of “God” as imagined by Judaism and Islam, mercy and forbearance were emphasized. People knew they could rely on the forgiveness of “God.” In the case of Western Christianity, however, the theology of Augustine of Hippo imagined a universal sin — that everyone was guilty of — that was literally unforgiveable. In such a scenario, this transcendent offense to “God” was the very fulcrum around which all of cosmic history turned. It was inconceivable that a transgression of such magnitude as to have caused the physical and moral deformation of the human race and require the sacrificial death of the very Son of “God,” could be forgiven by a simple apology. The Catholic Church as theologically conjured by Augustine’s theory was given the power to condition “God’s” forgiveness on a greater expression of remorse and acquiescent behavior. Punishment, therefore, was never off the table, unless a Church-guaranteed forgiveness was obtained.
In this case the emphasis on forgiveness derived from the leverage the Church was given over the lives of people by Augustine’s theory — a leverage that it exploited to the greatest extent possible during the theocratic rule of the middle ages. This helps explain why our western cultural conditioning in this regard is so much greater than other traditions born from the same original sources. Convinced that “God” hated us for the insult of Adam’s disobedience, we spent our lives trying to secure the forgiveness of “God,” always aware that if we failed, eternal torment awaited us.
But once that nightmare is put to rest, forgiveness only seems to make sense as a valid interpersonal exchange among human beings. Let’s consider. People are vulnerable to having their resources stolen or destroyed, their livelihoods undermined, their reputations ruined, their physical integrity compromised. The community itself as a collectivity can also be damaged by having its structures skewed by the waves of repercussion that shake society’s confidence in its members’ benevolence and reliability. Greed, selfishness and injustice generate fear and distrust. Once society has to assume that its people are “like wolves” to one another, its very institutions have to adjust accordingly; they become disfigured and the people who are responsible for maintaining them are inevitably rendered less compassionate in the performance of their duties. One who has caused such damage needs to remedy it; begging forgiveness from the community and the individuals he injured is only one part of the solution. Erasing the damaging effects must include trying to disable their tendency to propagate themselves into the unknown future among generations yet unborn. Unless the perpetrator can convince others that his behavior will not repeat or worsen its effects, society remains damaged no matter how much it wants to “forgive” the perpetrator.
This “chain effect” by which injustice, greed and selfishness expands outward into the future is what the Buddhists call “karma.” What you do has repercussions that are not always foreseeable, and their effects belong to the injustice originally done.
The “original” injustice
In domestic situations the injustices committed by family members against each other can be subtle and profound, creating rancor and bitterness that also rolls on into the future. It generates reactive destruction in the lives of others who were not even alive at the time of the original offense and have no idea of the origin of the violence that is now being directed at them. I believe that it is axiomatic today to consider the family the initial link in the chain of causation that produces people who are predisposed to lack of self-respect, selfishness, defensive hoarding, competitive greed, injustice, disregard for the rights, property and labor of others, disdain for the weak and helpless, hatred towards authority figures.
Distorted attitudes in the parents, however, were likely the result of influences in their own childhood, and damage from the lives of ancestors is now being passed on to these children — brand new organisms which entered the world without predispositions of any kind. So while the causation extends into past lifetimes before the current family, and may be said to be itself the result of cultural factors inherited from outside the home and from unidentified events occurring in the even more distant past, each new birth provides an unencumbered organism, a new hope, as it were, radically capable of avoiding the anti-social proclivities that seem to make human happiness a chimera — an impossible dream. So because the actual “original sin” is not only diffuse and unknowable, it is also in the past — over and done with, and its perpetrators out of reach, beyond correction or control. If society is to be changed it has to be done by the presently existing individuals.
I believe that this more or less represents the analysis that gave rise to the Buddha’s insight that social justice had to be a function of individual transformation. He placed the entire weight for the termination of the chain of karma and the achievement of harmony in society on the back of the individual, regardless of the fact that the individual and his anti-social instincts may themselves be dependent on earlier lifetimes and social sources. The Buddha is saying effectively, “I don’t care how deep into the past its roots extend, if I can gain control over this karmic phenomenon it ends with me here and now! The rest is not my business:”
I have scoured the past looking in vain for the builder of this house. Many indeed are the cycles of life that contributed to it. But now I have seen you, housebuilder, you shall not build this house again. Its rafters are broken, its ridge pole is shattered, the mind, embracing the eternal has attained to the extinction of all selfish desires.
The house is the human organism conditioned to selfishness. The housebuilder, of course, is the energy of the organism’s conatus harnessed to the delusional demands of the false self to achieve a permanence that is impossible. Buddha spent precious little time speculating, dwelling on the past or wallowing in remorse. His entire focus was on ending suffering for oneself and others here and now by transforming the affective life of one’s body into a body of desires that mirror the “way of heaven.” This concept of “the true path” or nature, what the Hindus called Brahma, he called the dharma. The Chinese called it Tao, The Hebrews called it Torah. I have called it LIFE — the living energy of matter. It is concretized for humankind in the universal call for justice, compassion and generosity toward one another and toward the earth that spawned us. Buddhists collapse it into an “eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation. The fifth category “right conduct” contains the five basic moral norms: Do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not transgress sexual standards, do not incapacitate yourself with intoxicants.
There is no time or place for remorse or a need for forgiveness in the dharma. Buddha’s dharma — LIFE — doesn’t need your anguish; if you suffer remorse it’s because you have added to the burden of existence for yourself and others by your selfish greed and self-projection. LIFE doesn’t want you to suffer remorse. It wants you to get back on track, transform yourself, and stop creating suffering for others. You only suffer grief and remorse because of the evil that you have done. Do right and you will stop the suffering that comes from remorse. The excessive wailing over your faults and the blame you have earned for yourself, is just another symptom of your illusory belief that you are a permanent fixture in the universe, too good and too important to have committed such failures. It’s another symptom of the attachment to the ego. You are not immortal; you are vanishing. Do the good you can before you’re gone.
Instead of remorse, change yourself. Instead of moaning and wailing over your failures, putting yourself first again as usual, put others first. Instead of pursuing forgiveness from an imaginary “God”-person, which you may think is some kind of shortcut to rectitude given gratis from on high despite having done nothing to earn it, start pulling your own weight in the effort to create a just, compassionate and generous community of human beings living sustainably on a cherished and well protected planet.
Remorse, after all, is nothing but anger at yourself. Yes, you betrayed yourself. Forgive yourself, and move on. That’s a forgiveness that makes sense. If we are enjoined to control our anger at others, we are also required to control the self-indulgent anger we heap on ourselves for having failed to achieve permanence and eternity in the good memories of others. It is just another ego trip. In the Dhammapada on anger, the Buddha addresses the self-recrimination that is just another example of a waste of time, postponing the real work of self-transformation:
There is an old saying: “People will blame you if you say too much; they will blame you if you say too little; they will blame you if you say just enough.” No one in this world escapes blame. There never was and never will be anyone who receives all praise or all blame.
Rather than worrying about how we look in the eyes of others, the Buddha advises us to engage in the struggle to transform our delusional “self” into the Self that lies at the core of our being, the self that is the mirror and agent of the dharma — LIFE. Take the time and energy you would spend in “securing” forgiveness for yourself and invest it instead in the practices of mindfulness and meditation that will help you identify the disguises of your self-serving self. Turn your efforts to living with justice, compassion and generosity, and whatever you had hoped to gain from forgiveness will be yours and more.
 The Dhammapada ch. 11 ## 153-154, a composite of various translators.
 Siddhartha Gautama, The Dhammapada, ch XVII ## 227-228 tr. Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, Tomales CA, 2007.