Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Forgive them, they know not what they do

(Several years ago, I started a blog series on my thoughts on how to apply the wisdom found in Shantideva’s Bodhisattva’s Way of Life to our modern lives.  In April 2019, I had to stop because – funnily enough – I became swept away by my own modern life, and since then haven’t had the time to properly keep up with this series.  You can find the previous 188 posts in this series here. However, for at least the next two years, I should be able to post regularly).

We continue with our discussion on the perfection of patience, a commentary on Chapter 6 of Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. I am going verse by verse. When it says 6.35, for example, it refers to Chapter 6, verse 35 and so forth.

Over the next several posts, Shantideva will be discussing meditating on the patience of not retaliating.  People harm us all of the time, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.  We need to transform this experience into an opportunity to train in Dharma.  Then, even when people are harming us, we are able to receive lasting benefit.

The core of not retaliating is to have compassion for the person who is harming us.  For me, the best example of this is when Jesus was on the cross and he said, “forgive them father, for they know not what they do.”  When people harm us, they are driven by their delusions.  Delusions function to make our mind uncontrolled, so others are quite literally like puppets on the strings of their delusions.  They have somehow been led to believe that harming us (or somebody we love) is good for them, when in reality they are just creating negative karma for themselves.  They know not what they do.

(6.35) Some misguided people inflict harm upon themselves
By lying on thorns and the like;
While others, obsessed with finding a partner,
Deprive themselves of food.

(6.36) Then there are those who inflict harm on themselves
Through non-meritorious actions,
Such as hanging themselves, leaping from cliffs,
Swallowing poison, or eating bad food.

(6.37) Although they cherish themselves more than anything else,
If, under the influence of delusions, people are capable even of killing themselves,
Why should I be surprised when they inflict harm
On other living beings such as me?

(6.38) When those who, under the influence of delusions,
Set out to harm or even to kill me,
If I cannot develop compassion for them,
At the very least I should refrain from getting angry.

What people are doing to themselves out of ignorance and other delusions brings so much harm and suffering upon themselves. Since when they fall under the influence of delusion they harm themselves whom they cherish, then we can only expect that they will harm others too, such as ourselves.  It’s bad enough for them already. Why do we make matters worse by retaliating and becoming angry with them? At best we should have compassion for them since they are so lost and confused that they make their situation worse. 

We need to make the distinction between the person who is under the influence of their delusions and a person who is in control of themselves.  When we are under the influence of strong attachment or anger we do things without choice or control.  Even though we don’t want to be attached or angry, it comes nonetheless and we are not in control.  At other times, when we are calm and collected, we act differently.  When we do something nice for somebody, we never do so ‘uncontrolledly’.  This is the real us. The same is true with others.  When they harm us, they do so under the control of their delusions, but when they are nice with us, they do so from their own wishes.  The real person is the kind one. We should generate compassion for this kind person who gets hijacked by their delusions and engages in harmful actions without control.

We need to respect the freedom of others to do as they think is best for them.  If we check carefully, most of our frustration with others comes from them not acting in ways that correspond with our wishes.  For example, in a center there is a lot of work to do, and it is very easy for the people who have some degree of responsibility in the center to ‘want/expect’ others to help out.  Then, when they don’t, we get upset or frustrated and then there are problems in our relationship.  But if we check, it is our wish that they do something, not necessarily their wish. 

Sometimes it is not a case of them acting under the influence of delusion and harming us, rather it is an issue of us projecting the fulfillment of our wishes onto others and then feeling like they are harming us when they don’t fulfil them.  The solution to this is to provide people 100% freedom to do what they wish.  We can adopt as a life principle to give people freedom and to not control them.  We accept their choices, as just that – their choices.  It is our job to then adapt around their choices.  Yes, less things that we want to get done will get done, but this is only a problem for our mind of attachment. 

2 thoughts on “Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Forgive them, they know not what they do

  1. Dearest Sangha, I have a question, what does one do when they have a very angry debate with a loved one? I know anger is the worst emotion
    and destroys much virtue. But what does one do in the emotional withdrawal of such an event? Right now I’m as DOWN as I can be. I guess I’m looking for refuge in Sangha!! Can you please assist me??

    • Guilt and anger are very closely related – guilt is anger directed at oneself. You need to be careful you don’t swing wildly from anger at them to anger at yourself. You need to heal both to heal either. First, you can look at your actions and identify what you did wrong. Then, you need to recognize how your mistakes are not YOUR fault, they are the fault of your delusions, of which you are a victim. We blame our delusions not ourselves. Then, apologize unconditionally for the things that you did wrong, without saying it was their fault you did whatever you did. Explain clearly and from their perspective what you did wrong, what you are going to do to fix it, and what measures you are going to put in place to minimize the chances of you repeating the same mistakes again in the future. At the same time, you should ask for patience in advance, saying it will take time for you to change. They may or may not apologize back. Accept that. Then, later, once things have calmed down and you have moved beyond some as a family from whatever caused the blowup, you should approach them and have an honest conversation saying, “you know the other day when I blew up. Sorry again about that. I need your help. When you do XYZ, I misunderstand this as ABC. Can you help me understand your perspective on XYZ,” etc., and you try have a conversation to work out the root issues of the disagreement. It may be that the other people are misbehaving and engaging in unacceptable behavior. Instead of getting mad at them about that say, “OK, in the future, when you do XYZ, I’m going to have to do JKL to try disarm the situation (or disengage or to establish clear boundaries, etc.). How would you feel about that? Would that work for you as well to prevent things from escalating again?” Focus on what changes YOU will make to no longer cooperate with what you cannot cooperate with. You are not asking them to change, but you are saying you are no longer going to cooperate with that. You then try work out with them IN ADVANCE how you will respond when they do XYZ. Keep iterating like this with a good heart and requesting lots of blessings and things will heal. Mostly, don’t swing from anger to guilt.

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