By Bill Bohlman
First published in the May 2010 issue of the BTC Bulletin

Is there a path to forgiveness in Buddhism? Recently, the marital infidelities of the golfer, Tiger Woods, became a topic of discussion. A TV commentator, Brit Hume, stated that Tiger should turn to Christianity because he could find forgiveness there. Mr. Hume stated that there was no path to forgiveness in Buddhism, the religion Tiger claimed to follow. This comment stirred much controversy. Perhaps, however, it is true.

As often happens, a concept that exists in a theistic religion, in this case Christianity, does not fit in a belief system that does not have a divine, creator being. The basic question here is what does “forgiveness” mean from Mr. Hume’s point of view? From whom are we seeking forgiveness?

In a theistic religion, one seeks forgiveness from their God. Since Buddhism does not have a deity, there is no divine being from whom to ask forgiveness. Shakyamuni Buddha was a human being. He has been dead for almost 2,500 years, no sense in asking forgiveness from him. Of course, we may also seek forgiveness from those whom we have offended. Our approach to forgiveness determines whether it is in keeping with the Buddhadharma teachings.

Shuichi Maida, a 20th century Buddhist scholar, said that people are often more concerned about losing their reputation than they are about losing their life. For many, this concern for their reputation is the driving force behind their seeking forgiveness. Rather than trying to relieve the suffering their actions have caused, their primary motivation is ego driven. The Buddhadharma does not speak of seeking forgiveness. Instead, it emphasizes the need to be aware of our actions. When we realize our actions have caused suffering, we can then take the measures necessary to relieve the suffering and avoid causing this suffering in the future. Our concern should not be whether others forgive us. Our concern should only be what we do. If others choose not to forgive us, we accept their refusal, and realize that their anger is the result of our actions. The idea of Karma is that all actions have consequences. We must always remain aware of this.

In the case of us forgiving others, Buddhism again takes a different approach. We must first ask the question, “Why am I offended?” Then, we need to ask,” When have I done something similar?” A common human trait is to think of ourselves as somewhat superior to others. We only see the faults of others, while conveniently overlooking our own shortcomings. If we are no better, who are we to think others should seek our forgiveness? From this perspective, Buddhist forgiveness is actually acceptance. We accept that we too have caused suffering. Recognizing this, we express gratitude for the actions others take to alleviate the suffering they feel they have caused. Gratitude is forgiveness.

The Buddhadharma may not offer a path to forgiveness; however, it does offer a path to overcoming the suffering in this human existence. It is up to us to choose our path.