Response: Forgiveness and Letting-Go: An Inter-Religious and Internal Dialogue Sallie B. King

Sallie B. King

I thank Claire Ly for giving the interview, “Forgiveness: a journey or an obligation?” in which she shares her reflections upon her experience under the Khmer Rouge regime. I also thank Chuck Fager for sending the interview to me and inviting me to respond. Coming from an entirely secure and comfortable background, as I do, I am humbled and daunted by the prospect of treading on the ground of suffering of such magnitude. However, Ms. Ly has made it clear that she does not want to be seen and treated as a victim, but as an intellectual inhabiting the post-modern world in which Cambodians, French and Americans; Buddhists, Catholics and Quakers meet each other and talk with as much sincerity and openness as they can muster, in a shared effort to understand the human experience. Indeed, in this post-modern world, many people identify with, or have extensive experience with, more than one religious and/or cultural tradition. Our dialogues may be internal as well as inter-communal. In this awareness, let us proceed.

I consider myself to be a Quaker and a Buddhist. As a Buddhist scholar, I have for some twenty years worked to understand and articulate the Engaged Buddhism movement, the movement of contemporary Buddhists (like the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and many others) who actively engage with the problems of their societies on the basis of their Buddhist values, practices and worldviews. It is from this Quaker-Buddhist-Engaged Buddhist perspective that I speak in these reflections. I will be speaking a great deal about Buddhism in the following. I hesitate to do so in a journal devoted to Quaker thought. However, I know that a great many Quakers have taken Buddhism into their spiritual lives in one way or another. (1) I thus see many Friends as engaged in the kind of internal dialogue with Buddhism and Christianity in which I am about to engage.

Though Ms. Ly speaks only for herself, her interview raises the question: How should survivors respond in the aftermath of the Cambodian Holocaust, the Nazi Holocaust, or the invasion and occupation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China? Each of these 20th-century attacks resulted directly or indirectly in the deaths of millions of people. Moreover, Ms. Ly’s interview brings out the fact that the “should” of this question is not neutral. Rather, this “should” may be asking: How should one respond as a Christian? How should one respond as a Buddhist? How should one respond as a human being? I’d like to begin by exploring a Buddhist response to this question. Later, we will go on to an inter-religious exchange.

The Theravada Buddhist text, Dhammapada, a part of the collection of Buddhist canonical scriptures known as the Tipitaka and regarded as the words of the Buddha, states, “‘He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me’: the hatred of those who harbor such thoughts is not appeased.” (2) What does this mean? 

In brief, the text evokes a situation in which a person has been attacked and raises the question we are examining: how should this person who has been attacked respond? Its reply is not a full reply. Rather, it focuses on the state of mind of the one who has been attacked, pointing out that one might “harbor” (the keyword in the passage) a great deal of hatred and anger in such a situation.

Unstated here, but very clear in the context of the Theravada tradition, is the message that harboring hatred would be a most unwise response. With hatred and anger in one’s heart/mind, one’s actions will be shaped by that anger and will be unskillful at best, probably harmful. It would be far better to let go of the hatred and then act. The text is not advocating doing nothing. It advocates the skillful and wise action that can only proceed from a cool heart/mind.

Why is acting out of hatred so bad? There are basically two answers given in the text. The first applies to the individual: “All mental states have mind as their forerunner, mind is their chief, and they are mind-made. If one speaks or acts, with a defiled mind, then suffering follows one even as the wheel follows the hoof of the draught-ox.” (3)

This verse first points out again that one’s state of mind determines how one behaves and then emphasizes how important it is that one not speak or act in a way that has been shaped by a “defiled” mind, a mind shaped by greed, hatred and/or ignor-ance—what Buddhism calls “the three poisons.” If one does speak or act on the basis of such a defiled mind, then, due to the workings of karma, one will suffer painful karmic consequences sometime in the future, in this life or a future life. (4)

In other words, if one’s mind is filled with hatred, and one consequently lashes out with angry, abusive or violent words or actions, one will cause oneself negative karmic retribution in the future. Therefore, even for one’s own sake, one wants to have self-discipline and emotional control so as not to cause oneself future suffering. Also, for one’s own sake right now, Buddhists are advised to let go of their anger, since “harboring” anger, “clinging” to it, allowing it to remain present, rehearsing it over and over in one’s mind, allowing it to grow, makes one suffer here and now from the experience of continuing to feel the pain of being attacked, continuing to feel the unpleasant feelings of anger and resentment. So again, for one’s own sake, one should let it go, in order not to suffer now and in the future.

The second reason why acting out of hatred is bad is articulated four verses later, in the same text: “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; it is appeased by love [literally, non-hatred]. This is an eternal Law.” (5) Here the idea is that due to the workings of karma (the eternal Law mentioned), it is not possible to resolve a violent situation with violence. If one group strikes another group, and the second group retaliates by striking back, the first group then may strike again, etc., causing a cycle of violence that cannot be stopped by applying more violence.

The Middle East today is a good example of this. In the Buddhist view, every time you strike the other, you sow seeds of violence that will sprout and grow, resulting sooner or later in violence coming back to you. The only way out is for someone to step out of the cycle and act in a non-violent way, sowing seeds of non-hatred (a more accurate translation of the original than “love”). No one, of course, thinks that a single person in a situation of violence coming forward with a single initiative for peace is going to resolve a situation of entrenched violence. Often, indeed, that initial peacemaker is killed (Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr.). From a Buddhist perspective, this is not surprising, unfortunately, given all the seeds of violence that have already been sown and are still coming to fruition. However, when the first peacemaker sows seeds of nonviolence, that makes it easier for the second peacemaker, and their cumulative effort makes it easier for the next, etc. This is what Buddhists see as the only way out of a cycle of violence, due to the law of karma.

During their reign of terror, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia all but wiped out Buddhism, one of the many targets of its attacks. No monks were allowed to live and act as monks during their rule. Cambodian monks were either killed, lived outside the country, or hid among the laity. Buddhist temples were used for ammunition storage and torture chambers.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Buddhism returned, but in a hugely diminished and deeply broken condition, like the rest of the country. Nonetheless, as it reconstituted itself, the Buddhist leadership also took upon itself its traditional role of caring for the laity in a pastoral sense. In line with the teachings of the Dhammapada, they exhorted the laity to let go of their suffering, to regard the Khmer Rouge and all beings with loving-kindness rather than hatred, to leave the past behind and focus on moving forward. The lines from the Dhammapada cited above were recited to them again and again.

For many years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, I wondered why it was that there was no bloodbath of revenge against former Khmer Rouge soldiers. When their own family members had been killed and they themselves had suffered so much, how was it possible that they did not lash out in anger when they saw returning Khmer Rouge soldiers? I doubted very much that Cambodia was a country full of saints, any more than any other country. Yet there was no large-scale revenge.

In 1995 I had the opportunity to talk with Dith Pran, the subject of “The Killing Fields,” [information about the film here:] and I asked him about this. He replied, “They don’t want to suffer anymore. They know that if they try to take revenge they are only going to suffer more, in the future. They don’t want to suffer anymore.” (6)

From a Buddhist perspective, his answer made complete sense. The teaching of karma is a fundamental part of the worldview in Cambodia, known and believed by almost everyone. For their own sakes, to avoid causing themselves even more suffering in the future, they restrained themselves.

Turning now to inter-religious discussions, let us begin by noting that there is a certain parallel between Buddhism and Christianity in what they say we should do after being wronged: Buddhism says to let it go, Christianity says to forgive.

To what degree do these concepts overlap? The meanings of forgiveness in Jesus’ teachings include the senses of freeing or releasing; releasing our anger, resentment or bitterness; canceling any idea of what might be owed to us; and being reconciled with. Christian theologian James G. Williams states,

The most common words denoting forgiveness in the New Testament are (1) eleao (and cognate nouns) —show mercy (78 times), and (2) aphiemi—release, discharge, put away (64 times). Another word used infrequently but in a striking way is splanchnizomai.  Usually understood as “feeling sorry for” or “having compassion on” someone, it is derived from a word for “intestines.”  It literally means to pour out one’s insides, one’s intestines.

Forgiveness is usually understood as an act of pardon or release from an injury, offense, or debt.  On the part of the forgiving subject, it entails having compassion, releasing someone from any act or attitude that would impede the relationship of those involved. (7)

Buddhist letting go focuses on the idea of release of anger or resentment, in order to allow for a more skillful response, to prevent causing oneself further suffering, to prevent sowing the seeds of future violence and as an end in itself, avoiding “clinging” to the past. In contemporary Engaged Buddhism,the meaning of reconciliation is brought out. The idea of canceling a debt is not present in Buddhism.

We are discussing forgiveness not in an ordinary context, but in the context of the Cambodian Holocaust. So let us restate our question as: How should we, as human beings, respond to situations of massive, deadly violence and genocide? Do we let go and “forgive” as Buddhism and Christianity, each in their own way, counsel us? What is best? Before we answer, there is another voice we still need to hear: the Jewish voice that says, “never forget.”

In May 2000, the Peace Council, an interfaith peace team in which Buddhists are well represented, traveled to Jerusalem. As is its practice, the Peace Council began with listening. The group spent several days listening to both Israelis and Palestinians recount the sufferings and injustice they were each suffering at the hands of the other. After a few days, it became evident that the Buddhist members of the group —despite, as might be expected, feeling strong sympathy and compassion for those who were suffering on both sides—were feeling uncomfortable and somehow out of harmony with the message that they were hearing; and indeed it was clear that they felt they were hearing the same message from both sides.

What the Buddhists felt they were hearing again and again from both sides was something like this: ‘This crime was committed against us. We will never forget. There can be no peace without justice—no peace without justice first.’ This was heard by the Buddhists present as the voice of victimhood, of righteous (i.e., justified) anger, and of group identity based upon memory passed on from generation to generation, the memory that says: I will never forget what you have done to my people.

Finally, a Buddhist present broke the ice. She was Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, then a Thai lay Buddhist scholar; she later became a Buddhist nun and is now known as Venerable Dhammananda. She said, “I cannot understand, in my heart, what they are saying. They seem to be nourishing their suffering. I have been taught to let go of it.” All the other Buddhists present nodded their heads in agreement.

Later, I spoke with the Jewish rabbi in our group, Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman. He said, “I never understood why so many Jews are interested in Buddhism. Now I get it. If you’re Jewish, there’s a huge emphasis on ‘never forget.’ It’s unrelenting. It becomes excruciating, an unbearable burden that you long to put down, but you don’t know how. This is what Jews come to Buddhism to find out.” (8)

When I saw this rabbi in 2012 at another Peace Council event, I asked him if he remembered that exchange in Jerusalem. He said that he remembered very well and, in fact, that those events had been very important to him. After the Peace Council meeting, he reconsidered the holidays of mourning that are observed annually in Judaism, especially the holiday Tisha B’Av, which mourns the destruction of the First Jewish Temple by the Babylonians (in about 586 BCE) and the Second Jewish Temple (in 70 CE by the Romans) in Jerusalem. On the day of Tisha B’Av, Jews are supposed to remember and mourn those events; they fast, they sit on low stools or on the floor, the Book of Lamentations is read in the synagogue and they may weep.

After the encounter with the Buddhists the rabbi had come to feel that those events had happened thousands of years ago and that it was dysfunctional to continue mourning them. He decided that his synagogue would no longer observe Tisha B’Av. On the other hand, he said, his synagogue would continue to observe Holocaust Memorial Day, as those events were within the memory of people still living today.

I recalled these exchanges as I read Ms. Ly’s account of how she has had not only to “rework the past and engage with mourning” for herself, but has also shared her trauma with other Cambodians, one of whom said, “what is great is that you allow us to touch [your wounds], and by doing so we gain the strength to look at our own wounds.” Here is the heart of the matter: after suffering trauma of such magnitude, how does an individual heal and how do a people heal? How do forgiveness and letting go relate to that process? Here the religions find themselves (now Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism) in dialogue not only with each other but with science (here, psychotherapy) and modernity as well.

In recent years there has been significant research on trauma, its causes, symptoms and ways to relieve it. A great deal of knowledge has been gained from the experience of those who have worked to help heal traumatic wounds. There is a consensus that those who have survived trauma have suffered severe psychological wounding, as real as any physical wounding, and that recovery from that wounding requires a certain process.

    The widely accepted view is that people who have suffered trauma must allow themselves to feel what they are feeling, rather than try to repress it, forget it or just move on. They must talk about their experiences over and over and over again. Depending upon the severity of the trauma, with time, support, and this kind of process, the traumatic feelings and memories can ease in intensity and a person may be able to integrate those experiences into a larger understanding of their life and its meaning. (9)

As is clear from the above, the Cambodian Buddhist leadership did not advocate for this kind of approach in the post-Khmer Rouge era when they did their best to help heal the wounds of the country. To the contrary, they advocated an approach based upon classic Buddhist ideas deeply embedded in the Cambodian worldview. These ideas urged people, for their own sake as well as others, to let go of the past, forgive the Khmer Rouge, and move on. From the perspective of Western research on trauma, this approach was not one capable of giving the traumatized survivors much relief; on the other hand, it apparently did play a role in preventing a bloodbath of revenge.

It is easy to make this judgment in retrospect. However, it may be more useful to look forward, from a point of view that is Buddhist but that has also engaged with modernity and with science. From this kind of perspective, one can’t help noticing that the approach to trauma recovery urged by science is very insightful from a Buddhist point of view and very compatible with it. That is, it is a basic principle of contemporary Buddhist Vipassana (Insight Meditation) and mindfulness practice to cultivate the habit of seeing clearly whatever is present to us in the present moment. In the context of practicing to heal trauma, the practice would look like this: if we are experiencing painful memories, we are aware that we are experiencing painful memories, we know what those memories are and we perceive them clearly; if we are experiencing anger or grief, we are aware that we are experiencing anger or grief—we are aware of where we feel it in the body, what the sensation is, how it changes over time, what thoughts accompany it—all without judgment or commentary. This is a standard Insight Meditation or mindfulness approach and it sounds entirely compatible with the current understanding of best practice for healing from trauma. (10)

Three points here: It is a key point that in mindfulness practice that there are no “shoulds” and, as mentioned above, no judgment, especially, no judgment upon oneself. One stays with what is and adds nothing to it. When applied in the context of trauma recovery this reinforces the understanding that there is no way that one “should” feel; one is not in any way “bad” or somehow failing as a Christian, Buddhist or human being because one continues month after month to feel a certain way.

Second, however, what is not present in traditional Insight Meditation or mindfulness practice is the awareness that someone who has suffered severe trauma may not be capable of staying with their memories and feelings as they unfold; they may need help to do so. Or they may be entirely overwhelmed by those memories and feelings and need help to cope with them.

This may be difficult for some Buddhist leaders to accept. There is no real place in traditional Buddhism that validates the practice of telling one’s traumatic stories over and over again. To focus on the past and repeat certain stories over and over again are clear markers of what Buddhists call “clinging,” something that Buddhists are urged not to do, insofar as it is identified as a major cause of suffering. The traditional advice is always to stop clinging and let it go. However once it has become understood that many people who have suffered trauma are literally unable to let go, no matter how much they might wish to, it then becomes very much in line with Buddhist thinking to develop methods or practices that will make that letting go possible. Of course, everyone believes in assuaging as much as possible the pain and suffering of those who suffer from trauma. It is just a question of how to do that. This leads to the third point.

Third, in the encounter between Buddhism and modernity there are two recently developed practices that speak to this need. First, Luise Reddemann, a German trauma therapy expert, advocates an approach that incorporates a good deal of mindfulness. (11) Her recommendations include such practices as “finding inner stability” and “feeling at home inside your body” by practicing basic mindfulness, and using mindfulness to face the traumatic memory in a controlled way and to integrate and accept the events of one’s personal history.(12)

The second relevant practice that is a product of Buddhism’s meeting with modernity is the practice of Bearing Witness developed by American Zen master Bernie Glassman. The practice of Bearing Witness is to immerse oneself in whatever situation one is in and be “one with” the situation and all parties to that situation, minimizing one’s internal commentary and judgments, having no agenda, but trusting to what will arise.

Glassman has led “street retreats” in which retreatants “plunge” into New York City’s Bowery and bear witness to the life of the homeless. He has led annual retreats at Auschwitz-Birkenau, with retreatants consisting of the children of prisoners, children of guards, Jews, Buddhists and Christians from all over Europe and North America, living together inside Auschwitz. In April 2014 for the first time, he led a bearing witness retreat in Rwanda, at which both people who killed and people who suffered attack in the 1994 genocide were present and spoke of their experiences.

In such intense circumstances, including profoundly traumatic experience, Glassman evolved the practice of “Council.” This simply consists of people on all sides of an experience—prompted by their memories, their experiences in the retreat, and their presence with each other — speaking their experience and hearing each other.

Reflecting on the first retreat in Auschwitz, Glassman wrote that even before the retreat he was confident that, “out of [the retreat experience], a healing would arise. How this would happen or what shape the healing would take, I had no idea. But I was so sure it would happen that, in developing the retreat schedule, I decided to end the retreat with a Thanksgiving dinner. I felt certain that by the end deep appreciation and gratitude would arise and that we would wish to celebrate them in some way.” (12) Such appreciation and gratitude did, in fact, arise. (13)

We can see in these examples that Buddhists in the modern world, and those inspired by them, are in the process of developing methods of healing trauma, even though some of those methods require Buddhists to adapt quite significantly some deeply held traditional principles. Why are they willing to do this? Ultimately, they cannot do otherwise if they are going to hold true to another deeply held principle: compassion.

In the end, both Buddhism and Christianity are very much about love, kindness and compassion; though the two religions are very different, they have a deep meeting place in the practice of love. Each has a unique way of going about this practice of love and thus each has things to learn from the other. Each, in its own way, urges us to forgive or to let go. Ms. Ly has eloquently articulated the nuances, challenges and power of Christian forgiveness in the face of evil of the magnitude of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide and reign of terror. For their part, the Buddhist leadership in Cambodia also did its best to engender letting-go and forgiveness in the population at large, in terms of their traditional culture. I believe that their approach helped to prevent a bloodbath of revenge, which is no small achievement under the circumstances.

Ms. Ly’s account also demonstrates, however, the difficulty in the “should,” the element in Christianity that holds up the ideal of forgiveness, invites us to forgive, and to one extent or another indicates that we should forgive. This is a profoundly challenging point. Ms. Ly poignantly and powerfully states that she is not yet ready to forgive; she rejects the idea that forgiveness can be imposed or ordered from outside and states that crimes against humanity are, in fact, unforgivable, at least by humans and by human institutions.

I personally was glad to see her reject the idea that she might somehow force herself to comply with an external requirement to forgive, no matter how lofty the source of that requirement or the ideal that it represents. Such a requirement (as a requirement, not as an ideal) seems to me to be wrong on several counts. From a Buddhist point of view (which parallels Western psychological understanding), it is clear that a person has the feeling that s/he has and cannot be compelled to feel otherwise. One either is able to forgive and does forgive, or one is not able and does not forgive. There is no place for “should” to settle. From a Buddhist point of view and a trauma recovery point of view, one needs to accept the feelings that one has, just as they are, without imposing any idea that they “should” be different from what they are; this will only impede recovery. From a human and a humane point of view, to tell a trauma survivor that his feelings are not okay, that he should feel different and is not okay the way he is, is to further harm someone who already has been grievously harmed.

Interestingly for Quakers, this position seems to be in line with the legendary yet influential Quaker proverb attributed to George Fox: when the young William Penn asked George Fox whether he should stop wearing his sword, Fox is said to have replied: “Wear thy sword as long as thou canst.” This nicely captures what seems to be the active spiritual dynamic in our “modernized” Buddhism and in Ms. Ly’s views: this is a dynamic that feels, and is in the process of responding to, the pull of an ideal (forgiveness, letting-go) but balances that pull with realism, mercy and deep respect for one’s spiritual-psychological-emotional state as an ever-evolving spiritual being.

Where are we, then, with respect to our question: How should we, as human beings, respond to situations of massive, deadly violence and genocide? Inter-religiously, we are confronted with advice to forgive (Christianity), to let go (Buddhism), and to never forget (Judaism). In each case, this advice comes from the very core of each religion, and in each is present a profound truth. In our present discussion, we have, I believe, moved in the direction of a balanced view as these religions have spoken with each other, and with science (psychology), but I don’t believe we have gotten all the way to agreement.

Looking from a Buddhist and a Christian point of view, it is ideal to let go and to forgive. However, science shows us that it may well not be possible, especially in cases of profound trauma, to do this. It could even introduce a further layer of suffering to those already profoundly injured if they are made to feel inadequate or spiritually guilty for failing to measure up to the ideal. On the other hand, the Jewish voice urging us to “never forget” seems perhaps more in harmony with science in its insistence upon remembering, honoring, processing and grieving. Yet we know that “never” is a long time and we are aware of the negatives associated in some cases with never forgetting: perhaps never fully healing, perhaps identifying too much as a victim, perhaps passing a legacy of grief or anger on to our children, and our children’s children, indefinitely, sometimes occasioning future violence.

It seems to me that we see balanced views and practices, each particular and unique, emerging in Ms. Ly, in Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman and in Roshi Bernie Glassman. Ms. Ly speaks of forgiveness as a spiritual journey that “requires us to rework the past and engage with mourning.” She speaks of trying to understand the traumatic events as “a duty of intellect that is owed to victims” and in fact helps others to heal by engaging in the process together with them. Nonetheless, Ms. Ly refuses to find her identity in victimhood. On one occasion she refrained from denouncing her direct tormentor. She would not call this forgiveness, but simply said that “I saw in her eyes the same fear that I had felt for four years, the fear of dying, and for a moment I recognized her as a human being.”

This may not be forgiveness, but it is certainly pity, mercy and compassion. For his part, Rabbi Weiman-Kelman, I think it is fair to say, feels strongly the suffering of Jewish people in the wake of the Holocaust. He wants Jews to suffer less from it but by no means to forget it. His balance is to remember the Holocaust and honor its victims and the suffering of all Jews. But he also wants Jews not to identify as victims and sufferers and consequently has “let go” of commemorating Tisha B’Av. (Not coincidentally, the Friday night services at his synagogue are the most joyful celebration of any religious service I have ever attended, and they were so long before his encounter with the Buddhists in the Peace Council.)

Finally, Roshi Bernie Glassman, himself of Jewish background but now a Zen master, has created Bearing Witness retreats in which participants bear witness to great atrocities, and in which participants themselves may have been involved directly or indirectly as perpetrator, victim or descendant of one or the other, in an atmosphere of focused awareness, openness to whatever arises, and non-judgmentalism — in the hope and faith that some healing and some kind of reconciliation will come out of the experience. Everyone speaks the truth of their experience, and everyone listens. It is not a pretty process. However, many in these retreats do become able to see the humanity of the other — as also happened to Ms. Ly when she faced her tormentor after the latter no longer had power over her and saw the fear in her eyes.

Leaving the spiritual journey of the individual, we turn briefly to Buddhist and Christian responses to evil on the societal level. I was glad to see Ms. Ly criticize certain traditional ideas of karma and of God’s will. I agree with her entirely when she points out the similarity between certain traditional understandings of karma as implying that the victims deserved what was happening to them and certain traditional understandings of God’s will as justifying whatever happens as all part of God’s plan or God’s will or God’s omnipotence. I have long seen these ideas as ways that people sometimes try to make sense of their suffering and even comfort themselves by bringing themselves to a condition of acceptance. However, these views should never be taken as justifications for human evil. Since the Hebrew Bible prophets, God’s will has been understood to be on the side of justice and mercy. Karma rightly understood points to the importance of making wise choices now, in order to construct a good future for ourselves and our world.

As for accountability, legal and societal responsibility for one’s actions, it is separate from any considerations regarding forgiveness. Ms. Ly says, quite rightly, that no human institution per se can forgive crimes against humanity. I appreciate the way in which, at the end of the interview, Ms. Ly raises the issue of a proper institutional handling, on a societal level, of the Khmer Rouge and their accountability for their crimes. I particularly appreciate her questioning the meaning of justice and her insisting that the word means “more than judging, convicting and punishing” and “must introduce the possibility of a shared future.” Her words resonate with a restorative justice approach and also with an Engaged Buddhist approach.

Engaged Buddhists who struggle in conflict situations typically avoid the use of the rhetoric of justice, which they tend either not to understand (there is no comparable concept in Buddhism) or feel averse to, seeing it as damaged by ideas of retribution or revenge, which many people confuse with justice. They see the concept of justice thus understood being used to justify a great deal of violence. As Venerable Dhammananda said while the Peace Council was visiting in Northern Ireland in 2003, “’I lost my son, therefore you must lose your son.’ This is the wrong idea of justice. We must look for an understanding of justice that uplifts humanity.” (15)

Instead, Engaged Buddhists advocate for reconciliation and win-win outcomes. In Sri Lanka, during the war between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority, Engaged Buddhists of the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement advocated for, “an island that works for all.” In the end, such an outcome was not attained. However, post-war, some Engaged Buddhists have engaged in relief and reconstruction in the Tamil community (Sarvodaya Shramadana has played a major role); Engaged Buddhist Sulak Sivaraksa has urged Sinhalese Buddhists to admit the crimes they committed against the Sinhalese and to ask their forgiveness. (16) 

In the struggle between Tibet and the People’s Republic of China, the Dalai Lama calls the Chinese “our great neighbors,” and points out that since Tibet and China will always be side-by-side, they need to find a resolution that satisfies both sides. During the war in Vietnam, the Vietnamese Buddhist “Struggle Movement” or “Third Way” refused to side either with the North or with the South, saying they sided with life itself. We have seen above how Roshi Bernie Glassman works for reconciliation in his Bearing Witness retreats.

At the end of the interview, Ms. Ly speaks of the inadequacies of the tribunal trying some Khmer Rouge leaders and advocates for “a forum in which the victims and their torturers could later evolve side-by-side, in the ‘here and now.’” Ms. Ly’s interviewer interjects, “But it is not the role of the ICC to ensure reconciliation,” and she replies, “That’s just it.”

That’s just it, indeed. Whose role is it, then? Restorative justice wants reconciliation and Engaged Buddhism wants it. But the institutions to promote it are lacking. I hope that over time there may be a meeting, at a spiritual level and at a practical level, between Engaged Buddhists and those engaged in instituting restorative justice. I believe that not only could they learn from each other, and both grow through that learning, they also would make wonderful allies who together could help move the world in the direction of embracing reconciliation as the goal in the resolution of conflict and in post-conflict situations


(1) Quite a few years ago, I gave a talk on Buddhism and Quakerism at an FGC (Friends General Conference) annual conference. There were some hundreds of Friends present. At the beginning of my talk, I took advantage of the opportunity to take a quick snapshot of how many Friends are somehow spiritually engaged with Buddhism. I asked those present, “If you have taken Buddhism into your spiritual life in some way, please stand up.” Those on the platform with me estimated that about 85-90% of the room stood up.

(2) Verse 3. Translated by:  Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Revised edition (New York: Grove Press, 1974), p. 125.

(3)  Ibid. Verse 1.

(4)  The law of karma is the law of cause and effect that is often explained with a seed and fruit metaphor.  If you plant an apple seed, you get an apple tree, not a pear or peach tree.  If you plant a negative karmic seed with an action produced by a defiled mind, then you will experience negative karmic consequences in the form of an appropriate form of suffering happening to you in the future.

(5) Op cit. Verse 5.

(6) Dith Pran, in a private conversation at James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, in October 1995. The quotation is from notes made immediately after the conversation and is not precise.

(7) James G. Williams in, Forgiveness: Theory, Research, and Practice, ed. by Michael E. McCullough, Kenneth I. Pargament and Carl E. Thoresen (New York: The Guilford Press, 2000), p. 20.

(8) The following is based upon the author’s memory and notes of events that occurred May 2-4, 2000 in Jerusalem. These events are also recounted and discussed in the author’s book, Being Benevolence: The Social Ethics of Engaged Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005).

(9) See, for example:
the American Psychological Association:
And Psychology today:

(10) See Retrieved May 3, 2014. The website’s description of the practice, “speak the truth,” was not cited in this essay as it did not apply to trauma recovery situations.

(11) See Luise Reddemann, Imagination als heilsame Kraft. Zur Behandlung von Traumafolgen mit ressourcenorientierten. Verfahren (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2010).

(12) As summarized in Hans-Martin Gutmann, “After Violence: Narratives of Grace in the Midst of Trauma,” in, After Violence: Religion, Trauma and Reconciliation, edited by Andrea Bieler, Christian Bingel and Hans-Martin Gutmann (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2011), p. 143-145.

(13) Bernie Glassman, Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace (New York: Bell Tower, 1998), pp. 5-6.

(14) This is best demonstrated in the DVD, “In Spite of Darkness: A Spiritual Encounter with Auschwitz,” A Film by Christof Wolf.

(15) Stated in a private meeting of the Peace Council itself. Belfast, Northern Ireland, June 19, 2003.

(16) See:

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