Is This Forgiveness?

Jack Kornfield tells stories of forgiveness, heroic and true. Of Buddhist nuns brutally imprisoned for saying their prayers, afraid only that they would lose their compassion for their captors. Or of the mother who welcomed the killer of her child into her home, and nurtured him and made him kind. They are stories hope and moving forward and of refusing to participate the abrasive cruelty of the world. Kornfield says the response is never about excusing or ignoring or papering over. But is it really forgiveness?

In the face of the harsh things that happen, philosopher Martha Nussbaum, is more cynical. Often, what we call forgiveness is only transactional, she says. “I will waive my feelings of anger at you, if you first confess, prostrate yourself and promise to throw your soul upon a sword.” This is nothing but anger in disguise.  Second, Nussbaum says, when we forgive without preconditions it brings with it an air of moral superiority. “Look and how good and enlightened and kind I am, for having forgiven a sinner like you.”

Instead of forgiveness, Nussbaum says, what we need is unconditional love and generosity. The prodigal son comes home at long last, and we throw the doors open and embrace. The love comes first. The focus is on the hope for the future.

These are exactly the things Kornfield describes – strangers and friends when they are the most magnificent and generous.  It is the ordinary magic of everyday people.  Yet is this really forgiveness?  I don’t know. I am a poet who does not get overly concerned with words.

Nussbaum, it seems, is too cynical. When underdeveloped and puerile, forgiveness can certainly be what she describes. But so too, it can be pure and come without tethers.  And can we ever really live with the generosity and love about which she speaks, without at first reaching some sort level of acceptance or contentment or maybe even forgiveness?

I don’t know. I don’t know if what Kornfield describes can rightfully be called forgiveness. But it is a beautiful way to live in the world, both attainable and sublime. When things are hard, unfair, unjust or unkind, it is practical and courageous and gentle. It helps us to move forward and to embrace life. It helps us live in ways that are good for the world.


Sources and Background

Kornfield of Forgiveness

Nussbaum on Anger and Forgiveness



  1. This is a troubling concept which seems to conflate forgiveness with lack of hatred or anger.
    Sometimes strong reaction against an unjust aggressor is a form of protection.
    Expectating the victim to rid themselves of protective negative thoughts further victimizes them as they work to repair themselves.

    • I totally agree that you need to be able to do what you need to, to protect yourself first. (We had a couple meetings on this topic with the philosophy meet up group and several people stressed that point) Kornfield’s examples are dramatic and powerful, but I also jumped to the end. He takes people through a lot of steps first, and stresses that the forgiveness is about freeing ourselves. So it is freeing yourself from anger, if the anger is continuing to interfere with your functioning. It is never about condoning what the other person did. And it does not require you to put yourself at any risk. (His work is also empowering in that he does work toward finding ways of preventing the harm from happening to others.) I am just not sure that “forgiveness” is the right term.

      Nussbaum had another prong to this that I did not mention in my post. She also talks about anger, and says that it always involves a feeling of vindictiveness or payback. I am not sure that is the case. I can be “angry” about something, and use the strong emotion to motivate affirmative ameliorative actions or protective care, without having to punish or get back at the other.

  2. My forgiveness is conditional in that I am in charge of giving away something that belongs to me. (By the way “unconditional forgiveness” is a contradiction in terms.) What is beyond forgiving without any condition? Submission to who the “wrongdoer” is without any partaking on my part. I have nothing to give but receive who he/she/it is.
    When the snake bites me, can we speak of forgiving the snake? Is it not in the nature of a snake to bite? I can only surrender to that nature.
    Love is like that: take (it) as (it) is, without judgments to give or not to give–without holding back to receive, with warts and all.
    Can we ever reach that state where warts are not seen?

    • So much in your comment to discuss Can! What Kornfield would say you are giving away is an anger that is interfering with your functioning in the world. Anger is appropriate for a time, and to an extent, and can motivate protective behavior. But it can also chew us up and interfere with our own functioning and well-being. For Kornfield we are not giving something to the wrongdoer – we are giving it to ourselves. (But while I like this approach to living, this is where I say I am not sure I would call it forgiveness) I also don’t think this involves is a submission to the wrongdoer – although I suspect that you are using the term “submission” in a richer way than I am. I like your reference to the snake, but think it is different in some ways. If a snake bites me, I will be more careful picking up logs from the wood pile, I will alert others to be careful near the wood pile, etc. but I won’t be angry with the snake. That is not forgiveness, but it is also not love or generosity that Nussbaum talks about. We will see the warts, but we just won’t let them take away our happiness or contentment. Thanks as always Can.

  3. Thank you for a such lovely rich discussion. Indian philosophy may be able to shed some light on this too:

    The Sanskrit word “bija” or “seeds” is used to describe ‘trait-potentials’ which lie in the fertile subconscious mind. These generally fall into 2 categories depending their effects on our minds and bodies: “Wholesome bija” like seeds of love, happiness, playfulness, generosity, kindness, bliss etc. and “unwholesome bija” such as seeds of anger, sadness, pain, hatred, jealousy, greed, etc.

    When a “seed” is ‘watered’ either by an external or internal factor, conditions ripen for it to grow and a seedling surfaces in the conscious mind. If something or someone continues to water our seeding of anger, for example,….then it expands in our conscious mind. The more it is ‘watered’ the more it grows till it fills our conscious mind, and eventually take up residence in the living-room of our consciousness like an unruly unwanted guest overstaying their welcome.

    Anger can be a useful emotion in protecting us from harm. However once the danger has passed it is no longer useful and it can be quite damaging holding on to it. Depending on the extent of the hurt felt, the mind can continue to suffer from such anger consuming precious space in our conscious mind by reliving the conditions giving rise to it. (internal ‘watering’.) Like fire, anger feeds off itself too. Exaggerating negatives in the person who watered it, dismissing all possible positives, even adding imagined negatives to justify it’s existence. Like fire, it burns…….starting with us first. If left unchecked a raging fire can consume much peace and happiness in us. Prolonged high levels of fight-flight hormones can lead to unhealthy imbalances in the body and mind, even disease. Once it takes up residence in our conscious mind, no matter how reasonable we normally are, anger can spill over on to others, including those we love.

    There are many ways to over come such anger including: Putting out the fire, by using the opposite (water) – anger can be quelled, bit by bit, using repeated thoughts of love, understanding, peace, joy, forgiveness. Forgiveness is a kind of letting go… and this arises when we understand that we too have all the same unwholesome ‘bija’ (seeds) as well as wholesome ‘bija’ (seeds) as the other….the only difference is that our ‘bija’ (seeds) were watered very differently through our lives given our different life experiences. Also the experiences, perceptions and views transmitted to us through generations of ancestors before us were different.

    Another way is by looking deeply at the root cause of the anger. We will see that its original root already existed in us before the present triggering event. It can be a difficult or painful process to look deeply at the roots of our own anger, but this is also deeply healing. Forgiveness or deep understanding arises as a natural side-effect in this process. Not only do we see deeply the root of our own pain and suffering, but we being to understand the suffereing of the other at a deep level.

  4. Please excuse the typos !

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