Reconciliation, Right & Wrong

“These two are fools. Which two? The one who doesn’t see his/her transgression as a transgression, and the one who doesn’t rightfully pardon another who has confessed his/her transgression. These two are fools.

“These two are wise. Which two? The one who sees his/her transgression as a transgression, and the one who rightfully pardons another who has confessed his/her transgression. These two are wise.”—AN 2:21

“It’s a cause of growth in the Dhamma and Vinaya of the noble ones when, seeing a transgression as such, one makes amends in accordance with the Dhamma and exercises restraint in the future.”—DN 2

The Buddha succeeded in establishing a religion that has been a genuine force for peace and harmony, not only because of the high value he placed on these qualities but also because of the precise instructions he gave on how to achieve them through forgiveness and reconciliation. Central to these instructions is his insight that forgiveness is one thing, reconciliation is something else.

In Pali, the language of early Buddhism, the word for forgiveness—khama—also means “the earth.” A mind like the earth is non-reactive and unperturbed. When you forgive me for harming you, you decide not to retaliate, to seek no revenge. You don’t have to like me. You simply unburden yourself of the weight of resentment and cut the cycle of retribution that would otherwise keep us ensnarled in an ugly samsaric wrestling match. This is a gift you can give us both, totally on your own, without my having to know or understand what you’ve done.

Reconciliation—patisaraniya-kamma—means a return to amicability, and that requires more than forgiveness. It requires the reestablishing of trust. If I deny responsibility for my actions, or maintain that I did no wrong, there’s no way we can be reconciled. Similarly, if I insist that your feelings don’t matter, or that you have no right to hold me to your standards of right and wrong, you won’t trust me not to hurt you again. To regain your trust, I have to show my respect for you and for our mutual standards of what is and is not acceptable behavior; to admit that I hurt you and that I was wrong to do so; and to promise to exercise restraint in the future. At the same time, you have to inspire my trust, too, in the respectful way you conduct the process of reconciliation. Only then can our friendship regain a solid footing.

Thus there are right and wrong ways of attempting reconciliation: those that skillfully meet these requirements for reestablishing trust, and those that don’t. To encourage right reconciliation among his followers, the Buddha formulated detailed methods for achieving it, along with a culture of values that encourages putting those methods to use.

The methods are contained in the Vinaya, the Buddha’s code of monastic discipline. Long passages in the Vinaya are devoted to instructions for how monks should confess their offenses to one another, how they should seek reconciliation with lay people they have wronged, how they should settle protracted disputes, and how a full split in the Sangha—the monastic community—should be healed. Although directed to monks, these instructions embody principles that apply to anyone seeking reconciliation of differences, whether personal or political.

The first step in every case is an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. When a monk confesses an offense, such as having insulted another monk, he first admits to having said the insult. Then he agrees that the insult really was an offense. Finally, he promises to restrain himself from repeating the offense in the future. A monk seeking reconciliation with a lay person follows a similar pattern, with another monk, on friendly terms with the lay person, acting as mediator. If a dispute has broken the Sangha into factions that have both behaved in unseemly ways, then when the factions seek reconciliation they are advised first to clear the air in a procedure called “covering over with grass.” Both sides make a blanket confession of wrongdoing and a promise not to dig up each other’s minor offenses. This frees them to focus on the major wrongdoings, if any, that caused or exacerbated the dispute.

To heal a full split in the Sangha, the two sides are instructed first to inquire into the root intentions on both sides that led to the split, for if those intentions were irredeemably malicious or dishonest, reconciliation is impossible. If the group tries to patch things up without getting to the root of the split, nothing has really been healed. Only when the root intentions have been shown to be reconcilable and the differences resolved can the Sangha perform the brief ceremony that reestablishes harmony.

Pervading these instructions is the realization that genuine reconciliation cannot be based simply on the desire for harmony. It requires a mutual understanding of what actions served to create disharmony, and a promise to try to avoid those actions in the future. This in turn requires a clearly articulated agreement about—and commitment to—mutual standards of right and wrong. Even if the parties to a reconciliation agree to disagree, their agreement needs to distinguish between right and wrong ways of handling their differences.

This is one of the reasons why genuine reconciliation has been so hard to achieve in the modern world. The global village has made instant neighbors of deeply conflicting standards of right and wrong. In addition, many well-funded groups find it in their interest—narrowly defined—to emphasize the points of conflict that divide us—race, religion, social class, education—and to heap ridicule on sincere efforts to establish a widely acceptable common ground. Although the weapons and media campaigns of these groups may be sophisticated, the impulse is tribal: “Only those who look, think, and act like us have the right to live in peace; everyone else should be subjugated or destroyed.” But although the global reach of modern hate- and fear-mongers is unprecedented, the existence of clashing value systems is nothing new. The Buddha faced a similar situation in his time, and the way he forged a method for reconciling conflicting views can be instructive for ours.

The beliefs he encountered in the India of his day fell into two extreme camps: absolutism—the belief that only one set of ideas about the world and its origin could be right—and relativism, the refusal to take a clear stand on issues of right and wrong. The Buddha noted that neither extreme was effective in putting an end to suffering, so he found a pragmatic Middle Way between them: Right and wrong were determined by what actually did and didn’t work in putting an end to suffering. The public proof of this Middle Way was the Sangha that the Buddha built around it, in which people agreed to follow his teachings and were able to demonstrate the results through the inner and outer peace, harmony, and happiness they found. In other words, instead of forcing other people to follow his way, the Buddha provided the opportunity for them to join voluntary communities of monks and nuns, together with their lay supporters, whose impact on society resided in the example they set.

The obvious implication for modern Buddhist communities is that if they want to help bring peace and reconciliation to the world, they’ll have to do it through the example of their own communal life. This is one area, however, where modern Western Buddhist communities have often been remiss. In their enthusiasm to strip the Buddhist tradition of what they view as its monastic baggage, they have discarded many of the principles of monastic life that were a powerful part of the Buddha’s original teachings. In particular, they have been extremely allergic to the idea of right and wrong, largely because of the ways in which they have seen right and wrong abused by the absolutists in our own culture—as when one person tries to impose arbitrary standards or mean-spirited punishments on others, or hypocritically demands that others obey standards that he himself does not.

In an attempt to avoid the abuses so common in the absolutist approach, Western Buddhists have often run to the opposite extreme of total relativism, advocating a non-dual vision that transcends attachment to right and wrong. This vision, however, is open to abuse as well. In communities where it is espoused, irresponsible members can use the rhetoric of non-duality and non-attachment to excuse genuinely harmful behavior; their victims are left adrift, with no commonly accepted standards on which to base their appeals for redress. Even the act of forgiveness is suspect in such a context, for what right do the victims have to judge actions as requiring forgiveness or not? All too often, the victims are the ones held at fault for imposing their standards on others and not being able to rise above dualistic views.

This means that right and wrong have not really been transcended in such a community. They’ve simply been realigned: If you can claim a non-dual perspective, you’re in the right no matter what you’ve done. If you complain about another person’s behavior, you’re in the wrong. And because this realignment is not openly acknowledged as such, it creates an atmosphere of hypocrisy in which genuine reconciliation is impossible.

So if Buddhist communities want to set an example for the world, they have to realize that the solution lies not in abandoning right and wrong, but in learning how to use them wisely. This is why the Buddha backed up his methods for reconciliation with a culture of values whereby right and wrong become aids rather than hindrances to reconciliation. Twice a month, he arranged for the members of the Sangha to meet for a recitation of the rules they had all agreed to obey and the procedures to be followed in case disputes over the rules arose. In this way, the sense of community was frequently reinforced by clear, detailed reminders of what tied the group together and made it a good one in which to live.

The procedures for handling disputes were especially important. To prevent those in the right from abusing their position, he counseled that they reflect on themselves before accusing another of wrongdoing. The checklist of questions he recommended boils down to this: “Am I free from unreconciled offenses of my own? Am I motivated by kindness, rather than vengeance? Am I really clear on our mutual standards?” Only if they can answer “yes” to these questions should they bring up the issue. Furthermore, the Buddha recommended that they determine to speak only words that are true, timely, gentle, to the point, and prompted by kindness. Their motivation should be compassion, solicitude for the welfare of all parties involved, and the desire to see the wrong-doer rehabilitated, together with an overriding desire to hold to fair principles of right and wrong.

To encourage a wrongdoer to see reconciliation as a winning rather than a losing proposition, the Buddha praised the honest acceptance of blame as an honorable rather than a shameful act: not just a means, but the means for progress in spiritual practice. As he told his son, Rahula, the ability to recognize one’s mistakes and admit them to others is the essential factor in achieving purity in thought, word, and deed. Or as he said in the Dhammapada, people who recognize their own mistakes and change their ways “illumine the world like the moon when freed from a cloud.”

In addition to providing these incentives for honestly admitting misbehavior, the Buddha blocked the paths to denial. Modern sociologists have identified five basic strategies that people use to avoid accepting blame when they’ve caused harm, and it’s noteworthy that the early Buddhist teaching on moral responsibility serves to undercut all five. The strategies are: to deny responsibility, to deny that harm was actually done, to deny the worth of the victim, to attack the accuser, and to claim that they were acting in the service of a higher cause. The Pali responses to these strategies are: (1) We are always responsible for our conscious choices. (2) We should always put ourselves in the other person’s place. (3) All beings are worthy of respect. (4) We should regard those who point out our faults as if they were pointing out treasure. (Monks, in fact, are required not to show disrespect to people who criticize them, even if they don’t plan to abide by the criticism.) (5) There are no—repeat, no—higher purposes that excuse breaking the basic precepts of ethical behavior.

In setting out these standards, the Buddha created a context of values that encourages both parties entering into a reconciliation to employ right speech and to engage in the honest, responsible self-reflection basic to all Dhamma practice. In this way, standards of right and wrong behavior, instead of being oppressive or petty, engender deep and long-lasting trust. In addition to creating the external harmony conducive to Dhamma practice, the process of reconciliation thus also becomes an opportunity for inner growth.

Although the Buddha designed this culture of reconciliation for his monastic Sangha, its influence did not end there. Lay supporters of the Sangha adopted it for their own use—parliamentary procedure in Thailand, for instance, still uses terminology from the Vinaya—and supporters of other religions who had contact with Buddhism adopted many features of this culture as well. The Buddha never placed a patent on his teachings. He offered them freely for all who found them useful in any way. But regardless of whether anyone else followed his example, he stuck to his principles in all his actions, secure in the knowledge that true change has to begin by taking solid root within. Even if its impact isn’t immediate, a solid inner change is sure to have long-term results. If Buddhist groups are to bring reconciliation to modern society, they have to master the hard work of reconciliation among themselves. Only then will their example be an inspiration to others. And even if their impact is not enough to prevent a general descent into the madness of fascism, terror, and war, they will be planting seeds of civilization that can sprout when the madness—like a fire across a prairie—has passed.

The Buddha admitted that not all disputes can be reconciled. There are times when one or both parties are unwilling to exercise the honesty and restraint that true reconciliation requires. Even then, though, forgiveness is still an option. This is why the distinction between reconciliation and forgiveness is so important. It encourages us not to settle for mere forgiveness when the genuine healing of right reconciliation is possible; and it allows us to be generous with our forgiveness even when it is not. And as we master the skills of both forgiveness and reconciliation, we can hold to our sense of right and wrong without using it to set the world ablaze.