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Acceptance and forgiveness Barry Magid July 22nd 2023

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This morning I’d like to talk about acceptance and forgiveness, two concepts that are closely linked but I think ultimately very different, and I’d like to explore their relationship and how we practice with them.

Traditionally, acceptance is at the very core of our practice, in the sense that we practice being with what is, moment after moment. We can say that acceptance is a practice of non-separation, a practice of working with and through our expectations and judgments about how things are. At the core of the way that Joko taught, she asked us always to be conscious of our expectations, how they conflicted with what was actually happening, and in a way to use the reality of what’s happening as a kind of grindstone to wear out our expectations.

From this perspective we can say that practice is very largely a matter of learning to behave well when we’re treated badly. That’s because from a self-centered point of view, life is always going to treat us badly, because life is going to display a resistance to control and expectation at every turn. Impermanence and interdependency are going to guarantee that we’re always going to be bumping up against things going badly from our own point of view. In a way it’s at the heart of Joko’s famous saying, “Relationships don’t work.” We can never expect the other person to simply conform to our needs or expectations, as we self-centeredly conceive of them, rather than that other person is there for us to practice with. Over and over we deal with the unpredictability or uncontrollability of otherness.

In line with the Kyogen Carlson chapter we’ve been discussing, we can say that the use of forms in practice is one of the vehicles we use to cultivate acceptance. Forms are by their nature arbitrary, and in our practice we inevitably have to submit to something that is not of our liking or creation or under our control, but it’s just the way we do it, and if you ask Why do we do it that way? The basic answer is, That’s the way we do it. And we can make up reasons why we do it one way and not the other, but in the long run, the point is not for us to figure out the best way to do it, but to just do it, just let ourselves be contained and carried along by the forms. In terms of acceptance, our practice is watching all the ways in which we judge or complain or resist or think we have a better idea of how it should be. If only I ran the place, I would do it this way, and not that way, and obviously this would be more efficient, more sensible.

Of course within certain limits, we do get to decide things and change things, but whatever we decide, ultimately we want simply to put them in place and let that be the container for our practice, a container that is inevitably going to chaff sometimes, and that chaffing is not an obstacle to the practice, but the practice itself.

In a lot of ways our practice is about coming to see form and structure not as a constraint on our freedom, but the very form freedom needs to take. The freedom is exercised within structure, not in terms of eliminating all sorts of structure. Form enables us to practice, and it is the vehicle in which we develop discipline and resilience and acceptance, the basic deep acceptance of just staying with what’s happening moment after moment.

Now I’ve said that acceptance can be thought of as our way of behaving well when we’re treated badly. We’re trying to be non-separate from life as it is, rather than being in constant opposition or complaint against life. But there are times when we could say that something about that seems insufficient, too one-sided.

Let’s imagine that my son and his friends, when they were young, are playing baseball in the backyard. One of the boys hits the baseball, it goes over the fence, and smashes through our neighbor’s kitchen window. On one level, we can certainly say, accidents happen, things like that are probably unavoidable in this life. We can get that. When kids play games, sometimes, things get out of hand, sometimes a ball breaks a window. So I just accept the reality of that. What does my neighbor think? It’s his window. If I go over there and just say, Well, accidents happen, he may be left feeling, Hey, wait a minute! Who’s going to pay for the window? Who’s going to fix it? Then he’s in a position where simple acceptance, shit happens, is not a very satisfying response.

Now we could say, from the perspective of perfect non-separation, when my son’s baseball breaks a neighbor’s window, I treat it as if it’s my own window, and I may be moved to fix it. But maybe I don’t have that pure sense of things, or maybe my neighbor doesn’t, and in any case, there’s a way in which it would seem right that my neighbor expects something from me when this kind of accident happens, and that legitimate expectation is where we go beyond the things that Joko emphasized, which is really a practice of having no expectations at all.

What my neighbor seems entitled to expect, is that I acknowledge that damage has been done and I make some effort to repair it, and if I come over and I apologize, and if I offer to pay for the window, or even if I offer to repair the window myself to save them the trouble of having to do all that, then the neighbor is in the position of saying, That’s all right. I understand. I forgive you. That’s the distinction I want to make between acceptance and forgiveness, because the acceptance we usually talk about in Buddhist terms, is a kind of practice that we do on our own. We can have it be either a one-person kind of practice or a practice of non-separation. But in a way, it feels like something we do internally.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, is, at least in the version I’m trying to describe here, essentially about relationship. It operates in this world of separation and difference. It doesn’t solve things by dissolving difference and operating just from the position of non-separation. It operates at this relative level of wrong-doing, debt, acknowledgement and reparation.

None of those things are particularly Buddhist ideas, but I think that we do well to remember to import them once in a while. I think that while we want to focus our practice on our own expectations and reactivity when dealing with one another, dealing in the world, there’s some point at which we have to allow the legitimacy of expectation. Joko was often confronted with this, saying, What if you’re in an abusive relationship? You can’t just have no expectations as to how you should be treated. And she would say, Well, of course, if you’re in an abusive relationship, just get out of there. Right? So there was a level at which she would say that a practice of no expectation is not supposed to be a complete violation of the law of common sense. She herself was in abusive relationships, both in her marriage and in her relationship with her teacher. There are some things, as they say, up with which you should not put.

But I think what that means is that no matter how much we want to talk about acceptance and non-separation, we can’t divorce ourselves from this relative level in which expectations are part of a shared bond of lawfulness, that we both want to take for granted, and have the knowledge if it’s violated, and repair it when something does violate it.

There are lots of things that I can accept but I don’t necessarily forgive. I can accept people’s bad behavior toward me sometimes. That’s how they are. People do that kind of thing. But I don’t necessarily forgive it if they don’t acknowledge it, if they don’t admit what they’re doing. If they just say, Well, I just act that way, then I don’t have to apologize. And I certainly don’t have to clean up after myself or do anything about it. I can say, People are like that, and I accept that, but I don’t have to forgive them. I’d actually say, Well, they need to own up to who they are and what they’re doing and what they ought to be doing to make amends.

I think that is an unavoidable and necessary part of living together, and while sometimes in our Buddhist literature we act or appear as if non-separation is the universal solvent for all conflict, I think we also have to operate within the world of separation, in the world of acknowledgment, repair and forgiveness.

Next Talk

Barry Magid July 29th 2023 Dharma and the Mets

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