Thursday, June 12, 2008

Saying You're Sorry

Yesterday the prime minister of Canada apologised on behalf of the Canadian nation to the native people of the country for its policy of forcible taking children from their parents and bringing them up ‘civilized’ and ‘Christian.’ Apparently this shameful policy only stopped in the 1970’s. Just a few months ago the prime minister of Australia made a similar apology to that country’s Aboriginal people for a similar policy there. I have not heard that the Christian churches who actively encouraged these policies and happily implemented them have said they are sorry. Perhaps they are not. After all, this was an easy and relatively inexpensive way to destroy ‘false religions’ and make converts. Whether an apology given by someone who merely ‘represents’ the ones who committed the transgression or that an apology by one generation for the misdeeds of an earlier generation can be meaningful, is a contentious point. Whatever the case, such apologies can go at least some way to making up for past injustices and hopefully make it less likely that such things will be repeated in the future. The Canadian prime minister’s statement yesterday has made me think what the Buddha said about saying you are sorry.
To apologize (khamati) is to express your recognition of and sorrow for having hurt another. Sometimes we break one or another of the Precepts in a way that hurts or offends others. One way we can make amends for this is to express our contrition to the person we have hurt. Giving a sincere apology, without reservation or self-justification, is one of the higher forms of generosity (dana). By doing so we help heal any anger or resentment the other person may feel, we ease the way for them to practise forgiveness and we make possible the mending of a ruptured relationship. On our part, giving a sincere, unreserved and timely apology soothes any self-reproach we might feel and helps us become more open about and objective towards the negative side of our character, which is an important part of character building.
If apologizing can be difficult, it is also true that pardoning a transgression (khamanasila) is just as difficult. This is why the Buddha said that it is incumbent on a person who has done wrong to apologize, just as it is incumbent on the person who has been wronged to accept an apology and then respond with forgiveness (Vin.I,54). The person who has done wrong has an obligation to make the first move and say he or she is sorry. After that, the person who has been wronged should seriously consider accepting the apology and then forgive. The Buddha said, ‘By three things the wise person can be known. What three? He sees a shortcoming as it is. When he sees it, he tries to correct it. And when someone else acknowledges a shortcoming he forgives it as he should’ (A.I,103).
There were several incidents where the Buddha said things that upset people; proclaiming the truth sometimes involves breaking cherished idols. He didn’t apologized for doing this because his concern was always the best interests of the person involved and was done as tactfully as possible (M.I,395). For us though, with our imperfections, our ego and our lack of mindfulness, apologizing is one way we can soothe some of the hurt we may have caused.


footiam said...

It is easier to apologize for the wrong deeds done by others. Then, still, the wrong has been done and what has been taken could not be returned. Perhaps, there are better ways of making amends rather than using lip service.

Robert said...

Sadly, people don't always accept the apology. Maybe they shouldn't always do so, I'm not sure. Perhaps it doesn't make sense if you don't believe the person to be sincere.

Leaders apologizing on the behalf of a group of people brings up other issues though. How does anyone know that all or most of the people represented by the leader are honestly willing to apologize? Also, does it even make sense to apologize for ancestors whos actions you had nothing to do with? Are people actually responsible for the actions of their ancestors?

Justin Choo said...


Thank you for this post. I shall tell our friends to read this.

ChiLover said...

Thank you for the teachings in this post and for a wonderful blog. I try to read it every day.