In 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump was asked a number of times about his relationship with God and forgiveness. In one case he told an interviewer that he did not regret having never asked God for forgiveness and that he did feel he had much to apologize for. In another interview, when he was asked if he had ever sought forgiveness, he responded, “I am not sure I have.” Adding, “I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.” (The Washington Post)
Forgiveness as a theological or spiritual practice doesn’t seem to have played a great part in Donald Trump’s life as he prepared to head into the US presidency.
In the wake of the recent pro-Trump mob violence at the US Capitol that led to five deaths, following a speech in which President Trump told his supporters that “you will never take back our country with weakness,” and that they should “walk down to the Capitol,” many in America are wondering not only about Trump’s ability to seek forgiveness, but whether he and his most violent supporters are worthy of it. (The New York Times) But as students of the Buddhist path, we know too that snap judgements of others are seldom a beneficial way forward.
For Christians, a simple phrase may come to mind: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” There is a deep and almost paradoxical willingness to offer forgiveness, modeled on the life of Jesus Christ, while simultaneously maintaining social taboos against such things as homosexuality and women’s reproductive rights. Among the most strange has been the recent Protestant and Catholic support for maintaining America’s death penalty, making the US the only Western country to continue the practice.
Buddhists may recognize an echo of this sentiment in the teaching on Buddha-nature; the belief that all beings—including even non-sentient beings for some Buddhists—are intrinsically buddhas, and just need to realize that inner truth. History’s most terrible people, according to this doctrine, from Devadatta, the Buddha’s cousin who plotted to kill him and take over the sangha, to Adolf Hitler, and everyone else are all buddhas. On this level, malignant behavior still matters, as it is this activity that fuels our obscurations, delaying our own awakening.
While this particular doctrine isn’t present in the earliest teachings, the possibilities of redemption and forgiveness are available. The most famous story of redemption and eventual awakening comes from the Buddha’s encounter with Angulimala, the bright student turned murderous bandit who had a garland of severed fingers around his neck. Through the Buddha’s miraculous effort, Angulimala was able to see his wrongdoing and to turn swiftly onto the noble path. The reality of karma meant that his misdeeds would have consequences—the cruelty and beatings from many people he encountered as a monk—but underlying that was a changed man.
Today we don’t have a Shakyamuni Buddha walking around who can miraculously stop a murderous bandit, let alone a powerful national leader. Instead, we have less exciting measures: a constitution, laws, and the institutions and people meant to uphold them. In democratic societies, the nonduality of citizen and government is clear: there is no “them” versus “us.” Our care for ourselves naturally radiates out to care for all of these beings in our society, perhaps grudgingly insofar as we are not realized buddhas ourselves.
The English Buddhist teacher Thanissara wrote in 2017 about breaking down this self/other delusion in the context of witnessing big game hunters in South Africa alongside her own deep connectedness with the land and animals there:
Ultimately, the political, economic, and social ills of our times are, in great part, the result of a colonial mindset that sees the world through the lens of acquisition. Buddhist practices have the potential to shift the view that objectifies and projects dominion over everything to the insight of Zen master Dogen: “Enlightenment is the intimacy of all things.” If we translate this wisdom into systemic change, it will go a long way to creating a sustainable world for our future.*
Moving a step further, the Plum Village monastic Sister Ocean offers this reflection on forgiveness and humanity more broadly:
It’s a good check-in for my attitude toward humanity in general. If I’m stuck in the idea that people are inherently bad and need to be punished into goodness, it’s easy to stay in irritation with thoughts of retaliation. But eventually I notice that I carry the same thoughts about my own nature as I do about the other and no one can be punished into goodness. It’s just not an effective strategy for change. When I can come back to the understanding that all beings are doing their best to be happy and it’s only pain and trauma that blocks our basic goodness, it’s easier to see that anyone who causes me pain is themselves in pain, so wishing them happiness can make both of us happy.**
This week, news leaked that Donald Trump was considering avenues to pardon himself. As one legal scholar noted, to offer a pardon carries an imputation of guilt and to accept a pardon is itself an admission of guilt. So at least in that moment, the president recognized fault and the need for secular forgiveness.
Such a move may be little more than the hollow gesture of a former reality TV host, but it may also signal a fear of repercussions. It could even mean there is a bit of repentance, perhaps deep below the surface. The Buddhist teachings, however, do not offer much in the way of discerning the mental states of others. Indeed, we learn quickly that our own mental states are complex beyond imagination. We also learn that our good qualities as well as our shortcomings are quite often not a result of our own efforts: we were lucky to have a good upbringing, or not, we were fortunate to live in safety and good health in crucial developmental years, or not, and so on.
While the events of 6 January shocked Americans and people around the world, the Buddhist teachings tell us not to isolate them or seek to blame a particular “other” while holding ourselves unaccountable. Just as in the time of the Buddha, the world around us is unstable and often dominated by difficult and destructive forces. We might not be able to fix that today, tomorrow, or in our lifetimes. But we can recognize our small part in the rich interconnectedness of all phenomena. When reflecting on the destructive actions of others, or of ourselves, our path forward is to develop the clarity, compassion, and conviction to bring more goodness into the world.
* Wildlife on the Brink (Buddhistdoor Global)
** It All Matters: On Metta, Feelings, and Forgiveness (Buddhistdoor Global)
Trump on God: ‘Hopefully I won’t have to be asking for much forgiveness’ (The Washington Post)
Trump Told Crowd ‘You Will Never Take Back Our Country With Weakness’ (The New York Times)
Trump Is Said to Have Discussed Pardoning Himself (The New York Times)