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Forgive and Forget

During a filmed conversation between the late Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu and H.H. the Dalai Lama, His Holiness said we should forgive but not forget. Of course this is a hot topic. Arch Bishop Tutu presided over the Truth and Reconciliation process that many South Africans - white and black - participated in after the end of Apartheid. He certainly knows about the power of forgiveness for healing. But what about forgetting? On this the Dalai Lama was clear - yes, we must forgive, because to not do so, not only hurts another, it also hurts ourselves, however we must also not forget what has happened. So why not?

On the face of it this seems to contradict another important strand in Buddhism. The Dharma teaches that our past experience obscures the fresh immediacy of the present, hiding knowing things as they really are and that this distortion of perception is a major cause for unhappiness. Here then it would seem that some form of forgetting would be highly desirable if it enabled us not to cloak our experience in all sorts our associations that actually have nothing to do with it. Forgetting, as in letting go, is good. So does this contradict what the H.H. the Dalai Lama has to say?

I’m not sure here but I think he believes we must not forget because to do so would mean that we had not learnt from the situation. By learnt I imagine he does not mean something along the lines of, “I’ll never trust that person again”, but rather the open hearted insight that can emerge from a conflict with another that reveals we are all essentially the same, wanting the same things, and this only becomes distorted through fear and hurt.

This then is the explanation: what is really being explored is what causes us to open or close. We open our hearts and minds when we remember - the opposite of forget - that we live in an interconnected world where others are no different from ourselves. And we shut ourselves down when memories of past hurts cloud our hearts and minds, leaving us in small defensive closures. This surely is what His Holiness is referring to when he says that he does not hate the Chinese for their annexation of Tibet. He has been able to see the shared human pain that runs through it all irrespective of what side one is on and he has not let himself forget this.

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