Dharma Q/A: Does Atonement Make Peace with the Past?

Does atonement address making peace with events in my past that happened to me, and that were not my doing or my fault?  Webster defines it as “reparation for a wrong or injury.”  Is the Buddhist definition broader?  If not atonement, how does the Dharma teach us to deal with past wrongs done to us? 

This practice of at-one-ment deepens over time as this act is renewed again and again. Reparations for past wrongs may be part of a loving response, but only if that arises from wisdom and compassion, not compulsion. At first when we begin studying precepts, the emphasis is on full acknowledgement and acceptance of harm caused by our own body, speech and mind. The angry blowup with our parents, the betrayal of a friend’s trust, the cheating on a high school exam. We recall specifics and have sincere regret. Everything from petty gossip to the taking of life is seen clearly for what it is. While atonement does not erase responsibility for the consequences of our actions, it cleanses the heart and allows us to return to the land of the living, unburdened and humbly willing to transform habitual patterns based in greed, hate and delusion to generosity, love and clarity.

But something interesting happens as we deepen our awareness of the complete interdependence of self and other. No longer is it so easy to harbor resentment for the injuries done to us and be “at one” with what we have also done to others. If we heal our own wounded parts with compassion, we realize the uselessness of harboring resentment towards those who have harmed us. We are the victims of our own resentment. This frees us up to see that they, like us, also suffer from this human “beginningless” greed, hate and delusion. If we look deeply enough, we are really looking in a mirror at the one who injured us. We are not two. This doesn’t “excuse” any behavior or prohibit response to injustice, but instead reestablishes the capacity to love and act rather than remain blind and stuck. We accept the reality of all that has occurred.

Atonement’s broadest function comes when the separate self drops away and we take responsibility “for it all” — the pollution in the river, the school shooting in the next county, the corruption in the government — you, me, and all suffering beings contained in the entire ungraspable arising of causes and conditions arising as Now. There is no past but what is contained in this moment. From this place, atonement points to the perfection that transcends the limited self. It is complete, whole and leaves nothing out. While this proposition may seem overwhelming at first, it is actually one of the most profoundly freeing actions we can take. To be “at one” with this world as it is readies the heart to care and respond to the suffering before us. While the rational mind cannot grasp the extent of its power, we can taste its liberation right from the start the first time we atone together.

Palm to palm,


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