During one of the first meetings of the introductory course that I took with Triratna, one of the more experienced sangha members, someone who is “going for refuge” or asking for ordination, said something very profound that’s stuck with me ever since. We were discussing Buddhist ethics, in particular Right Speech, and she said that one thing she’d noticed since seriously practicing Buddhism is that she found herself apologizing a lot.
My initial interpretation was that she was doing more things that required apologies. Behaving poorly, creating discord, being rude, acting carelessly. All things that would call for an increase in apologies. You can imagine my confusion. If you’re following Buddhist ethics seriously, shouldn’t that lead to fewer instances of necessary apologies? What kind of Buddhist, or any ethical person, behaves in a way that requires a lot of apologies?
The answer, I’ve come to understand, is a normal Buddhist, and even one who is making progress on the path toward enlightenment. Apologies are difficult. Even when we’re wrong, and we know deep down that we’re wrong and owe someone an apology, it’s difficult to let go of ego and acknowledge: I was wrong. I was rude. I was a jerk. I am sorry. Letting go of that kind of ego is of course central to awakening in the Buddhist sense.
But the thing about apologies in a Buddhist sense, at least as I think I understand it, is that one can, and perhaps is even called to, apologize even when they’re not “wrong” but were a player in a situation that caused strife, anger, suffering. That’s a huge amount of ego-shedding. I don’t care if I was right or wrong, but I am sorry that there was a situation that created dukkha, suffering. The apology, I think, is a beautiful manifestation of Right Speech, speech that is honest, kind, and seeks to create harmony rather than discord.
I am writing this post on the morning after shooting off a nasty email. The details aren’t important. It’s not even important that it was late, I was in a cranky mood, and I committed the cardinal sin of hitting “send” before sleeping on it. I’m not entirely sure if I was totally or partially in the wrong in the situation that led to this email, but it really doesn’t matter. My speech (or email) was most definitely not Right.
So I sent a morning-after apology. I don’t know how it will be received, and I don’t know if the recipient will think, “gee, I was partly to blame in this.” But that doesn’t matter. The apology was liberating. It felt Right to say “I owe you an apology. I was rude, hostile, and aggressive, and you didn’t deserve that. I was wrong, and I am deeply sorry.”
I’m not sure if I would have done that if those words of my sangha mate weren’t echoing in my head. Maybe, but it’s equally possible that I would have clung to my ego and insisted that I was either entirely or at least partially in the right. Silly, toxic, unskillful thoughts. I hope my apology will lead to forgiveness, but I can’t control that. What I can control is my own behavior and speech (well, belatedly in this case!).
Being a Buddhist does lead to more apologies, to glimmers of non-ego where we’re not afraid to say “I was a jerk,” regardless of who else might or might not have been a jerk. And uttering those words is an absolute delight.