Thich Nhat Hanh on forgiveness

During question-and-answer sessions at retreats in 2013 and 2014, Thay was asked about forgiveness: whether we ought to forgive everything, and how to practice compassion towards those that harm us or those dear to us.

Below are his answers.

[This transcript has been edited for readability.]

How to forgive everything 

All of us are unskillful at times. At these times, we suffer and make other people suffer. And that may include the person we love. 

But when we are unskillful, and we suffer and make another person suffer, we wish to be forgiven.

But that is not enough; we have to learn from our unskillfulness. To do so, we may ask the other person not only for his or her forgiveness, but also their support.

We may ask him or her like this: “Dear one, I am unskillful at times. So when I say or do something unskillful, I suffer and I make you suffer too. It is very kind of you to forgive me, but I’d like to ask you a favour: when I am about to say or do something unskillful, please warn me. Please remind me, so that I will refrain from doing it. Because otherwise it may become a habit. And after I have committed the unskillful act, not only will you forgive me, but you will help me by reminding me that this is unskillfulness – so that next time, I will not repeat the same act.”

So we need to practice. And we need the other person to help us practice. 

The other part of the answer is that, in order to forgive, you have to see the suffering and the unskillfulness of the other person. The other person may not want to hurt us, to make us suffer, it’s just that she or he has a lot of unskillfulness. If they hurt us, we can recognize that this was caused by their unskillfulness, and we will not be angry and can easily forgive them.

And when we see the suffering in that person – which is at the base of all acts and words that cause suffering – we can understand that suffering. When we know that that person is not capable of handling, of taking care of the suffering in him or her, we realise that they have become a victim of the suffering, and that we are only victim number two or three.

When we are able to see the suffering in him or her, and see that that person is a victim of his own suffering, then it’s easy to forgive.

Recognize the suffering. Understand the suffering. And by having the desire to help that person to suffer less, you will be able to forgive very easily.

Without that understanding, forgiveness is difficult; even if you want to forgive, you cannot. If he or she has made you suffer so, so many times, even after you have warned him or her, it’s difficult to forgive.

But if you can understand the suffering, the deep suffering in him or her, and see that they have been the number one victim of their own suffering, the situation becomes different: you can forgive more easily.

Watch the video here:

How to practice compassion towards those that harm our dear ones

Compassion is a kind of protection – the most effective that you have. Without compassion, you allow fear and anger to express themselves, and that will draw attention to you and make them afraid of you; then they will attack you, because they are also afraid.

That is why, with compassion, understanding is possible. When you look at aggressive people, you see that they suffer. They have violence in them, they have anger in them. They don’t have much joy and compassion; that is why they suffer.

And when they suffer, they make others around them suffer, too. But when we have time to look at them, we will understand and compassion will arise naturally within us.

If we are no longer afraid of them, we no longer hate them. In fact, we will want to do or say something to help them suffer less. And if you know how to generate compassion and joy, we can find skillful means to help them do the same.

And if they are joyful and compassionate, they will become harmless.

So, the best way to protect ourselves, to be truly secure, is by generating compassion in our own self, and helping to generate compassion in others.      

Watch the video here:



  1. This is very helpful for difficult moments, and I have seen this truth in my own life. Sometimes compassion needs to be fierce, as in the setting strong boundaries.

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