Tara is one of the most famous and widely beloved goddesses in Buddhism. She was formed from a single tear shed by the sage Avalokiteshvara when, just before he ascended to enlightenment, he thought of all the suffering beings in the world he was leaving behind. This tear became Tara, a beautiful, playful young woman that can hold anyone’s suffering with kindness and compassion. Tara is also a figure in the Hindu Tantric conception, but here she looks a little different: she is fierce and dark, with bloody fangs and a necklace of severed heads, laughing maniacally. She holds a sword, a skull, and a pair of scissors to snip away what no longer serves.
Tantric Tara reveals the dark side of forgiveness and compassion. We like to think of those qualities as sweet and universally good, but indeed they have a dark and terrible aspect. Forgiveness implies hurt. In order to forgive, we need compassion. Etymologically, the word “compassion” means “suffering with”: in order to forgive someone who hurt us, we have to see their pain, and feel our own.
In the Tantric worldview, there is a cycle that we can work with that can help us connect with (and suffer with) our fellow human beings. We start with “I’m not you”: the difference and separation that arises when we are hurt or betrayed. We don’t understand where the other person was coming from. Then we move into “I’m something like you,” where we try to find some common ground. How do we experience a similar reality, or share the pressures of the world around us? How can we see that a human flaw in the other reflects a human flaw in ourselves? This can move us into the next phase, “I’m nothing but you,” where we remember that we are all made up of the same stuff, we all experience the same reality, and we’re on this strange ride together. From there, forgiveness may follow.
Not so much. That middle part—trying to find something in common with the person that hurt you, trying to feel with them, to remember what we share—that’s a hard step. It’s much easier to label the other as a monster and write them off forever. That’s partly because their betrayal holds a mirror up to our own darkest parts. We can’t forgive someone without compassion, without suffering with them, without acknowledging our own suffering. Sometimes forgiving another requires that we forgive ourselves.
Forgiveness is never really, fully about the person that hurt us. It matters why what they did hurt, and it matters how we responded to the hurt, both then and now. The consequences matter. Even if it’s been years, even if the person that hurt us is long gone or even dead, even if they don’t want our forgiveness—it still has to happen in our minds and bodies. Forgiveness doesn’t release the other person, it releases us.
Forgiveness doesn’t usually happen in a moment. It can be a process. It can be a practice. Sometimes it requires that we tell a person how we feel, that we offer up our own vulnerability. Sometimes it requires that we stand up for ourselves in some other aspect of our lives, reclaiming a sense of power and control. Forgiveness makes us look at ourselves, feel our feelings, and respond in our relationships. Sometimes that means conflict. Forgiveness can be beautiful and sweet and freeing, like Buddhist Tara. It can also be fierce and terrible to look upon, like Tantric Tara. Whichever face she’s showing, however, Tara reminds us of the power that we all already have within us: the capacity to suffer with others, to forgive them, and—again and again—to forgive ourselves.