The Dharma of an Apology

A few weeks ago I received an unexpected phone call.

"This is David Williams," said the voice on the other end.

"As in the Senator from Kentucky?" I responded.

I thought the gubernatorial candidate was calling to apologize in response to media coverage, the Hindu American Foundation's press release, and a letter I had written to him about statements he had made earlier in the week calling a Hindu ground-blessing ceremony an "act of idolatry" to "false gods" and expressing his hope as a Christian that Hindus "opened their eyes to receive Jesus Christ as their personal savior." We had a cordial, but uncompromising theological and legal exchange, and ultimately no apology surfaced during our 20 minute conversation because, as he maintained, he did not "intend" to offend.

Hmmm. Does it matter that he did not intend to offend, if his words were found to be offensive and hurtful nonetheless? I'm still baffled as to how a person of above-average intelligence would not think calling another's God(s) "false" or their worship "idolatry" would not be, but I digress.

After our conversation, I thought back to the last time I rear-ended someone because of my lapse in attention. Certainly I didn't "intend" to hit their bumper or cause damage, but I did cause damage, and as such, apologized. Apologies can, of course, vary in difficulty.

Apologizing for not making it to a dinner party or interrupting someone while they're trying to talk -- easy. Apologizing after an emotional tiff with your significant other where you still feel you are right or a doctor having to to tell a patient about a misdiagnosis -- hard, really hard. The impact of an apology also depends on from where it emerges. One from the inner wells of our conscience can be transformative for both the apologizer and the apologizee. And while apologies can also be devoid of any heart, I believe that even they can be powerful in their ability to dissipate a tense situation or, at the very least, lessen the sting of hurt caused. Regardless of how easy or difficult, heartfelt or empty, the foundation of every apology is dharma, or righteous duty.

In the Hindu tradition there are many values that are held in high esteem -- honesty, humility, non-hurting, non-coveting, non-stealing, cleanliness, simplicity, contentedness, loving devotion to God, selflessness, respect -- among many others. This very long list of positive qualities that support dharma, and, in turn, a spiritual life and spiritual evolution, have been efficiently boiled down by Hindu seekers far wiser than I, to three foundational values: truth (satya), non-hurting (ahimsa), and self-control or self-restraint (brahmacharya). Any one of the values in the longer list, at its essence, invokes or can be traced back to one or a combination of these three foundational principles.

So using a triangle metaphor as a barometer, the dharma of an apology requires invoking simultaneously or consequentially all three corners, at varying angles, to keep the triangle or dharma in tact. Sometimes the angle representing truth may be broader, while other times those of the other two might be. Then there are those instances where all three values are in perfect balance.

Let's apply the triangle metaphor to Mr. William's initial statements and his later refusal to apologize. While he may not have intended to "hurt," his exercise of being "truthful" without "restraint" -- he fundamentally believes that there is only one way to salvation -- caused "hurt," thus resulting in one excessively wide angle which did not allow the other two to close the dharma triangle. Similarly, his inability to "restrain" his ego, demonstrate humility (manifesting as Mr. Williams not feeling the need to apologize because he didn't intend harm) and admit to the reality that he did offend, leave ahimsa out of the equation. When in a situation such as this, we must ask, what are we really going to lose by apologizing if we've caused hurt? Indeed, swallowing the often difficult pill of humble-pie by apologizing, even though we may not feel like it, can provide a lasting lesson and reminder for us to exercise restraint in our thoughts, words and actions toward others, however truthful, the next time.

Round and round the application of this metaphor can go in showing the need to strike the right balance for every situation. The simple fact is that for any of our thoughts, words or actions to be dharmic, we should be mindful of invoking these three precepts. And if we've failed to connect the dots, an apology can go a long way in beginning to make dharma whole again.