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Are There Limits to Forgiveness?

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A 2009 research study concluded that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il sported the same "big six" personality disorders as Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein. Of the six -- sadistic, antisocial, paranoid, narcissistic, schizoid, and scizotypal -- Jong Il's "highest rated item" was sadistic personality disorder.

The images of North Koreans weeping over the announced death of Dear Leader had me wondering whether forgiveness is sometimes a form of brainwashing -- and if so, whether our brains might benefit from a warm bath from time to time.

I once had a blind date with a woman who'd renounced her Jewish name in favor of a one-syllable spiritual moniker and was in the throes of what she called "forgiveness treatment." What sounded to me like a nutty mash-up of dharma, karma and quite possibly pharma had, she said, largely freed her from being judgmental, with the result that she'd forgiven her parents for any and all imperfections. Now, she added without irony, she faced the final challenge: forgiving Hitler.

I found that combining our search for the final solution in dessert choices with debating the Final Solution was unromantic, and that first date was our last. I now think that had I been less judgmental of this smart, sincere woman, I could have learned something.

The question of "forgiving Hitler" is central to veteran Buddhist practitioner/teacher Ken Green's forthcoming part-documentary/part-fiction film The Fourth Moment. The protagonist's mother is an Auschwitz survivor who reveals a dark secret about his biological father's past, which sets in motion a struggle to come to terms with fundamental questions of evil, judgment and forgiveness.

As part of Green's research, he attended -- and shot footage of -- a five-day meditation retreat at Auschwitz organized by Zen activist Bernie Glassman. The ghosts of over a million victims hovered as the 100 or so retreatants, some of whom were the children of Nazis, sat in silent contemplation and participated in group discussions about the horrific events that took place on those grounds.

Green traces the genesis of The Fourth Moment -- which he and partner Lin Dunbrack are slating for a Spring 2013 release -- to a dinner conversation 35 years ago with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who may be the only womanizing/chain-smoking/very heavy drinking Enlightened Being in recorded history. The subject of the new documentary Crazy Wisdom, Rinpoche brought Shambhala Buddhism to the West and founded Naropa University. (Green was a Naropa co-founder and longtime board member.) His teachings emphasized that each human being possesses "unconditional goodness," though this fundamental "Buddha nature" can get severely corrupted in the material world.

I asked Green about "unconditional goodness." Does it mean that evil doesn't exist at all? What about Hitler? "Trungpa said if he was able to shoot Hitler to save others, he would have done it," Green said. "I feel the same way. This doesn't mean that Hitler was evil, but rather his pathology was so deep and violent that he needed to be stopped on the spot." He adds, "I feel forgiveness is a willingness to step out of the personal storyline and see how much suffering permeates all of us. It is not loosie goosie, love and light, but it is a willingness to see a bigger picture."

I love Buddhism and I'm all for forgiveness among us flawed humans. But only after unrepentant mass murderers who outstrip every definition of evil Webster's can muster are, to paraphrase President Obama, taken off the field.

A visit to the basement of a Franciscan monastery near Auschwitz showed Glassman's retreatants how art can be a healing force for victims of severe atrocities. There they viewed the work of one of the first transports to Auschwitz, the late Marian Kolodziej (1921-2009). Kolodziej -- the subject of the 2010 documentary The Labyrinth -- survived the death camp, but never spoke of his experience until five decades later, when he began to work through his grief by creating a set of astonishing drawings and art installations that make Hieronymus Bosch look like Disney. (That's art from the heart, of course -- not the perversion of creativity spawned by "movie buff" Kim Jong-il when he kidnapped a director to make a propaganda film.)

Some
observed that Kim Jong-il's mourners wept because those who failed to mourn the previous Kim's death were punished for insufficient devotion to the Leader. Let's hope contemporary North Koreans can find a way to express their real sorrow -- and, if they choose, forgiveness -- for the suffering they've endured at the hands of a vicious sadist.