Foreword: Atonement as a Spiritual Path

Preface: The Next Step in Forgiveness and Healing

Introduction: The Revival of an Ancient Awareness

Part One: Forgiveness and Beyond

Chapter 1: Forgiveness as Spiritual Liberation

Forgiveness as Practice


The Giving Within For-Give-Ness

Collective Forgiveness, Collective Atonement

On the Journey

The Real Work

The Long View

The Death of the Ego

The Moment of Moments

The Roots of Atonement

Soul Force

Forgiveness in Our Communities

The Spiritual Challenge

Chapter 2: The Wisdom of Atonement

Repairing the Past

If Atonement Is Rejected

The Question of Remorse

The Privilege of Repairing the Past

Atonement as Awakening

The Gift

Remorse in an Implacable World

The Gift of Atonement

Chapter 3: We Can Work It Out

Collective Atonement

Four Principles of Atonement

What Is to Be Done?


Chapter 4: At-One-Ment

The Growing Need for Atonement

The Power of Compassion

Zen and the Art of Atonement

A Story of Atonement

Chapter 5: Burying the Stone

Traditional Atonement Ceremonies

Rites of Atonement

Chapter 6: Taking the Crucial Step

From Apologies to Atonement in Australia

Amazonian Atonement

Beyond Healing to Reparations in Ecuador

Beyond the Cycles of Abuse

Chapter 7: A Twelve-Step Approach to Atonement

Part Two: Stories of Atonement

Chapter 8: Memories of My Grandfather

Chapter 9: Healing the Wounds of War

Transformations of Oneness and Intimacy During Warfare

Atonement After the Viet Nam War

Atonement with History and Truth

Conclusion: Atonement with the Cosmos

Chapter 10: After the Death of My Son

The Journey of Reconciliation

Three Steps

My Own Atonement

Tony’s Atonement

Starting with Empathy

The Journey of Atonement

Atonement as Restorative Justice

Chapter 11: Ten Days of Atonement

The Process

The Teshuva Tradition

Repentance and Atonement

Atonement Is a Spiritual Practice

Collective Atonement

Rectifying the Past

Chapter 12: The Iroquois Great Law of Peace

The Iroquois Justice System

Healing Words

The Condolences

Peace Thinking, Peace Acting

Atonement in the Confederacy

Chapter 13: Talkin’ ’bout My Generation

Soul Force

Finding Unity

Atonement in the Twenty-First Century

Chapter 14: Buddhist Bowing and Atonement

Conclusion: Creative Atonement in a Time of Peril

The Contributors

The Editor

The Beyond Forgiveness Project


More praise for Beyond Forgiveness

“Stay with it, and let this book open your heart, that best of all changings. Hard work, no question, but so worth it. The good and brave stories being told here—like the monk’s tears on the head of the sullen teenager (that open this book), like James O’Dea’s tears in the metro reading Thomas Merton (that close it)—will give you courage, heat for the leap, the phone call, the meltdown.”

—Coleman Barks, author of Rumi: The Big Red Book and The Essential Rumi

“You cannot read this book without taking up a spiritual challenge; the challenge is to see even the most painful of the wrongs that are done to us in a larger, more transparent, and perennial context. This book is full of stories of spiritual courage and a transcendence that passes all cultural and religious boundaries, to show us the universality of what is truly spiritual about humanity. Phil Cousineau has a remarkable instinct for topics that pulse with the painful yet vital spiritual heartbeat of our time.”

—Stephen Larsen, Ph.D., author of The Fundamentalist Mind: How Polarized Thinking Imperils Us All and coauthor of A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell

“If we harbor thoughts of violence or hatred, or seek revenge or retribution, we are contributing to the wounding of the world; if we transform those thoughts into forgiveness and compassion, and then move beyond them to actually make amends or restitution, we are contributing to the healing of the world. This timely, powerful and compassionate book by Phil Cousineau helps show us the way.”

—Deepak Chopra, author of The Book of Secrets and The Path to Love

“Nothing will help us survive the present age more than the realization that we must break the cycles of violence, when our souls long for healing, forgiveness often proves to be an inadequate solution to the soul’s desire for longer lasting reconciliation. I’ve long believed another step is required for our transformation, one that Phil Cousineau reveals here as being on the other side of forgiveness, in the ancient ritual of atonement. I believe this book is the vital next step in the making of a strong modern myth of deep reconciliation. It is a profoundly important book and I give it my blessing.”

—Robert A. Johnson, author of He, She, Transformation, and A Slender Thread

Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement is an inspiring, practical, and compelling book, relevant for our times. Cousineau provides a profound and provocative book that has us ponder where we might need to forgive ourselves and others; and to look at atonement and what it ignites in the human spirit.”

—Angeles Arrien, Ph.D., author of The Second Half of Life


The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work, 1990

Deadlines: A Rhapsody on a Theme of Famous and Infamous Last Words, 1991

Riders on the Storm: My Life with Jim Morrison and the Doors (by John Densmore with Phil Cousineau), 1992

The Soul of the World: A Modern Book of Hours (with Eric Lawton), 1993

Soul: An Archaeology: Readings from Socrates to Ray Charles, 1993

Prayers at 3 A.M.: Poems, Songs, Chants for the Middle of the Night, 1995

Design Outlaws: On the Frontier of the 21st Century (with Christopher Zelov), 1996

Soul Moments: Marvelous Stories of Synchronicity, 1997

The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred, 1998

Riddle Me This: A World Treasury of Word Puzzles, Folk Wisdom, and Literary Conundrums, 1999

The Soul Aflame: A Modern Book of Hours (with Eric Lawton), 2000

The Book of Roads: Travel Stories, 2000

Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in Modern Times, 2001

The Way Things Are: Conversations with Huston Smith on the Spiritual Life, 2003

The Olympic Odyssey: Rekindling the True Spirit of the Great Games, 2004

The Blue Museum: Poems, 2004

A Seat at the Table: The Struggle for American Indian Religious Freedom, 2005

Angkor Wat: The Marvelous Enigma (photographs) 2006

Night Train: New Poems, 2007

The Jaguar People: An Amazonian Chronicle (photographs), 2007

Stoking the Creative Fires: 9 Ways to Rekindle Your Passion and Imagination, 2008

Fungoes and Fastballs: Great Moments in Baseball Haiku, 2008

The Meaning of Tea (with Scott Chamberlin Hoyt), 2009

City 21: The Search for the Second Enlightenment (with Christopher Zelov), 2009

The Oldest Story in the World: A Mosaic of Meditations on Storytelling, 2010

Wordcatcher: An Odyssey into the World of Weird and Wonderful Words, 2010

The Song of the Open Road (photographs), 2010

Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement, 2011


Forgiveness is better than revenge.

—Heraclitus (535–475 BCE)

Find someone like yourself. Find others.

Agree you will never desert each other.

Understand that any rift among you

means power to those who want to do you in. . . .

This is the day of atonement; but do my people forgive me?

If a cloud knew loneliness and fear, I would be that cloud.

—Adrienne Rich, “Yom Kippur 1984”

How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. . . . It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.

—Ian McEwan, Atonement

To Bob Schnekenburger, my foreman at Industrial & Automotive Fasteners, in Detroit, whose stories about serving as a Green Beret in Vietnam were my first painful lessons in the need for finding truth and reconciliation in all our wars


atonement as a spiritual path

Huston Smith

Being persuaded to repent doesn’t mean simply to feel sorry. It requires backing up—full speed astern—to reverse the human tendency to go one’s own way, as the following story of a twentieth-century Zen monk shows.

This monk lived as a recluse in a hut on the side of a mountain. His only possessions were his robe, his straw sandals, and the bowl with which he begged for his food in the nearby village. The evening after a thief stole his sandals and bowl, he wrote:

The moon still shines

in my window. Unstolen

by the thief.

His freedom from attachments, as demonstrated in this haiku, was one of the reasons the villagers revered him.

One day, as the monk was on his daily walk seeking food, a mother invited him into her home to share the noonday meal with her and her son, whom (she explained before they entered the house) she hoped the monk could straighten out, for the lad was a delinquent and was clearly headed for trouble.

When the son was called, he barely acknowledged the monk’s presence, and he stared sullenly at the table throughout the meal. The monk too remained silent as they all ate. But as the monk was preparing to leave, the son did deign to do his duty. As he stooped to tie the monk’s straw sandals, he felt a drop of warm water fall on his head. Looking up, he saw tears streaming down the monk’s face. The monk’s compassion for what was in store for the young man prompted him to mend his ways.

This true story offers a beautiful example of the “power made perfect in weakness” that St. Paul extolled in the New Testament, and it sets the right tone for the interpretation of atonement I am attempting to give. Apart from God, who is love, love is a response to incoming love. And the most powerful demonstration of the sender’s love is to let the receiver know that the sender suffers the pain the recipient suffers—in God’s case infinitely, for there is nothing halfway about God.

In the Zen story, when the tear fell, the son realized—and actually experienced—the sorrow, the pain, in the monk. The weeping of the monk was a salvific act because it opened the heart of the son and kept him from being totally self-centered. The monk’s tear brought into the son’s heart the pain of another.

This story illustrates how compassion allows us to feel what someone else feels, which in turn allows us to forgive them, and to forgive ourselves, as we travel on the spiritual path.

What the wisdom traditions tell us is that we are in good hands. Out of gratitude, we are called to relieve each other’s burdens, and to forgive each other, which is why there is an emphasis on forgiveness and atonement in all the world’s religions.

I recall a former student of mine, Douglas George-Kanentiio, a member of the Iroquois tribe, telling me at the 1999 Parliament of World’s Religions, in Cape Town, South Africa, that the great gift he had received from our time there was his encounter with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission organized by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. He said he was so inspired by what the South Africans had accomplished through their acts of forgiveness and restitution and commitment to nonviolence that he wanted to try to apply their recommendations to his own people’s situation. The Iroquois had experienced violence, discrimination, and racism similar to what the black South Africans had endured, and now it was important for his people to reach new ways of forgiveness and restitution, as well as reviving traditional forms of restorative justice. To bring together people who need reconciliation requires a recognition and acceptance of our own shortcomings, our flaws, our imperfections. At the heart of atonement, which has at its root the idea of reconciliation, is the recovery of our wholeness.

The power of the acts of forgiveness and atonement is the recognition of the flaw in all of us, without exception, as well as the realization of our ultimate unity. When we are “at one,” we are united, side by side, and together. Our sense of ourselves as separate is illusion, what our senses report. As the ancients told us, the senses are false witnesses. In poetic idiom, “Life is real, life is earnest / And things are not as they seem.”

It is as if we were gazing on a cloudless sky through a transom in which nine panes of glass are held together by two horizontal and two vertical bars. Looking through that transom, we see the sky as consisting of nine pieces. But of course the sky itself is not so divided. And neither are we.

Welcome to Phil Cousineau’s important book.