A Buddhist Perspective on Guilt

Prisoners at BIA

I have fre­quent­ly heard that there is no equiv­a­lent Thai word for ‘guilt’ in the West­ern psy­cho­log­i­cal sense of an ‘inhi­bi­tion to express one’s true emo­tions for fear of com­mit­ting an unac­cept­able act’ or an ‘emo­tion of feel­ing respon­si­ble for oth­ers’ mis­for­tune, whether or not this is the case.’ There are undoubt­ed­ly Thai words and expres­sions con­vey­ing the mean­ing of ‘remorse or self-reproach caused by feel­ing that one is respon­si­ble for a wrong or offence.’ Yet the neg­a­tive emo­tion of guilt, asso­ci­at­ed with chron­ic fear and inhi­bi­tion, does appear to be more preva­lent in West­ern cul­tures than in Thai­land. In any case, the fol­low­ing pas­sage is insight­ful about the process of guilt. It is found in the chap­ter of Bud­dhad­ham­ma on desire and moti­va­tion. The author is point­ing out that peo­ple who have gained an ele­vat­ed lev­el of conscience—people who val­ue and iden­ti­fy with doing good—are faced with dis­tinct forms of suf­fer­ing that oth­er peo­ple may not expe­ri­ence.

Rel­e­vant to the recent social con­flict in Thai­land, this pas­sage also touch­es upon how vio­lence can some­times stem from high-mind­ed and well-inten­tioned peo­ple. The frus­tra­tion of try­ing to change soci­ety for the bet­ter is anoth­er exam­ple of the suf­fer­ing expe­ri­enced by good peo­ple:

If crav­ing (taṇhā), con­ceit (māna), and fixed views (diṭṭhi) replace whole­some desire (chan­da) and over­whelm the mind, they can cause great suf­fer­ing and harm for vir­tu­ous peo­ple. For exam­ple:

As a con­se­quence of one’s love of good­ness and puri­ty, crav­ing may estab­lish an attach­ment to per­son­al integri­ty until one feels anx­ious about pro­tect­ing one’s virtue, one fears a stain on one’s char­ac­ter, and one fears oth­er people’s mis­un­der­stand­ings. One’s suf­fer­ing over these mat­ters is greater than what most peo­ple feel. This anx­i­ety is relat­ed to what West­ern psy­chol­o­gists describe as a ‘guilt feel­ing.’

Some peo­ple have an intense desire to build a vir­tu­ous soci­ety. If they are unable to ful­fil their ambi­tions or they meet obsta­cles, they feel angry and cling to their per­son­al opin­ions more tight­ly, becom­ing more head­strong and wil­ful. Alter­na­tive­ly, they have a one-point­ed mis­sion to rev­o­lu­tion­ize and improve soci­ety, but turn to vio­lent means in order to elim­i­nate and purge those peo­ple whom they view as unco­op­er­a­tive. They act out of anger and with­out any con­cern for these oth­er people’s well­be­ing. Chan­da that is dom­i­nat­ed by taṇhā, māna, and diṭṭhi can thus lead to vio­lence.

High­ly com­pet­i­tive social sys­tems, work sys­tems, and lifestyles pro­mote self­ish­ness and lead peo­ple to act in a way that cor­re­sponds to a crav­ing for becom­ing (bha­va-taṇhā). When such sys­tems are imple­ment­ed in a soci­ety in which there is a high degree of zeal and a will to act (chan­da), many aspects of the soci­ety will progress rapid­ly. The down­side, how­ev­er, is that these com­pet­i­tive sys­tems will lead to prob­lems like stress, anx­i­ety, and men­tal ill­ness. When such sys­tems are imple­ment­ed in a soci­ety lack­ing resolve and the will to act, they tend to gen­er­ate immoral behav­iour, con­fu­sion, and cor­rup­tion (I use the term ‘tend to’ here because one must con­sid­er oth­er caus­es and con­di­tions for human behav­iour).

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