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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