Remorse and Guilt

By Rev. Kinrei Bassis

It is through our thoughts and feelings that we relate to everything in our life. Our feelings are always giving us feedback on whatever we are dealing with. Our feelings underlie the significance and meaning of whatever we experience. The Buddhist practices of being mindful and meditating help us to be more sensitive and aware of whatever we are feeling. However, the Buddhist practice is also being aware of how our minds interpret our feelings. Part of being mindful is to help the mind so that it does not spin off with mistaken teachings about whatever we are feeling. Guilt is an example of having a feeling and then giving ourselves bad teaching about that feeling. The arising of guilty feelings is not the problem. It is the deluded meaning we give ourselves about the guilty feeling that is the problem.

If you make a mistake: if you did something hurtful to someone; if you did something wrong, it is right and appropriate that you should feel bad about it. In fact, something is wrong when we do not feel bad about our wrong actions and damaging mistakes.

Remorse is spiritually vital so that we will take our wrong thoughts and actions to heart. We have all had the experience of being with someone who does or says something that hurts our feelings. Even though they may apologize, we can sometimes see that their apology is perfunctory and they do not actually feel bad about what they did. Unless someone feels their mistake, unless they have remorse, the teaching of their wrong behavior has not been fully taken into their heart. This means they are unlikely to change and probably will continue to make the same kind of mistake in the future. When our thoughts about our wrong actions are just in our head but are not felt in the heart, this means that the real teaching about the wrong behavior has not really been fully embraced and understood.

Guilt is where we take our wrong actions and give ourselves the wrong teaching. Guilt is where we judge ourselves as bad due to our wrong actions. From the point of the view of the Dharma, whenever we judge ourselves and not just judge our actions, we are being deluded. When we do wrong, it is good and appropriate that we judge the actions as wrong. But that does not mean there is something wrong with us, just something wrong with that specific behavior. Much of Buddhist practice is how do we deal with our wrong actions and tendencies. Our mistakes will generate difficult thoughts and bad feelings. Yet we can take these bad feelings that accompany our wrong behavior and use them in a positive way that points us to what we need to change rather than seeing them as something being fundamentally wrong with either ourselves or the world.

Guilt generates a feeling that there is something wrong with us that we have made mistakes. But it is fact that we will always remain imperfect, doing some things right and doing some things wrong, no matter how long we train or how enlightened we may become. As we advance spiritually on the Buddhist path, we should be increasing our right actions and decreasing the wrong actions, becoming wiser and less deluded, but we will still be human and have blindspots, weaknesses and still make mistakes. The perfection in Buddhism lies in our Unborn Buddha Heart. In this world of conditions, we are training to get as much right and good as we can but we will still always be imperfect and make some mistakes. In fact, if someone feels like they are never making any mistakes, never being in the wrong, all that this means is that they are not aware of their mistakes and that is an aspect of delusion. Buddhist training is converting our delusion into wisdom and as long as we need to train in Buddhism, we need to see our delusions so we can work at transforming them into wisdom.

The Buddha said “it’s only by seeing the consequences of our harmful actions that we can learn to transform ourselves and be released from those consequences.” It is only by seeing what we are doing wrong, that we can see what is needed to transform our lives into the life of Buddha.

It is very hard for all of us to see our mistakes, our imperfections, our delusions. It takes faith for us not to identify ourselves with our mistakes and wrong views. The ground of spiritual life is the willingness to take a good and honest look at ourselves and see our wrong behavior and what we need to change and transform. It is not uncommon that someone is unwilling to see and accept that they are making mistakes. They find it completely unacceptable that they could have gotten anything seriously wrong. So they are not willing to see how they went amiss. They feel it is necessary that they get everything right or else there is something fundamentally wrong with themselves.

Sometimes people will be telling themselves that it cannot be a mistake since I was trying to do the right thing. This is the mistaken belief that right intention is enough and that it frees us from doing wrong. We can have the best of intentions, yet through not fully seeing or understanding something either about the person we are trying to help or fully understanding the situation we face, we can cause harm rather than good. Our perception and understanding always has limitations which means we always have to be open to the fact that we could be missing something and we should always be open to the fact that we could be wrong. It can take wisdom to know how to be helpful in many situations and we need to accept that at times we will lack the needed wisdom and our actions proved to be harmful rather than helpful. However, we can more easily forgive ourselves for our mistake if we know we had good intentions. We should still study the mistake so, hopefully, we can learn from it and do better in the future.

When we are angry with someone or unkind, it is good that we feel regret and remorse. We say something hurtful to someone else and then wonder, how can I stop feeling so bad and hurt due to my wrong action? It is good to be willing to be still with this hurt and discomfort and try to view these hurt feelings as a Dharma teaching instead of telling yourself that there is something wrong with you and what you did was unforgivable. We need to apply the Dharma to our wrong actions and trust that nothing fundamental was being lost no matter what wrong was committed. The real life of Buddha has nothing that can ever be fundamentally gained or lost. We want to keep reminding ourselves of this deep spiritual truth so we can point ourselves to finding the liberating mind and heart of all acceptance. No wrong action, whether it is our mistakes or someone else’s mistakes or the large mistakes that we see happening in the world, stands against the all embracing heart of Buddha, enfolding everything within it.

It is the nature of karma that we all have to deal with many difficult feelings and wrong behavior. If someone has had a difficult or abusive upbringing, it is normal they may have many difficulties that affect the way they treat themselves and others. Everyone has many problems and difficulties in their life and are frequently unaware of the causes underlying their bad behavior. We need to have compassion for all the mistaken behavior we encounter in ourselves and in the world since it is arising from some karmic cause. Rather than blaming ourselves with guilt or blaming others or being upset with the world, we can learn to be at peace with whatever is unfolding. We can learn to see the good heart within us and within everyone. It is like what a parent often does with their child; they can still see the good heart in their child despite the child’s misbehavior. And that, in a way, is how we should try to be with everyone. We often do not judge small children but feel justified in judging ourselves and in judging other adults. Yet there is no fundamental difference between the five year old and the fifty-five year old except we think the adult should know better. Yet, I have seen five year olds who are more in touch with what matters and what is true than many adults. No one has the intention to be deluded, it arises out of our unconverted karmic tendencies. When we stop our compulsive tendency to judge, we can start seeing the good that is everywhere. It is not that we are ignoring the bad in ourselves and the bad in the world but we are seeing it more as shadows covering the good that fills everything. The world is full of caring parents, grateful children, selfless people helping others and we often ignore all this goodness and allow ourselves to be filled with what is wrong with ourselves and with the world.

It is important to have compassion for our wrong actions and compassion for all wrong actions that are being done by others. This dealing with all of this unconverted karma in our hearts is the very purpose of Buddhist practice. And we do not need to fully understand why we are doing wrong. It can be helpful to know the source of our deluded feelings and thoughts but it not necessary. What is needed is to try to find a way to stop doing wrong and try to do that which seems to be the right action. Meditation can be seen as a way for us to get in touch with this fundamental desire to do good and not allow our self centered desires and fears to control us. When we stop being so self-absorbed in we want or what we fear, this good heart is always there, waiting for us to embrace it. This boundless good heart is not just found within us. When we are open and still, we can find this boundless good heart everywhere. What is sad is that the world is full of people who are looking everywhere, seeking something in life that will make them feel whole. Often, we are that person, who due to our own deep seated delusions, is still clinging to our misguided desires rather than gaining awareness of our own boundless good heart. Let us all trust in the goodness that fills the universe so we can find it within us, filling our hearts.