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What does Buddhism say about Guilt?

edited September 2011 in Buddhism Basics
I am new to Buddhism and meditation. I am going through a very difficult part in my life. I have made a lot of mistakes in the past. I have this overwhelming guilt that is tearing me apart. I have asked for forgiveness and received it, but I can not shake this overwhelming guilt.

I know that nothing I can do can change the past. How can Buddhism help me reconcile my guilt to move forward.


  • zenffzenff Veteran
    edited September 2011
    In Buddhism there are no bad people and no good ones either.
    There are merely good (or helpful) actions and bad (not helpful) actions.
    There is no “me” doing the actions; there are just impersonal processes.

    The Buddhist response to guilt – in short – is that it is part of the self-delusion which causes much of your suffering; one way or the other.
    People who feel great about themselves have the same problem with a different color.

  • There was this wonderful story someone posted about the Dalai Lama. Someone came to him for teachings, and the DL was talking about rebirth, and afterwards, this one student ran off and committed suicide so he could have a better rebirth, or something (I'm fuzzy on the details). So when the DL found out about this, he felt terrible, because he felt responsible for the student's death. And after all these years, when people ask him if the feelings about that incident are still there, he pauses to think, and then says, "Yes, still there". But the point is he doesn't dwell on it.

    Focus on where you are now--you've made some changes in your life, you're in the process of getting yourself onto a better track, that's the important thing. And in the future you can do many good works, many compassionate things. Focus on the potential you have to change things around and start a new chapter in your life. And if at some point you join a buddhist community, a study group, a sangha, you can ask the monk, lama, roshi, whoever, to do a purification ceremony, (I don't know if all the traditions have this, but I imagine they do in some form) which consists of a confession on your part, and then the monk gives you a blessing or whatever the specific procedure it. In any case, it's about heartfelt remorse, and then cleansing the spirit so you can begin anew, rather than dwelling on the past, and beating yourself up about the past, which isn't at all constructive, see?

    I hope this helps somewhat. Buddhism is about using the mind, it's partly a discipline of the mind. You're using your mind to torture yourself, but that's a choice, not a lifelong sentence. You can choose to look forward, not back, and put your skills and your heart into constructive pursuits.
  • Guilt is regret. Regret is grasping the idea of an outcome that didn't happen in the past. The past doesn't exist. Grasping causes suffering.
  • Another recommended strategy for guilt is to make restitution, when possible. A heartfelt apology, at the very least, and restitution of some sort, if only symbolic, depending on the situation, can help clear the guilt, and clear the air between you and the aggrieved party. If there's too much anger on someone's part for you to be able to make restitution (a heartfelt apology should be attempted anyway, if not in person, by mail), you can do an anonymous act of restitution.

    Guilt can be an excuse for not taking action. When you take action, you'll move that energy that's creating guilt, and give it a positive, constructive outlet. It can be healing for all parties involved.
  • genkakugenkaku Northampton, Mass. U.S.A. Veteran
    Do you feel guilty when you sneeze?
    Do you feel guilty when you laugh?
    Do you feel guilty when the wet coolness of a much-needed glass of water slides over your tongue and down your throat?

    All of these things and more like them tell us that what we regret is limited whereas what we live is not. Meditation -- paying close attention and actually seeing what happens -- brings us bit by bit into what might be called sneeze mode or laugh mode ... the present is inescapable so trying to escape doesn't make much sense. No one lives without regret, but what they do with it varies.
  • I have made a lot of mistakes in the past.

    I can respect the struggle you're facing. As we become more well intentioned, we can see how stupidly we've acted in the past, and how mistakes we have made hurt ourselves and others. Have you made mistakes? Yes, you have! So what can we do differently with that understanding?

    Buddha taught that ignorance is a quality we have from birth. As babies, we don't know what to do, how to do anything, and have the task of learning how to make sense of the environment we're in. Usually, we don't have perfect teachers either, making our struggles with ignorance even more difficult.

    This makes it foolish to fault ourselves or others for mistakes. The sense of guilt is baggage, pointless, and is suffering. We stub our toe on the couch, scream in pain, blame the couch... then facepalm and get back to the practice. We had enough pain already! What point is there in feeling guilty about being unskillful? That's why its called a buddhist practice, because we all make mistakes and are foolish sometimes.

    Do your best here and now, that's plenty enough. Its good to reflect on where we have acted unskillfuly, because we can learn what do do better. Guilt will only cloud your mind and heart from acting on those lessons you've learned. You have learned, right? Then let go!

    Also, if you do some metta practice, it can make the painful sensations in your body from the guilt less potent.

    With warmth,

  • DhammaDhatuDhammaDhatu Veteran
    edited September 2011
    I know that nothing I can do can change the past. How can Buddhism help me reconcile my guilt to move forward.
    the Buddha wanted human beings to move forwards rather than backwards

    the Buddha taught the "doer" of harmful action is ignorance or not-knowing

    the Buddha taught each realisation of & subsequent restraint towards harmful actions is a step in growth on the spiritual path

    please read the quotes below with due care so the Buddha's enlightened attitude towards this matter can be learned & adopted

    kind regards

    DD :)
    Yes, great king, a transgression overcame you in that you were so foolish, so muddle-headed and so unskilled as to kill your father — a righteous man, a righteous king — for the sake of sovereign rulership. But because you see your transgression as such and make amends in accordance with the Dhamma, we accept your confession. For it is a cause of growth in the Dhamma & Discipline of the noble ones when, seeing a transgression as such, one makes amends in accordance with the Dhamma and exercises restraint in the future.

    172. He who having been heedless is heedless no more, illuminates this world like the moon freed from clouds.

    173. He, who by good deeds covers the evil he has done, illuminates this world like the moon freed from clouds.


  • I am new to Buddhism as well and I am also overcoming a lot of guilt from the mistakes that I have made. Something that has helped me climb this mountain has been quotes. Finding Buddhist quotes about guilt is something that helped clear my mind. Insightful words of others can really help. What everyone else said is more then correct, Just carry on and don't forget you can't change the past only the future :)
  • Guilt is anger and hatred turned onto ourselves.

    Because of impermanence the past is dead and gone and cannot be changed. In a misguided attempt to even the score we punish ourselves with guilt.

    You said that others have forgiven you for some of your past actions (karma) done out of ignorance (Wrong View) that caused them harm.
    That is good for them. Now you need to do the same, forgive yourself and let go of this suffering you are creating.

    I might suggest metta become a focus of your meditation practice and kindness and forgiveness be the thought that you concentrate on each time you become aware of obsessive feelings of guilt arise.

    Off the cushion try to do less harm in the only place that is real. Right Now. Even a kind word, a smile, or some little selfless act of generosity helps.

    Best Wishes
  • Guilt is regret. Regret is grasping the idea of an outcome that didn't happen in the past. The past doesn't exist. Grasping causes suffering.
    I disagree; I think guilt and regret are separate. I think guilt is based in the ego; it's just the opposite of being ego-centric. It's a wrong view, where as regret is more positive. We can regret the past; but as long as we deal with it, clean up anything we need to and learn from it; I think regret is a positive motivating force, just like compassion motivates us to help others, regret motivates us to change for the better.

    I've also suffered with a lot of guilt; I really used to beat myself up about abandoning a wife and two children; even my own mother disowned me. I've hurt a lot of people (I'm a recovered alkie) during my drinking days. Guilt just paralysed me - it's a very selfish emotion into drinking more; it wasn't a useful emotion(poor me, me, me, me, pour me another drink).

    Regret can be useful motivator however.

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