"Wanda, do you have any idea what it's like being English? Being so correct all the time, being so stifled by this dread of, of doing the wrong thing, of saying to someone "Are you married?" and hearing "My wife left me this morning," or saying, uh, "Do you have children?" and being told they all burned to death on Wednesday. You see, Wanda, we'll all terrified of embarrassment. That's why we're so... dead. Most of my friends are dead, you know, we have these piles of corpses to dinner. But you're alive, God bless you, and I want to be, I'm so fed up with all this. I want to make love with you, Wanda. I'm a good lover - at least, used to be, back in the early 14th century. Can we go to bed?"As usual, it's the dreadful truth lurking behind the apparent absurdity that makes you laugh. For me, having been brought up about as English as you can get, the truth was a painful one, and I came to understand the way it functioned far too late in life. The fear of embarrassment poisoned every aspect of my life, including, of course, my ability to be truthful with those I loved, or even with myself. Everything of any importance needed to be disguised behind a veil of propriety. By the same token, I know about shame, too, from my British public (read, perversely, private) school days, when shame was the weapon of choice to gain power and ascendancy.
When I finally began to understand how unacknowledged shame can control a person's life through learned reactive patterns, I learned the relationship between shame and guilt--a key distinction also brought up by one of our sangha members yesterday. Guilt, I learned, is the result of something I have done; shame is about my very being, who I am. There's a big difference, I think, between the Christian understanding of guilt and shame--the understanding with which I was brought up--and the Buddhist understanding, which seems to me now infinitely more humane. The Christian notion of "sin" can be powerfully destructive in the mind of a young person, for example, beginning to experience his natural human sexuality. It can bring about inhibitions that will last a lifetime. The sense of guilt can be a lasting punishment for my transgressions and can paralyze my ability to act in the future. Shame can permeate my very soul. Unacknowledged, unexplored, unforgiven, it can be a life sentence.
The Buddhist conception, as I understand it, is as usual much more practical and much more humane. Rather than "committing sins," we make mistakes. Morality and responsibility go hand in hand. Our actions are unskillful, and their results bring demonstrable harm to ourselves and others. We acknowledge that they have brought about undesirable results and decide not to repeat them. There's no moralistic snag in the works, no "bad" to get hung up on, none of the sticky stuff that clings to the inner being after the event, no brownie points for feeling bad about yourself.
I'm reading the new tome produced by the ever-prolific Thanissaro Bhikkhu, "The Buddhist Monastic Code." a 1,200 page translation and commentary on the monastic rules of Buddhism. It's fascinating reading. The transgressions of the rules themselves are analyzed down to the finest distinctions as to object, perception, intention and effort, and the required penalties assigned with incredible attention to those distinctions. The penalty for the worst offenses is "defeat"--or automatic disrobing. Lesser penalties involve various forms of confession and negotiation with superiors, brother monks, or sanghas. What strikes me as I read is the very practical nature of the manual: it concentrates heavily on actions and the results of actions rather than their spiritual implications, which are left unsaid.
Enough. I'm not sure that I'm making useful distinctions here for anyone but myself. And it's time to get ready to get down to the gym for my Monday morning workout. Any thoughts on this topic, anyone?