Monday, August 20, 2007


The subject of shame came up after our sit at sangha yesterday--along with its handy helpmates, guilt and embarrassment--and how easily we can allow our lives to be governed by it. I recalled at once one of my favorite movie scenes, the one in "A Fish Called Wanda" where John Cleese tells Jamie Lee Curtis what it's like to be English. I looked it up online and was amazed to find the exact quote from the screenplay. Here it is (John Cleese speaking):
"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?


They call him James Ure said...

It truly is sad that many (not all) Christian denominations use guilt, shame and fear to control people.

I too am working on uprooting all that unnecessary guilt, shame and fear from my mind.

Of course it is important to understand when we have done things that are harmful. But most of us are too hard on ourselves rather then not hard enough.

PeterAtLarge said...

Good to hear from you, James. We do all struggle with many of the same things, no? Blessings, PaL

Themindtaker said...

When you bring up the “powerfully destructive” nature of shame, my mind races immediately back to my grade school years in Catholic elementary school. Teachers have always been good at intimidating children, but when you put the power of God behind them, you can strike true terror in the hearts of students (especially a particularly sensitive young boy…).

But that’s just school, kids grow up—and yet people still seem to fear true freedom, because of that stereotypically-English-yet-still-universal aversion to embarrassment you spoke about. No one wants to make the wrong choice, so we try to give ourselves as few options as possible. “These things are sins; don’t ever do them.” We accept the possibility of the shame of sin as a necessary evil to keep our number of options down.

Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron wrote, “Guilt and shame are obstacles to overcome on the path, because they keep us trapped in our self-centered melodrama entitled ‘How Bad I Am.’”

Ironically, the people I know who consider there to be no “right” and “wrong” in life are the most “moral” (if there is such a thing) people I know, by which I mean, they respect themselves and others.

khengsiong said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
khengsiong said...

From what I know: in Buddhism, 'sin' is replaced with the concept of ignorance. We make mistakes because we are ignorant.

The concept of ignorance, I suppose, explains the tolerance exhibited by Buddhism. We hate sinful people, but we pity ignorant ones.

carly said...

My favorite movie moment on this subject is in M*A*S*H, when Frank, played by Robert Duval, tells the young aid, played by Bud Cort, that he just killed the patient. Trapper, Eliot G, sees the gilt thrown into the kid, and punishes Frank in a storeroom.

Recently, I studied these problems in Rottenburg, Germany, for more than three hours, at the Kriminolmuseum, a fascinating place. All kinds of punishments displayed for all the crimes, large and small in recent centuries in Germany. They have the original "Iron Maiden". and illustrations and official documents and items like "shame masks" which could be clamped on one in public for something as small as being a gossip. Leave it to the Germans to use devices with religious relish.

But I think in terms of blame and remorse. It's natural to blame others or yourself. Setting out to shame someone is unnatural. Or a sick, systematic scheme of shame like Nazi Germany is, need I say, deeply evil. Guilt and remorse are similar, except, remorse is usually a natural feeling which comes over one rather independent of others. Like the time I killed a bird for no good reason other than coming of age as a thoughtless pre-teen, and I felt remorseful forever, really, because I acted callously toward something so innocent in nature and it was a strong lesson and a positive one, to never kill again. So, guilt, can be induced in a number of nefarious ways and be an imagined culpability or inadequacy, but remorse is an internal self-reproach or distress guided by your human instinct and can be helpful in life. In ancient China, it was considered the height of wisdom to pardon remorseful criminals whenever possible, because to do so has a powerful effect on the culture. But in China, recently, punishment is swift and sure. Society should be guided by the old Chinese way.

Shame and guilt don't affect me because I was brought up by agnostics to not care what others think and instead look at myself for guidance. But in the weak man, instilling a sense of pride can motivate him to act in an upright way. And that's how it all got started in society peaking in the Victorian Age, and in any age corrupted by abuse and lack of sense and balance.

I've heard the 'ignorance' angle too. But it's a real job connecting the dots in those teachings. I prefer the natural approach. Remorse is a good guide.

carly said...

Blame is different from shame, again, in an independent way. To incure blame, and if you use gasoline you share blame, is universal and is a basic condition in life. Shame is an artificial construct to control others. Examine the order they occur, for instance. When a member of society commits a grievance, all involved understand the blame incurred forthwith. In terms of action, a fork is reaced. But there is no shame until someone points a finger in order to disgrace the guilty one. The process from that point on is suseptible to courruption and abuse.

PeterAtLarge said...

Carly, I think it's possible to feel shame before anyone starts pointing the finger--although the finger can certainly induce it. Finger-pointing, as I understand it, usually induces guilt. But maybe we're dancing on pinheads here. Point is, neither guilt nor shame are helpful if they hang around longer than to remind me that I have something further to explore about myself, in the search for greater freedom.

carly said...

I cannot empathize, but only sympathize with you for feeling shame even before anyone notices as it does not carry much weight for me what others think.

Here then, freedom may be the letting fall of other's opinions, unless you happen to agree with them, which leads to your own enrichment.