Regret is not guilt

Apr 15, 2021

There are four steps in the psychological process of purifying negative karma. As Lama Yeshe says, “What purification is is the power of your regret, the power of reliance, the power of the remedy, the power of the resolve.” It’s the intensity of your own mind engaging in these four steps that purifies the karmic seeds we have planted in our mind, that actually changes our mind.

If I’m a Christian, God made me, so therefore the purification of my sins is dependent upon God’s forgiving me. Why? Because God is the boss. As my Jesuit priest friend told me: a sin, by definition, is doing what God said not to do. That’s what makes it wrong. This is a crucial point.

Here it’s got nothing to do with that, because Buddha is not a creator, he’s not the boss. Of course, Buddha would forgive me; he’s compassionate. But that isn’t the issue here. That’s not the point, it’s not the point at all.

The point here is our engaging in this process of first regretting, taking responsibility for, having thought and said or done an action that harms another. We check back on our day what we did with our body and speech that might have harmed others. And then we regret that we said those words and did that action.

But what is really, really important here – and this is an attitude that we do not have, so it really takes us time to consciously cultivate this – is to understand this very specific attitude of regret.

Not guilt

Right now, because we’re still caught up in ego, because we’re so caught up in the huge attachment to be loved and approved of by others, we therefore have guilt. We’re afraid we’ll be judged.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama one time was asked the difference between guilt and regret. He said, “Guilt is looking into the past and saying, ‘I did this and this and this and this and therefore I am a bad person.’” We all know this very, very well. Or we think, “I shouldn’t have done that.” Basically these views are anger against ourselves. They’re useless, impotent. There’s no action, no solution.

Regret, however, as His Holiness says, is very simply recognizing yes, indeed, “I did this and this and this,” but then we think, “What can I do about it?” It’s a hopeful attitude. It’s a courageous attitude because we’re taking responsibility, we’re acknowledging that out of ignorance we did in fact say those words and or do that action. “You’re right, I did!”

Just saying “I regret this or that” has no meaning until we understand why I regret? Usually, as I said, it’s because someone won’t like us anymore, we’re fearful of being rejected; it’s totally self-centered. Here, it’s because we’re taking responsibility. It’s a view we have to cultivate. We could say that it does demand, doesn’t it, that we have a good relationship with ourself, a respectful relationship. We’re becoming our own friend.

If we can’t acknowledge we’ve taken poison we can’t do any of the future steps, can we? We won’t go looking for a doctor. We won’t apply the remedy. And we won’t resolve to never do it again.

Like taking poison

It’s as if we’ve just eaten our dinner and someone says, “There’s poison in it!” The attitude of regret that we would have then is exactly the attitude of regret that we have to cultivate here. In other words, we say, “Oh no, what a fool! I can’t believe I’ve taken poison! Quick, where’s the doctor?” Why do we think this? Because we don’t want the future suffering.

We will then rush off to do something about it. We don’t just sit there going, “Oh, I’m a bad person, I ate poison, I’m so stupid, I ate poison.” Every day we’re getting sicker and sicker and, “Oh, I’m such a bad person, I ate poison.” Useless, right? We’ve got to find the antidote.

All actions bring results, just naturally

We have no sense in our life, emotionally and mentally, that there are any consequences to myself of what we do, say and think. We know that when it comes to the food we eat and the cigarettes we smoke – the things we do that affect the body –there are consequences. But we don’t really know that there are consequences to myself of lying and stealing and killing, not to mention the states of mind that impel them such as anger and attachment.

Regret – acknowledging, owning our actions – is the first step and, as Lama Zopa Rinpoche says, the most important, because it leads to the others.

(See the blog of 31 March that describes all four steps of purification.)



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