Guilt Is Not a Buddhist Concept

Guilt, according to some scholars, is something that can be overcome. It does not exist in Buddhist terminology.

– Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

A commenter to Sunday’s post on moral responsibility said he did not believe in collective guilt. I don’t either. However, I am not always sure what people mean when they use the word “guilt.” I don’t believe in guilt period. Buddhism views guilt as a negative. Guilt is an emotional attitude that produces nothing but unproductive shame and an unnecessary sense of unworthiness.

Perhaps it is only a matter of inference, yet “responsibility” seems to be a different matter. Buddhism encourages us to take responsibility for our lives, the choices we make, the actions we take. And since we are not alone in this world, life is a collective affair. That seems to me to imply that we have a collective moral responsibility in regards to shared problems.

A murderer may feel guilty about the act committed, and yet may try to escape responsibility. Guilt is passive, while responsibility requires some action, if only to pay a debt to society or to resolve never to do it again.

I’ve always felt that the idea of Buddhist monks secluding themselves in monasteries or hiding away in forests was not in the true spirit of the Buddha’s original teachings. I don’t believe the Buddha advocated becoming so detached that one’s responsibility as a member of society was abolished. He and his followers did not seclude themselves. They always stayed on the edges of cities and villages, and interacted with ordinary people on a daily basis. The Buddha envisioned the bhikkhus with a different kind of responsibility, a more spiritual one, to show the way to overcome suffering. While few of us live in monasteries or forests, it is easy become insular and detached from the problems of the world as we abide in the present moment.


In Japanese Buddhism, a word used for mercy or compassion is jihi. It consists of two Chinese characters. The top character means “to care, to cry,” and the bottom one, “to remove the cause for suffering.” From a Buddhist perspective, it is not enough merely have to empathy with others; we must do something about their suffering.

Based on what I have heard and read in the last few days, it seems that many Americans have given up on removing the cause of gun violence. It is sheer insanity for people to have automatic weapons that fire 50 to 60 rounds per minute. Other countries have been able to do something about this, and while they still have violence, they don’t have the kind of mass violence committed by “ordinary” citizens we have in America.

Gun control is not the only solution, but it is a practical one. How you feel about it is up to you. I’m just stating my opinion, for whatever it is worth, that we have a collective responsibility to prevent massacres like the Aurora movie theater shooting. However, I am not suggesting that we assume some huge guilt trip. Guilt, to paraphrase John Webster, is tedious. Guilt is just another suffering.


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