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.


Sharing The Moral Responsibilty: “After all, it was you and me”

Another violent tragedy. Another massacre, now the largest mass shooting in U.S. history.

It’s 8:06 on Saturday evening. I’m on the website for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. On the right side of the page is a ticker that reads,

People Shot in America This Year: 54, 788.

Shot So Far Today: 248.

In the aftermath of the Aurora movie theatre massacre, we question how many more of these events we will have to endure. We wonder what is wrong with our country. We look for someone to blame.

Obviously, the shooter is first. The nation’s gun lobby is an easy second target, as they continue to spread the odious lie that the Obama Administration wants to take their guns away. Adam Gopnik, in the New Yorker, writes, “Those who fight for the right of every madman and every criminal to have as many people-killing weapons as they want share moral responsibility for what happened . . .”

A writer for the San Francisco Chronicle wants to blame our leaders: “Until our leaders find the courage to do what’s right, the massacres will keep happening. And that is the most senseless tragedy of all.”

Others blame President Obama in particular for sidestepping the gun control issue, for signing into law more repeals of good gun laws than Bush, for knocking down rules that kept loaded guns out of our national parks, for dismantling policies that kept trains safe from armed terrorist attacks.

It’s 8:15 PM. 250 people have been shot in America today.

But, who is really to blame? The answer is you and I. We, the people of the United States. There are many citizens who are too lazy to actually study the Second Amendment and learn what it really means. Too many citizens are uninterested the facts behind the specious claims of the NRA. Those of us who support gun control have been content to sit back, expecting our leaders to do something. Then, disappointed, because the sad truth is our leaders don’t lead anymore, we have lacked the will to hold them accountable.

This is our country, and we are to blame for this madness because so many of us, myself included, have failed as citizens to fully participate in our democracy. We all share the moral responsibility.

It’s 8:27 PM. 252 people have been shot in America today.

I shouted out, who killed the Kennedys?
When after all it was you and me

Sympathy for the Devil, The Rolling Stones

I don’t have the solution. Maybe we need an Occupy Guns movement. All I know it that it is too easy for people who shouldn’t have guns to get them. All I know is that we need to take responsibility for the gun problem ourselves. We can’t allow massacres like this to keep happening. It is time to stop blaming and stop expecting others to do the work. We need to take action.

It’s 8:52 PM. 258 people have been shot in America today.

In the time it has taken me to write this and post it as a draft, 10 people in this country have been shot by a gun.

Ever see a face in the crowd?
Ever hear the sound of the tears rollin’ down?
But, it’s all right, tonight
While we’re cuddled up tight.
In the name of victory,
It’s a shame that you and me
Can’t stop them guns.

Guns, Flo and Eddie