12/26/2012 04:18 pm ET Updated Feb 25, 2013

Regret vs. Remorse

When we engage in non-virtuous activities, we place negative potentialities in our minds. In general, all negative actions are caused by the root delusions of anger, grasping attachment (or craving) and ignorance. Ignorance may be thought of as the "tap root" of all delusions, because anger and craving arise in our minds only because we are ignorant of the true nature of the things that cause us to experience these negative emotions. Because negative actions are caused by ignorance, regret, rather than remorse, is the appropriate way to respond when we recognize that we have engaged in negative activities.

Remorse is a delusion, because when we feel remorse, we are viewing ourselves as bad and sinful by nature, and it is just as incorrect to view ourselves this way as it is to view others this way. If we think of ourselves as bad and sinful by nature, we feel guilt, self-loathing and powerlessness. No one is bad and sinful by nature; rather, we are projecting these characteristics onto the objects we are viewing in this way. Both non-virtuous actions and virtuous actions arise because of the way we view things, and we have the ability to eliminate ignorant views and replace them with "right view" -- one of the elements of the eightfold noble path. By replacing ignorant views with right view, we create the conditions for the changes that enable us to progress on the path to Buddhahood. If we view ourselves and others as having acted out of ignorance, we can feel the universal, unbiased love of a bodhisattva rather than loathing of self and others. It is right view to think of ourselves and others as lovable, even when we act non-virtuously -- just as a parent or a psychologist views an unruly child or client. By assessing our non-virtuous actions as regrettably ignorant, we begin to create the conditions that enable us to take control of our actions rather than being slaves of anger and craving. In order to eliminate completely the ignorance that causes us to act regrettably, we need to purify the negative potentialities we have placed in our minds by our ignorant actions, and in order to purify the negative potentialities we have placed in our minds by our non-virtuous actions, we must begin by regretting the ignorant actions that placed them there.

When we think of our actions as regrettably ignorant, we open ourselves up to turning to spiritual teachers, spiritual teachings and spiritual friends for guidance about how to act wisely rather than ignorantly. In Buddhism, turning to these sources of guidance is called "going for refuge" to the three jewels -- Buddha, dharma and sangha. Sincerely regretting our non-virtuous actions and taking refuge in the three jewels are the first two steps of a four-step process that eliminates the negative potentialities in our minds that are caused by non-virtuous actions. The three jewels give us the guidance and support we need to walk correct spiritual paths leading to enlightenment. By walking correct spiritual paths, we apply an "opponent force" to the negative potentialities placed in our minds by non-virtuous actions and replace them with positive potentialities that come from virtuous actions. We have a tendency to continue to do what we have done in the past, so we must replace non-virtuous actions with virtuous actions in order to make spiritual progress. The last of the four steps that purify the negative potentialities placed in our minds by regrettable actions is to vow sincerely to refrain from non-virtuous actions in the future. We should meditate on this vow to strengthen the hold it has on our minds.

In my blog, "Lojong Meditation: The Bodhisattva's Mind-Training Practice," I explained the three types of meditation a bodhisattva uses and how they are coordinated in order to meditate effectively. We can do analytic meditation on why non-virtuous actions are regrettable, and when we become convinced that we should abandon them we can do placement meditation on the vow to abandon them. We can either meditate on why, in general, non-virtuous behavior is regrettable, or we can meditate on why a particular type of non-virtuous behavior, such as lying, is regrettable. In this blog post, I have discussed some of the reasons why non-virtuous behavior, in general, is regrettable, and in future blog posts I will discuss why particular types of non-virtue are regrettable. Analytic meditation to cause us to feel regret is very conducive to making the vow to avoid non-virtuous actions in the future, whereas feeling remorse can easily trap us in self-loathing. Rethink how you view yourself if you find yourself feeling remorse, so that you can view yourself as having acted regrettably as a result of ignorance. Love yourself as your own patient who needs to overcome ignorance and use regret to become motivated to walk the spiritual path that eventually overcomes it. Using these steps, everyone can begin to walk the spiritual paths that lead to the true and lasting happiness of a wise person.

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