You see people sometimes trying to have right speech: ‘I’m going to vow not to talk badly about anybody! I’m not going to gossip any more. If I speak it will just be on the dhamma! I’m not going to talk about worldly things like politics and football or anything like that.’ So I make this vow before the Lord Buddha. It might work for a while. Then you have tea with the bhikkhus and they are talking in very worldly ways about what kind of cheese they like and so on, and you think, ‘I’m not going to join in with them,’ in a rather supercilious way. So you then go and sit, or read a dhamma book, or find someone who wants to talk about serious things.
You might try your very hardest to live up to this vow, but one day you lose it and start talking in foolish ways. Perhaps somebody starts criticising other people and you get caught up in your own views about them. And then suddenly you think, ‘Oh gosh, I got lost again. Here I go gossiping; saying bad things about others; being foolish. Oh, my vow!’ Then comes remorse and often feelings of despair and just hating yourself.
So my suggestion is this: It is all right to make vows, but really the best vow you can make is to determine that as soon as you see your own heedlessness, you stop right at that moment and go into the silence, even just for a second. You just stop that chain. Even if you have said some pretty stupid things, don’t follow even the remorse, go right into the silence. It’s a way of stopping that cycle of indulgence, and the guilt and remorse around things, and the self-hatred.
If you want to make a vow, a suggestion to the mind, a determination, I have found that this one really works. My character is one with tremendous problems around guilt. I was brought up to be guilt-ridden and remorseful. I can be remorseful about anything. The habit in me was so strong, I could feel guilty about anything it was possible to feel guilty about. Even if it wasn’t possible to feel guilty about something, I could feel guilty about it. This was an obsessive habit. It wasn’t like shame which is about doing something really off and then feeling ashamed of yourself. This was an obsessive habit of guilt, just feeling guilty about breathing. Sometimes I almost apologised for breathing the same air or being in the same room, ‘I’m sorry I’m here. I hope I’m not upsetting anyone. . . hope I’m not being a nuisance to you.’ So, with this guilt and wanting to do good and be a good person, I would try but then fail, try but then fail. Then I would fall into a sense of despair and think, ‘I can’t do it! I’m failing! I’m a failure!’ Finally, I began to see the uselessness of that endless self-criticism and guilt, obsession and guilt. It was just another kind of suffering I had created which had no value, no purpose; it was just part of a habit pattern. So I determined to break the cycle of that habit. Whenever I started to feel guilty or self-conscious, I would try to—like in Star Wars—‘remember the force’, ‘the force is with you’. I would tune into that and stop. I was able to break through that relentless, obsessive habit of self-consciousness, guilt and remorse.
The attitude, however, should not be a ‘trying to get rid of’ something. If you want to get rid of something because you don’t like it, you are resisting it. What I am talking about is just seeing that there is no point in continuing and then to stop doing it, not because you are resisting it, but because you know that there is no point in continuing in that mode any longer; it is to no purpose. You don’t have to wallow in guilt and remorse until it kind of wears out. Once you see that there is a way that you can get out of it right now, through awareness, then do that.
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Buddhism Now Aug 2005
The above is from a talk given by him during a retreat at Amaravati in May 1999.
Courtesy of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery.