Pema Chödrön, an American nun in the Shambhala lineage of Tibetan Buddhism and the author of several books, including the best-selling When Things Fall Apart and The Places that Scare You, currently practices under the guidance of the Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, a teacher in the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Dzigar Kongtrul established the mountain retreat center Longchen Jigme Samten Ling, in southern Colorado. He spends much of his time there guiding students, with particular emphasis on long-term retreat practice. At his retreat center last spring, Pema Chödrön spoke with Dzigar Kongtrul about a primary obstacle Westerners face in their practice: guilt.

Pema Chödrön: Rinpoche, since you’ve been living in North America for some time and know Western mind and culture well—what do you think is the most beneficial advice you can give to dharma students here?

Ven. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche: The most important thing that I see Western students needing to realize is guiltlessness.

PC:  Guiltlessness?

VDKR:  Yes, guiltlessness. They need to realize that the person or the mind is, by its very nature, innocent.

PC: Could you explain what you mean by “innocent”?

VDKR: I mean that from the Buddhist point of view we can understand that all the things we do to harm ourselves and others come from deep-rooted confusions and ignorance but that the mind is by its very nature pure and enlightened. When we feel a tremendous amount of guilt, we forget this view.

PC: I think sometimes Western students have trouble believing this view.

VDKR: The fact that all sentient beings long for happiness and freedom proves that the nature of their mind is pure and innocent.

PC: But it seems that we identify more with “bad me” than with pure and innocent.

VDKR: This sense of “bad me” comes from not understanding the view of selflessness that is so central to the Buddhist path. Understanding that there is no solid, singular, or permanent “me” makes it possible to accommodate whatever arises in life without feeling so intimidated by our experience, without rolling over like a defeated dog in a dogfight. We can see that things arise due to our karma playing itself out and that it does not necessarily have to be so personal. In this way we can identify with something greater—which is our nature itself. From this perspective, since there is no solid, singular, permanent self, there’s not going to be a “bad” self to feel guilty about. Mind is innocent but influenced by ignorance and wrong conceptual beliefs that project a self. But there is no self.

Related: No Right, No Wrong

PC: So how do we realize selflessness?

VDKR: Mind has an innate intelligence, and this intelligence can be cultivated—so that one can realize selflessness—which is the opposite of this projected “me.” This is our true nature.

PC: With this in mind, how do we approach that deep-rooted tendency of feeling guilty?

VDKR: First, just on a basic level, we can remind ourselves that guilt has no benefit of any sort and only increases our neurotic attachment to the self. But, more importantly, we can see that guilt is actually the way we try to escape responsibility for our actions and circumstances. We feel guilty when we don’t fully accept our circumstances. Instead, we continually try to protect and cherish this imaginary self. When we feel guilty, we are actually substantiating this “self” even further, rather than honestly looking at the situation in front of us. If we remember that the mind is innocent, even though we so often act out of ignorance we can distance ourselves from the situation enough to actually look at it honestly. Guilt, on the other hand, is a sidetrack with no resolution—it’s endless. You may feel like you are facing something because you are steeped in it—kind of rubbing your nose in how very bad it is—but actually you are not accepting it.

PC: Rinpoche, if I’ve done something harmful and I’m not to feel guilty about it, then how can I come to terms with what I’ve done? How can I completely acknowledge what I’ve done and yet not feel guilt?

VDKR: Through means of regret. Regret is a function of mind’s intelligence. We can see what we’ve done to cause suffering to ourselves and others. We acknowledge what we’ve done and also resolve not to do it again. This is very helpful. We see it clearly and acknowledge it so it does not remain in our mind stream. To be able to self-reflect in this way brings tremendous freedom. It’s like you stop fighting your circumstances and look honestly. Because your view of self is not so tightly knit, you can look without intimidation. We do this practice of acknowledging and purifying, with deep regret about what we’ve done to cause harm. We expose it to ourselves.

© Christine Alicino
© Christine Alicino

PC: Rinpoche, I don’t really see the difference between regret and guilt. There’s still the sense that one has done something bad.

VDKR: The difference between guilt and regret is that guilt never faces the wrongdoing straightforwardly. There’s just this strong emotion of “I wish it hadn’t happened. I wish I didn’t do it. I wish I had never gotten angry” or “I wish I didn’t do that embarrassing thing,” and so on. Regret is the opposite of guilt. We acknowledge it, we expose to ourselves that we have done something harmful and how it came about from our ignorance, but we don’t get caught in emotions and story lines. The sense of remorse is not anywhere near as heavy as the “bad me” that guilt produces. As a matter of fact, the sensation of wholehearted remorse is freeing. By applying the view of selflessness, we can see how unhelpful guilty feelings freeze us in our perception of ourselves as “bad me.” When one feels room to open and can see that out of ignorance, not out of an intrinsic “bad me,” one has done something to trouble others, then there’s no hesitation to see that. And there is no hesitation, if it seems beneficial, to apologize.

PC: Thank you. That certainly clarifies a lot for me. Are there other benefits that come from reflecting on guiltlessness?

VDKR: When one realizes guiltlessness within oneself, one feels freer and lighter. The attachment to the self, which we all have, lifts. We also start to work with our minds better. The mind is more agile and flexible, because our intelligence becomes the reference point instead of this self we so desperately grasp onto. Then we can break down our actions more precisely and work with our actions in more creative ways in the future, with more wisdom. In the case of relating to the wrongdoings of others, we see that the nature of their mind is also innocent, guiltless. Ignorance has influenced them and they are blinded and vulnerable. And because they are helpless under the power of ignorance, it is easier for us to generate compassion for them and forgive them as well. It is much easier to do all this when we see the person as innocent rather than guilty and intrinsically bad.

Related: Six Lessons from Patrul Rinpoche 

PC: One of the most important aspects of being a teacher is to point out the student’s blind spots. How do you work with this when students have so much trouble seeing their faults?

VDKR: This is a good question. Ultimately, nothing significant can really take place within the practice or within the student-teacher relationship until the student is ready to see his or her faults without heavy guilt. To the extent that a student wants to do this, he or she is a practitioner. When a teacher points out these dark hidden areas, the ignorance is being addressed and exposed for the student’s benefit, rather than in order to increase a sense of an intrinsic bad self. But a teacher also needs to maintain an awareness of the true identity of the student. The teacher also points out the student’s basic nature so that he or she can identify with his or her own goodness, and not with guilt or defensiveness. Then there is plenty of room to look at the hidden corners that really are fleeting and temporary. Both student and teacher must have an awareness of the student’s blind spots and his or her Buddha-nature.

PC: So the readiness to self-reflect seems to be the key here.

VDKR: The readiness to self-reflect coupled with the greater view of selflessness, which really makes it possible to look. When we are able to do this, all in all, we will become much more carefree, free of struggle.

PC: Struggle?

VDKR: Yes, the struggle is the guilt—not wanting to look. With the view of guiltlessness we can work with wrong or right, did or didn’t. It doesn’t matter. We can feel free to work with that situation without struggle. The mind is more agile because there is more space—space to look without feeling threatened. Once guilt has awakened, it has this extra-strength feeling of intrinsically “bad me.” This is not helpful and not true and not in accord with the way things are. If we bring the view of egolessness to our guilt, it will pop the deep part of our emotional attachment to this intrinsic “bad me.” I feel certain that realizing guiltlessness and selflessness is very helpful for all practitioners.

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