People have always been interested in superheroes, and lately, as blockbusters inundate us, a new wave of interest is swelling. We like the idea of someone with special powers watching over us, ready to intervene in a crisis and keep us safe from dark forces. The Buddha also spoke of two superheroes he called “the two bright qualities [that] protect the world” (dve sukka dhamma lokam palenti—Anguttara Nikaya 2.9). These are Hiri, or conscience, and Ottappa, our respect for others. Hiri and Ottappa do not fly around the universe in spaceships, shooting lasers. They are found patrolling the depths of the human psyche, where they swoop in to thwart the evil masterminds who concoct our suffering and plot to destroy our world.
Today, humans are no longer constantly threatened by the ferocious beasts of the wilderness, and science has dispelled many of our former superstitions. The greatest dangers we face now erupt from within our own hearts: human greed, hatred, and delusion, the archvillains that cause so many real-world problems. Greed, the powerful impulse to snatch whatever it can, will take even life itself from the defenseless. Hatred drives us to do unspeakable things to those we view as other. And delusion, so willingly embraced, smothers any insight that might arise about the danger we’re in or the harm we may do. The twin guardians are the crucial allies we have to foil their plots.
The first hero, Hiri, can be thought of as conscience or self-respect. She (the Pali noun is feminine) flies into our mental world at the moment when we are considering doing something that we know deep down to be wrong. Hiri is our personal sense of ethical integrity, our moral compass, our intuitive understanding of what is right and wrong, what’s appropriate and what isn’t. She is not a severe critic but a soft, caring voice whispering in our ear and guiding us through our lives with courage and compassion. She saves us from the demons lurking within and stands beside us when we say, “No, that is just not right. I will not do it (or say it or think it).”
Her intrepid ally Ottappa is the elemental force of caring for others and respecting their concerns. It (the Pali noun is neuter) appears on the scene when we’re tempted to do something that is against the laws of propriety, is outside the social norm, or would be condemned by the people we respect. Ottappa draws its strength from the fact that we are social creatures who belong to a family or community, and that our actions are rooted in and accountable to a larger collective order. Our sangha is like a group of stars that helps us navigate a moral course. Ottappa points steadily at the inherent respect we possess for others as our north star, and helps us say, “I care about the opinion of the group and would not have my friends be ashamed of my actions (or my words or even my thoughts).”
Whenever these two superheroes are at our side, we are sure to make the right choices and to act, speak, and even think in ways that are helpful, healthy, and skillful. The Buddha said they guard the world, protecting it from getting broken by the onslaught of the worst parts of ourselves. Without them people could act like beasts, ravaging even their own mothers. We all know what atrocities human beings are capable of. For so many victims, Hiri and Ottappa do not always show up in time, held at bay by their nemeses, Ahiri (lack of conscience) and Anottappa (lack of respect). These two anti-heroes are present every time a harmful, cruel, or ignorant deed is done, blocking out the benevolent effects of conscience and respect.
Fortunately Hiri and Ottappa have other friends, including Sati, or mindfulness, who goes first into every fray and summons the team into action. Sati is conscious awareness of what is happening right now, and Ahiri and Anottappa can only function when such awareness is absent. When people do harm to themselves and others, they are often not aware of what they are doing. They are conscious enough to act, but not conscious enough to be aware of the quality of their actions or of their consequences. Whenever a person musters even a degree of mindfulness, conscience and respect arrive there too, helping them do, say, and think what is helpful rather than what is harmful.
The superheroes we need don’t come from faraway planets or live in secret hideouts on remote islands. Our heroes must be summoned from within. It’s up to us to put them to work and to learn how to save ourselves.