I was wondering how the mental factors of Fear and Shame should be understood. Normally I would understand them both as being unwholesome but I guess in Abhidhamma-perspective they have a different meaning.

How should they be understood according to the Abhidhamma?

They are both listed as belonging to the group of Beautiful or Moral cetasikas.

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It's a translation issue. The Pali terms are Hiri and Ottappa, and they are hard to translate into English because they have no one word equivalents.

Hiri refers to the feeling of not wanting to do a bad deed because you know the deed itself is bad, and Ottappa refers to the feeling of not wanting to do an evil deed because you know that the consequences of it are bad.

They definately do not mean what is normally meant by the English words fear and shame. Many suttas speak of fear as unwholesome, and shame in the sense of remorse is mentioned as unwholesome in other Buddhist writings.

For this reason the translator Ajahn Thanissaro prefers to translate these terms as conscience and concern.

The Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote a very good article on these two terms called The Guardians of the World. Here's a very good excerpt:

While moral shame and fear of wrongdoing are united in the common task of protecting the mind from moral defilement, they differ in their individual characteristics and modes of operation. Hiri, the sense of shame, has an internal reference; it is rooted in self-respect and induces us to shrink from wrongdoing out of a feeling of personal honor. Ottappa, fear of wrongdoing, has an external orientation. It is the voice of conscience that warns us of the dire consequences of moral transgression: blame and punishment by others, the painful kammic results of evil deeds, the impediment to our desire for liberation from suffering. Acariya Buddhaghosa illustrates the difference between the two with the simile of an iron rod smeared with excrement at one end and heated to a glow at the other end: hiri is like one's disgust at grabbing the rod in the place where it is smeared with excrement, ottappa is like one's fear of grabbing it in the place where it is red hot.



Fear and shame I believe are referring to the words hiri and ottappa. Hiri-ottappa is not fear and shame in the ordinary sense of these words but it refers to something like the self-correcting concern that a stream enterer has even for making minor transgressions that could hinder progress towards Nibbana. This concern comes through understanding that these actions really are unskillful and having seen a glimpse of Nibbana and having unshakable confidence in the Buddha makes this individual shameful of committing even minor acts that are unskillful. Similar to how a minor blemish on an otherwise dirty piece of cloth doesn't really make a difference, a stream enterer on the other hand sees his/her weaknesses as a blemish on a pure white cloth that needs to be erased. Hiri-otappa is one of the reasons why a stream enterer is on a path of continual improvement that inevitably leads to Nibbana.


In addition to the answers above it might help to reflect on the opposites of Hiri and Ottappa (Ahirika and Anottappa). Just as Hiri and Ottappa arise in all wholesome mental states, Ahirika and Anottappa arise in all unwholesome states of mind.

Ahirika (shamelessness / immodesty) has a characteristic of “no disgust over misconduct”, a function of “doing evil without shame”, a manifestation of “not shrinking away from evil” and a proximate cause of “lack of respect for self”. Just as a pig is not ashamed to roll in sewage, the mind is not disgusted with unwholesome actions, speech or thought. The Buddha said to his son, “Of anyone for whom there is no shame at intentional lying; of him I say that there is no evil he cannot do. ‘I will not speak a lie, even for fun’ – this is how you must train yourself”. In other words, there is no room for “white lies”. To check if there is Shamelessness in the mind, ask yourself, “Is this the kind of Mental State that could arise in an Arahat?” or ask yourself, “Would I be proud if my thought were reported as a headline in tomorrow’s newspaper?”

Anottappa (recklessness / lack of moral dread) has a characteristic of “no dread over misconduct”, a function of “doing evil without dread”, a manifestation of “not shrinking away from evil” and a proximate cause of “lack of respect for others”. Just as a moth gets attracted by fire and is burned, Recklessness is unaware of consequences, gets attracted by the unwholesome and plunges into the danger zone. To check if there is Recklessness in the mind, ask yourself, “Is this Mental State going to be the wind under my wings to lift me up, or the weight around my neck to drag me down?” or ask yourself, “What kind of kamma is this Mental State creating?”

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