I am interested in knowing what the Buddha said about guilt. I think I know that it is an unwholesome mind state. Is there any specific teaching that can be gleaned from the suttas. Can anyone also recommend any meditation or contemplation practices to get over crippling guilt.
Buddhism explains the 'doer' of bad actions (kamma) is 'ignorance' ('not-knowing') rather than 'oneself'. When the mind realises an action is bad & hurtful, this is the arising of wisdom & a positive step according to Buddhism. The Dhammapada states:
172. He who having been heedless is heedless no more, illuminates this world like the moon freed from clouds.
173. He, who by good deeds covers the evil he has done, illuminates this world like the moon freed from clouds.
Within the Vinaya, a transgression (one that causes guilt or not) is overcome by declaring it to at least one monk.. The length of time it takes to overcome the transgression was set at the length of time the transgression was kept secret (keep some wrongdoing secret for a year, it is easy to imagine you won't just be able to consciously brush it off in one day!).
The quote on fools and wise people does this idea justice for me:
"Monks, these two are fools. Which two? The one who doesn't see his transgression as a transgression, and the one who doesn't rightfully pardon another who has confessed his transgression. These two are fools.
These two are wise people. Which two? The one who sees his transgression as a transgression, and the one who rightfully pardons another who has confessed his transgression. These two are wise people." AN 2.21
(also, has always worked for me on a personal level - admitting wrongdoing and guilt, preferably in a non-secretive, open setting to others is usually the best way of admitting this to your self, and therefore starting the process of changing yourself for the better)
"Skillful virtues have freedom from remorse as their purpose, Ananda, and freedom from remorse as their reward."
It also mentions that "feeling remorse" doesn't undo an evil deed. What we must do instead is abandon evil deeds:
That was not right. That was not good. But if I become remorseful for that reason, that evil deed of mine will not be undone.' So, reflecting thus, he abandons right then the taking of life, and in the future refrains from taking life.
So one key, apparently, is sila ("virtue" or "moral conduct"): that includes topics like the "five precepts", harmlessness, good-will, admirable friends, and so on.
I've read in several places (several authors) that good sila is necessary for (should be practiced before) meditation, for example:
To get good Samadhi, Sila (morality) has to be perfect, since Samadhi is build upon Sila. For a good experience of Anicca, Samadhi must be good. If Samadhi is excellent awareness of Anicca will also become excellent.
You asked, "recommend any meditation or contemplation practices to get over crippling guilt" -- the way to get over guilt is to abstain from, refrain from, abandon wrong-doing.
And "remembering your own (past) virtuous acts" might help you to get over guilt.
Also I think that viewing it as "your" guilt, accusing your self of being guilty, may be another example of dukkha associated with a sense of self.
Whatever you have done, what you are feeling guilty about, falls within the realm of human experience. Whatever you have done, has been done before, and will be done again by someone else. In another culture or at another era of time, you likely would have been praised for doing the same thing. Guilt is always about an action that has occurred in the past, and when you really think about it, is relative, and you are judging yourself. It is a true waste of your present moment, not doing much good at all, if any.
The condition of the human experience, as pointed out by the dharma, there is never anything even close to perfection for anyone, ever. Life is only the way it is, perfect like that. The nature of the dharma can be seen as life is an ongoing learning experience. Once on the path, you will be faced with wonderful feelings, emotions and experiences, and also with the dreadful ones. You will understand the dharma when you learn to repeat what feels good over time, and stop doing the things that make you feel bad (explore: the eight fold path). You will stop caring whether you get things, or whether you can avoid them, while living morally and lovingly. You will see life flowing to you. You will realize the futility of the self to control much of anything. You will see life as flowing along if you look, the dharma in action.
It starts with the awareness that you do have a SELF and also a self. These highs and lows of existence are experienced by the self and observed by the SELF. The self has a job to do, which is to understand the dharma, and become aware of the SELF, which is indestructible and endures. Buddha spelled it all out for us. It is quite simple really, but you have to have determination, faith, and learn to be still enough for the smoke to clear of human existence, and peacefully your SELF will become recognizable. This is the SELF of all.
This is slightly complicated by what the Buddha called dependent origination. These are things that still need to be worked out by the self to finally experience the SELF. Some people call this karma. Your self may be pulled into one direction or another where you will have to live with "guilt" for a time. But, as dependent origination can hold you back, it can further your recognizing the dharma, and these activities like guilt will seemingly evaporate. effortlessly. I would slowly contemplate your true SELF and see what happens.