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This is a question of practical interest. My personal practice is generally to feel guilty for bad deeds, but today I tried admitting fault and guilt without feeling guilty, and it was much less stressful. I do not know which is correct. Is there any textual evidence on whether the Buddha suggested feeling remorse or not?


Sutta 42.8 from the Samyutta Nikaya, Sankha Sutta, discusses remorse, but the following two translations seem to contradict each other, in which one mentions remorse is not useful, whereas the other mentions that remorse is part of reflecting on having done something not good. Is one of these translations more historically accurate than the other?


The Access To Insight translation reads:

'The Blessed One in a variety of ways criticizes & censures the taking of life, and says, "Abstain from taking life." There are living beings that I have killed, to a greater or lesser extent. 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.


The Sutta Central translation reads:

But consider when a Realized One arises in the world… In many ways he criticizes and denounces killing living creatures… And there’s a disciple who is devoted to that teacher. Then they reflect: ‘In many ways the Buddha criticizes and denounces killing living creatures, saying: “Stop killing living creatures!” But I have killed living creatures to a certain extent. That’s not right, it’s not good, and I feel remorseful because of it. But I can’t undo what I have done.’ Reflecting like this, they give up killing living creatures, and in the future they don’t kill living creatures.


(I’ve been trying to translate the Pali but I've only gotten so far as that one should "renounce" the evil deed.)

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This question is difficult for me. However, before exploring it, it must be highlighted the suttas do not praise remorse (vippaṭisārī), as shown in AN 5.142, below:

One person neither transgresses nor regrets (vippaṭisārī). And they do understand where those arisen bad, unskillful qualities cease without anything left over.

AN 5.142

As for the contradictions in the following translations of SN 42.8, they might be related to the optative 'assaṁ':

Ahañceva (I/aham + and/ce + thus/va/eva) kho (indeed) pana (now) tappaccayā (because of it) vippaṭisārī (remorse) assaṁ (optative of atthi; exists)

But if I become remorseful for that reason (Thanissaro)

I feel remorseful because of it (Sujato)

In AN 10.10, Sujato translates a verse with assaṁ as follows:

How can I become faithful and ethical?’

‘kintāhaṁ saddho ca assaṁ sīlavā cā’ti.

Therefore, when it comes to what an optative is, I get brain fog with grammatical theory. The moderators here are very good at grammar. A website says:

  • Indicative: used to express statements, proclamations, opinions.

  • Optative: used to express the hypothetical, and also wishes or hopes

  • Imperative: used to express commands and invitations

The optative (sometimes called the seventh tense) is used for any potential or hypothetical expression. This mood can be translated into English using auxiliary verbs such as: “may,” “might,” “should” or “would”. It can be used in sentences expression a condition, 'If... Then...', and as such, it is usually preceded by ce, sace, yadi (all meaning “if”).

Pali Studies Blog Spot

My impression is the Thanissaro translation of Sankha Sutta is accurate because it appears an optative (preceded by ce) is used to express a hypothetical. This also appears to occur in Sujato's translation of AN 10.10. This also concurs with AN 5.142, where the Buddha discourages remorse. However, Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation: "But though I feel regret over this" appears to concur with Sujato. Yet, again, these appear contrary to AN 10.10 and also MN 61, which does not mention/encourage remorse/regret in relation to transgressions.

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  • This is a really insightful answer and can be improved by focusing the content on the parts that directly answer the OP’s question: that the ambiguity between the translations may be satisfyingly explained by understanding how the optative has been variously translated. Dec 26, 2023 at 4:36
  • Thank you Julius. I have no fluency in Pali or grammar. I just plod along examining small relevant passages when required. I found this website very useful, which was from where I learned 'assam' was an optative. digitalpalireader.online/_dprhtml/index.html Dec 26, 2023 at 5:12
  • I agree that the answer was very insightful, and it along with all the other answers satisfied my curiosity about the issue. Some of the things I learned: 1. what the Buddha's standard view on remorse is. 2. Remorse vs shame-and-fear of wrongdoing definitions 3. What an optative may be and why it may have led to divergent translations 4. That my more updated personal practice is probably closer to the right one 5. A few other things that escape my short term memory at the moment Dec 26, 2023 at 12:40
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Piya Tan translated the same as:

Then, headman, a disciple has full confidence in that teacher. He reflects thus: ‘In many ways the Blessed One censures and blames the destruction of life, and he says: ‘Abstain from the destruction of life!’ Now I have destroyed life to such an extent. That is not proper; that is not good. But though I feel regret over this, that bad deed of mine cannot be undone.’ Having reflected thus, he abandons the destruction of life and abstains from the destruction of life thenceforth.
SN 42.8

I feel the above is a better translation. It shows the futility of regret/ remorse.

Remorse or regret is considered unwholesome and should not be allowed to grow according to AN 5.142.

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AN11.1 (here and here) are translated as saying that the purpose and benefits of skilful ethics is "no remorse".

Elsewhere are suttas saying that shame is important -- not to feel ashamed, I think, but to be capable of feeling shame -- so you'd stop before doing wrong, to avoid the resulting (feeling of) shame.

I read both the suttas you quoted as saying the same thing -- if I kill and feel remorse, that feeling of remorse doesn't undo the killing. Or perhaps in conventional terms, "an apology only goes so far". What's important is to (also or as a consequence) stop any further/future killing.

Avoiding it in future is incidentally what I'd call a "sincere" apology i.e. learning from the incident -- the misdeed and its consequences and ideally its causes -- and resolving not to repeat it.

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    Hi. It appears shame (hiri) is not the same as remorse (vippaṭisāra). I have not investigated the following theory but I recall reading the theory hiri (shame) operates to prevent transgression; while remorse is the unenlightened reaction to transgressions. Dec 25, 2023 at 9:55
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Guilt/remorse is a mindstate that clings to a self, i.e "I" (you) that then clings to the past and past actions and past or future effects. It is a mindstate bound by root poisons. Non-virtuous.

The correct mindtate would be resolve to avoid such actions now and in the future.

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The Four Powers

Within this practice, there are four approaches to purification. Each one was generated by the particular circumstances of four of the Buddha’s disciples. They are called the Power of Support, the Power of Remorse, the Power of the Antidote and the Power of Resolve.

Regret and Remorse

(...) Remorse cuts deeper. It arises when feel badly about behavior that was intended to cause harm. Between these two usages, we can assume that Angulimala suffered remorse. But how can such an intense, powerful experience of negativity be transformed?

(...) Let’s try to distinguish between remorse and guilt, at least as I am using them here. Angulimala’s situation was pretty extreme, so perhaps you can think of something from your own life. Is there some incident that continues to haunt you? Anything that involves killing, maybe of animals, or of stealing or of lying, slander, malicious gossip or sexual misconduct that caused you or others mental or physical suffering? Consider what you usually do with this, how you normally relate to this action. One common strategy is to avoid it. The event comes to mind, but the mind backs away. You know the way your hand leaps in front of your face to protect it from dirt kicked up by a passing truck? It’s a kind of flinching motion. That’s often the mind’s response to guilt. The old image, or mental movie of our action is too disturbing to watch, but we feel the discomfort nonetheless. Our mind becomes gripped by the feeling, but with no release.

Another response to an action that disturbs our equanimity is to replay it over and over again. In the first case, we cannot look at it. Here, we cannot stop looking at it. Negative emotional associations may erupt repeatedly, but we still end up watching another movie in which we are the main character. We watch ourselves over and over. Yet there is no exit from this loop, and nagging self-recrimination persists.

So how can we use remorse to alleviate the suffering rather than allow it to keep us stuck in guilt? We do this through the wisdom of awareness. We need to separate guilt from remorse. Guilt keeps the focus on our personal emotional response. This can happen so thoroughly, that the emotion takes on a life of its own. This leaves no room for a corrective impulse. Try looking directly at a troublesome activity without judgment. Don’t try to understand, judge, or change it. Just review it. With the calm abiding mind of shamata, we watch the activity as if standing on the reviewing platform of a parade; or as if standing on the bank of a river without being carried away by the current. The story may have a lot of emotional force, but we apply the same meditation that we use for awareness with object. And remember, all this time Vajrasattva sits just above our head, ready to support our every effort. He too is witnessing, but not judging. His kindness and compassion does not differentiate between “victim” and “perpetrator.” Seeing our innate purity, he aspires for us to see our innate purity and his wish for all beings to attain enlightenment radiates without discrimination.

Using this excellent support, try to stay with witnessing. Shamata should make it easier to recognize when our minds step away from witnessing and get caught by the story, or slips into aversion and tries to flinch away from just watching. See if you can create some space between the action and the emotional drama that has fueled the story. See if you can break the pattern of empowering the action with emotional energy. In this way remorse creates the context out of which comes the recognition of what we have done and what we can do about it. Remorse that acknowledges our negative behavior now becomes our ally; and Vajrasattva becomes the vehicle by which we reorient our behavior from non-virtuous to virtuous action. Remorse—not the emotional grip of shame and guilt—allows for purification; and therefore allows us to move forward. (...)

https://learning.tergar.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/The-Four-Powers-copy.pdf

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