The Two Guardians of the World:
A Sense of Shame, A Fear of Blame
hiri-ottappa )*

by Sayagyi U Chit Tin

        Hirinisedho puriso      koci lokasmi vijjati
        Yo niddam apabodheti    asso bhadro kasam iva.

        Aso yatha bhadro kasanivittho
          atapino samvegino bhavatha.

        Saddhaya silena ca viriyena ca
          samamina dhammavinicchayena ca
        Sampannavijjacarana patissata
          jatissatha dukkham idam anappakam.

Whoever is restrained in this world by a sense of shame, that person wakes
up from sleep like a thoroughbred horse (woken) by a whip. 

Be zealous, with a sense of urgency, like a thoroughbred horse touched by a whip. Mindful (patissata), endowed with (right) knowledge and conduct, give up this mass of suffering (dukkha) through faith (saddha), virtue (sila), energy (viriya), concentration (samadhi), and discerning the Doctrine.

Dhammapada, vv. 143, 144

In the discourse entitled "The Lion’s Roar on the Turning of the Wheel,"[1] the Buddha told an assembly of bhikkhus about how the world declines due to immorality. He explained that seven Universal Monarchs, Dahanemi and his successors, lived according to the true doctrine of the Dhamma. But eventually there was a king who did not ask his predecessor to give him advice on how to govern. He ruled according to his own opinion, and the people were not as prosperous as before.

This king was advised not to use his own ideas but to govern according to the noble tradition of kings of the past. He accepted the advice he was given, but he was not generous. As a result, poverty became widespread. This led to theft. When the king had a thief’s head cut off, thieves began to use arms and kill their victims. As immorality grew, the people did not live as long as before and they were uglier.

A succession of generations gradually became more and more immoral and lived for shorter and shorter lengths of time. People began to use slander and to tell lies. Ugly people began to covet those who were still beautiful and adultery became common. Abusive speech and idle talk were widespread. Next, wrong beliefs increased. Then incest, greed, and deviant practices grew.

People no longer had respect for their parents, their civic leaders, or their religious leaders. At this point, the human life span had decreased from eighty thousand years to one hundred years. This was the life span during the Buddha’s time according to the Pali texts. Eventually, the Buddha told the bhikkhus, the human life span will decrease to ten years. Even the word "morality" will disappear.

At that time, people will live in promiscuity, like goats and sheep, fowls and swine, dogs and jackals. Members of the same family will look on each other just as a hunter who is ready to kill his prey. There will finally be a period of seven days when there will be wanton slaughter. Those who survive will eventually realize that it is wrong to act in this way, and they will make an effort to stop killing each other. Gradually, morality will be established again. People will live longer and longer, and they will begin to be handsome again.

We can see that this description refers to the decline in the Dhamma taught by Buddha Gotama, for he goes on to describe how the time will come in the future when the conditions will be right for the coming of the next Buddha, Ariya Metteyya.

If we look at the world today, we can say that there are many indications of just such a decline in morality. It is, of course, possible to point to bad conditions in the past, but there are signs that the very basis of moral civilization is threatened today. We have only to pick up a newspaper or magazine, or to see the latest movie or television show, to discover that the moral values we used to find taught are missing. It is considered old-fashioned to have a clear, moral message in a story. What were once seen as moral restraints are now put down as being censorship.

Freedom of expression has become more sacred than a sane society. As a result, we see images that are designed to arouse strong sensual desires. We have stories with immoral characters who go unpunished. The violence we see in films has become more and more realistic, more and more prevalent, but people who claim to be experts say that all this is not harmful to children. If we look at the latest news, we see reports of child abuse, drug abuse, and crimes in cities where people act more and more like wild animals.

Problems such as racism seem to get worse. Government figures are more concerned with winning votes than with governing. Support for abortion and euthanasia has grown. Some religious leaders seem ready to do almost anything to accommodate their followers while others resort to fanaticism.

Those of us who practise the Teachings of the Buddha do not need experts to tell us what effect all this has on humanity. We have only to observe in ourselves to see that what is presented to us as entertainment and as news is harmful. We know that if greed or lust or hatred are stirred up in our minds then we will be more likely to act according to these roots of bad actions. It is obvious to us that we must make a major effort to lead moral lives if there is to be any hope for us and for humanity.

The Buddha taught that there are two Guardians of the World: a sense of shame and the fear of blame (hiri-ottappa). It is important that we understand correctly what these two guardians are. They are mental qualities that make it possible to act in a moral, responsible way. They do not mean that we indulge in feelings of guilt and worry about what we have done in the past. It is important to recognize past mistakes for what they are and to make amends whenever possible for any harm we have done to others or pain we may have caused them. But we do not dwell on past mistakes, whether they be our own or other people’s. [2]

The Buddha said that a sense of shame and the fear of blame are two bright states that protect the world.[3] When they no longer exist, the very lowest stage of human existence is reached, the stage when people are as promiscuous as goats and sheep, fowls and swine, dogs and jackals.

It is important, then, that we understand these two guardians correctly. Having a sense of shame means that we refrain from doing evil because we do not want to harm ourselves. It is because we wish to preserve our self-respect that we develop a sense of shame. Fearing blame is more a question of avoiding doing evil deeds because of others. We wish to be respected by others, so we develop the fear of blame.

Ashin Buddhaghosa explains the guardians of the world in considerable detail,[4] and we will base our discussion on what he says. The proximate cause for both guardians is virtue: being pure in bodily actions, verbal actions, and mental actions. Only when all three are present does virtue arise and persist.

Having a sense of shame means that a person abhors evil and shrinks from doing wrong actions. It is subjective in origin and its characteristic is respectful obedience. Ashin Buddhaghosa gives the illustration of two sets of four causes for the arising of a sense of shame. The first four are considering our (1) birth, (2) age, (3) heroism, and (4) wide experience. We should say to ourselves whenever we are tempted to do an evil action:

(1) "This is not worthy of a person of (good) birth; it is the type of action done by inferior people."
(2) "This is the way children act; it is not worthy of a mature person like me."
(3) "An evil action of this sort is only for those who are weak; a person who is strong and courageous like me should not do this."
(4) "An evil action like this is only done by blind fools, not by wise people like me. I have gained wisdom, I have wide experience, I should not do this."

The second group of four includes: refraining from doing evil out of consideration of
(1) our high birth (as above),
(2) the dignity of our Teacher,
(3) the greatness of our inheritance, and
(4) the honour of our companions.

If we are following the Teachings of the Buddha, we should not do anything that could reflect badly on him, his Doctrine, or on those who are striving to progress on the right path and who are helping to keep the Buddha-Dhamma alive. In our day-to-day lives, many people among our families, friends, and fellow workers know that we practise Buddhist meditation. If we do not live up to the principles laid down by the Buddha, we may be responsible not only for our own downfall, but we may put obstacles in the way of others.

Ashin Buddhaghosa makes it clear that what is included here is also a sense of modesty. A sense of shame is similar to the sort of modesty involved in covering our private parts, or it is like the shame we would feel if a person worthy of our respect should come along as we are answering the call of nature.

The fear of blame has an external cause. Its characteristic is viewing a fault with timidity and fear. It is by nature a sense of dread, meaning that we dread the possibility of being reborn in the lowest planes of suffering. We are afraid of being blamed by any of the four assemblies: the Bhikkhu-Sangha, the Bhikkhuni-Sangha, an assembly of laymen, or an assembly of laywomen.

We also realize how big the world is and that there are bhikkhus and laypeople who have developed the supernormal powers. These people can read other people’s minds. There are also devas who can read people’s thoughts, and because we do not want these highly developed people or these Devas to see us indulging in evil, unprofitable thoughts, we strive to develop pure thoughts and actions. [5]

The fear of blame has four causes: (1) accusing oneself, (2) being accused by others, (3) (fear of) punishment, (4) (fear of) an evil destiny. In other words, we will be afraid of doing something that we know we will reproach ourselves for later, or something that others will criticize. We will avoid actions that we might be punished for in this life, or actions that will lead to future lives of suffering.

Ashin Buddhaghosa gives the illustration of two iron balls. One is cold and covered with excrement. The other is burning hot. A wise man will not catch the iron ball that is cold because he does not want to be covered in dung. He will not catch the one that is hot because he is afraid of being burnt. Avoiding the cold iron ball is like not doing wrong out of an internal sense of shame. Not grasping the hot iron ball is like not doing evil because we are afraid of suffering in the lowest planes.

Keeping these two guardians of the world present in our lives can be very difficult. When we are surrounded by a world that encourages us to act as we wish without worrying about the results, we may find our faith wavering. The guardians are two of the Seven Noble Treasures (ariya-dhanani):

  1. faith,
  2. virtue,
  3. a sense of shame,
  4. the fear of blame,
  5. learning (suta),
  6. renunciation (caga), and
  7. wisdom;

and two of the seven powers (balani):

  1. faith,
  2. energy,
  3. a sense of shame,
  4. the fear of blame,
  5. mindfulness,
  6. concentration,
  7. wisdom. [6]

So we will need to work on all these qualities if we are to stay on the right path. We will need to keep up our meditation practice and deepen our knowledge and understanding of the Buddha’s Teachings.

It will also be very difficult not to waver if we are surrounded by people who encourage us to do evil. That is why it is so important to spend as much time as possible with friends who, like ourselves, are working for the goal of Nibbana. It will not be easy. This is stated quite clearly in two verses of the Dhammapada (vv. 244, 245):

Life is easy for a person who is shameless, as bold as a crow, obtrusive, pushy, reckless, and whose life is impure. But life is difficult for a person who has a sense of shame, who constantly seeks purity, who does not cling, who is not reckless, who understands the life of purity.

We must guard against allowing the dark states of shamelessness (ahirika) or recklessness (anottappa) taking hold of our minds and determining our actions. To do this, we will need to work to overcome the four mental factors that are present in all immoral types of consciousness:

  1. delusion (moha),
  2. shamelessness,
  3. recklessness, and
  4. restlessness (uddhacca).[7]

And we will work to eliminate qualities that are the opposite of the Noble Treasures, the seven wrong practices (asaddhamma):

  1. lack of faith,
  2. lack of a sense of shame,
  3. lack of fear of blame,
  4. little learning,
  5. being slack (kusito),
  6. being unmindful (mutthassati), and
  7. lack of wisdom.[8]

If we avoid the seven wrong practices and develop the seven Noble Treasures, we will go beyond having just a sense of shame and fear of blame. We will develop the Middle Path that eliminates the root of greed by avoiding the extreme of indulging in sense pleasures, that eliminates the root of aversion by avoiding the extreme of exhausting oneself, and that eliminates ignorance by leading to wisdom. If we stay on this Path, one day we will no longer have to struggle, for we will attain the goal and become perfectly liberated from all this suffering.

Sayagyi U Chit Tin


[*]  Published in The Middle Way, Vol.65, no3 (Nov.1990), pp. 155-159.

[1]  If we have done especially bad deeds, however, we may not be able to
     shake off feelings of guilt. See GS I 44, where the Buddha talks of
     immoral act