37 Practices of the Bodhisattva - Verse 15

Ken McLeod

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Ken McLeod continues his commentary on the 37 Practices of the Bodhisattva with the 15th verse. Watch the other videos here.

Even if someone humiliates you and denounces you
In front of a crowd of people,
Think of this person as your teacher
And humbly honor him—this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Thus verse deals with shame. We feel shame, in part, because of a strong negative self-image that seems to be validated by an event. How have you overcome feelings of shame?

For more of Ken McLeod's teachings, visit Unfettered Mind.

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Ken McLeod's picture

Nietzsche seems to be saying that to inflict shame is not humane. It is not compassionate action. He is talking about one person causing shame for another, friend or foe. A friend helps you to learn from shame not by causing you shame but by being there for you so you can feel your shame, i.e., your friend's empathy and compassion create the conditions for you to learn.

The quotations at the end of these commentaries aren't always in line with the meaning of the verse or the commentary, but they are usually related. They are meant to stimulate further reflection.

Patricia.I's picture

Dear Ken,

Just because one exposes something that causes shame in another person does this mean that the motivation was to “inflict shame”?

My question should have been: should I avoid taking constructive action in a situation where people have been harmed just because it causes shame in someone else? Does this make me an enemy of the perpetrator of the harm? Does it mean I lack compassion for him?

Let's take a concrete example.

A person in a position of power, say, the leader of an organization, misuses his power and harms several people very seriously. One of these people comes forward to call the leader to account for his actions, asking the leader to "show up" in a dialogue and his organization to take steps toward preventing a recurrence of the situation. The leader feels ashamed.

Ken, I would really like to be clear on your position:
What is the cause of shame? The leader's actions, or exposing them?

Is the person that confronted the leader necessarily “inhumane” or lacking in compassion?

Thank you for the dialogue; it is very helpful to me.

fishman.ellen's picture

A friend helps you to learn from shame not by causing you shame but by being there for you so you can feel your shame, i.e., your friend's empathy and compassion create the conditions for you to learn.

Yes the friend, the compassion that can be developed to be present with anothers' shame, that is the way of the bohisattva (?) As Batchelor talks about in Buddhism without Beliefs, those friends are ever so important. Creating space for the other, one most remove the "ego/self" to be truly compassionate or else one's stickiness gets in the way, no?

Ken McLeod's picture

Yes, that's right. But don't try to get rid of "self" directly. That never works. It's like "Don't think of an elephant." Instead, just open to what you are experiencing and engage it completely.

Ken McLeod's picture

This verse, and the others in this section, are about not reacting to what your life brings you. Shame, because it is so powerful, often causes people to act, or react, in ways that are not helpful, to others, to themselves, to anyone.

Shame serves as an internal warning before you violate your core values. Humiliation after the fact is intensely painful. Yes, to accept shame as a recognition of one's failings may be a learning experience. However, to cause shame to another is usually a cause for regret. I've never found shaming a person, either publicly or privately, to be a useful teaching technique, though shaming was often used as a teaching technique in the past and still is by some.

Patricia.I's picture

Thank you for your replies.

What you call "humiliation after the fact" can arise for a multitude of reasons, one of which being that we caused harm for which we still feel ashamed. This feeling arises naturally in most people. It may not have the "restraining" effect that you would like to attribute to shame. And it cannot undo harm that has already been done. But it may motivate us to compassionate action toward the person we have harmed and who may still be hurting because of our actions. It may also enable us to restore our own emotional balance in the process.

Humiliation is only as "intensely painful" as the ego is all important. It may be a sign that we are not the compassionate bodhisattva that we thought we were.

fishman.ellen's picture

Dear Diotima,
I also see the passage as a means to be compassionate to the harmer (the person who harms us, shames us). If as you say ego is proportionate to the humilation, then the way of a bodhisattva is to develop the "restraint" that is needed to not then return the shame.
I am confused by the "hope" that the person(s) that harm me are my concern. I understand the desire for amends, as a child of sexual abuse-I screamed for amends- but how does that desire help me practice the path of a bodhisattva ? The amends doesn't make it any better in my mind's eye, it happened and I must live with the effects.

Patricia.I's picture

Dear Ellen,

Yes, the desire for retribution or, as you say, to “return shame” is not the way of the bodhisattva. But neither does a bodhisattva need to protect others from shame when it is a consequence of their own actions.

re: your confusion about the person that harmed you. He cannot deprive you of the freedom to act from a place of integrity. You can still do what needs to be done (even screaming) when it needs to be done. Holding out hope for results, such as amends, is natural but, like all hope, it may set you up for disappointment.

fishman.ellen's picture

"But neither does a bodhisattva need to protect others from shame when it is a consequence of their own actions."

Your reply seems to speaking about protection in a way I don't see connected to the topic at hand.
Protection is not the work of a bodhisattva.
And protecting whom, what?

That is what I have learned. It is delusion to think that there is protection from pain, protection from feeling, protection from fear.
That is also what I learned, that reality is this, that, whatever.
How I respond to the situation at any given moment is my response, freedom comes from that, no one can make another do. I recommend you read Night by Elie Wiesel to make sense of that statement.
There is no disappointment when you accept that, just work and then you lean into the wind. No disappointment Diotima, freedom.

Patricia.I's picture

Sometimes leaning into the wind can look like getting yourself wrapped around a flagpole.

Ken McLeod's picture

Again, shame is seen as a virtue because it encourages restraint.

Virtue, in Buddhism, operates on several levels: on the level of action, on the level of motivation, on the level of what underlying patterns are being engaged, and on the level of awareness. It's difficult (and problematic) to reduce virtue to one principle for all contexts.

Ken McLeod's picture

For your first question:

As Sareen said earlier, "Shame is a healthy emotion when it allows us to recognize the underlying impulse not to harm. We feel shame when we realize we have caused harm to self or other and underneath that is our capacity for loving friendliness, compassion, joy and peace." In Buddhism, shame is considered a virtue because it encourages restraint in unethical behavior. In the Buddhist context, shame arises when you cause harm because you have acted in a way that is contrary to the ethical principles to which you aspire.

This form of shame is not to be confused with "toxic shame" that Sareen and James refer to.

Patricia.I's picture

Dear Ken,

These four questions are for you:

1) You describe shame as an emotional response to self-betrayal, i.e., as a feeling that arises when you have violated deeply held moral values or aspirations. My question to you is: if you feel ashamed about having hurt someone, is this “painful feeling” due only to your sense of having betrayed yourself? Or might it also have to do with having betrayed an actual person or other sentient being?

2) You say that, in Buddhism, shame is considered a virtue. Can you explain this please? If shame is, as you say, about self-betrayal, then is being virtuous about being consistent with oneself? It seems to me that virtue, from a Buddhist perspective, usually points to acting compassionately toward other sentient beings.

3) As I understand this verse, the emphasis is not on shame per se, but on the humbling, wholesome effect of taking in criticism, even when it is public and causes you to feel shame. Did I get that right?

4) This verse talks about seeing the person that denounces you as a “teacher”. Other translations talk about seeing him as a “spiritual friend”. But in the Nietzsche quote you end with, it seems that you would see such a person as “inhumane”. Are you implying that your friends should spare you this precious learning opportunity?

Sareen's picture

This is an area of study for me. Shame is a healthy emotion when it allows us to recognize the underlying impulse not to harm. We feel shame when we realize we have caused harm to self or other and underneath that is our capacity for loving friendliness, compassion, joy and peace.

The tricky part I am now recognizing is that shame becomes conditioned in childhood as a route to maintaining attachment to a caregiver, who because of their own conditioning, was unable to radiate the qualities of love and caring that were needed to develop a secure attachment. As a result we develop a false image of ourselves as defective. And as a result we may feel helpless and experience despair about the possibility of a loving connection with ourselves and others.

As we move from childhood to adulthood, we gradually develop the capacity for responsibility, which means the capacity to respond with wisdom and love, rather than react through our negativity. When we have carried shame from childhood into adulthood, our negativity is colored with shame and we gradually build a world that confirms our self view as defective.

In order to let go of this belief of defectiveness, even when my life experiences in adulthood have confirmed this view, when I from a radical level repent harmful actions, I am able to also loosen this emotional experience laid down long before I committed any harmful actions for which I could have been held responsible.

For the last several years my meditation practice has been deeply engaged with my body and I have discovered that my body believes that I am defective and has done so since childhood. Using cognitions to undo this conditioning has a weak effect. In order to get to the level of my body, I involve everything; cognitions, feelings/emotions and body sensations and then my behavior can change.

The current Tricycle retreat talks on the precepts, Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede speaks about the practice of repentance and I have quoted below a Zen repentance prayer. Saying this prayer out loud is helpful.

""All evil actions committed by me since time immemorial, stemming from greed, anger, and delusion, arising from body, speech, and mind, I now repent having committed."

I like that these words focus on evil ACTIONS vs the Christian way of describing the person as evil, as in "miserable sinners."

I also enjoyed the Thoreau quote: "To regret deeply is to live afresh."

There is also a fascinating way in which we seem to repeat what was done to us in our childhood until we get to the depths of our own wounding and then through facing the impact of our actions on ourselves and others we have an opportunity. When we can see clearly what we are doing, we can make new choices.

May all beings be free of suffering and move into joyful living that is an expression of our true natures.

James Mullaney's picture

I appreciate this post because I have a deep underlying shame from early childhood that continues to cripple me emotionally and socially even though I've been in therapy since the age of 14 (I'm 49.) The devil of it is that I don't know what caused it and now it's just an essential part of me. Losing it now, in a strange way, would be a terrible existential crisis for me.

Sareen's picture

An existential crisis! Is that we are seeking when we turn to buddhist practice - a process that gets to the root and cuts through the false reality of our conditioned experiences?

fishman.ellen's picture

Your post sounds angry to me, was that your intent or am I bringing in my own sticky stuff here?

Sareen's picture

I am not sure what you are referring to Ellen. Neither of my posts on this topic have been grounded in anger. The first one was as close as I can currently come to self revealing honesty. The second one was an attempt to join James with humour.

fishman.ellen's picture

The humorous one Sareen, I found it to be uneven thus disconcerting. Thanks for the reply, now I see your humor.

Sareen's picture

Thanks Ellen. Your post points to the difficulties of communication-very easy to misunderstand another person's meaning and intention. I am glad you had the wisdom to ask, rather than maintain a false belief.

fishman.ellen's picture

This was a tough one to listen to, shame having touched my life in so many ways. Shame on my part for actions done that hurt others, actions done out of anger and the effects these actions have had on others.
Contingent to those actions have been the actions of others who they themselves have hurt and harmed me because their feelings of shame could not be felt and so they emotionally vomited on me or physically did things that were harmful.

How have you overcome feelings of shame? you ask.
Well first and foremost the Four Noble Truths. Recognizing that Life is a struggle, led me to question why I resisted such wisdom. As a victim, I resisted those feelings of shame. Once I stopped saying, why me and began to accept -why not me, I began to open. A favorite line of yours has been, " My problem is I believe my feelings." A clip/quote from your teachings:http://umquotes.blogspot.com/2011/04/function-of-feeling.html

And of course practice with support, support via teachings and the friends that you make as you journey the zig, zag and backward path. Friends who share the love of the dharma and are your teachers as the verse states:
Think of this person as your teacher
And humbly honor him—this is the practice of a bodhisattva.