Filed in Vajrayana, Tibetan

Realizing Guiltlessness

The Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche speaks with Pema Chödrön.

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Pema Chödrön, an American nun in the Shambhala lineage of Tibetan Buddhism and the author of several books, including the best-selling When Things Fall Apart and The Places that Scare You, currently practices under the guidance of the Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, a teacher in the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Dzigar Kongtrul established the mountain retreat center Longchen Jigme Samten Ling, in southern Colorado. He spends much of his time there guiding students, with particular emphasis on long-term retreat practice. At his retreat center last spring, Pema Chödrön spoke with Dzigar Kongtrul about a primary obstacle Westerners face in their practice: guilt.

Pema Chodron and Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche

Pema Chödrön: Rinpoche, since you’ve been living in North America for some time and know Western mind and culture well—what do you think is the most beneficial advice you can give to dharma students here?

Ven. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche: The most important thing that I see Western students needing to realize is guiltlessness.

PC:  Guiltlessness?

VDKR:  Yes, guiltlessness. They need to realize that the person or the mind is, by its very nature, innocent.

PC: Could you explain what you mean by “innocent”?

VDKR: I mean that from the Buddhist point of view we can understand that all the things we do to harm ourselves and others come from deep-rooted confusions and ignorance but that the mind is by its very nature pure and enlightened. When we feel a tremendous amount of guilt, we forget this view.

PC: I think sometimes Western students have trouble believing this view.

VDKR: The fact that all sentient beings long for happiness and freedom proves that the nature of their mind is pure and innocent.

PC: But it seems that we identify more with “bad me” than with pure and innocent.

VDKR: This sense of “bad me” comes from not understanding the view of selflessness that is so central to the Buddhist path. Understanding that there is no solid, singular, or permanent “me” makes it possible to accommodate whatever arises in life without feeling so intimidated by our experience, without rolling over like a defeated dog in a dogfight. We can see that things arise due to our karma playing itself out and that it does not necessarily have to be so personal. In this way we can identify with something greater—which is our nature itself. From this perspective, since there is no solid, singular, permanent self, there’s not going to be a “bad” self to feel guilty about. Mind is innocent but influenced by ignorance and wrong conceptual beliefs that project a self. But there is no self.

PC: So how do we realize selflessness?

VDKR: Mind has an innate intelligence, and this intelligence can be cultivated—so that one can realize selflessness—which is the opposite of this projected “me.” This is our true nature.

PC: With this in mind, how do we approach that deep-rooted tendency of feeling guilty?

VDKR: First, just on a basic level, we can remind ourselves that guilt has no benefit of any sort and only increases our neurotic attachment to the self. But, more importantly, we can see that guilt is actually the way we try to escape responsibility for our actions and circumstances. We feel guilty when we don’t fully accept our circumstances. Instead, we continually try to protect and cherish this imaginary self. When we feel guilty, we are actually substantiating this “self” even further, rather than honestly looking at the situation in front of us. If we remember that the mind is innocent, even though we so often act out of ignorance we can distance ourselves from the situation enough to actually look at it honestly. Guilt, on the other hand, is a sidetrack with no resolution—it’s endless. You may feel like you are facing something because you are steeped in it—kind of rubbing your nose in how very bad it is—but actually you are not accepting it.

PC: Rinpoche, if I’ve done something harmful and I’m not to feel guilty about it, then how can I come to terms with what I’ve done? How can I completely acknowledge what I’ve done and yet not feel guilt?

VDKR: Through means of regret. Regret is a function of mind’s intelligence. We can see what we’ve done to cause suffering to ourselves and others. We acknowledge what we’ve done and also resolve not to do it again. This is very helpful. We see it clearly and acknowledge it so it does not remain in our mind stream. To be able to self-reflect in this way brings tremendous freedom. It’s like you stop fighting your circumstances and look honestly. Because your view of self is not so tightly knit, you can look without intimidation. We do this practice of acknowledging and purifying, with deep regret about what we’ve done to cause harm. We expose it to ourselves.

Pema Chodron and Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche

PC: Rinpoche, I don’t really see the difference between regret and guilt. There’s still the sense that one has done something bad.

VDKR: The difference between guilt and regret is that guilt never faces the wrongdoing straightforwardly. There’s just this strong emotion of “I wish it hadn’t happened. I wish I didn’t do it. I wish I had never gotten angry” or “I wish I didn’t do that embarrassing thing,” and so on. Regret is the opposite of guilt. We acknowledge it, we expose to ourselves that we have done something harmful and how it came about from our ignorance, but we don’t get caught in emotions and story lines. The sense of remorse is not anywhere near as heavy as the “bad me” that guilt produces. As a matter of fact, the sensation of wholehearted remorse is freeing. By applying the view of selflessness, we can see how unhelpful guilty feelings freeze us in our perception of ourselves as “bad me.” When one feels room to open and can see that out of ignorance, not out of an intrinsic “bad me,” one has done something to trouble others, then there’s no hesitation to see that. And there is no hesitation, if it seems beneficial, to apologize.

PC: Thank you. That certainly clarifies a lot for me. Are there other benefits that come from reflecting on guiltlessness?

VDKR: When one realizes guiltlessness within oneself, one feels freer and lighter. The attachment to the self, which we all have, lifts. We also start to work with our minds better. The mind is more agile and flexible, because our intelligence becomes the reference point instead of this self we so desperately grasp onto. Then we can break down our actions more precisely and work with our actions in more creative ways in the future, with more wisdom. In the case of relating to the wrongdoings of others, we see that the nature of their mind is also innocent, guiltless. Ignorance has influenced them and they are blinded and vulnerable. And because they are helpless under the power of ignorance, it is easier for us to generate compassion for them and forgive them as well. It is much easier to do all this when we see the person as innocent rather than guilty and intrinsically bad.

PC: One of the most important aspects of being a teacher is to point out the student’s blind spots. How do you work with this when students have so much trouble seeing their faults?

VDKR: This is a good question. Ultimately, nothing significant can really take place within the practice or within the student-teacher relationship until the student is ready to see his or her faults without heavy guilt. To the extent that a student wants to do this, he or she is a practitioner. When a teacher points out these dark hidden areas, the ignorance is being addressed and exposed for the student’s benefit, rather than in order to increase a sense of an intrinsic bad self. But a teacher also needs to maintain an awareness of the true identity of the student. The teacher also points out the student’s basic nature so that he or she can identify with his or her own goodness, and not with guilt or defensiveness. Then there is plenty of room to look at the hidden corners that really are fleeting and temporary. Both student and teacher must have an awareness of the student’s blind spots and his or her Buddha-nature.

PC: So the readiness to self-reflect seems to be the key here.

VDKR: The readiness to self-reflect coupled with the greater view of selflessness, which really makes it possible to look. When we are able to do this, all in all, we will become much more carefree, free of struggle.

PC: Struggle?

VDKR: Yes, the struggle is the guilt—not wanting to look. With the view of guiltlessness we can work with wrong or right, did or didn’t. It doesn’t matter. We can feel free to work with that situation without struggle. The mind is more agile because there is more space—space to look without feeling threatened. Once guilt has awakened, it has this extra-strength feeling of intrinsically “bad me.” This is not helpful and not true and not in accord with the way things are. If we bring the view of egolessness to our guilt, it will pop the deep part of our emotional attachment to this intrinsic “bad me.” I feel certain that realizing guiltlessness and selflessness is very helpful for all practitioners.

Image 1: © Christine Alicino
Image 2: © Christine Alicino

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"VDKR: First, just on a basic level, we can remind ourselves that guilt has no benefit of any sort and only increases our neurotic attachment to the self. But, more importantly, we can see that guilt is actually the way we try to escape responsibility for our actions and circumstances. We feel guilty when we don’t fully accept our circumstances. Instead, we continually try to protect and cherish this imaginary self. When we feel guilty, we are actually substantiating this “self” even further, rather than honestly looking at the situation in front of us. "

Well said. Regretting a "bad" action allows space and intention to not repeat it. Guilt, as I experience it, saps the energy that could work towards making a positive change. Thank you. I am surprised by the controversy expressed in response to this article.

Beccafahey's picture

Well said Wen 54616! As I experience it, guilt is the self created distraction and turning away from the pain that is the result of my action. A selfish act on my part that takes the focus, respect and learning opportunity away from the experience. I may say that I feel guilty for what I caused but where is the focus during guilt? Always on myself, never really connecting with the other being who was hurt. Creating story about me in my head to not actually feel the sting is the goal in guilt, not actual caring about the other being involved. It's the second arrow pushed deeper and deeper in aversion.
Wholesome remorse however, in my experience is much more dispassionate. The courage to feel the sting and allow the pain to be known. Compassion for a human who makes mistakes (as in, of course I make mistakes, as does everyone) softens the need for aversion. Caring more to accept the learning opportunity than to fall into aversion is the moment of noticing the difference between the guilt and a helpful remorse. The liberating flavor known when guilt is abandoned is the momentum for guilt to be abandoned. When guilt is no longer running the show a valuable lesson can be learned about the mistake or act, lessons, so far in my experience learned so deep the mistakes made and allowed to sting have not been mistakes repeated.
Thinking back to mistakes made where guilt was allowed to flourish have been mistakes repeated....lesson not learned.
I see it as a great act of kindness and generosity to abandon guilt, for to learn from an act that caused harm and to not recreate that act is my intention and the more helpful and sincere way to honor the one hurt by my action.

John Haspel's picture

I mean no disrespect to Pema Chodron or Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche with my comments. This forum has a significant impact on western Buddhists. The original teachings of the Buddha, grounded in the Four Noble Truths with the purpose of unbinding from all views of self rooted in ignorance, is often lost in favor of the more mystical and esoteric practices of the later developed schools. I hope my comments can provide some balance in the “Buddhist” message presented here.

The Buddha himself taught to question everything and if it did not lead to awakening to abandon teaching. This interview points out the significant differences between what the Buddha taught and what developed in the later schools. I do question much of what I found in the later-developed schools, as they left me confused and did not seem to be developing awakening, only forms of practice.

The premise that human beings have an inherent enlightened mind is something the Buddha never taught. As this is the foundation of the later schools, the purpose and intent of the original teachings of the Buddha is not reconcilable with these later teachings.

The Buddha taught an Eightfold Path for developing heightened wisdom, virtue and concentration as a way of recognizing and abandoning all views arising from ignorance and resulting in a heedless doctrine of self. It is specifically this doctrine of self that the Buddha taught must be recognized and abandoned. It is in clinging to any doctrine of self, or any view that would promote a doctrine of self, that is to be abandoned for unbinding to be achieved.

The Buddha never taught that “mind” is inherently innocent, or pure, or enlightened. When asked questions that would establish a view of self in any manner, in any “plane of existence” or within a defiled mind, the Buddha characterized these views as worthless. The Buddha taught that we must be rid of even a “speck of dust” clouding our view, or creating wrong view.

In the Cula-suññata Sutta the Buddha teaches Ananda "He discerns that 'This theme-less concentration of awareness is fabricated & mentally fashioned.' And he discerns that 'Whatever is fabricated & mentally fashioned is inconstant & subject to cessation.' For him — thus knowing, thus seeing — the mind is released from the effluent of sensuality, the effluent of becoming, the effluent of ignorance. With release, there is the knowledge, 'Released.' He discerns that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.”

The Buddha is teaching that any view that continues to establish a self will continue to generate confusion and suffering as the view is arising from ignorance. Any view arising from ignorance will bring continued confusion and suffering. This is the foundational (though often misunderstood) teaching on Dependent Origination.

Believing that there is a pure and enlightened mind within a defiled mind is a re-establishment of self within the five clinging-aggregates. This idea of an inherent enlightened mind is fabricated and so inconstant, subject to suffering and subject to cessation.

How can an enlightened mind imbued with Buddha-nature become defiled and deluded? This is more akin to christian beliefs of the fall of man, or of shamanistic views of evil spirits invading an otherwise pure mind, and is exactly the predominate beliefs that the Buddha rejected as “low, common, ignoble and not leading to the goal.”

Belief in an inherent enlightened Buddha-mind develops one of two pernicious views. On the surface it directs a “Buddhist” practice that continually establishes a self within the phenomenal world and within what the Buddha taught is subject to endless suffering, a self consisting of five clinging-aggregates.

When looked at a little deeper the conclusion that the “goal” of “Buddhist” practice is realizing a pure, innocent, enlightened mind imbued with Buddha-nature develops even more confusion. If an enlightened mind, imbued with Buddha-nature can become defiled and deluded, subject to sickness, aging and death, to sorrow, lamentation and pain, why bother? If an enlightened mind, a state of mind achieved only after “countless eons” of extremely difficult “Buddhist” practice, as some of the later schools claim, why bother?

Of course the Buddha never taught any notion of an inherent Buddha-nature. (Or endless eons of practice necessary prior to awakening) The notion that within a deluded mind resides an enlightened mind, or latent Buddha-nature, dismisses the most basic teachings of the Buddha and makes the original teachings of the Buddha meaningless. Holding the view that the self has an inherent Buddha-nature then makes the goal of practice to develop this view and not develop the purpose of his teaching: unbinding from all ignorant views of self. Belief in an inherent enlightened mind, or Buddha-nature, can easily develop self-worship or cherishing the self.

When asked repeatedly what an awakened human being’s mind is experienced as, the Buddha replied “unbound and released from suffering.” When describing awakening the Buddha taught: “Awakening is understanding Dukkha (suffering), abandoning the cause of suffering (clinging to views), experiencing the cessation of suffering, and developing the path leading to the cessation of suffering, the Eightfold Path.” He never taught a dhamma of uncovering latent enlightenment or Buddha-nature.

Included in the Eightfold Path are the virtuous aspects of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Developing understanding within the framework of the Eightfold Path avoids the confusion and over-analysis of what to do with regret and guilt, or any other reaction. Regret and guilt are recognized as impermanent views arising from ignorance and creating a reaction within the mind. Recognition brings the ability to “unbind” from the views creating the reaction. A peaceful mind arises.

To reiterate my intention here is not to disrespect or disparage Pema Chodron or Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. They are wonderful and extremely skillful teachers and have brought much help to many. These teachings from a later-developed tradition are often inconsistent with the original teachings of the Buddha. They may be more “advanced” teachings, as is often claimed. If one is interested in developing understanding within the Shambala or Tibetan schools, both of these teachers will prove very helpful.

In this forum that many new to “Buddhism”, or confused by the many inconsistent views expressed here, it is important that a balanced view of the Dhamma be presented.

Much appreciation to Tricycle to provide this forum and allow for the presentation of different views.

John Haspel

John Haspel's picture

The Buddha did not teach that “Buddha-nature” is empty or that it was empty because it is everywhere. The Buddha taught emptiness to not establish a cosmic environment where an “enlightened” mind would find itself, or as a destination for a realized individual. These views are necessary to justify much of the focus and practices of the later-developed schools.

The concept of emptiness is what the Buddha used to explain what an individual human being must do in order be free of clinging, the cause of suffering. Before engaging with, or lending credence to any teaching, it must be kept in mind, if a teaching will likely develop unbinding from views proliferating a doctrine of self, and lead to awakening, or if a teaching will continue to generate confusion and seek to establish a continued doctrine of self.

The whole notion of finding an inherent ”Buddha-nature” within a (deluded) self is establishing a self within “Buddha-nature.” This is discursive thinking founded in a doctrine of self and is un-founded in the original teachings for just this reason.

The Buddha taught that through the Eightfold Path one could empty oneself of all clinging that continues a doctrine of self in any manner, and in any plane of existence. In the Culla-Sunnata Sutta the Buddha teaches the experience of understanding emptiness not as some vague cosmic environment but as a mind settled in peace as consequence of releasing all views of establishment of self, whether in the earth plane, in infinitude, in nothingness, (the most common misapplication of emptiness) infinity (everywhere, another common misapplication) or of any view or environment that would proliferate a doctrine of self.

An awakened mind is a mind “empty” of all that would cause Dukkha.

In the Maha-Sunnata Sutta the Buddha specifically taught emptiness as the quality of an awakened mind experienced by a human being in the phenomenal world:

"He then attends to internal emptiness. While he is attending to internal emptiness, his mind takes pleasure, finds satisfaction, grows steady, & indulges in internal emptiness. When this is the case, he discerns, 'While I am attending to internal emptiness, my mind takes pleasure, finds satisfaction, grows steady, & indulges in internal emptiness.' In this way he is alert there. He attends to external emptiness...He attends to internal & external emptiness.”

In both sutta’s the Buddha teaches emptiness not as a cosmic environment occupied by an “awakened” mind or a “Buddha-nature, but as the developed attainment of a human being through engaging in the Eightfold Path: Emptiness of clinging.

John Haspel's picture


If you reject the idea of Buddha Nature, then do you consider an "awakened mind" to be something that is cultivated, dependent upon other things? Then wouldn't such an awakened mind be impermanent, subject to change, suffering and the rest? Or is it preexisting but obscured?

During this very interview, Dzigar Kongtrul says "there is no self". It seems that in his estimation, Buddha Nature is not a self at all! Perhaps someone may come along and start thinking that it is, but wouldn't that just be normal given our human condition? Would it not be equally possible for someone to come along and say that "enlightenment" were a kind of self...or "someone who follows the 8-fold path sincerely" a kind of self?

Consider this....if you honestly believe in the Buddhas original teachings, meaning that you believe they could achieve the result of a totally awakened being, then wouldn't it be reasonable to say that some people actually achieved this? Then, would it not be reasonable to think that, given the fact that everything is changing, including culture, language, and all other phenomena, that different teachings could emerge, seemingly distinct from the original teachings, especially to someone who, I don't know "clings" to the notion that the Pali canon as it exists outlines the only proper path to freedom from suffering?

I am inspired and in awe of your apparent knowledge of Buddhism, and mean no disrespect.

Dominic Gomez's picture

More accurately emptiness denotes that nothing exists in a vacuum. All phenomena derive meaning from their connections with all else, i.e. dependent origination. Considered in isolation and without such connections, anything (in theory) is empty, i.e. meaningless.

giankar's picture

As the Tathagata would say:
Buddha-nature is empty. That's why we call it "Buddha-nature".

Dominic Gomez's picture

More accurately Buddha nature is all over the place. It just looks empty.

dmindfulmac's picture

Thank you for this article. It seems that regret takes on a past tense. Guilt often happens in the moment. In that way guilt can guide us. Can regret do the same thing?

debby_patton's picture

I found this article to be one that I will save for now and as a future reminder...I am always fighting that inner Guilt battle. This will be very helpful to me. Thanks!

wilnerj's picture

Actually it is quite the opposite. Our lives are to be taken personally. The interview or rather Q & A is a discourse on our very lives. Of course it is personal! To behold that which is larger than our tiny selves, that which is at the root or our individual being is personal. There is a tendency to dismiss how we feel and what we think. This entails separation of ourselves as dispassionate observers from that which is felt and thought. And it may lead to depersonalization where our feelings are muted to the point that we can no longer feel. But to truly witness the flow of that which mind puts out is to see and be that connecting thread within the peregrinations of the thought stream.

The Tibetan instructor had only stated not to take all of this so personally. But what limit can be placed on our involvement with our thoughts and feelings when this is all there is to witness that which points to the ineffable center of being?

heartjewel's picture

Good points! I think you are finding the ambiguity and limits of language here. When teachers point out that there is 'no self' and so no 'person' to take things personally, for example, what often goes unstated is that it is the conceptually constructed self that is non-existent.

If there was absolutely no person there at all then there would be no one to have any experience at all. So I think the point is not to limit experience but to allow all experiences to move us as they will towards some kind of awakening regardless of our personal preferences one way or the other. In this way all experience can become part of the path.

The distinction between guilt and regret here is key.

bodhimom's picture

I agree with the concern about Pema's seeming subservience. Is it because we think that Asian people are somehow intrinsically wiser?

Dominic Gomez's picture

I'm Asian and I don't think I'm intrinsically any wiser than the average bear.

heartjewel's picture

I am not Asian either but I am also pretty sure I am not any wiser than the average beer.

celticpassage's picture

This is obviously a 'phony' interview.
Pema is asking questions so that the readers of the article may be helped, not herself.
Of course, Dzigar is not telling Pema anything that she doesn't already fully know and understand.
As for the subject matter itself, guilt is never of any help whatsoever, it's solely a function of the ego.
As Dzigar says, regret though is a function of mind which helps us avoid repeating mistakes: It carries with it no emotion at all.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Taking it one step further, guilt would not be an issue if in the first place people are mindful of not doing things that will make them feel guilty. Being proactive rather than reactive when it comes to doing karma.

BillB719's picture

When/if I am ever fully enlightened I will not experience guilt. In the mean time, I find this article to be very beneficial.

Keith McLachlan's picture

Why does Pema Chodra, who is almost 30 years older than Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, act subservient to him.

She has forgotten more than he'll ever know.

This tulku nonsense degrades Buddhism and should be dropped.

heartjewel's picture

I am pretty sure it doesn't matter to her one way or the other ~ she has accepted Dzigar Kongtrul as her teacher and so is simply showing respect for that relationship. That the 'interview' is obviously staged simply points back to respect for what her teacher has to share. This 'tulku nonsense' is nothing more than formality ~ to imbue it with more is what is degrading ~ let people find their own form of expression even if from another POV it is non-sense. All beliefs are non-sense.

buddhaddy's picture

True in the sense that, to my understanding, the Buddha said that we should not take our enlightenment from another, or from writings, but from realization through mindfulness in daily living, and meditation. So that while these discussions are good for discourse, and may promote thinking which may produce wisdom, our mindfulness throughout our daily life, and our meditation practice will ultimately bring us to enlightenment.

bodhimom's picture

I wonder the same it because we still feel that people from Asia are somehow intrinsically wiser?

melcher's picture

This cultural prejudice degrades Buddhism and should be dropped. We have those on this site who have particular personal 'issues' with this or that teaching, this or that tradition, East versus West, spirituality versus psychology, or whatever polarity pushes their buttons. Always this tells more about the person reacting than it reflects any truth about the teaching or the teacher. Almost always what comes across most clearly is a lack of respect and a sense of personal insecurity that manifests as the need to denigrate others.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Denigrating others is denying that ALL human beings are Buddhas and should be accorded the same respect.

lindaterry317's picture

this core dharma lesson
is also in 12 step practice at it's deepest

midassyd's picture

Very timely for me. Thank you. I am keeping this window open and the article saved for future work. I am currently fighting a battle between emotional guilt and logical regret and acceptance, and these words help me on the painful journey.

farasicansee's picture

Thank you both for this article. The concept of 'guiltlessness' is very helpful. ' ... the person or the mind is, by its very nature, innocent.' It's obvious, really, now that you've pointed it out. Thanks, again.