What does Tibetan Buddhism have to say about how we can move forward when we feel guilty about what we have done?
Very occasionally I wear, actually rather reluctantly, what might be described as a “pastoral” sort of hat. Recently I was asked if I could make any suggestions for somebody who had got in a mess, and I did my best to repeat my understanding of traditional teachings on this kind of thing. The questioner sent me a very grateful message, saying “Thanks for making me give myself another chance,” so I thought perhaps I might repeat it here. The questioner wanted to keep this private, and I have removed one slightly specific detail from her question. The thing is, this kind of situation is common enough, we could probably find her anywhere.
I’m a student and last year, I had depression. I ended up cheating on my boyfriend of 5 years. He was my first boyfriend and he was a kind soul and forgave me and I repeated it again. Finally, when I was out from the depression, I realised everything was a mistake. We have broken up but managed to keep in touch as good friends. Since then, I’ve regretted my actions and I’ve been trying to do good deeds to repent.
Finally, I found another boyfriend who’s very good to me. This year was blissful until recently I found out that I was pregnant and I had to do an abortion. I had no choice but to do it even I know it was very wrong as I couldn’t keep the baby due to my studies and the time isn’t right. I know my karma is very negative as I broke almost all of the 5 precepts. I’ve recited some loving kindness mantra for the unborn baby and dedicated my merits to him/her. But I felt it isn’t enough. What else can I do?
Well, you have made a few mistakes, haven’t you! But the thing is, everybody does, and this feeling of having built up bad karma and wanting to do something about it is well known. Traditionally, there are said to be four things to do, and they are called the “four powers”.
Firstly, you are supposed to feel regret, and to acknowledge to yourself (and to the Buddha) that you have done bad things. It sounds as if that is already happened.
Secondly, you have to be quite sure that the regret is serious, and be strongly resolved not to make the same mistake again. Obviously I can’t look into your own mind, but perhaps again you have got that far.
Thirdly, you are supposed to make amends. In some cases that is literally possible – if you have stolen something, perhaps you can give it back. But in most cases there is nothing directly you can do, so you have to make amends indirectly. For instance, if you have been stealing, but you cannot give it back, can make amends by giving to the needy. Now in your case, there is obviously no way that you can undo what has been done. That doesn’t mean you are stuck, but it means you will have to think about what positive, good things you can do that are as near as possible to being the opposite of the bad things that you have done. Sometime you will have a chance to show loyalty where other people might not. And you can certainly do things to save lives. You can save human lives by giving to, for instance, charities that help starving children. Or perhaps you can save animal lives by getting involved in work to save abandoned cats, dogs, and so on. Exactly what you do will depend on your circumstances.
Fourthly, there is what is called the “power of reliance”, which is where you do religious things to create “merit” in that spiritual sense. So you can carry on reciting your loving kindness mantra, and traditionally you can do this a lot. In Tibetan Buddhism there is a popular practice of Vajrasattva (also known as Dorje Sempa), so if you are drawn to that kind of thing you could seek out teachings on that practice as well as the loving kindness mantra. In fact, reciting these mantras is the main method used for “purifying” ourselves, but it is taught that it is only with the support of the first three points that the fourth point is really effective. If you do the first three, then the fourth one can get into the corners of your mind and clean out the residues – if you don’t do the first three, the dirt will keep reappearing!