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Thread: The role of shame (lajja) in Buddhism

  1. #1
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    Hello everyone, I'm happy to have found this forum and this is my first post (apologies for forum cross-posting).

    I'm originally from the US but have lived in Thailand for quite a few years, and it seems that 'face' and 'shame' play a big role in Thai culture. I'm not sure if this is due to the Buddhist virtue of lajja (shame), or if it's due to some type of over-riding collectivist cultural value - or perhaps a combo of both (this could be seen as a 'chicken and the egg' thing; I'm currently studying for a degree in Anthropology so I apologize for all these "cultural" topics floating around in my head!).

    Shame in the West is usually seen as a negative trait, although lajja/shame is a (positive) virtue in Buddhism.

    From the Journal of Buddhist Ethics:
    "Fear and shame are regarded as virtues in Buddhist ethical discourse when, for instance, one fears the karmic consequences of misdeeds or feels shame at having violated monastic vows." - http://www.buddhistethics.org/9/mrozik.html#n16

    My question is, what role do you feel lajja/shame plays in Buddhism? And, do you believe shame plays a larger role in certain types of Buddhism? Do you feel this is an important trait included, or not included, in "Western Buddhism" (whatever "Western Buddhism" may be)?

    Just from my own observations from visiting Theravada temples in Thailand, and then visiting a couple Buddhist organizations in the West, it seems that there is a strong level of "formalism" with visiting temples in Thailand, which I think is not just associated with temples, but an overall respect of "hierarchy" and "face" within Thai culture, something which I believe also preserves the tradition, at least to an extent .... I'm not sure exactly where Im going with this, but just something that's been floating around my head.

    Thanks very much for your time and look forward to seeing your views.

  2. #2
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    Good question, I'd like to know the answer too.

    I have an inkling that shame/fear has a lot to do with culture and Buddhism, how people react to what they have done.

    In the Buddhist sense, I think it's probably shame and fear you need to feel within yourself when you have done something wrong, to help you remember your path.

    But in cultures like Thailand/Sri Lanka, I'd imagine the shame/fear thing to be more uprooted in the values of society itself, possibly due to Buddhism, which might not necessarily be a good thing.

    What I mean by this is, when society injects shame/fear into you, by becoming some sort of judge over your actions, it might not always be a good thing.

    I can imagine the following scenarios if this happens in a society:

    1.) some people would admit to being guilty for something wrong they've done and not do it again. All gravy, it's worked.

    2.) some others might take another path, specially concerning the more subtle wrongs, and react more negatively, isolating themselves from mainstream society. Not so good, that's not what we want, is it?

    3.) those who admit to being guilty and accept that guilt, might not be able to handle whatever it is they've done and face society and then end up reacting even worse than number 2, like suicide. Definitely not what we want.

    That's my 2p, I'd love to hear more input on this though.

  3. #3
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    Quote Originally Posted by jack #2:
    What I mean by this is, when society injects shame/fear into you, by becoming some sort of judge over your actions, it might not always be a good thing.
    This is more common in people that comes from the Judeo/Christian traditions, isn't it?

    Quote Originally Posted by jack #2:
    1.) some people would admit to being guilty for something wrong they've done and not do it again. All gravy, it's worked.
    And this means there has come some sort of understanding about how things are.

    Thanks jack,


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    Quote Originally Posted by Kaarine Alejandra #3:
    This is more common in people that comes from the Judeo/Christian traditions, isn't it?
    I wouldn't know how to answer that, but I think you've misunderstood.

    This is about shame/fear put on someone after something considered wrong has been done. A relationship that exists between society and a person, the shame/fear (coming from their cultural values) empowers society to shun said person leading to more harm than good in certain cases.

    Anyway, these are my views, quite possibly taking things the wrong way (my own egotistic judgement on the issue), and I'm interested in this to understand more, to know where the boundaries between lajja/baya in culture and in Buddhism lie and whether they can be mixed.

  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by Replying to jack:
    from post #4
    Well yes, it is possible I have misunderstood the whole topic. I wrote about the judeo/christian tradition because I have heard a saying in this traditions about having fear about god; Jamesve1 #1 wrote:

    Quote Originally Posted by jamesve1 #1:
    From the Journal of Buddhist Ethics:
    "Fear and shame are regarded as virtues in Buddhist ethical discourse when, for instance, one fears the karmic consequences of misdeeds
    so I thought that there could be some resemblance between them.

    Quote Originally Posted by jack #4:
    This is about shame/fear put on someone after something considered wrong has been done. A relationship that exists between society and a person, the shame/fear (coming from their cultural values) empowers society to shun said person leading to more harm than good in certain cases
    Yes... I understand, I think can take this point of view,


  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by Replying to jamesve1:
    from post #1
    Hi jamesve1,

    In my tradition we do not talk too much about lajja but also my understanding of lajja as a virtue is nearer to the virtue of "modesty" that definitively it is not a virtue in Western culture as it is in most of the eastern ones.

    Modesty has deep cultural meanings; it is what is told in cultural anthropology a kind of cultural archetype wich is related with a sense of wholeness of the self with nature. When this wholeness is borken and there is a kind of "separateness" with nature this kind of "modesty" is not taken as a virtue but as shortcomming. We can relate this archetype not just in eastern cultures but in some of the precolombine cultures of America like the Mayan culture in my country.

    Hope I am not misunderstanding this topic again... if I am... help is needed...


  7. #7
    I think in Tibetan Buddhism it might be called 'regret' rather than shame but I'm not sure - I recall a Tibetan teacher not understanding the English expression 'guilt' which is similar - and suggesting 'regret' instead.

    As for fear - personally fear has never had any place in my Buddhist practice, I tend to associate it with superstition and control - but maybe it has a place in morality teachings.

  8. #8
    However I was just looking a the late Kalu Rinpoche's list of 5 emotional afflictions and 20 subsiduary emotional afflictions, and in the subsiduary list the 8th affliction is 'shamelessness'.

    "This is complete lack of propriety. Here, one's standards do not include the avoidance of evil actions. Shamelessness is classified as a combination of the three poisons and accompanies all root and branch emotional afflictions. "

    ('The Dharma')


    ** Shame in Theravada is apparently known as 'hiri' by the way and not 'lajja'.**


  9. #9
    For quotes relating to shame from the Buddha in the Pali Canon and from the late Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, see the same title in the Theravada forum.

  10. #10
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    Very interesting, thanks so much all of you ...

    Quote Originally Posted by Kaarine Alejandra #6:
    In my tradition we do not talk too much about lajja but also my understanding of lajja as a virtue
    Yes, I've actually never heard it discussed either. Although I think this is something implicitly expressed/emphasized, at least from what I've seen/experienced in Thailand. For example, "you must show respect so do this", when visiting temples (the same can be said when around elders, etc). I think that this prevents me, the person accompanying me, and the person receiving the "respect", from losing "face". I think this is the type of shame/regret I'm getting at, not exactly "guilt"..

    I received compliments/was given positive reinforcement for (after awhile) figuring out how to act the "proper" way at temples without needing "help", etc - (although being a Westerner ["farang"], I never could get it perfectly right ...!)

    Quote Originally Posted by Kaarine Alejandra #6:
    the virtue of "modesty" that definitively it is not a virtue in Western culture as it is in most of the eastern ones.
    Yes, it seems quite the opposite in Western culture.

    Quote Originally Posted by Kaarine Alejandra #6:
    Modesty has deep cultural meanings; it is what is told in cultural anthropology a kind of cultural archetype wich is related with a sense of wholeness of the self with nature. When this wholeness is borken and there is a kind of "separateness" with nature this kind of "modesty" is not taken as a virtue but as shortcomming. We can relate this archetype not just in eastern cultures but in some of the precolombine cultures of America like the Mayan culture in my country.
    Exactly, a culture that has "already arrived", so to speak (an "enlightened culture"? - probably wouldnt go that far).

    Quote Originally Posted by Aloka-D #7:
    I recall a Tibetan teacher not understanding the English expression 'guilt' which is similar
    I dont think it's our understanding/concept of "guilt" either ...

    Quote Originally Posted by Aloka-D #7:
    As for fear - personally fear has never had any place in my Buddhist practice
    I wouldnt exactly say "fear" either, as in the ways/contexts that we normally associate "fear" with - I would say fear in causing one's self, the person associated with one, and the person one is supposed to show "respect" to, losing "face".

    Quote Originally Posted by Aloka-D #8:
    However I was just looking a the late Kalu Rinpoche's list of 5 emotional afflictions and 20 subsiduary emotional afflictions, and in the subsiduary list the 8th affliction is 'shamelessness'.

    "This is complete lack of propriety. Here, one's standards do not include the avoidance of evil actions. Shamelessness is classified as a combination of the three poisons and accompanies all root and branch emotional afflictions. "

    ('The Dharma')
    Very interesting, thanks I think what I'm getting at, is that in terms of "diaspora" and globalization/the "postmodern" world where "anything goes", and especially in Western context, "shame" is something important that .... is losing/lost its importance, perhaps?

    Quote Originally Posted by Aloka-D #8:
    ** Shame in Theravada is apparently known as 'hiri' by the way and not 'lajja'.**
    I found lajja listed in the online Pali-English Dict (http://www.viet.net/~anson/ebud/dict-pe/dictpe-23-l.htm):

    lajjā : [f.] shame; bashfulness.

    Several variations to the word are also provided:

    lajjāpana : [nt.] putting to shame.

    lajjāpita : [pp. of lajjāpeti] made ashamed.

    lajjāpeti : [caus. of lajjati] makes ashamed.

    lajjāpesi : [aor. of lajjāpeti] made ashamed.

    Also found lajja in an online English-Pali Dict (http://www.buddhanet.net/budsas/ebud/di ... ctep-s.htm):

    shame : (f.) lajjā; hiri; apakitti. (m.) avamāna. (v.t.) lajjāpeti; avamāneti. (v.i.) lajjati. (pp.) lajjāpita; avamānita; lajjita.

    shame faced : (adj.) lajjanasīla; vinītasabhāva.

    shameful : (adj.) lajjitabba; nindanīya; akittikara.

    shamefully : (adv.) lajjitabbākārena.

    shameless : (adj.) nillajja; ahirika.

    shamelessly : (adv.) nillajjākārena.

    shamelessness : (f.) alajjitā; ahirikatā.

    And Lajja (Sanskrit) is defined as "modesty" (http://www.experiencefestival.com/a/Lajja/id/108374).

    Again, thanks everyone Moreover, in light of my statements about shame above, what "ends" do you feel this type of shame (losing face. etc) serves?

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