Morality, Hiri and Ottappa

Hi guys,

Just a short question.
Shame and Fear of wrongdoing are said to be the foundation of Buddhist precept. One should have a sense of shame of committing an evil deed and have fear of the consequence of an evil action.
It’s arguably that this kind of fear is wholesome fear. But is it correct that an abstention from wrongdoing that is based on compassion is much more wholesome compare to an abstention from wrongdoing that is based on fear? Thanks.


If it helps, I’m translating these as “conscience and prudence”.

I think that “shame and fear of wrongdoing” have an overly negative emotional charge, which I think is unfortunate.


I would say yes. Compassion is a motive for making good kamma, whereas abstention due to fear is more like a motive for not making bad kamma.


yes, echos of Christianity in my opinion

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I disagree with the statement:

Ud 5.1 & the Sedaka Sutta & even the Buddha’s reason for teaching, for example, indicate to me that the foundation for Buddhist ethics is sympathy & protection.

Well, that’s true, but there are plenty of places where hiri-otappa are also emphasized. They’re not exclusive!


I’m translating these as “conscience and prudence”

Glad to hear this. I agree that both ‘shame’ and ‘fear’ have connotations in English that I don’t think the Pali intends. I’ve heard some people use ‘conscience and concern’, though ‘prudence’ seems to better capture the specific nuance of it.


foundation for Buddhist ethics is sympathy & protection

I don’t see them as really different in that the purpose of hiri-otappa is for protection. And to me, using a translation such as ‘conscience’ also has a sense of sympathy or compassion to it, so it brings the two together, and addresses the point @SC1100 was also making.


Ven. Sujato,

In modern psychology shame and guilt have also taken distinct meanings.

Roughly, shame is defined to be feeling bad about how you look to others, while guilt is defined to be feeling bad about something you did.

For example there is a study done on people in jail where guilt is negatively correlated with reoffense , while shame is positively correlated with reoffense.

So using ‘shame’ is potentially confusing in this regard. I like conscience as a translation, I think ‘guilt’ would be acceptable too.

Thanks for that. I don’t think hiri has that specifically social connotation, which is why I think conscience is better.

As for guilt, Ajahn Brahm pointed out years ago that guilt is always followed by punishment, which isn’t the Buddhist way.

I’ve been back and forth on these so many times! For a while there I had “concern for consequences” for otappa, but it gets clumsy. Prudence isn’t perfect, as it doesn’t really capture the “feeling” tone. But the sense is that one has care or concern for what happens in the future, so i think that part is correct.

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I agree about guilt, which also reminds me of SN 42.8

"A disciple has faith in that teacher and reflects: ‘The Blessed One in a variety of ways criticizes & censures the taking of life, and says, “Abstain from taking life.” There are living beings that I have killed, a greater or lesser extent. That was not right. That was not good. But if I become remorseful for that reason, that evil deed of mine will not be undone.’ So, reflecting thus, he abandons right then the taking of life, and in the future refrains from taking life. This is how there comes to be the abandoning of that evil deed. This is how there comes to be the transcending of that evil deed.

So there is some nuance. I’ve heard Ajahn Brahm explain ‘fear’ as 'seeing the danger ’ in something.

So perhaps ‘conscience and seeing the danger in wrongdoing’ - there is a danger in bad kamma, but also in just plain getting caught and paying the consequences.

Well, fear and shame can also be engaged for the purpose of group conformity & personal humiliation, which are connotations I’m keen to avoid & it is those with which I disagreed.

Piya Tan’s .pdf on these words emphasizes that they are “preconditions for a functional society.” But some functional societies have immoral aspects that ought not be conformed with, so this is important to have in view, I think.

Social lubrication is obviously important (it underpins the Vinaya), but given that social virtue is trifling and insignificant compared with the Dhamma, I’m still not able to see these two virtues as at all foundational, given their necessary reference to local situations.

So: Conscience & Prudence (maybe ‘solicitude’) seem suitable, so long as a given society’s value structures are not uncritically taken up in toto.


Well, fear and shame can also be engaged for the purpose of group conformity & personal humiliation, which are connotations I’m keen to avoid & it is those with which I disagreed.

Totally agree. That’s why I really dislike the tradiitonal English translation. But, of course while a better translation might help, it doesn’t prevent misuse of the teachings (such as using them to justify such things) … a huge problem in spiritual communities, not limited to those of course, but perhaps often not as immediately obvious and even more dangerous and which I find even more disturbing…

The early monastic community would have felt an emphasis on these terms to be natural, I think, where the ongoing changes of lay societies over these millennia have maybe changed these terms’ practical meaning outside of that context.

Perhaps an emphasis on how they might apply vis-a-vis the precepts, etc.