Hiri and Ottappa
When we direct our attention to mindfulness and to meditation, if that root of wholesome mental qualities is there, then the meditation is going to go a lot more smoothly; it’s going to be much more accessible to us.
Purifying virtue is not so much about getting the legal description of the precepts and then seeing how much one has to do and how much one can get away with. It’s more about approaching the precepts from a place of hiri and ottappa. In Buddhist practice, these qualities are called the protectors of the world.
These protectors of the world are difficult to translate into English. A good translation for hiri is conscience, but it’s sometimes a sense of shame or shrinking back from the unwholesome. It’s important to recognize the difference because shame and guilt can make it very complicated.
The root of conscience is a respect for oneself when one either is contemplating doing something or when one has done something that is unskillful, and it elicits a sense of “Gosh, I can do a lot better than that.” One wants to protect oneself from one’s own unskillfulness. There’s a sense of respect for oneself. There’s directing attention to a sense of protection, of looking after oneself so that one is able to nurture the qualities that uplift the mind and brighten the heart. That’s hiri.
Ottappa is often translated as a fear of wrongdoing. Again, it’s a sense of shame and fear, but it’s a fear of wrongdoing because of respect for others. So hiri and ottappa are rooted in respect: respect for oneself and respect for others. One holds oneself and others dear. Then one doesn’t want to harm or create suffering for others.
When our integrity, our sīla, has this wholesome root, it keeps bringing more and more wholesome mental states because it’s based on a wise understanding that our actions have results, both for ourselves and for others. Since our actions have results, we want to make sure those results are ones that we can delight in and that create a sense of well-being and harmony with those around us.
This reflection by Ajahn Pasanno is from the book, Nourishing the Roots, “Purifying the Foundation,” (pdf) pp. 2-3.