Sometimes at Buddhist ceremonies, laypeople are given “protection cords”, bracelets made of thread that we are meant to wear until they fall off. If we ask what the cords are protecting us from, the answer most often given is “from ourselves”. This is not a magic charm that will ward off illness and accident; no – it’s simply a reminder that we are responsible for our actions and that the best protection from future woes is for us to guard our words and actions to keep them from creating harm and suffering.
In the Pali canon, there are two factors called “protectors of the world” or lokapālas.
This term [lokapālas] refers to the personal and social benefits to be derived from this wise sense of shame (hiri) and fear of wrongdoing (ottappa), without which morality would be left groundless and the world more vulnerable. (footnote from Ajahn Jayasaro in Stillness Flowing)
In English-speaking countries the meaning of “shame” has been expanded and complicated. In the context of the Buddha’s teachings, hiri refers specifically to the inner guide that keeps each of us from doing harmful deeds. It has to do with karma, with remembering that all actions have consequences. So shame in this sense has nothing to do with body-shaming or other forms of interpersonal humiliation. It’s our own internal sense that when we’ve done a wholesome act, we know it and feel good; when we’ve done harm, we know it and feel bad. We also know, if we are mindful enough, whether an action we’re contemplating doing is likely to make us feel good or bad. Hiri is a guardian of our self-respect.
The partner guardian to hiri is ottappa, a healthy fear of the consequences of any negative action we might take. This is the external partner to the internality of hiri. If we pick a fight with someone, we may reasonably expect them to fight back, and quite possibly take the fight further than we intended. If we break the law, we live with the fear that we may get caught; and even if we don’t get caught, we are caught by our own sense of what’s right and wrong. Ottappa includes knowing when our actions may bring negative consequences for others. It could be something as apparently harmless as cutting into a line of waiting people or using a parking space reserved for the handicapped (when we’re not in such need). Our actions do affect others, and when we harm others we create regret in our hearts. We create peace and safety for others when we curb our selfish instincts.
All of us can recognize these guardians. If we happen to be on a meditation retreat or in some other protected, wholesome environment, keeping the precepts and living in a non-harming way is easier than it is in a stressful or confusing situation. But these guardians never sleep. They can protect us anywhere as long as we are conscious of our words and actions.