Professor, Department of Religious Studies
Fo Guang University, Taiwan
Like other spiritual traditions, Buddhism sees
humility as a virtue. In the Buddhist text on Maha-karuna (great
compassion), humility is one of the ten sacred qualities attributed
to Avalokite Bodhisattva, or Buddha of Compassion. Within that context,
it appears to be a natural by-product of supreme spiritual attainments
that transcends the ego, just as are the four noble states of mind
-- love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.
However, Mahayana Buddhism1
also advocates humility as a moral precept. As such it is often
expressed in terms of exhortation against an arrogant or haughty
attitude. Being a sign of ego-centeredness, pride is seen as impeding
acceptance of the Buddha's teachings and progress towards spiritual
liberation. Buddhist practitioners believe that only a humble mind
can readily recognize its own defilements of craving (or greed),
aversion (or hatred) and ignorance, thereby embarking on the path
of enlightenment and liberation.
The Platform Sutra tells a story about how the
Sixth Patriarch, Master Hui Neng, of the Chinese Zen Sect reprimanded
a follower for his arrogant attitude. That follower felt self-conceited
about his knowledge of a major Buddhist sutra and knowingly or unknowingly
kept his head above the ground while bowing to the master. At that
point the master gave him a lecture that his lack of humility suggested
that having a great knowledge of the sutra fettered his mind rather
than liberating it. In other words, when religious knowledge, like
other knowledge, adds to "intellectual arrogance" and self-conceit,
it becomes an impediment to what religious practice is supposed
to attain. Elsewhere in the Platform Sutra, the Sixth Patriarch
teaches that behaving humbly and according to propriety is a merit
and a desirable moral quality that comes from insight into the spiritual
reality. Humility in this sense is both a prerequisite for liberation
and salvation from the deluded ego and a manifestation thereof.
The quintessence of humility is manifested in
a practitioner's realization that he is nobody or nothing. This
state of enlightenment comes when he transcends all worldly desires,
illusions and mental constructs and labels associated with the ego.
Buddhism refers to this as "emptiness" - empty of the contents of
an illusory ego. On an in-depth psychological level, when one realizes
that one is nothing, one is also everything. That means that through
unconditioned love and compassion, one is now connected with all
things and all beings. There is no more "I" and "mine." We are all
Some Buddhist practitioners place so great an
emphasis on humility that they are prepared to yield to others in
any situation that involves a dispute or contention. A Buddhist
master writes that he always considers himself to be the least knowledgeable
and capable as compared with other people. This approach is seen
as a way to "humble" the ego so that spiritual liberation can be
facilitated. Whether this is the right way of practice is open to
questions. Within the Chinese cultural milieu, such a humble attitude
is doubtless regarded as a virtue commensurate with the Confucian
ethics of social order. Chinese Buddhism accepts it as a norm rather
than an anomaly.
In fact, the Buddhist principle of "no contention"
(wu-cheng) requires that a practitioner refrain from quarreling
or contending for personal interests, including intellectual interests.
"No contention" implies a humbled ego through which the light of
enlightenment may shine. In this connection, a parallel can be drawn
between the Buddhist approach and the Christian teaching that one
who is humble before God is exalted by Him.
Outsiders, however, may dispute the validity
of such an approach. For instance, a junior lama from Tibet once
told me that it was wrong to behave humbly because humility suggests
that one is "smaller" than he/she really is. He thought that self-depreciation
was as counter-productive as self-aggrandizement when it came to
mental cultivation. He did not touch upon psychological repression,
but I think that would be a relevant point to make if humility becomes
a moral norm superimposed by social institutions, whether religious
Some spiritual masters such as Osho argue that
a repressed ego makes it difficult for a practitioner to be liberated
from the ego. Psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher Jack
Kornfield makes the point that only when one develops a healthy
self along with a deep realization of the empty nature of the self
identity can one fully discover "true self," which shines through
our whole being with all its divine spiritual qualities.
Humility or modesty as practiced in traditional
Chinese society is often criticized as being less than honest or
even bordering on hypocrisy. A morally cultivated person is supposed
to refrain from talking about his/her own merits and strengths,
or to talk about them in a round-about way that suggests modesty.
Furthermore, the norm of humility demands that one use stereotyped
language that depicts oneself as being worthless but is nevertheless
understood to be mere ceremonial courtesy. Even today, a scholar
is supposed to refer to his/her publications as "my clumsy works",
and an entertainer would beg "excuse" for a "homely and plain" feast
and "less than satisfactory hospitality," even though deep down
he feels very proud of what he has offered to the guests. Such superficial
courtesy appears to be a strong value in societies on which Confucianism
has left its mark, including Japan and Korea.
Although humility is important to Buddhism,
ultimately spiritual attainments are associated with such personal
qualities as the "middle way," a balanced personality that is neither
arrogant nor "humble" in the sense of self-abasement. Thus a semantic
question may be raised as to exactly what we mean by humility. Does
it necessarily imply an under-evaluation of one's own worth and
merits that led the Tibetan lama to reject humility as a virtue
for practitioners? From a true Buddhist perspective, the answer
is "No." And we may add the following criteria to define genuine
- Behave without arrogance, self-conceit and
other egoist tendencies such as jealousy and an impulse to show
- Respect others and show a genuine human interest
in them without a desire to please or to impress.
- Come up with an objective and honest understanding
of our own strengths and weaknesses, with a realization that we
are far from perfect and have a lot more to learn, to improve
and to accomplish.
- While we do not recognize self-depreciation
or self-effacement as part of humility, we must recognize that
our biological self is fraught with frailties and ignorance and
that a true self characterized by such divine qualities as love,
compassion, joy and wisdom is innate in everyone of us.
With the above understanding, it is safe for
Buddhists to speak of humility as a norm of personal conduct and
a mark of supreme attainments that is consistent with the Buddhist
Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart. New
York: Bantam Books, 1993.
Sharon Salzburg, Loving-kindness: A Revolutionary
Art of Happiness. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1995.
Pema Chodron, The Wisdom of No Escape.
Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1991.
William James, The Varieties of Religious
Experience. New York: Random House,1994.
The Sutra of Hui Neng (Platform Sutra).
Hong Kong: Buddhist Youth Association Ltd., 1994.
1 Mahayana Buddhism is
a major school of Buddhism being practiced in China, Taiwan, Japan