Posted by: Upāsaka Subhavi | 04/13/2010


For whatever reason, whenever I think about the concept of humility I cannot help but think of it primarily in terms of the Judeo-Christian milieu in which I first encountered it as a child. Humility brings to mind the image of a man bent and trembling in awe and terror before his lord God despite the fact that I long ago consigned such a belief to the dustbin. What makes it even more complicated is the fact that I truly feel humility, the act of being humble, is a valuable and necessary quality for anyone engaged in spiritual discipline. For me, it’s almost impossible to separate humility and honesty for without the willingness to let go of conceit and pride how would it even be possible to admit the truth of one’s shortcomings? Notwithstanding my own inclinations, however, I have found preciosu little in the suttas (other than the mangala Sutta) where humility is even mentioned let alone discussed in detail. As far as I can tell the closest Pali word to the English “humility” is sagāravatā which translates as “respect”. This is a different sense altogether from the Latin root of the word humility which means “lowness” and is perhaps the reason why yours truly has been inclined to view humility in such a thoroughly adhammic way.  After much searching I was able to find the following passages which help to shed light on a more Dhammic understanding of humility:

A feeling of superiority is a very pleasant mental state, but it is essentially akusala — unhealthy and unskilled, highly dangerous in its results.

Any conceit that arises in connection with the practice of Dhamma is much to be deplored. This sometimes occurs when students are making good progress in their studies. Some queer experience or flash of “insight” is assumed to be a sign of virtue or an advance towards Higher Consciousness, and the student, instead of checking up on his experience with a wise teacher, jumps to the conclusion that he is half-way to being an Arahant. We do well to remember that no two people have exactly the same experience in regard to meditation practice. The was recognized in the Buddha’s own day: Sariputta was revered for his wisdom, and Moggallana for his psychic powers, but both were venerated as “Great Beings.”

Conceit is very prone to arise when one is praised for some particular work or mental quality. Within limits praise from a knowledgeable person is stimulating and encouraging; some people who are modest or diffident by nature can only work well when they are appreciated. The trouble is that too much praise, particularly if it borders on flattery, stimulates the sense of “I”-ness. The ego sticks out its chest and feels two inches taller; it has a delicious feeling of security and believes itself to be invulnerable!

This is the nasty sort of pride that the ancient Greeks called hubris; it was looked upon as an insult to the gods, and when the Olympians found a man suffering from it they unloosed Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, who brought him to death or destruction.

The cultivation of humility is not easy; there’s a temptation to indulge in mock-modesty, and untruthfully disclaim any real achievement, and still worse to be conceited about not being conceited. It is wiser, I think, to tackle Conceit at its first uprising; if one can do that, then Humility will develop in the natural course of events.


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