Humility and Modesty
Compassion tells us to ask and listen with humility and modesty, not to listen so we can respond with what we already know. But more importantly, this is the meta cognitive question that we should always be asking:
What should I do in each moment to strengthen and master my wandering anxious and stress-producing mind?
Like other spiritual traditions, Buddhism sees humility as a virtue. It 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 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. Behaving humbly is a merit and a desirable moral quality that comes from insight into the spiritual reality, it is both a prerequisite for peacefulness and a manifestation thereof.
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. This assumes that there is no right and so there is no need to assert my understanding over someone else. 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. Not so with American Buddhists in general.
But we must be careful in making humility a moral precept, for self-depreciation is as counter-productive as self-aggrandizement when it becoming peaceful.
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. We may add the following criteria to define genuine humility:
· Behave without arrogance, self-conceit and other egoist tendencies such as jealousy and an impulse to show off.
· 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.
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.
Pride has been aptly described as the "giant weed." We may grub up a few roots in this life-span, but the thing has already gone to seed and will appear in the future.
One year's seeds
Seven years weeds
say the old gardeners. If we acquire the habit of eradicating conceit in this life, the habit will travel on in our sankharas and bear good fruit the future.
1. Recognize conceit whenever it pops up and name it: arrogance, conceit, pride, etc; recognition automatically weakens it. This practice is doubly effective because it keeps you on your toes and induces a gentle distaste for the tendency.
2. Remember the first two factors of the noble eightfold path: right view and right intention.
Right view is having “no view” that would allow you to feel superior and right intention is the intention to expunge pride, arrogance, conceit and egotism.
3. Remind yourself profoundly that your talents are not due to your own virtue, but have arisen from all the actions of untold numbers of people in the past and present, therefore it is silly of me to be conceited about qualities which are not in any real sense "yours."