The Buddhist Perception of Humility

Chen Yu-Hsi, Ph.D.
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 one.

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 or otherwise.

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 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.

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 "middle way."


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 and Korea.



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