Humility is often described as modesty. One does not feel the need to focus on oneself all the time or to think of one's own well-being in a selfish way. Humble people do not brag about their successes, nor about other details of their lives. At the same time, they do not lack self-esteem. They neither devalue their own competences and experiences nor those of other people.

I'm interested in what humility is based on. Are there different forms of humility and modesty? What are their foundations? What feeds this attitude, which is as strong as it is peaceful?

As far as I can see, there are several different sources from which humility and modesty feed. On a psychological level, the experience of a reliable, secure bond is certainly important. A child who has had the experience of being loved and seen and taken seriously with his or her needs tends not to develop arrogance or narcissistic traits, but a certain modesty. There is no desire to always put oneself in the center of attention.

But humility can also nourish itself from other sources and then get a slightly different taste. In the life story of Prince Siddharta I am impressed by his shocking realization of how vulnerable and precious his life and health are. At the same time, he realizes that this fact does not only apply to him: the health and life of all other people and living beings are just as precious and vulnerable and sensitive to pain as his own. The moment in which this insight becomes intuitively clear is a form of waking up. It goes deeper than any verbose description, explanation or statistics. Understandably, this insight often initially triggers fear or confusion. But it is also possible that it creates a sense of urgency: one does not want to waste any more time in self-centered actions.

Just the insight into vulnerability could make us humble - but not necessarily strong and peaceful. Siddharta had a hunch that he would have to understand more because of this insight. His journey did not end with the realization of his vulnerability and finiteness. That's why he took off. I am fascinated by his great interest in learning. It went so far that he left all his previous role and identity behind to experiment in a new, fresh way. I don't know if he was always so humble in those six years of wandering. Actually, I don't think so. When we think back to the time with the other five ascetics, I think that this group was a little conceited because of their extreme asceticism.

For Siddharta this changed with his exhausted breakdown and the compassion that saved him in the form of Sujata. His mental and meditative abilities were highly developed at that time, but as outstanding as they were, it did not bring the liberation he sought. As with many crises, there was a moment for Siddhartha here at this low point when all security and knowledge was softened to the point that his heart became responsive. In the middle of the crisis he learned to accept his perfectly imperfect humanity and vulnerability. Perhaps it is this moment when humility takes on a different taste, a different depth.

With the situation we are in worldwide (countless people on the run, climate change, corona etc.) - have we, like Siddharta, reached a low point, softening us for humility? How do we meet the crisis with wisdom and compassion?

David, would you be willing to share your thoughts on this?

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Here are some immediate thoughts...

Apparently, the Sakyans were renowned for their pride and even arrogance, and Siddharta came from one of the most important families, so he had a long way to climb down.

Humility and modesty are things that we can recognise in others sometimes.  To recognise them in oneself is, perhaps, more difficult, and fraught with a certain danger of conceit.

Humility is a virtue that used to be esteemed in the time of our grandparents, but it has somehow gone out of fashion.  Nowadays one is supposed to sell oneself.  This is a change for the worse, I think.

The implication of Buddhist teaching would seem to be that self-esteem is of no importance.  The healthy person esteems the world rather than the self.  He or she is full of gratitude and appreciation for the gifts and grace that come.

Upbringing clearly has some effect, but children come into the world with very various temperaments and there is no parenting style that guarantees particular outcomes in all cases. 

To see our bombu nature - vulnerability, fragility, proneness to error, weakness and so on, supports a humble attitude.  This does not, however, necessarily imply a retiring manner so much as a disarming one. It gives a certain kind of strength since one does not feel that one has so much to defend.

Regarding the crisis of our times, I see little sign that humans collectively are becoming more humble. The pressure of the ecological squeeze may well force them to make do with less and lower their expectations, but this has not happened yet.  Perhaps we are on the edge of what may prove to be a major change, but if so then there will be much chaos before a new order emerges because people in general still expect more than is sustainable and will not give up their grasping for it until there is no choice.

Those who follow a spiritual path may make such a transition more easily and so be of benefit to others naturally.

This is not a full answer to your enquiry, but it may give some starting points for discussion.

Namo Amida Bu.

I agree. Humility is a subject that is a little bit delicate to discuss. She is most precious when she communicates herself in silence, certain behaviour, a loving heart or in other indirect ways. Therefore, I was first hesitant to bring her up for discussion and fall into that trap of conceit.

David Brazier said:

Humility and modesty are things that we can recognise in others sometimes.  To recognise them in oneself is, perhaps, more difficult, and fraught with a certain danger of conceit.

Thank you Tineke and Dharmavidya for your comments ,


I think that the current experience and our health crisis is bringing us a strong evidence of our frailty and vulnerability in a collective way.


Here we are, taking individualism to its máximum, completely isolated, uncapable of enjoying a simple walk in the sun, uncapable of embracing or kissing our dearest beings…surprised and disconcerted inside home. We have no experience of something similar in our lives…


There is no exception for anyone, really we are having strong evidence that we are all in the same boat.I think this is so remarkable…The first time in our lives we are all completely isolated and, at the same time, the first time we feel as one “in a certain sense”.


For me this is the main condition, I mean,in my opinión, when one really sees oneself reflected in the other when we are capable of feeling a real connection from our vulnerability, many words and concepts like humility or forgiveness…become, in some way, unnecessary .


Our inner purpose is very powerful. If we are struggling together for defending our self, we destroy each other, if we cooperate together and open our hearts to help each other, we can heal causing less damage.


Anyway we are bombu, we tend to forget and to escape, we tend to feel fear. We rush to find a scientific solution and I really hope this comes as soon as posible…but I am not sure if this experience will bring more fear and defensiveness afterwards or more awareness of our mutual condition of vulnerability , a real sense that we are on the same boat.


Remembering Dharmavidya¨s teaching I think that if  “we do not learn the lesson” we will go on being addicted to ourselves and life will bring another "better opportunity” to learn.


Namo Amida Bu

It is a bit strange that we are all together in our isolation from one another.  Social distancing is the order of the day.  However, human nature is what it is.  The French government has told people to stay at home as from midday today, so this morning just about everybody is crowded into the supermarket, no doubt exchanging bugs.  I did not go in.  I have enough food in the house for at least a week.  If I can't spin it out I'll have to make a foray to the shops sometimes after that.  Otherwise I'll get thin.

In my case, social isolation is normal for a large part of my time, so for me it is not so strange.  The solitude itself is a blessing.

The sad aspect is that many people will die, though some will be much better prepared for it than others.  I might be one of them.  My friends might be some of them.  We are all going to die of something sooner or later and this could be it, but how prepared are we?

Then there are the little things, like learning not to touch one's face and remembering to wash hands whenever one has been in contact with anything that could conceivably be carrying a virus. 

All these things can certainly teach us humility and compassion by showing how we are all frail and vulnerable.

Namo Amida Bu

I agree. How do we prepare to die? Where do we begin? Perhaps we need to rediscover the preciousness of life in every form and at every moment. Keeping this in mind is like bowing to creation (this is not a Buddhist term, but I like it because it expresses a divine dimension beyond human-made impact on life).

We could die at any time. Even without warning and completely without any Corona pandemic. Yet, somehow the conviction has spread in our society that one can make claims against death. But is that really true?

Death doesn't come sometime. It is there already. It is inherent in any being alive. Perhaps we need courage and humility to remember this. Perhaps we also need courage and humility to meet our mortality with a loving heart. How else can we prepare to die?


David Brazier said:

The sad aspect is that many people will die, though some will be much better prepared for it than others.  I might be one of them.  My friends might be some of them.  We are all going to die of something sooner or later and this could be it, but how prepared are we?

If one thinks only of this life as having any value or meaning, then death must represent a failure and a loss because it then takes away everything that has value or meaning.  However, people die variously.  Some go "raging into the night", some pass peacefully and willingly.  Some are ready, some not.  On the occasions when I have almost died, I always had the sense of going somewhere and entering into something important.  If I ask my Japanese friends what Buddhism is all about, they say it is all about the one great moment.  The one great moment is the point of death.

I share the experiences of having almost died on several occacions. Yet, not every time I had the faith and sense of entering into something important. Particularly not, when the live-threatening danger was caused by violence.

On other occasions it became clear that death is not the absolute end - and birth is not the beginning. I particularly recall the weekend, when my close neighbour died and a few hours later my son was born. Experiencing birth and death so close, so similar, was a shock and a grace. It left me with a sense of something greater and more silent than anything else.

All these experiences we go through in life can be quite humbeling. Even with an intuitive sense of something greater, I feel it is very appropriate to meet being born and dying with respect. Having to say Goodbye can be very moving, as well as seeing  life in a new body emerging and grow. Now, in spring time, we can experience it every day.

Yes, exactly.  Whatever we think, it is an experience.

Bombu nature - would you explain this expression a bit more in detail to me? I still feel like a visitor and can't quite make a clear reference to a term I am familiar with from my own background... Thank you!



David Brazier said:

(...)

To see our bombu nature - vulnerability, fragility, proneness to error, weakness and so on, supports a humble attitude.  This does not, however, necessarily imply a retiring manner so much as a disarming one. It gives a certain kind of strength since one does not feel that one has so much to defend.

(...)

You might find these definitions that Dharmavidya wrote a few years ago helpful :: here

Thank you, Sujatin.

Sujatin Johnson said:

You might find these definitions that Dharmavidya wrote a few years ago helpful :: here

Thank you, Sujatin, for bringing this collection of postings to attention.  I will do some very light editing and correction of typos and repost it on this site soon. Namo Amida Bu.

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