Chapter Twelve: The Virtue of Humility
Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
-Chapter Three, Verse Nineteen of the Book of Genesis
Humility is the final indispensable characteristic of the true seeker of the path to the Divine as taught by the essential texts of Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Confucianism. This world is a test, and to fully complete one’s duty in this realm one must realize his or her inherent corporeal imperfection. One must not allow his or her possession of the Divine Spark to lead to delusions of grandeur. After all, the Eternal Essence is to be found everywhere in this highly imperfect realm. We should think, talk, and act in a manner that recognizes our lowliness compared to the Ultimate Source. To over-value one’s own might, skill, and material wealth is intimately related to the evil warned of in all religions. Humanity is reminded to trust in the Divine Justice that is eternal, and far beyond the transient honors and authority found in this realm. The common teaching on the indispensible virtue of humility is found in all sincere spiritual traditions.
The vital necessity of humility is a common topic throughout the teachings of Jesus. At one point, his followers had an argument about who was the most holy of his disciples. Verses thirty-three through thirty-five of the Book of Mark record the following incident:
And he came to Capernaum: and being in the house he asked them, What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way?
But they held their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest.
And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.
Humility is a necessary virtue. Although each individual should strive for perfection, a vital component of the holy life is to see one’s unworthiness. One must place his or herself last in order to be considered first in the grand scheme of Divine Justice. Spiritual seekers should not loudly extol their own merit - only the Ultimate Consciousness can know our inner shortcomings and strengths. No seeker of the Divine should boast of his or her spiritual worthiness, for such boasting is antithetical to the legitimate religious attributes. We are all inherently flawed, and only those who know and acknowledge their imperfections can overcome their base nature and commune with the Eternal. To be humble is essential on the path to true greatness.
Recognition of one’s lowliness is of central importance for the path to re-enter Brahman as taught by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. One should not trust one’s own imperfect and temporary abilities. A vital component of the remembrance of the Ultimate Divine is to acknowledge this Self-Sufficient Force as the originator of all action. In chapter two, verses forty-seven and forty-eight of the Gita, Krishna informs his disciple:
You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.
Perform your duty equipoised, O Arjuna, abandoning all attachment to success or failure. Such equanimity is called yoga.
The basis of humility is to act in concert with one’s duty and to completely forswear the results of such action. In the light of true awareness, every individual should remember that it is the Eternal, Primal Cause who is the source of all activities. To believe otherwise is to invite arrogance and evil into the mind. Without fear of failure of lust for success, one can perform one’s duty with tranquility and fearless humility. Furthermore, in verse seventy-one of the same chapter, Krishna says:
A person who has given up all desires for sense gratification, who lives free from desires, who has given up all sense of proprietorship and is devoid of false ego -- he alone can attain real peace.
Everlasting tranquility is only possible with complete humility. All human beings are instructed to renounce material longings, the sense of ownership, and the illusion of pride. This transformation is only possible if one lives in constant recognition of the Ultimate Source of all creation, and realizes that his or her power and knowledge is infinitesimal when compared to the Supersoul. In such a state of humble recognition of one’s unworthiness, the individual can be made worthy to achieve the final refuge of eternal bliss.
Confucius emphasized the importance of acting humbly. In section eighteen, chapter five of the Analects, the Master informs his followers:
The superior man in everything considers righteousness to be essential. He performs it according to the rules of propriety. He brings it forth in humility. He completes it with sincerity. This is indeed a superior man.
One must actualize moral precepts “in humility” in order to completely follow the Eternal Virtue. It is not enough to merely follow the Divine regulations of universal compassion that should govern human activity. We must perfect such righteousness in a humble and sincere fashion. We should never be proud of our own self-perceived moral superiority. Every one, because of humanity’s inherently flawed nature, will fail to fully emulate the Heavenly Ideal. It is only by acting in a morally correct manner with awareness of one’s imperfections that the Way can be sought. Humility is therefore a necessary component of true Virtue as taught by Confucius. This command is in perfect congruence with all other Divinely-inspired teachings.
To humble oneself before other people and Allah is one of the greatest commandments found throughout the many verses of the Qur’an. The instruction to act with humility, common to all religions, is elaborated upon in verses eighteen and nineteen of the thirty-first sura:
And swell not thy cheek at men, nor walk in insolence through the earth; for Allah loveth not any arrogant boaster.
And be moderate in thy pace, and lower thy voice; for the harshest of sounds without doubt is the braying of the ass.
In order to comply with the will of the All-Merciful, one cannot have an imposing and self-possessed attitude. A true believer is one who walks humbly upon the earth, and speaks in soft tones. The above verses state in no uncertain terms “Allah loveth not any arrogant boaster”. The very nature of and cosmic laws mandated by the Ultimate Divine ensure that those who seek to exult themselves over others will meet with an unfortunate final end. The vital command of these verses from the Qur’an is to act with the humility of those who knows their imperfections. Recall from Chapter Six how the evil is inherently linked to an over-reliance on one’s own material means and to rebellion against Divinely-mandated morality. Humility is the natural counterpoint to these misguided flaws in thought and action. This teaching runs parallel to all the other holy books quoted in this chapter, and forms an essential component of sincere religious thought. Only those who renounce worldly pride can find the true peace and knowledge that is the highest aim of human existence.
Taoist scriptures teach the importance of humility, an essential component of all religious thought. As section nine of the Tao te Ching states:
Rather than fill it to the brim by keeping it upright
Better to have stopped in time;
Hammer it to a point
And the sharpness cannot be preserved for ever;
There may be gold and jade to fill a hall
But there is none who can keep them.
To be overbearing when one has wealth and position
Is to bring calamity upon oneself.
To retire when the task is accomplished
Is the way of heaven.
Arrogance is ignorance, for in this transient, created realm, nothing can last forever. Note again the link between the lack of humility and the universally-taught aspects of evil. To expend all one’s mental energy on material goods - to fill a vessel to the brim, or continually attempt to improve a sharpened point - is to undo the desired end. The technique for following and emulating the Eternal Path is to do one’s duty without claim to personal merit or physical reward. In order to emulate the Tao, we must act without greed. The opposite attitude of this perfect ideal is the one of arrogance. As a transient imperfection, overconfidence is inevitably defeated. The humility taught by all sages is a timeless virtue.
Just like all other religious messengers, the Buddha was intimately concerned with promoting humility. His warnings on the lack of humility in verses thirteen through fifteen of the fifth chapter of the Dhammapada closely mirror the teachings of all Divine prophets:
The fool seeks undeserved reputation, precedence among renunciates, authority over monasteries, and honour among householders.
"Let both laypersons and renunciates think that it was done by me. In every work, great and small, let them follow me"--such is the ambition of the fool; thus his desire and pride increases.
One is the quest for worldly gain, and quite another is the path to Nibbana. Clearly understanding this, let not the renunciate, the disciple of the Buddha, be carried away by worldly acclaim, but develop detachment instead.
Only fools forget the transience of this realm and seek power and prestige over others. The arrogant seek earthly authority, not inner peace. With such a deranged attitude they will claim to be responsible for all good deeds. They want status from other humans, not the inexorable rewards of a compassionate life. This is indeed the opposite of the true path to Nirvana. One cannot legitimately seek both the Divine and the corporeal, or as the Bible says “one cannot serve both God and mammon.” The path to the Eternal Abode is the path of humility - the way that one treads when one recognizes his or her natural flaws and imperfections in this imperfect world. We should seek to overcome these shortcomings through ceaseless compassion and self-conquest. To be truly benevolent, and to recognize the Eternal within all beings, we must be humble.
The common teaching on the necessity of humility found in the Bible, Gita, Dhammapada, Qur’an, Analects, and Tao te Ching is all-too-often overlooked by the self-described followers of these religious teachings. Imperfect beings seek to impose their (necessarily flawed) vision of a perfect order upon nonbelievers. Materially rich religious people (most of whom profess beliefs which blatantly contradict the manner in which they live their lives) view their wealth not as an opportunity for compassion, but as a gift for their self-perceived piety. Because of the very nature of this realm as a test, it is unlikely that most of these misguided unfortunates will ever see the error of their ways before the inevitable destruction of their physical forms. However, the righteous and humble need not fear. The only true spiritual path is that of humility, and the only way to encourage humility in others is to nurture it within oneself.