Whilst the concept of mindfulness has become universally accepted (often due to the amazing efforts of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and his students), many can still feel uncomfortable with the word “humility”, which also happens to be an important concept in the Buddhist tradition. Some, especially those who were socially conditioned to be competitive of “independent”, find it physically difficult to bow or prostrate before a religious icon, let alone another human being. This very real struggle is based on a confusion of humility with weakness. For a famous example, consider the uproar raised by conservative circles over the fact that Barack Obama bowed deeply at the waist when greeting Japanese Emperor Akihito in 2009. His cultural sensitivity was seen as a display of spinelessness and equated with “groveling” by many pundits and columnists.
For those who are blinded by ego and puffed up with pride, to offer even a mild bow would certainly seem to deny one’s own self-respect. But I do not think this is the full story, and is indeed a fallacy.
Is bowing – or prostrating – truly spinelessness? Whether or not one agrees with the American president, equating humility with “humiliation” is an incredible assumption. All the higher religions – in particular Buddhism – have ancient rituals of expressing humility, the most basic of which is bowing. Without a sense of humility and acknowledgement of our own fallibility, we gradually begin to feel justified in everything we think, say, and do, even when it hurts others, because we do not observe our own actions as reproachable. Arrogance and ignorance creep in. If humility dies, mindfulness will die as well, and without mindfulness, it is impossible for us to be happy and spiritual in the way the Buddha intended.
For all his extraordinary achievements throughout his life, Thich Nhat Hanh is extremely humble. For people in Buddhist discipleship, humility liberates them from false perceptions about the world and the intentions of others. It allows them to be more genuine with their fellow students. Being humble in thought, speech, and mind benefits oneself and every relationship one can conceive of, from those with loved ones to mere acquaintances. Therefore, Nhat Hanh is one of the freest human individuals alive because he is, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “humble and devout [my emphasis]”. It is no wonder that Thich Nhat Hanh remains an incredibly happy and serene man even after experiencing so much that would break more ordinary individuals.
It is important to distinguish humility from dissatisfaction. A humble disciple knows she is not perfect, but remains at peace with her (possibly many) faults. A dissatisfied disciple is not at peace with her weaknesses at all (even if they are few). Intellectually, it is easy to accept that no one is perfect. But the implications of this cliché are daunting: it means that people may always fall short in any given endeavour. A humble disciple is hardworking while able to freely let go when she fails or lags behind in certain respects. The person who has not come to terms with her own imperfections is resentful of her failures and is at the same time frustrated with others who do not match her standard. This is less of a moral flaw and more of a lack of mindfulness.
Acknowledging my fallibility actually benefits me more than anyone else because I become mindful of my own limitations and allow others to help me. Most importantly, humility lets us open ourselves to receiving (and Taking Refuge in) the help of the Triple Gem: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. As we all practice humility together, no one can claim to be superior. We are just trying our best, striving to follow the Perfect One and touch the imperishable essence of Buddha Nature within all beings. We know that even when the impermanent universe dissolves and is reborn, Buddha’s essence of good and virtue within us remains indestructible. This is a basic truth of the Three Vehicles.
No matter how incompetent we may feel at certain points of our lives, careers and practice, two statements of faith keep us humble and confident in the Buddhist way of life. Firstly, the Buddha loves all beings and wants them to find happiness and liberation. Secondly, no matter how long or how many lifetimes it takes, he will forever appear in the worlds to guide us.