The Importance of Humility

The Judgement 

MODESTY creates success. 

The superior man carries things through. 

The Image 

Within the earth, a mountain: 

The image of modesty. 

Thus the superior man reduces that which is too much, 

And augments that which is too little. 

He weighs things and makes them equal. 

Hexagram 15 (谦 – Qian) Classic of Change 

The English word ‘humility’ is prominent within Christian monastic practice where it is probably best explained by St Bernard of Clairvaux.  Of course, many others have tried to explain exactly what humility is (and is not), but these diatribes are often ‘not’ very humble in either delivery or intent. The popular Church uses humility in a manner that in my view runs counter to its original or intended meaning. A priest ordering his impoverished flock to meekly accept the status quo and never endeavour to change anything, is a betrayal of the Revolutionary spirit of Jesus Christ and his throwing over of tables and casting out of the tax-collectors from the temple! Telling poor workers that the Church Authorities (and the corrupt ruling classes) are beyond both question and reproach is nothing more than a form of ecclesiastical abuse! The much earlier tradition of Christian monasticism is quite different in style and purpose. The monks and nuns are there by choice – they have ‘volunteered’ to live this life of poverty and contemplation which they can leave at any time. Although some individuals decide this life is not for them, nevertheless, the vast majority see it through to the end. A monk or nun has enough to eat and drink, a bed to sleep in and clothes to wear. These things are guaranteed to be there day after day barring catastrophes. A Christian monastic is ‘freed’ from the cycle of wage-slavery that is normal for ordinary members of the lay community, and has no worries in this regard. The Christian monastic possesses nothing, and what he or she has collective access to, may not be much, but it is enough to live moderately well. An ordinary worker, by way of contrast, may not earn enough money to feed himself, his partner or his children. He may not have enough money to buy shoes for his entire family, or adequate clothing. Regular bouts of starvation and illness are the reality for ordinary people stuck in these cycles of enforced (and manufactured) poverty. For a Christian priest to use his religious authority against the workers by telling them NOT to fight to change their lot is surely a Crime Against Humanity! 

Simply giving-in to tyranny and injustice is NOT the practice of ‘humility’. Within the Christian tradition, Jesus DID NOT give-in to either tyranny or injustice! Humility in the Western tradition has its origin in the Latin word ‘Humus’ meaning the ‘ground’ or ‘earth’ we tread on. The earth, of course, is broad and supporting, even though it is ‘low’. Being humble (谦逊 – Qian Xun) in the Chinese tradition, suggests that an individual has calmed their mind and perfected their character to such an extent that it has become ‘broad’ and ‘supportive’ to all and sundry – like the earth upon which we all tread. This position is achieved by ‘giving way’ when such activity is required, and ‘asserting’ to restore order. This interaction of taking away too much, and supplementing what is missing is exactly what the early Christian teaching meant by ‘humility’ and it has nothing to do with pretending that terrible circumstances are preferable to their opposite!  Injustice and exploitation are examples of imbalances in the environment that can be properly remedied by an individual who possesses a broad and calm mind (like the earth), and is able to act selflessly and for good of the community (or the masses). Genuine humility demands that all injustice is rectified as soon as possible and not ‘endured’ for the corrupt benefit of a few (selfish) others! 

A ‘humble’ person becomes ‘equal’ to the broad earth, and in so doing assumes the identity of a true mother or father of the masses, the environment and every living thing! Humility supports life, healing, development and happiness. It does not support unnecessary suffering, oppression or pointless impoverishment. Like their Christian counter-parts, Buddhist monks possess nothing – as their robes are owned by the lay community that provide them. Emptying the mind of greed, hatred and delusion creates a ‘still’ and ‘expansive’ awareness, from which arises ‘wisdom’, ‘loving kindness’ and ‘compassion’. A Buddhist monk is non-attached to his mind, body and environment – this is the practice of humility. Things that are ‘wrong’ in the environment are dealt with when they arise. When things are wrong, they are out of balance. When things are right, they are in a state of equipoise and harmony. Humility must not be part of problem of imbalance, but must always be used to maintain inner and outer tranquillity. The broad earth supports all with a sense of indifference – this is the practice of ‘humility’.  

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