Humility, like compassion and peace, is a theme found in the sacred texts of all religions, but the meaning varies depending on context. In some cases, emphasis is placed on being humble before God. In other cases, it is predicted that one’s enemies will be humbled, or laid low, by God’s wrath. This post focuses on the more typical ideal – that living in humility brings us closer to the Divine, to the Holy, to God, or to Wisdom.
The Dhammapada, a compilation of sayings by the Buddha, contains several teachings on humility. In this one, the Buddha beautifully sums up what a holy life looks likes. This excerpt is one of my favorites and comes from the Karaniya Metta Sutra of the Khuddakapatha, also known as the teaching on good will/loving-kindness/universal love:
This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm and wise and skillful,
Not proud or demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
A comparable summary can be found in the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu text originally written in Sanskrit. In this excerpt, taken from chapter 5, Lord Krishna offers Prince Arjuna a description of how wisdom can be attained while living an active/non-monastic life:
Humbleness, truthfulness, and harmlessness,
Patience and honour, reverence for the wise.
Purity, constancy, control of self,
Contempt of sense-delights, self-sacrifice….
…An ever-tranquil heart in fortunes good
And fortunes evil, with a will set firm
To worship Me…this is true Wisdom, Prince!
And what is otherwise is ignorance!
Among Christians, Jesus is widely recognized for his own humility and for valuing those humbled by life’s circumstance. In his Sermon on the Mount (Christian Bible, Matthew chapters 5-7), he famously said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” He also suggested that only through humility and compassion toward others could one truly experience the essence of God. Here’s one of those passages:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (Matthew 18:1-5)
But Jesus didn’t pull this idea out of a hat. The Hebrew Scriptures also contain similar references to humility, particularly in the book of Proverbs:
Before ruin a man’s heart is proud;
Humility goes before honor.
(Tanakh, Proverbs 18:12)
A man’s pride will humiliate him,
But a humble man will obtain honor.
(Tanakh, Proverbs 29:23)
Similar ideas can be found in the Qur’an:
The believers must (eventually) win through,
Those who humble themselves in their prayers;
Who avoid vain talk;
Who are active in deeds of charity;
(Surah 23 Al Muminum/The Believers, Verses 1-4)
The Sufi poets also offer their own insight on humility. Here is one example entitled “Out of this Mess” from Hafez, the 14th century Persian poet. Like Jesus, Hafez reminds us that to fully become one with the Great Mystery, one must practice humility.
Pray to be humble so that God does not have to appear so stingy.
O pray to be honest, strong, kind, and pure, so that the Beloved is never miscast as a cruel great miser.
I know you have a hundred complex cases against God in court, but never mind, wayfarer, let’s just get out of this mess and pray to be loving and humble so that the Friend will be forced to reveal Himself so near!
And finally, we have the Tao Te Ching. In this passage, Lao-Tzu points out that the Tao, and all it stands for, is the epitome of humility.
The great Tao flows everywhere.
All things are born from it,
yet it doesn’t create them.
It pours itself into its work,
yet it makes no claim.
It nourishes infinite worlds,
yet it doesn’t hold on to them.
Since it is merged with all things
and hidden in their hearts,
it can be called humble.
Since all things vanish into it
and it alone endures,
it can be called great.
It isn’t aware of its greatness;
thus it is truly great.
Being humble in daily life is supremely difficult. We all struggle to maintain that balance between the values, desires, and significance of our own lives with compassionate appreciation and empathetic understanding of others. At best, it’s complicated. On some days, it feels impossible. Maybe that’s why so many ancient texts discuss it.
1) Amaravati Sangha. Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Buddha’s Words on Loving-kindness. Trans. 1994. Web. 21 March, 2014. <http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/khp/khp.9.amar.html>
2) Easwaran, Eknath. The Bhagavad Gita. Trans. CA: Nilgiri Press, 1985. Print.
3) Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2007. Print.
4) Tanakh: A New Translation of The Holy Scriptures. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1985. Print.
5) Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. NY: Harper Perennial, 1988. Print.
6) Yusuf Ali, A. The Qur’an. Trans. Istanbul, Turkey: ASIR MEDIA, 2002. Print.
(This blog was originally posted on the Project Interfaith web site on 4/30/2014 as Humility in the Sacred Texts. Project Interfaith is no longer in business, but the original post can still be seen.)
[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]