Humility in Buddhism

Humility in Buddhism

humility in buddhism

His Holiness the Dalai Lama bowing

In this article, we’ll be taking a look at the definition and role of humility in Buddhism and what that means for us in our modern world.

There is a confused notion that is prevalent today which associated humility with self-deprecation and weakness.  I assure you that it is none of these things but is actually tied to altruism, as we will see later on in this post.

Those who are blinded by their own egoism and pride will consider humility to be synonymous with denying your own self-respect but this is not the essence of humility.

I think it comes down to selflessness and I am reminded of a quote by Christian writer C.S. Lewis when he said “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less”.

Etymology of Humility

Humility is defined as “a modest of low view of one’s own importance” and comes to us from the Latin word humilitas which is commonly translated as “lowness, small stature; insignificance; baseness, littleness of mind” which refers to the quality of being courteously respectful of others by not elevating oneself over others in either thought or actions.

Cultivating Humility

humility in buddhism

A monk prostrating

Humility is an important part of spiritual practice for Buddhists as it is for many other spiritual paths and religions.

Bowing and making prostrations among Buddhists is considered to be a sign of humility which naturally comes from an attitude of equanimity toward all living beings.  Buddhists of the Mahayana (“Greater Vehicle”) schools of Buddhism aspire to become Bodhisattvas which means that they vow to not attain Nirvana until all living beings have attained Nirvana before them.  So essentially Buddhist should see themselves as servants of other sentient beings.

The idea of humility also comes from the teaching of non-self (anatta/anatman) and the teaching of emptiness (shunyata) which states that we don’t have an unchanging, intrinsically independent self.

Zen teachjer Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that humility liberates you from false perceptions about the world and the intentions of others.

So how do we cultivate humility?

Try meditating on your faults and shortcomings and look at everyone as though they were Shakyamuni Buddha himself. Humility is also deeply connected with the practice of the Four Abodes (Brahmavihara): loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity.  Humility along with compassion, and wisdom are all part of the enlightened state.

Quotes on Humility

Here are a few quotes that capture the spirit of humility in the Buddhist tradition:

“To counter one’s arrogance or pride, you need to reflect upon shortcomings in you that can give rise to a sense of humility.  For example, you can think about all the things in the world about which you are completely ignorant.” His Holiness the Dalai Lama

“Do not find fault with others. If they behave wrongly, there is no need to make yourself suffer. If you point out to them what is correct and they do not practice accordingly, leave it at that. When the Buddha studied with various teachers, he realised that their ways were lacking, but he did not disparage them. Studying with humility and respect, he benefited from his relationship with them, yet he realised that their systems were not complete. Still, he had not yet become enlightened, he did not criticise or attempt to teach them. After he found enlightenment, he respectfully remembered those had studied with and wanted to share his newfound knowledge with them.”  Ajahn Chah

“I think that there is a very close connection between humility and patience. Humility involves having the capacity to take a more confrontational stance, having the capacity to retaliate if you wish, yet deliberately deciding not to do so. That is what I would call genuine humility.” His Holiness the Dalai Lama


Now we can see from the preceding sections that the key to humility is selflessness and Buddhist meditation can help us realize this state.  Also I should reiterate that humility doesn’t mean that you have no respect for yourself, but rather it means that you think of the needs of others before your own.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article on humility in Buddhism and if you have any thoughts or questions feel free to leave them in the comments below.

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6 Responses to Humility in Buddhism

  1. Steven says:

    I agree that humility is important because we need to know we are composed of the same energetic material as our surroundings. Arrogance will lead to destruction.
    Here is a bible quote I like from James 4 ‘Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up’.
    Take care

    • Ian H says:

      Hi Steven,
      Yes you’re right about that, arrogance and pride usually end in destruction. Nice quote from the Bible by the way.

  2. Ciandress says:

    I’ve read a few articles on your site before, and I am always grateful for the wisdom that you share through your posts. I think that humility is a very important personal quality, and unfortunately, it seems like its a characteristic that is less and less valued by people, at least in Western culture. Selflessness is certainly not a practice that most people I encounter exercise, at least where I live, but I pray every day that people will become more awake to grounding principles like humility. Thanks for writing this post.

    • Ian H says:

      I definitely agree that humility is a rare thing to find. Most people equate humility with a “less than” attitude or they are just so wrapped up in their own ego constructs that they can’t see anything but that.

  3. David says:

    Hi Ian,

    I think that life has many different choices on a continuous basis. We are always as individuals, at a crossroads regarding our ongoing continuous choices.

    I think that it is important to add a spiritual point of view, which then adds as a framework to assist us with our life choices.

    Thank you for your insight into the world of Buddhism.

    Kind regards,

    • Ian H says:

      Hi David,

      Thanks for the comment! A spiritual point of view certainly goes a long way to improve our choices in life.

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