On Humility: The Path of Studentship


Today I want to share a few thoughts on humility. Some years ago, I came across a profound teaching by Nubuo Haneda in his book dharma breeze. In the first chapter, he recounts the origins of the Shin Buddhist tradition when Shinran meets his teacher Honen. Here is the passage.

“When Shinran met Honen, Shinran realized that he had had a shallow view of Buddhahood – his thoughts on the subject went through a total transformation.

Before Shinran met Honen, Shinran thought that the Buddha was a good and wise person, a holy person who possessed wonderful virtues. To become such a Buddha, Shinran attempted to purify himself by eliminating evil passions. But he could not attain Buddhahood.

Not only was he unable to become a Buddha he was feeling more and more depressed and miserable. He could not understand what was wrong. His goal of Buddhahood had seemed far away.

When Shinran met Honen, Shinran saw a Buddha in him. But the Buddhahood that he saw in Honen was totally different from what he anticipated.

More than anything else, Shinran was moved by the fact that Honen was a humble student. Honen identified himself only as a student …

Honen said that the only important thing for him was to learn from his teacher. Thus embodied the spirit of a Buddha by the name of Namu Amida Butsu or Amida Buddha. Namu or bowling is a part of the Amida Buddha’s name. The Buddha’s name symbolizes the humblest human spirit.

Before Shinran met Honen, he had thought that the Buddha was a teacher, a respected and worshipped person. But now, having met Honen, he realized that the Buddha was actually a student, a respecting and worshiping person.”

I love this teaching and for me, it kind of turned everything on its head.

The power dynamics are so different from traditional religious expressions. Here the example of the highest ideal is not exalted by being brought down to earth – the Buddha is not a god but a student, a humble and respectful person. We are not below the Buddha, what companions on the journey to awakening. It is not surprising for someone who woke up sitting under a tree that reaches its roots deep in the darkness and is reaching for the stars.

How many of us have looked at religion or spirituality from that lens? Its purpose was about being good about becoming some kind of holy person. And many of us, raised in the Christian tradition, are told to be perfect, as found in Matthew 5:38 “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

We will come back to this.

I remember years ago when I was LDS, and I was having a difficult time; I picked up a book titled the Unconditional Love of Christ and thought, this is what I need right now, and I opened the book to the first page, which started with this quote – God Loves the Obedient. –

This was the opposite of “come as you are” of unconditional acceptance.

The message I learned that day in that LDS bookstore was that God was perfect, and I was not – and would never be because the kind of obedience I was being asked to achieve was beyond comprehension.

At the heart of my LDS experience was that God’s love was conditional. As was my acceptance into the broader community. God might as well have asked me to become a duck – because both were equally impossible. How can we relate to something that is the total opposite of ourselves?

As humans, we are uncomfortable with perfection because it is foreign to our experience. But that does not keep us from trying to be perfect – maybe because we have created this internal story that I will be loved, safe, and in control, if I can become perfect or close to it. Maybe our attempts at perfection have more to do with our feelings of insecurity, fear, and failing to control an uncontrollable universe?

The biggest obstacle that keeps us from waking up is our “knowing.” I love the lesson given to me in those words from Nobuo Haneda that the most essential virtue is not perfection or even holiness on the Buddhist path but Humility. We are talking about the humility of unknowing, the humility that allows one to be teachable, the humility of a student who starts their journey with I don’t know. Humility is all of us stepping on the Buddha path, letting go of all the stories we think are true and really looking at them and their effect on our lives.

Another essential thing to look at is that our relationship with the Buddha is different than with a God – a Buddha is not a god but someone who is fully awake, awake to their own perpetual studentship. We learn from Haneda that the Buddha’s studentship was manifested in the fact that he was a respecting and worshiping person. The Buddha demonstrates the kind of studentship that we all can attain.

Now before anyone gets triggered by words, be a little patient. We can all speak the same language, but we all carry different baggage. A respecting person regards others, has consideration for others, and notices with special attention. Now for our more secular-minded brothers and sisters – the word “worshiping persons” could be triggering. What does he mean by that, since Buddhas are not gods?

It simply means a sense of reverence – which means to “treat with respect, to esteem, to value – we value the teacher and the teaching, we appreciate all that supports us – we can see our gratitude practice in this same light. Reverence is at the heart of our awareness practice and the fruit of such a practice. I love this from Larry Dossey

“There is a way to partake of the universe — whether the partaking is of food and water, the love of another, or indeed, a pill. That way is characterized by reverence — a reverence born of a felt sense of participation in the universe, of a kinship with all others and with matter.”

Larry Dossey quoted in Serving Fire by Anne Scott

And this is from C. Alexander and Annellen Simpkins in their book Simple Zen

“When we experience ourselves as one small part of nature, we feel reverence. Zen teaches that we should feel reverence for all beings no matter how insignificant they might seem. From the enlightened vantage point, we should appreciate everything equally, from the most basic and small to the most complex and vast. Each has the whole reflected within.”

To be a Buddha then is to be a humble student, aware of our ignorance and a considerate person aware of others, with a sense of respect, deep gratitude, and awe for this human life we have been given. To be a Buddhist then is to be humble, appreciative, and embrace our perpetual studentship.

I love this quote from Raymond Lam “Being humble is itself a spiritual practice.” This is not easy for us in the West. Too many of us equate humility with being weak and not having self-confidence – this is a misperception of humility.

I have also been thinking about the role of humility and gratitude. How humility is one of its prerequisites. At times, we struggle with gratitude because we struggle with humility. As I have been thinking about this and asking others, I found that many of us struggle with humility because we have not experienced it, only its unhealthy sibling; Shame. In humility, we are open, ready to learn, and show both sides of the leaf. With shame, we close ourselves off from the outside world and bury our leaf in the darkest hole.

In this state of mind, when we see someone with boundless compassion or great practice, we do not see it as something we can learn from, but they become a source of further comparison and a deepening shame of our failures. That which could give us hope and insight into our Buddha Nature only becomes a testament to our failures. Gratitude gets choked off in the darkness.

On the other hand, humility opens us up to awe and the acceptance of our limitations; it frees us to “keep going” without the burden of judgment and shame. With humility, we can let go of the need to be perfect, and even harder, it is letting go of the lack of perfection in things and people around us, we can finally stop arguing with reality.

The humble student learns from the adversities she encounters instead of using them as justifications or rationalizations to do what we know is harmful to ourselves and others or to do nothing and hunker down in a fortress of apathy. When we become more and more humble, we can let go of our failings instead of using them to fuel our self-hatred or shame,
We gain the ability to acknowledge our faults without shame. Matthiew Ricard reminds us that Tibetan sages have long taught that the best teaching is one that reveals our hidden faults.

I appreciate these words again from Raymond Lam,

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. This openness connects us. Practicing in the community can help us on the path to healing and awakening by becoming more open and allowing others to help. Allowing someone to help is a manifestation of humility. It is at the heart of Namu Amida Bustu – “Come as you are”.

And here is one of the most important things about being a humble student at the heart of being a humble student and acknowledging that we don’t know. The “I don’t know mind” of Korean Zen Buddhism is at the heart of humility, which we have talked about extensively in our fellowship. The most honest and humble thing any one of us can say is

“I don’t know.”

And it can be one of the hardest. We live in a society that puts a primacy on knowing, even if that knowledge has no basis in fact. Conspiracy theories are a perfect example of the “cult of knowing.” but as Dizang the great Chinese Zen master, has taught, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

Thanissaro Bhikkhu teaches is that humility is the willingness to learn.

“That’s what’s meant by an attitude of humility: a willingness to learn from the little things, no matter where they show themselves.”

Shinran learned from Honen that becoming a Buddha was less about striving for perfection and, therefore, a destination and more in the ability to cultivate humility, gratitude, and awe.- and that we cultivate this through our perpetual studentship of the way. It is always by the journey and not the destination.

From an everyday Buddhism perspective and embarking on the personal path of studentship, we can learn to embrace the questions without the compulsive need for answers. It is this kind of studentship where the questions are what we live. Because, as Rev Gyomay taught, life is not a problem to be solved.

I have found in my life that many times the answers are less important than the questions. I want to share with you one of my favorite passages that come from Rilke in his book Letters to a Young Poet, where he writes – it is what I want to leave with you today, and it is my deep wish for all of us –

“I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.

Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

To me, Rilke speaks directly toward the kind of humility that a Buddha represents – a student, a respecting and worshiping person.

What is a Buddhist? There are as many definitions of this as there are people. Today our answer to this question is straightforward – A humble student of the way.

Now that is something that I can be!

Christopher Kakuyo, Salt Lake City 2022

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