I don’t trust displays of humility. This folding of the hands with a bowed head, this uttering of “God (or guru) is everything; I am nothing,” this confession of sins, failings, and weaknesses—it’s all too contrived, too artificial, too calculated.
This morning I re-read the chapter “On Humility” in Hubert Benoit’s The Supreme Doctrine: Psychological Studies in Zen Thought As noted in my “The Supreme Doctrine, thirty-six years overdue” post, this is the only library book that I’ve kept permanently. When I first read it back in college, I couldn’t bear to let it out of my hands.
Where it still often is found. Benoit is a marvelously astute observer of the human condition. As noted on a Supreme Doctrine-centered web site, Benoit was severely wounded during World War II and spent years in a hospital bed. Then he went into psychiatry.
So when Benoit talks about reality being the best teacher of humility, he has the credentials to make that statement. He ends his chapter with:
Let us recall that the ‘nature of things’ is for us the best, the most affectionate, and the most humiliating of masters; it surrounds us with its vigilant assistance. The only task incumbent upon us is to understand reality and to let ourselves be transformed by it.
Benoit says that our efforts to rise up spiritually are doomed to failure. As are our efforts to sink down. Any effort at all is counter-productive, though we have no choice but to attempt such futility until the light of satori dawns.
What we should seek is equality, not higher or lower. But that’s too damn scary for an ego that depends upon separateness in order to keep feeling that “I” am something distinct. “I am humble; I am nothing” and “I am proud; I am everything” are both preferable to the equitable obliteration of “I am, along with everything else.”
I believe that I am separated from my own ‘being’ and I am looking for it in order to reunite myself with it. Only knowing myself as a distinct individual, I seek for the Absolute in an individual manner, I wish to affirm myself absolutely as a distinct being. This effort creates and maintains in me my divine fiction, my fundamental pretension that I am all-powerful as an individual, on the plane of phenomena.
…I train myself never to recognise the equality between the outside world and myself; I affirm myself to be different from the outside world, on a different level, above whenever I can, below when I cannot….I see myself as conditioning the outer world, or I see myself as not succeeding in conditioning it, but never can I recognise myself as conditioned by it on a footing of equality.
We’ve got a small pond with a pump that gets clogged with debris from time to time. The pump sits in a plastic enclosure with a gate that lets the pond water flow in when it’s open. To clean the pump, I shut the gate and let the pump run until the enclosure is almost empty of water and I hear the pump sucking air.
That’s the enclosure’s state of humility. I reach down and scoop out the remaining water, making it even humbler. Then I sponge up snail shells, pine needles, and other debris before cleaning the pump itself.
Throughout this process a trickle of water is flowing into the enclosure. The gate, though shut, isn’t completely water tight. Emptiness, like enforced humility, is difficult to maintain.
No matter. When both the pump and enclosure are free of debris, it’s time to open the gate and let the pond water flow back in. I do this gingerly. If the water rushes in too fast it brings with it more pond crud—like the algae that grows despite our best efforts to keep it under control.
Whoosh! The water flows into the enclosure, that plastic representation of our separate egos. Higher and higher rises the water until—I always get a little thrill when this happens—the level inside the enclosure equals the level in the pond.
I’ve been holding onto the gate to keep the water from gurgling in too strongly. Then, the gate relaxes against my hand. Inner and outer are equalized, at peace, on the same level. Nothing needs to be done now. There’s no pressure for the lower to be filled by the higher, nor for the lower to empty itself.
Similarly, Hubert Benoit speaks of what brings about genuine humility:
In our desire to escape from distress at last, we search for doctrines of salvation, we search for ‘gurus.’ But the true guru is not far away, he is before our eyes and unceasingly offers us his teaching; he is reality as it is, he is our daily life.
The evidence of salvation is beneath our eyes, evidence of our non-omnipotence, that our pretension is radically absurd, impossible, and so illusory, inexistent; evidence that there is nothing to fear for hopes that have no reality; that I am and always have been on the ground, so that no kind of fall is possible, so that no vertigo has any reason to exist.
…I feel myself nearer to the ground, to the ‘beneath,’ to real humility (humility which is not acceptance of inferiority, but abandonment of the vertical conception in which I saw myself always above or below).
…From the moment I succeed in no longer moving in my humiliated state, I discover with surprise that there is the ‘asylum of rest,’ the unique harbor of safety, the only place in the world in which I can find perfect security.
Reality. As it is. Not as religions would have us imagine it to be.
Pumps get clogged. So do arteries. And kitchen drains. Minds too. That’s real.
To pretend that something is what it is not—crazy. To see ourselves as higher or lower—unwarranted.
Where is the benchmark against which our humility is considered to rise or fall? How do I gauge the progress of my spiritual ascent or descent when the mountain I’m supposedly climbing isn’t apparent?
Benoit should have the last word. Not because I’m humble; he’s just got better words.
The impossibility in which I find myself today of being in possession of my own nature, of my Buddha-nature, as universal man and not as distinct individual, obliges me unceasingly to invent a representation of my situation in the Universe that is radically untrue.
Instead of seeing myself as equal with the outside world, I see myself either as above it or below, either on high, or beneath. In this perspective, in which the ‘on high’ is Being and the ‘beneath’ is Nullity, I am obliged to urge myself always towards Being. All my efforts necessarily tend, in a direct or a roundabout manner, to raise me up, whether materially, subtly, or, as one says, ‘spiritually.’
…To cure distress is to be freed from all possibility of humiliation. Whence comes my humiliation? From seeing myself powerless. No, that it is not enough. It comes from the fact that I try in vain not to see my real powerlessness.
It is not powerlessness itself that causes humiliation, but the shock experienced by my pretension to omnipotence when it comes up against the reality of things.
…The veritable cause of my distress is never in the outside world, it is only in the claim that I throw out and which is broken against the wall of reality. I deceive myself when I claim that the wall has hurled itself against me and has wounded me; it is I that have injured myself against it, my own action which has caused my suffering.
When I no longer pretend, nothing will injure me ever again.