Humility According to Benedict and the Buddha

I picked up a book at the library the other day, Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of Saint Benedict. I read the rule a while back thinking it might help me in my spirituality. I can’t say it did. I know some Benedictine monks who live at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville. As nice as they are, I can’t say there is anything I have experienced in these few representatives that draw me to the rule as a way of life. But perhaps I just don’t understand it. In the few pages I have read of this book, I am thinking this is the case.

This morning I read a commentary on the rule’s seventh step of humility. Fortunately the book includes a copy of Benedict’s rule so I was able to look it up. Benedict writes: “…we should be ready to speak of ourselves as of less important and less worthy than others.” That fits in with what I have always understood to be the meaning of humility. I suppose it is especially important for monks who are often put on pedestals of perfection by outsiders.

Joseph Goldstein, one of the Buddhists invited to comment, suggests that this is a narrow and even superficial view of humility. He talks about conceit, which is what Benedict seems to be attacking above, as “the comparing mind.” He says that we should not be comparing ourselves to others in any sense of the word, whether seeing ourselves as better than or lesser than. Either way, he says, the reference point is “I”, the ego. This is the root of our problem, he says.

When we do this comparing, we are actually setting ourselves apart from others. I have to say that this has been true in my life. I think comparing has been the biggest relationship block for me. In my early adult years, I tended to put people on pedestals who I perceived to be particularly spiritual, especially if they were renowned. It never occurred to me that in doing this, I was closing the door to having a relationship with these people. They didn’t need friends who adored them. They needed friends who knew and accepted them with all their gifts and warts. The same was true when I compared myself to others who I thought “less advanced” intellectually or spiritually than I. (Yes it is embarrassing to admit this in writing but it is true.)

Somewhere along the line I learned the lesson that Joseph Goldstein is teaching here. I studied a lot about the ego which is also misinterpreted. People often think of ego as the characteristic a person possess that sets them above others, smarter than, more beautiful than, more powerful than…whatever. But ego is really the false self that we create over the years to help us maneuver in life.  It is what we believe about ourselves but not necessarily who we really are. Deep relationships are those that flow out of who we really are: my true self and your true self relating to one another.

I suspect that those in the entertainment world, the world of religion, sports or politics hunger for these kinds of relationships. The world is certainly full of people who either judge or condemn them. Oh, what a relief it must be to have someone know, love and accept you without judgment and without inflating you.

Goldstein says that enlightenment happens in four stages and in each stage of sanctity different defilements are uprooted from the heart. This one, the defilement of conceit or the tendency to compare ourselves to others, is not uprooted until the fourth and final stage. I don’t think I have arrived yet…that wouldn’t be humble of me to think so, would it? But I am better way better today than I was back then in my 20’s and 30’s. I have to add that I learned the lesson of humility because God knocked me over the head a few times – that is a story for another day.