Humility vs. Self Confidence

Zen sure seems to have a lot to say about conceit and pride. For example, Japanese Zen teacher Oda Sesso said:

“There is little to choose between a man lying in the ditch heavily drunk on two Colt 45's, and a man heavily drunk on his own ‘enlightenment’!”*

* Fine, most translations say “rice liquor”, but my goal is make some of these very old passages more readable if I possibly can.

But is it possible to take modesty and humility too far?

In a word, yes.

While Zen has a rich tradition of reversing pretty much everything, especially the idea of merit, students often pervert this idea to the point of a weird sort of submissiveness. You see them running around the zendo bowing to everything and everyone. They are often the same ones at Zen talk time taking any topic about compassion into a contest for political correctness.

But this obsession with humility quickly becomes it’s own “stink of enlightenment”, a phrase sometimes used in the Zen tradition. It amounts to low self-esteem, which can actually be categorized as a form of laziness and goes against many important ideas within Zen.

There several pillars of Zen that get violated here, but I’ll focus on just the main one:

Finding Truth from Within

Most will be familiar with the Zen kōan, a story, dialogue, question, or statement used to provoke “great doubt” to test a student’s progress. The kōan most people have heard is,

“Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?” (隻手声あり、その声を聞け)

The whole idea of a kōan is to provoke the student into having to stand on her own understanding. It is often at the moment a student can step away from what he thinks the teacher expects that the teacher might declare that the student has arrived at some form of “enlightenment.”

Needless to say obsessive, apologetic humility does not look like that.

Yes, Zen guards against superiority. But it also guards against hiding out in inferiority. Brad Warner once said in a Zen talk,

“There are two kinds of questions after my talks: Those of submission (‘tell me what I should do’), and those designed to take me down a notch and prove me wrong.”

The dharma warns against both.

The secret Zen monk Eleanor Roosevelt said:

“No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.”

Let that sink in. It’s deep. There is nothing in Zen that says we should go around giving out that permission for some kind of twisted form of merit. In fact, it’s this very seeking of merit all the stories are actually warning against. You can see it in the following tale about Emperor Wu-di, one of Buddhism’s greatest all-time patrons in China:

It is said that Emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma about the highest meaning of noble Truth, and Bodhidharma replied, “Vast emptiness, there is no noble Truth.” “Who, then, is standing before me?” “I don’t know,” said Bodhidharma. Emperor Wu then asked the enigmatic Indian sage how much karmic merit he, the emperor, had accumulated by building monasteries, ordaining monks, sponsoring translations and copies of scriptures and making Buddhist art-images. Bodhidharma was to the point: “No merit whatever!” And he left the region.

A lack of self-confidence can be an excuse for not-doing when something needs to be done, which makes it a clearly problematic emotion. Or, as Mahatma Gandhi said:

“Fearlessness is the first requisite of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral.”

Composure is what it feels like to strike in the center, that right balance between humility and confidence. Between formlessness and form you are prepared for what arrives in each unfolding moment, all of it, including your fierceness and including your gentleness. But get off tilt the slightest amount and Heaven and Hell are set infinitely apart.

Dōgen Zenji — founder of the Sōtō school of Zen in Japan
Like what you read? Give Kim Miller a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.