To Live with Humility Is to Live Well
The Basis of Humanity
In Japan, the time of year when winter transitions into spring is called Setsubun* and is marked by the age-old custom of throwing roasted soybeans known as fukumame, “lucky beans,” inside the house while chanting “Demons out! Good fortune in!” We tend to feel unwell as the seasons change, so this prayer for good health wards off the demons of illness. We perform this ritual to rid ourselves of the demons of distraction—the greed, anger, and ignorance that delude our minds—as well as the demons of illness and to welcome each bright new spring day with a healthy mind and body.
Incidentally, the two Japanese characters for “mind” (kokoro [心]) and “demon” (oni [鬼]) form one compound character (ki [愧]) with the completely different meaning of “humility,” which is the kind of mind that we should never drive away, never lose. This is the remorse you feel when you realize that your words and deeds have been mistaken or insufficient.
The terms “remorse and humility” (zangi [慚愧]) also mean to feel sorry about something, but Shinran (1173–1263), founder of the Jodo Shin, “True Pure Land,” sect, interpreted it in an even deeper sense and in the context of faith. “Remorse” (zan) is feeling sorry about your own misdeeds, while “humility” (gi) is acknowledging your misdeeds before other people and feeling sorry about them. Furthermore, “remorse” means feeling sorry before other people, and “humility” means feeling sorry before the divine. Shinran, quoting the Nirvana Sutra, said, “Those who do not have remorse and humility cannot be called human.”
A person who lacks the mind of humility is no different from an animal that lives by instinct alone and cannot be called a human being. I think it is only by having the mind of humility that humans can live their lives with respect and in moderation, and this is how human relationships and societies thrive. In other words, we can say that having humility is a basic condition of humanity.
Being Liberated by Humility
In that case, what is it important for us to have humility about? Shinran said we should have humility for our misdeeds, but what sorts of things do all of you think are misdeeds?
Sometimes, when I hear people criticize others by saying “You should be ashamed of yourself,” I think those words should be directed back at themselves. If we quietly tell ourselves, “You should be ashamed of yourself,” we may find that we regain our humility and reflect on ourselves, considering whether we are the ones being arrogant right now or letting our own desires run wild. Or we may be deterred from doing something disgraceful by asking ourselves, “Will this make me unable to look my family in the face?”
Knowing humility can free us from the misdeeds we might unintentionally commit in the course of our daily lives. It stops us from making ourselves suffer and from hurting others.
“Human beings who nurture the mind of humility will be liberated.” These are the words of the philosopher Masahiro Yasuoka (1898–1983), and in my opinion, when people know humility, they are transformed into truly great human beings. Furthermore, since we all have the mind of humility, just as we all have the buddha nature, as long as we know humility, we will continue to evolve as human beings.
Humility is something to always bear in mind. Honen (1133–1212), founder of the Jodo, “Pure Land,” sect, teaches us this guideline: “Keep company with friends in the Dharma and you will always keep the mind of humility.” Shakyamuni said that friends in the Dharma are everything to the Buddha Way, and sangha members who are close to us, including our family members, are people who always watch over us. Therefore, our shameful behavior will surely be reprimanded, and we cannot lead lives that would be an embarrassment for our beloved family and friends. Thanks to our good friends, the sangha, we are naturally reminded of our own humility. And because the sangha is as one with the Buddha, our Buddhist hearts become cultivated, and we can maintain the mind of humility.
On the other hand, at present, society and the world seem to be in a precarious state, full of greed and hatred, as if people have forgotten the humility that makes them human. The origin of the character for “humility” is “awe,” and I strongly believe that it is important for people to be in awe of, and show respect for, the gods and the buddhas, and live their lives knowing humility.
* February 3 is the last day of winter, according to the lunar calendar.