Humility and Modesty


Humility is to depart from a position of gentle, non-assertiveness. It is a behavior or attitude or spirit that wholly lacks arrogance and conceit. It is being unassuming without being proud or feeling inferior.

Modesty is to depart from a disinclination to call attention to oneself. Modesty involves observing proprieties, especially in speech, dress, and comportment. It avoids extremes through understatement in what one has and does materially and spiritually.

Compassion tells us to ask and listen with humility and modesty, not to listen so we can respond with what we already know. But more importantly, this is the meta cognitive question that we should always be asking:

What should I do in this moment to strengthen and master my wandering anxious and stress-producing mind, to keep unassuming and present?

Like other spiritual traditions, Buddhism sees modesty and humility as a virtue. It advocates them as a moral precept. As such it is often expressed in terms of an exhortation against arrogance or haughtiness. As a sign of ego-centeredness, pride is seen to impede progress towards spiritual liberation. Buddhist practitioners believe that only a humble mind can readily recognize its own defilements of craving (or greed), aversion (or anger), and ignorance, thereby embarking on the path peacefulness. Behaving humbly is a karmic merit and a desirable moral quality that comes from insight into one’s spiritual reality. It is both a prerequisite for peacefulness and a manifestation thereof.

Some Buddhist practitioners place emphasis on humility and they are prepared to yield to others in any situation that involves a dispute or contention. This assumes that there is no right and so there is no need to assert my understanding over someone else. Within the Chinese cultural milieu, such a humble attitude is doubtless regarded as a virtue commensurate with the Confucian ethics of social order. Chinese Buddhism accepts modesty and humility as a norm rather than an anomaly. In fact, the Buddhist principle of “no contention” (wu-cheng) requires that a practitioner refrain from quarreling or contending for personal interests, including intellectual interests. “No contention” implies a humbled ego through which the light of enlightenment may shine. Not so with American Buddhists in general.

We must be careful in making humility a moral precept. Too strong a practice can be counter-productive.

Humility or modesty is often criticized as being less than honest or even bordering on hypocrisy. A morally cultivated person is supposed to refrain from talking about their own merits and strengths, or to talk about them in an understated way. Although humility is important, ultimately Buddhism is suggesting a balanced personality that is neither arrogant nor too humble.

We may add the following criteria to define genuine humility:

  • Behave without arrogance, self-conceit, and other egoist tendencies such as jealousy, envy, or an impulse to show off.
  • Respect others and show a genuine human interest in them without a desire to please or to impress.

Humility and Patience

I think that there is a very close connection between humility and patience. Humility involves having the capacity to take a more confrontational stance, having the capacity to retaliate if you wish, yet deliberately deciding not to do so. That is what I would call genuine humility.

I think that true patience has a component or element of self-discipline and restraint–the realization that you could have acted otherwise, you could have adopted a more aggressive approach, but decided not to do so.

On the other hand, being forced to adopt a certain passive response out of a feeling of helplessness or incapacitation–that I wouldn’t call genuine humility. That may be a kind of meekness, but it isn’t genuine patience or humility.

–His Holiness, The Dalai Lama

Real Humility Is Genuineness

Humility, very simply, is the absence of arrogance. Where there is no arrogance, you relate with your world as an eye-level situation, without one-upmanship. Because of that, there can be a genuine interchange. Nobody is using their message to put anybody else down, and nobody has to come down or up to the other person’s level. Everything is eye-level.

Humility in the Shambhala tradition also involves some kind of playfulness, which is a sense of humor…. In most religious traditions, you feel humble because of a fear of punishment, pain, and sin. In the Shambhala world you feel full of it. You feel healthy and good. In fact, you feel proud. Therefore, you feel humility. That’s one of the Shambhala contradictions or, we could say, dichotomies. Real humility is genuineness.

–Chogyam Trungpa

Conceit is very prone to arise when one is praised for some particular work or mental quality. Within limits, praise from a knowledgeable person is stimulating and encouraging. Some people who are modest or diffident by nature can only work well when they are appreciated. The trouble is that too much praise, particularly if it borders on flattery, stimulates the sense of “I”-ness and strengthens the ego in unhelpful ways. The ego sticks out its chest and feels two inches taller; it has a delicious feeling of security and believes itself to be invulnerable.



  1. Recognize conceit whenever it pops up and name it: arrogance, conceit, pride, etc. Recognition automatically weakens it and allow humility to arise naturally.
  2. Remember the first two factors of the noble eightfold path: right view and right intention.
    Right view is having “no view” that would allow you to feel superior and right intention is the intention to expunge pride, arrogance, conceit, and egotism. Both are directing us to modesty and humility.
  3. Remind yourself profoundly that your talents are not due solely to your own virtue but have arisen from all the actions of untold numbers of people in the past and present, therefore it is silly to be conceited about qualities which are not in any real sense “mine.” Again, arrogance weakened, humility arises effortlessly.