Humility – Through the Lens of Religious Genius

Question for consideration

Each cluster of texts is comprised of contributions from authors of different religious tradition. Each text has a brief commentary by a scholar and one or two questions to assist you in focusing on its particular approach to the theme under discussion.

It is recommended for those not so familiar with text study that each of the texts is read guided by the accompanying question or questions. However, advanced readers may not need the guidance and may prefer to encounter the texts without the mediation of the questions.

After reading the individual texts, consider the following general questions in relation to the theme.

For each cluster of texts on a particular theme ask the following questions:

1. In what way do each of the texts reflect a unique cultural/ socio-religious setting and to what extent are they reflective of a universal human quest for meaning?

2. What unique contribution to our understanding of the theme does each text make? Can the unique contributions resonate with followers of another religious tradition?

3. Identify any understandings of the theme that are common to all the selected texts. Do these understandings appear more prominent in one tradition than in another or are they likely to resonate equally across all traditions?

4. How do these texts enhance your appreciation of their authors as ‘religious geniuses’?


Sources: 33, 61, 43, 19, 74,

Each of the texts below deals with questions related to the concept of humility. Read the texts and the commentaries, using the accompanying questions if they are of help. After reading the texts, refer to the question above, a synthesis of the four questions on the previous page with respect to the theme of ‘Humility’.

Source 33 (Hindu): Ramana Maharshi, (Nagamma, Letters from Ramanasramam.)

An eye-witness report.

Guide for reading: This is one of many examples from Ramana’s life that illustrate his insistence on non-preferential treatment. But is this necessarily ‘humility’? How does the final line of the text transform his actions into something more significant?

Once some bananas were brought to the dining hall. Ramana was served first and then the others. Ramana noticed that as time passed, the staff began cutting the bananas into smaller and smaller bits until so that the last few people would also receive some. Ramana said in disgust: “This is what I don’t like. Why do you serve me when you cannot give the same quantity to all the people? That is why I am telling you. If you serve Bhagavan after your serve all the others, there will be equal distribution. If by chance nothing remains, it does not matter if I do not get anything; if all eat, I am satisfied even if I do not get my share.

Commentary by Anantanand Rambachan: The genius of Ramana is to be found in his utter simplicity, transparency and refreshing freedom from pretension. He affirmed a radical equality with everyone in his community and resisted preferential treatment.

Source 61 (Muslim): Al-Jazuli (Muḥammad al-Mahdī al-Fāsī (d. 1698), Kitāb Mumtī‘ al-asmāʼ fī dhikr al-Jazūlī wa al-abbā‘ wa mā lahumā min al-atbā‘ [The Delight of the Hearing in the Recollection of al-Jazūlī and al-Tabbā‘ and Their Followers], Fes lithograph, 1313/189

How To Use A Dog As Your Teacher

In the dog are ten praiseworthy attributes that are found in the Sincere Seeker:

1. He sleeps only a little at night: this is the attribute of the Lovers (al-muibbīn).

2. He complains neither of heat nor cold: this is the attribute of the Patient (al-ābirīn).

3. When he dies, he leaves nothing behind that can be inherited from him: this is the attribute of the Ascetics (al-zāhidīn).

4. He is neither angry nor hateful: this is the attribute of the Faithful (al-muminīn).

5. He is not sorrowful at the death of a close relative, nor does he accept assistance: this is the attribute of the Spiritually Secure (al-muqīnīn).

6. If he is given something to eat, he consumes it and is content: this is the attribute of the Contented (al-qāni‘īn).

7. He has no known place of refuge: this is the attribute of the Wanderers (al-sāʼiīn).

8. He sleeps in any place that he finds: this is the attribute of the Satisfied (al-rāīyīn).

9. Once he knows his master, he never hates him, even if he beats or starves him: this is the attribute of the Knowers (al-‘ārifīn).

10. He is always hungry: this is the attribute of the Righteous (al-āliīn).

Commentary by Vince Cornell: This teaching of Jazūlī was designed to eliminate any feeling of self-importance that the seeker who completed the above 14-step program might get by being part of an “elite” Sufi organization. Since the dog is considered unclean in Islam, it is counter-intuitive to imagine that anything useful could be learned from such a creature. In addition, this teaching was designed to instruct the Sincere Seeker (murīd ādiq) to gain wisdom from the commonplace experiences of everyday life.

Source 43 (Jewish): Rav Kook, Shemoneh Kevatzim 3:67 [vol. 2, pp. 38-39]

Guide for reading: This text speaks of ‘humility’ as a deeper realization of one’s place in creation. Why does this humility make prayer difficult?

For the great righteous ones, prayer is very difficult, for they have no will of their own, and their greatest perception is connected to their pristine faith, the light of divine lovingkindness, which ameliorates everything for them. How will they pray to be saved from any distress, since they have no distress in reality? After the profound contemplation that follows [self-]elevation – for, in the final analysis, man and his needs, the world, life, and all their connections, all the emotions, all the inclinations, and all the natural demands, life and the love thereof, their possessions and their value, all these are the stratagems of the [divine] light, of the great lovingkindness of which He said the world will be built {see Psalms 89:3], and prayer itself, its utterance, its directions, and the very nature of the desire to order everything in the world according to their nature and character, life, honor, wealth, children, peace, joy, satiety and repose, and above them, wisdom and the sanctity of will and delight, all these are manifestations of the supreme lovingkindness, whose full worth is accentuated by prayer at any time, and especially in time of distress; and the outer will that is revealed by the light of inner will of the righteous, who are the foundation of the world, whose soul is continuously revived by the supernal divine manifestation, is in itself one of the foundations of life and the construction of the reality, as breathing air, as eating and drinking, as building and sowing, as healing and bathing – by this the spirit of prayer will once again stir the righteous, the upright of heart, and they will abandon the supernal [strict] judgment that infuses all the treasures of life, facing which [human] will is negated, and they will remain servants of their Maker, who pour out their hearts like water, seeking will [God’s lovingkindness], life, physical health, and the supernal light.

Commentary by Dov Schwartz: Rabbi Kook did not forgo the dimension of the saint’s negation of his self and will. Due both to his unique personality and the weighty responsibility and tasks imposed on him, the saint retreats from any expression of egoism. At times, the faculty of containing is anchored in this withdrawal from personality. Rabbi Kook expressed this self-abnegation and total reliance on God (quietism) when he spoke of the perfect man’s prayer. The perfect man’s divorce from his will and any personal interests voids prayer of its meaning. Rabbi Kook undoubtedly meant the institutionalized structure of prayer, that includes the supplicatory blessings in the Amidah prayer, which relate to a person’s physical and mental needs. Additionally, not only does the righteous one ignore material needs that are meaningless to him, he also disregards troubles. The latter make no impression on him, even though, physically, he might experience suffering and pain; to the contrary: the saint reaches a state of equanimity.

Source 19 (Buddhist): Ananda Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 44:10

Guiding question: The Buddha, in this text, is justifying not providing answers to one of his follower’s questions. What are the questions and why does he reject both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ response? Why does this indicate ‘humility’?

“If, Ananda, when I was asked by the wanderer Vacchagotta, ‘Is there a self?’ I had answered, ‘There is a self,’ this would have been siding with those ascetics and brahmins who are eternalists. And if, when I was asked by him, ‘Is there no self?’ I had answered, ‘There is no self,’ this would have been siding with those ascetics and brahmins who are annhilationists.

“If, Ananda, when I was asked by the wanderer Vacchagota, ‘Is there a self?’ I had answered, ‘There is a self,’ would this have been consistent on my part with the arising of the knowledge that all phenomena are nonself?”

“No, venerable sir.”

“And if, when I was asked by him, ‘Is there no self?’ I had answered, ‘There is no self,’ the wanderer Vacchagotta, already confused, would have fallen into even greater confusion, thinking, ‘It seems that the self I formerly had does not exist now.’”

Commentary by Vanessa Sasson: In the Buddha’s case, humility is not at first obvious. He calls himself “the awakened one,” which is what “Buddha” means in Sanskrit. He also speaks of himself as the “Thatagata,” which is not as easily translated, but means something like, “he who has gone beyond,” along with many other epithets no less grandiose. Upon first glance, the Buddha seems to be anything but humble.

But humility is not about performance. It is not something that one acts out for the purposes of proper etiquette. Real humility is, rather, the inevitable outcome of the decentering of the self. When the self has been dislodged and the ego uprooted, self-centeredness disappears and humility is the result – not because it is polite, but because there is no self left to call attention to. As many suttas explain, conceit is a defilement of the mind. Humility is its opposite.

In the Ananda Sutta, the Buddha’s sense of non-self is presented. The subject of the text is whether or not there is a self, and the Buddha refuses to provide an answer. This passage demonstrates (rather than simply assumes) that the Buddha is not tied to providing an answer simply in order to act like the all-knowing teacher. He cannot answer the question of whether or not there is a self with words or clear-cut categories. The self does not exist nor does it not exist in any clearly demarcated way. The Buddha therefore chooses to remain silent, demonstrating his comfort with the nuance of reality. This, to me, is the Buddha’s real genius – as well as evidence of humility in the real sense of the term.

Source 74 (Christian): Thomas Merton

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely, … I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere. – CGB 158