Buddhist Philosophy

~ June 18, 2020 ~

Being Honest and Modest

Buddhist Philosophy • Article

Societal Human Values Series #7

by Hilary Herdman

Tibetan Emperor Songtsen Gampo, (Srong-brtsan-sgam-po), reigned 629-650 CE. Among his many achievements, he promoted a moral code known as the Sixteen Principles of Societal Human Values (mi chos gtsang ma bcu drug). As the Dalai Lama’s translator Thupten Jingpa writes, “Most of these sixteen values have to do with promoting greater societal well-being and living one’s life with dignity, honesty, and respect for others.” 

Phakchok Rinpoche frequently emphasizes the importance of living respectfully in society. He encourages students to memorize and internalize these points of conduct as a core foundation for our practice of the Dharma. If we don’t keep this moral code, then whatever higher practices we engage in will be unlikely to bear much fruit. 

This is the seventh in a series of explanations of these sixteen principles.

Principle #7 Being honest and modest (ka drang zhing sem chungwa)

Being Honest and Modest

Although this principle is frequently translated as simply being honest, Thupten Jinpa translates it more literally as “speaking with fairness and being humble,” which more accurately reflects the two ideas contained in this recommendation. 1The Tibetan Book of Everyday Wisdom, edited by Thupten Jinpa, Simon and Schuster, 2018. First, we should think, speak, and act honestly or sincerely. Second, the king instructs people to be modest or humble.

Other Tibetan texts in the genre of advice for general behavior describe human values in a similar way. For example, the ninth-century Dunhang text The Elder Brother’s Advice to The Younger Brother (phus bos nu bos btams) teaches human ethics through a dialogue between two brothers. In that text the elder brother explains that ethics means (among other qualities) “to be gentle and mild” and later he says that it includes “to be humble.” He also counsels his younger sibling that “[a]n honest poor man is more noble than a rich [cheat].”2The Just King: The Tibetan Buddhist Classic on Leading an Ethical Life, Jamgon Mipham,  Shambala Publications, p. 258.

Being Just: Honesty and Sincerity

The word “drang,” which we translate as “honest,” can also mean “being just.” Just behavior indicates even-handedness or fairness. In The Elder Brother’s Advice, the older sibling informs his brother that being fair is the most important quality for a ruler. He says that a ruler should never discriminate; however, we should expect such equitable behavior not only from people in high positions. Everyone should cultivate a fair and just outlook.

Exercises and Self-Check

How do we cultivate honest and fair behavior? We can practice self-reflection and use exercises such as the following to check ourselves and cultivate good practices:

  1. Observe whether you treat people differently based on biases. For example, if you like one family member, neighbor, coworker, or employee better, do you praise her when she does something minor? If someone you perceive as disagreeable acts the same way, do you also praise them? Check carefully!
  2. Do your actions reflect your words? If you are a boss and expect your employees to meet all deadlines without excuses, do you do the same?
  3. If you are a parent and you tell your children not to use their phones or devices constantly, do you model good behavior? Consider if you are being “unjust” by holding them to standards that you do not meet in front of them.
  4. When you spend time with someone who has different political or social views than you, are you able to listen to them with open attention? Or are you more interested in winning an argument or thinking that the other person is wrong or stupid? Be honest when you check your habitual patterns.
  5. How do you accept criticism or disagreement? Can you pause to hear the other person’s point of view and reevaluate your own position? If you still believe you are correct, can you explain your reasoning calmly and without excessive emotion?

When we are honest, we speak and act in a straightforward manner without any hidden agenda or self-interest. And when we hold any position of power, whether in a family (as a parent or older relative), a business or organization, or wider society, then honest and just behavior should guide our thoughts and actions.

Fairness Also Brings Dignity

Behaving fairly and honestly does not mean showing weakness or being a pushover. We can be confident and speak and act with conviction, and we don’t have to hide our views. But we can avoid causing hurt to other people when we treat them fairly. As we listen to those with different opinions, we can maintain an open mind and really hear their points of view. We may still decide that they are incorrect, or that their idea is not workable, but people appreciate being heard.

Reflection on Humility: Practicing Modesty in the Modern World

Pride and craving for social status are nothing new. However, in the modern world we have invented many new ways to exacerbate these negative emotions. Advertising and social media both stoke these tendencies. Younger people have been particularly targeted and trained to establish a unique profile and to constantly promote their abilities, accomplishments, and lifestyle. Take some time to reflect on how this “bragging” culture affects you, and how you might contribute to pressuring your family members, children, or friends. Spend some time considering the possible defects of this conditioning.

This self-promotion culture can lead to narcissistic behavior and a sense of entitlement or excessive pride. We all know people who seem to be unable to have a conversation without bragging or people who talk over everyone else in meetings or social situations because they lack modesty.

On the flip side, people who feel as though they don’t “measure up” to their peers or role models can develop depression or low self-esteem. The constant pressure to outshine peers has become a source of anxiety and stress for even very young adolescents and children. And the rush to find novel or more clever ways of self-promotion causes people to feel they are always chasing after an unreachable or constantly shifting level. Recently, some young adults have even live-streamed their sleep as a way of attracting social media followers!

Humility and Personal Brands

The journalist Yomi Adegoke recently commented,

“generally, the pressure to build and maintain a personal brand is growing. As personal brands increasingly encroach on our personal lives, the lines between the two continue to blur, meaning a title change on LinkedIn becomes a metric for measuring self-worth. Social media is inherently competitive, an invisible scoreboard looming in the sky.”3Yomi Adegoke, ’I’m happy to announce…’ How we entered a great big era of boastfulness’ in The Guardian, February 26, 2020. Do we want to live with that giant calculator hovering over our heads?

We might ask ourselves what is driving us when we compete in this way. Are we looking for security? If so, does this seem like a sustainable way to achieve that? Instead of cultivating our brand, let’s set the intention to cultivate humility and modesty.

When we feel compelled to compete in this way, how do we learn to be humble? Many cultures have emphasized the importance of humility and praised it as a step toward wisdom. If we pay attention to others, valuing them and seeing them in their full humanity, we will automatically develop humility.  There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that other people are more talented in certain fields, or more athletic, or more physically attractive.

Exercises for Reflection

Think of all the people you know who have tremendous qualities that you respect. Then consider leaders in many fields—appreciate their skills. See all the skills and talents of others, and rejoice in those.  Do not feed the monster of jealousy or envy; instead think, “How amazing that she is so good at XXX—I will follow her example!”

When we walk into a room, instead of thinking how we might shine, we can take some time to observe. What can you learn from the amazing people around you? Can you notice and respect the qualities they embody? Instead of dominating a conversation, sit back and listen. You might be amazed by what you discover! If you develop this pattern of behavior, you might observe how people will open up to your new humility. Try this for a month and reflect on how your changing perspective affects others.

Share with Us

How do you cultivate fairness and humility in your own daily life? Do you have particular reminders that you find helpful? If so, please share your tips in the comments section below—others may benefit from your insight!

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