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Humility and Arrogance: Two Sides of the Same Coin

The Shin Buddhist life can be characterized as a life of humility and  humbleness.  

Shinran Shonin was the epitome of humility. He never claimed to be enlightened or awakened. His realization was to see his pride and arrogance. Actually, arrogance and humility are two sides of the same coin. To become humble means to awaken to one’s arrogance. Although it might seem like a contradiction, Buddhist insight, awakening, or realization, has this structure of contradiction.  

The thing about humility or being humble is that you cannot “strive” to become humble. Let’s say that you take it upon yourself to “strive” to become humble. You think, “I am going to really work at it. I am going to be the most humble person around.” Maybe you give yourself a couple of months to work at it, and you begin to think, “Hey, I am doing pretty good. I think I am becoming more humble. Yeah, I think I am really humble now!”  

What has occurred is that instead of becoming humble, you are just becoming arrogant. To think that one is becoming more humble is proof itself of your arrogance.  

This is where Shinran Shonin’s contribution to the world of religion is so tremendous. Shinran Shonin pointed out that realization, insight and awakening are not something we can create or conjure up on our own. It is a gift. It is something we receive from the side of truth and from the Dharma. It is not something we can create on our own.  

Think about the truth of that statement.  

If to become awakened or enlightened in Buddhism means to become more selfless, to go beyond the ego self, then how can anyone make a statement that they are enlightened?  It would be the same as making a statement that you are now humble. That is the great depth of Shinran Shonin’s religiosity. He never takes credit for his insight, for his depth of understanding.  To him, it is all a gift, from previous teachers and masters, from the sutras, from the heart of the Buddha, of great wisdom and great compassion.  

In the book, “Awaken to Your True Self: The Shin Buddhist Way of Life,” by Hideo Yonezawa, which I translated many years ago, he quotes an essay written by a junior high school student.  

This young student had a humbling and awakening experience. He and his friend both took an entrance exam to get into an outstanding high school.  Although he felt confident that he would pass, he failed, but his friend passed. Bitter and angry, he didn’t even want to see his friend, but his friend came to console him, saying, “I am sorry that I was the only one to pass.”

With those words, this young student realized his arrogance, which made him humble. He realized that if he had passed and his friend had failed, he would not have gone to console his friend as his friend had done to him. 

“How arrogant I am,” he realized. He was grateful that he failed. He was glad that he failed, or else he would have ended up being an arrogant person.  

Realizing our arrogance and being humbled are two sides of the same coin. They occur simultaneously.  

To be humble does not mean to be meek or weak. There is tremendous strength and power in a life of humility. Just as the willow or bamboo tree is able to bend in a strong wind as opposed to a stiff oak tree, so too is a humble person able to live a dynamic, powerful life. That is the life of humility and the life of Namuamidabutsu.  


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