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Wisdom is Humility

On Sunday, September 13, Venerable Chang Wen gave a talk entitled, "Wisdom is Humility" at CMC. Venerable talked about the importance of humility in Chan practice and gave instructions on how to use humility as a method of practice.

According to Venerable, many people who study the Buddhadharma have an attitude of getting something, whether it is wisdom or enlightenment. “We may naturally have this mind of seeking wisdom, or seeking enlightenment, and actually, this prevents us from having an even more practical approach to practice. And that practical approach starts with humility.”

Humility is an attitude or a state of mind, and can be used to transform one’s self and realize wisdom. It may be defined as having a sense of shame, which does not mean criticizing or feeling bad about oneself or concerning oneself with how others perceive us. Rather, humility is an attitude of complete honesty and sincerity towards oneself.

The Sutra on Humilty, found in the Agamas in the Middle Length Discourses, describes humility as the beginning point of practice and lists the wholesome qualities that arise from humility. From humility, comes respect for self and others. Because of respect for one’s teacher, one has confidence in the teacher and in oneself, which leads to right thinking, which is part of the Eightfold Noble Path. When one is able to use the dharma to change one’s thinking and concepts, one is able to attain nirvana, the final goal of practice.

Even as we practice the dharma, we may harm ourselves and others. Doing harm means having wandering thoughts, desires and vexations. In subtle ways, these cause harm to ourselves by making us tense, and in turn, cause harm to others through our interactions.

Chan practice begins with a sincere approach to self and a willingness to accept the fact that we cause harm to self and others. Instead of blaming our suffering on others or the environment, we can understand that the suffering that we experience is caused by ourselves. With this, we can change and improve our own characters. In order to really change, there needs to be deep introspection.

Venerable shared stories about his own experience of falling into the trap of acquiring knowledge, studying the dharma, and seeking “spiritual materialism” without being willing to see his own flaws or mistakes. In fact, the more he studied the dharma, the more anxious he became, as he tried to keep up a false appearance of being a “good practitioner.” Venerable found that he wasted energy trying to hide his vexations and flaws.

Venerable stated that this kind of attitude is an obstruction to practice because it prevents us from seeing our own vexations and makes our mind unreceptive to the dharma, thus preventing us from absorbing the dharma. Then we are unable to change and unable to learn from a teacher. “Practice is not making yourself perfect—it is seeing our vexations and letting them go.”

When we allow ourselves and other people know of our flaws, we can gain a sense of ease. If we are willing to be open, we will have the ability to repent. To repent means to be honest and sincere with ourselves—that means seeing our flaws, admitting that we see these mistakes, accepting the consequences of these mistakes and vowing to change. The more we have the ability to introspect, the more we can change.

With humility and repentance, we won’t be burdened by guilt because we will be able to change and improve. Eventually, we will be able to detect vexations on subtler levels. On a fundamental level, we generate vexations every moment. Our minds are constantly agitated, seeking permanence and attaching to ideas of self. The ability to let go of self-attachment is wisdom. With wisdom, we can attain calm and ease.

Venerable concluded the talk with a quote from Master Sheng Yen’s book, Subtle Wisdom. "The Dharma of Chan is introspection. Through introspection, we gain a clear understanding of our strengths and weaknesses. With this intimate knowledge of ourselves comes greater faith in ourselves. This faith will enable us to interact with others and the world with more tolerance and harmony."

(By Chang Jie)

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