Humility and low self-esteem, high and low

Sep 20, 2021



Dear Venerable Robina, 


I have some questions.


The first point that was really confusing for me was the idea of “humble attitude” that I came across in Tibetan Buddhism. Taking my own life experience so far, I noticed that whenever I was confident, I was also humble – but, at the same time, I never felt the need to say neither that I know a lot, nor that I don’t know anything at all. I didn’t say neither that something was easy, nor that it was difficult. I just did my best, enjoyed it, and didn’t think about it twice. I tried to force this attitude saying that “I don’t know anything,” or “What do I know,” or “we don’t know anything,” or “this is so difficult” but I found it unnatural and strange. So the question that came up for me is: what is the difference between a humble attitude in Buddhism (i.e. saying that you don’t know anything, or that the teachings are so difficult etc.) and the pride of inferiority? And what is the benefit for others in constantly saying these things?


The second point that I found confusing is the very root of the path in Tibetan Buddhism: guru devotion (as opposed to the root of the path in Mahayana Zen: buddha nature). I thought that the main purpose of guru devotion is that of listening to the guru’s words, the Dharma, and putting them into practice so as to develop your own buddha nature and be able to benefit others. Then I got confronted with the idea of asking the guru what to do in life at every small step, and then doing just that, similar to a child that depends on their parent. So, the dynamic becomes one of superior-inferior, rather than being based on a responsible adult exchange. It’s more as if the guru becomes one’s therapist/parent instead of that person becoming their own therapist themselves using the Dharma. Can you please explain the purpose of this dynamic of roles in Tibetan Buddhism?


The third point that I found confusing has to do with the dualistic differences made in the theory between “high” and “low”: “MAHAyana” and “HINAyana”, “sharp” disciples and “dull” disciples, “high” scope and “low” scope and so on. We can’t judge an elephant by its ability to climb a tree, just as we can’t judge a monkey by its ability to walk slowly. Neither the elephant, nor the monkey is superior, nor inferior. They just have different dispositions. Based on this logic, what is the purpose and benefit of making these differences?


Thank you for your patience in going through this e-mail.


Kind wishes,




Good to hear from you, N, as always.


First: Humility is hardly a Tibetan Buddhist concept! The key thing to understand is the Buddhist model of the mind. As you know, Buddha asserts that we can free our minds utterly of all delusions/disturbing emotions; that they are not at the core of our being. And the Mahayana view is that we can develop the virtuous minds to perfection. The etymology of the word buddha tells us this: budh implies the eradication of the delusions; dha implies the development to perfect of the goodness. 


So this tells us that the main job of a Buddhist is therefore to distinguish between the delusions and the virtues. That’s clear.


But then the hard work starts. To distinguish between love and attachment, let’s say, is incredibly difficult. But first we must learn the definitions, then slowly slowly do the work of seeing the difference in our mind, lessening the delusion and growing the virtue.


This is the very job of being a Buddhist.


Same with humility and low self-esteem. They seem the same. But humility is a virtue and low self-esteem is a delusion. They’re utterly different.


When we can understand first theoretically and then experientially the difference between delusions and virtues, we are really on track with being a Buddhist. 


Delusions are I-based, miserable, distorted, and have no valid basis and are the cause of suffering. Virtues are valid because they’re rooted in reality, which is interdependence, and are the cause of happiness.


Self-confidence would be a virtue — I don’t know what mental factor that would be in Buddhist terms. 


Humility is a virtue.


Low self-esteem is a delusion. Arrogance is a delusion.


Humility, then, would go hand in hand with self-confidence, just as you point out. Low self-esteem goes hand in hand with arrogance.


I often think of the Dalai Lama: powerful, big, charismatic, self-confident — but utterly humble. A person with humility is content with who they are and are delighted to honor others. A person with low self-esteem can’t stand seeing others who are more knowledgeable, let’s say.


Yes, it is strange for us in the West to hear the lamas say, “I don’t know anything.” It is simply humility, but we’re so arrogant in the West, I would say, that we simply don’t get it. 


One time His Holiness saying “I don’t know anything” backfired! One man at a teaching was in tears: “If you don’t know anything,” he said, “what chance do we have!” Good point. So His Holiness said that he knew a few things after all!


I see that now His Holiness talks differently in teachings sometimes. He will say that he first understood this when he was young or he had a realization of that, etc. etc. He’s adjusted to our style, I suppose.


That’s what Lama Yeshe did, totally.


The differences are cultural, in other words. Once we understand that, we’re not bothered by it.


Second: I would say that the point of the path is to become a buddha — Zen, Tibetan, Vajrayana — all of them. I would say that guru devotion is a key strategy, a key method for achieving the goal. That’s all.


Like everything, we need to understand the logic. If you can’t find the logic, then it’s not valid. We need to really think through guru devotion to find the logic. But it’s there. Then we can be confident.


If I trust my music teacher, what’s wrong with asking them what’s best to do and then doing it? It sounds wise to me! 


The problem is if we leave the guru up there and see ourselves forever limited down here, then that’s rubbish, meaningless, wrong understanding.


If by asking the guru what to do and then I do it leads me to have confidence in their wisdom and then me to replicate that wisdom, then it’s good.


Third: Nothing wrong with high and low! If you’re a genius mathematician and I’ve achieved only a little, in terms of your knowledge you are definitely higher than me.


From the perspective of pride, it’s uncomfortable. I think that’s why in the West we don’t like using these terms.


Some food for thought, N!





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