Modesty: Earth Above, Mountain Below

The I Ching is a marvelous book, one of the oldest in the world.   I have mentioned before that it’s more than book of divination; it is philosophy, and poetry.

As the English title, “Book of Changes”, implies, the subject is change.  The text and commentary accompanying the sixty-four interrelated hexagrams at the heart of the book provide insight and guidance to help us work with the changes of life.  The hexagram text is attributed to King Wen (1150 BCE) and his son Duke Chou King Wen of Zhou, and the commentary to Confucius and his disciples.  There are countless other commentaries, interpretations, and translations.

qian1Let’s take a very brief look at Hexagram 15: qian, modesty or humbleness.

Alfred Huang’s translation (The Complete I Ching) reads,

The structure of this gua [hexagram] is Earth above, Mountain below.  Normally mountains are high and the Earth is low.  What makes a mountain a mountain is its standing high above the Earth.  In this gua, the mountain stands underneath the Earth.  This image represents a state of becoming humble.

The Commentary on the Appended Phrases (in The Classic of Changes by Wang Bi) reads,

qian0The Master said: “To be diligent yet not to brag about it, to have meritorious achievement yet not to regards its virtue, this is the ultimate of magnanimity.  This speaks of someone who takes his achievements and subordinates them to others.  As for his virtue, he would have it prosper ever more, and as for his decorum, he would it ever more respectful.  Modesty as such leads to perfect respect, and this is how one preserves his position.”

Qian is how virtue provides a handle to things.

Qian provides the means by which decorum exercises its control.

In Taoism and Buddhism, modesty or humbleness is a vital quality to develop.  Tibetan Buddhists value the idea of seeing oneself as lower than others.  But this can be misunderstood as depreciating ourselves, and humility is often seen as a sign of weakness.   But it is really about seeing ourselves and others as equal.  Another word for it might be respect, seeing everyone, and everything, as our teacher.

Finally, in the commentary on the I Ching by T’ien-t’ai priest Chih-hsu Ou-i (1599-1655), translated by Thomas Cleary in The Buddhist I Ching, we find these words,

In Buddhist terms, [qian] means taking from the mountain of infinite virtues of Buddhahood to add to the earth of sentient beings, realizing that all beings have the mountain of virtues of Buddhahood within them, assessing people’s potentials and what suits them, impartially giving out the bliss of Buddhahood, not letting anyone realize nirvana alone.

For buddhas and sages, modesty is a vital trait to cultivate because it is an antidote to pride, one of the five poisons, an affliction caused by self-cherishing and attachment to the notion of “I”.  Buddhas and sages know that modesty is a dharma door that opens not only to to a remarkable and contented life but also to the sublime greatness of altruism.

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The Complete I Ching, Trans. Alfred Huang, Inner Traditions International, 1998

The Classic of Changes A New Translation of the I Ching, Trans. Wang Bi, Columbia University Press, 1994

Chih-hsu Ou-i, The Buddhist I Ching (Chou i ch’an chieh), Trans. Thomas Cleary, Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1987