Desire for Fame: Unsurpassed Humility

by on Apr 17, 2015Zen Master Joeng Hye

What is wrong with fame? Nothing at all! Like everything in the universe, it is not good, not bad. A strong voice makes a strong echo. That’s all. In the case where our actions are beneficent, it can be natural feedback from the world that we have done something valuable, that our contribution to society is appreciated, that people see us as somebody who can enrich human culture in some specific way. As long as our intention to help this world in the best way we can is pure and sincere, fame is only a by-product of our activity. But the problem is that our “I, my, me” mind wants to make that its business. That’s the birth of ignorance and distortion. This kind of mind produces constant desire, which poisons our original clarity and makes us blind. Because this “I, my, me” is by nature something unreal and empty, it needs constant approval as food to exist, even at the cost of other beings. It is like a hungry ghost that never has enough. In fact, desire for fame usually means, “I am, and I want to be better than others.” Or, “I want to be great and admired.” This kind of attitude is easily ascribed to people who have high social position: artists, actors, athletes, politicians, celebrities and the like. But it doesn’t only refer to those kind of people. Desire for fame often becomes a companion of every human being. It can be secretly hidden even in our spiritual path. Let me share with you a funny and ridiculous story.
Somewhere there was a monastery inhabited by many monks and guided by a highly respected abbot. He was really special: the pure embodiment of wisdom, compassion, humility and all noble virtues. At least it looked like this. He was the first one to help others, the last one to expect any profits, always ready to shoulder the hardest task and silently serve his fellows. Although he didn’t look like a sinner, he was always liked doing repentance practices, apologizing often to everybody for everything. All monks loved and admired him and were happy to have such a teacher. In fact, he became famous not only in his monastery, but in the whole country. They thought he was a saint: a holy, fully enlightened man. The energy of inspiration radiated from him like the light from the sun.
But one day something strange happened. During the sermon, while preaching about the holy life, he said, “Please look at me! As far as humility is concerned, nobody can surpass me.”
And what happened? Kind of an earthquake, yes? In one moment, everything was turned upside down! They felt cheated, like buying a nice box of food and discovering that it is completely rotten. Even one drop of poison can make a whole pot of nutritious soup inedible.
Our practice and teaching always puts the essential question in front of us: “Why do you eat every day?” “When you do something, why do you do this?” “What kind of intention your activity is rooted in?” The problem of “I, my, me” mind is that it looks for happiness but finds only temporary satisfaction. It is unstable, weak and easy to destroy by external, impermanent circumstances. Fame easily becomes infamy. Success easily becomes defeat. Attachment to and constant desire for them make our minds crazy, never satisfied and always hurting others. That’s why Buddhism instructs us to meditate correctly and get insight into this old “I, my, me” habit. It is originally empty and doesn’t exist outside the deluded mind. When we realize its emptiness and delusion, desire for fame—and all other desires as well—lose their power and control over our lives. Dissatisfaction turns into complete mind. Our true self doesn’t need any acclaim or applause. It is always here and now, present and ready to help and love others. Then all beings reflect and return our love, and we are already bodhisattva celebrities without even knowing or being concerned about it. That’s correct fame!

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