PRIDE AND CONCEIT
by Dr. Elizabeth Ashby, Brian Fawcett
Bodhi Leaves No. B. 14
BUDDHIST PUBLICATION SOCIETY, KANDY, SRI LANKA
Copyright 1962 Buddhist Publication Society
DharmaNet Edition 1994
This electronic edition is offered for free distribution
via DharmaNet by arrangement with the publisher.
Transcribed for DharmaNet by Pat Lapensee
P.O. Box 4951, Berkeley CA 94704-4951
If one regards himself superior or equal or inferior by reason of
the body that is impermanent, painful and subject to change, what
else is it than not seeing reality? Or if one regards himself
superior or equal or inferior by reason of feelings, perceptions,
volitions or consciousness, what else is it than not seeing
reality? If one does //not// regard himself superior or equal or
inferior by reason of the body, the feelings, perceptions,
volitions or consciousness what else is it than seeing reality?
//From the Discourses of the Buddha,
Khandha-Samyutta No. 49//
WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT CONCEIT?
Dr. Elizabeth Ashby
In Christian literature of the lighter sort we sometimes come across
the expression "Little Devil DOUBT." This personage is not known to
Buddhists, but another little devil can be still more devastating. He
is an ugly little Mara, named CONCEIT. Unlike his big brother Pride,
who is not lacking in dignity, Conceit is a mean, slinking little
devil, lurking in dark corners and always ready to rush out and nip
our heels. Doubt is slain when the disciple wins the stream: Conceit
being a manifestation of Pride, remains a menace to the very end.
Pride in all its forms, devolves from self-esteem, which is in
reality "ego-worship." It stems, so they say, from Greed, the first
the Roots of evil. The thought here is rather subtle: when the
ordinary person thinks of greed he thinks first of what one puts into
one's tummy --that second helping of plum-pudding, or the consumption
of a pound of candies in a single evening. The commentators of old
were much more drastic. Greed is "delight in one's own possessions."
Hence we can be greedy about anything to which we have affixed the
label "mine." My car, my table, my cat, my best beloved. The Greedy
aspect of Conceit is recognized when we realize we are "taking
delight" in our own good qualities or capacities.
Conceit can arise from the most trivial cause. One completes a piece
of work, and having made a good job of it, one is naturally pleased.
There's no harm in that: we all know the difference between a worker
whose only interest is his pay-packet, and the man who takes pride in
his work. The trouble arises when we begin to make comparisons -- "X.
couldn't have done it half as well." That may be quite true, but it is
dangerous to think that because one's skill is superior in a single
instance that one is therefore a better person. That is "Superiority
Conceit," and it has its counterpart in the "Inferiority Conceit"
the unsuccessful person, and the "Equality Conceit" of the man who
says "I'm as good as you." With the underlying implication "And
A feeling of superiority is a very pleasant mental state, but it is
essentially //akusala// -- unhealthy and unskilled, highly dangerous
in its results.
Any conceit that arises in connection with the practice of Dhamma is
much to be deplored. This sometimes occurs when students are making
good progress in their studies. Some queer experience or flash of
"insight" is assumed to be a sign of virtue or an advance towards
Higher Consciousness, and the student, instead of checking up on his
experience with a wise teacher, jumps to the conclusion that he is
half-way to being an Arahant. We do well to remember that no two
people have exactly the same experience in regard to meditation
practice. The was recognized in the Buddha's own day : Sariputta was
revered for his wisdom, and Moggallana for his psychic powers, but
both were venerated as "Great Beings."
Conceit is very prone to arise when one is praised for some
particular work or mental quality. Within limits praise from a
knowledgeable person is stimulating and encouraging; some people who
are modest or diffident by nature can only work well when they are
appreciated. The trouble is that too much praise, particularly if it
borders on flattery, stimulates the sense of "I"-ness. The ego sticks
out its chest and feels two inches taller; it has a delicious feeling
of security and believes itself to be invulnerable!
This is the nasty sort of pride that the ancient Greeks called
//hubris//; it was looked upon as an insult to the gods, and when the
Olympians found a man suffering from it they unloosed Nemesis, the
goddess of revenge, who brought him to death or destruction.
The cultivation of humility is not easy; there's a temptation to
indulge in mock-modesty, and untruthfully disclaim any real
achievement, and still worse to be conceited about not being
conceited. It is wiser, I think, to tackle Conceit at its first
uprising; if one can do that, then Humility will develop in the
natural course of events.
For our comfort we find that much can be done to curb the activities
of this persistent Mara. Pride has been aptly described as the "giant
weed." We may grub up a few roots in this life-span, but the thing has
already gone to seed and will appear in the future.
One year's seeds,
Seven years weeds,
say the old gardeners. If we acquire the habit of eradicating conceit
in this life, the habit will travel on in our sankharas and bear good
fruit in future lives.
(1) Recognize Conceit whenever he pops up and //name// him. This as
readers will remember is the advise given by Nyanaponika Thera in his
valuable articles in "Sangha." Mara, like Satan, hates to be
recognized. This practice is doubly effective because it "keeps one on
one's toes," and induces a real dislike of the tendency.
(2) Get back to the first two "steps" of the Noble Eightfold
Path (a) Right Understanding of the mental quality or capacity
involved: to see according to reality "This (quality) is not mine; I am
not this; there is no self in it"; (b) Right Aspiration towards the
expunging of Conceit. In the Discourse on Expunging (Majjh. Nik. I.8)
we read "Now I say that the arising of thoughts is very helpful in
regard to skilled states of mind. Therefore the thought should arise
'Others may be harmful; as to this we will not be harmful' and so on
for all our evil propensities. Others may be conceited; but we as to
this will not be conceited.'"
The method of analysis is also helpful. "I" am being praised for
some real or imagined virtue, say generosity. Generosity is non- greed
(//alobha//) one of the Good Roots, and as such appears in the list of
dharmas given in the Abhidharma philosophy. According to Mahayana "All
dharmas are empty of own-being" -- that is to say they are non-
existent. Therefore "I" am being praised for something which doesn't
exist. This is so absurd that it knocks the bottom out of my conceit.
Alternatively "I" am the result of past kamma. My talents are not
due to my own virtue, but have arisen on account of the skilled
actions performed by vanished personalities whose kammic descendant
"I" am. Therefore it is silly of me to be conceited about qualities
which are not in any real sense "mine."
Again and again in the suttas we find the expression "Thus must you
train..." This is Buddhist mental culture: it is Right or Supreme
Effort to put down unskilled mental states and prevent them rising in
the future, and furthermore to encourage the arising of skilled
A word of warning may not be out of place here. It is inadvisable to
dwell too much on our so-obvious faults. By unwisely reflecting on
them we encourage them to root themselves still more firmly in our
unconscious (i.e our //sankharas//). Instead remember the advice of
Paul the Apostle "Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are
honest... whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good
report; if there be any virtue, if there be any praise, //think on
these things//." We as Buddhists have the Buddha Dhamma to think about
-- "lovely in the beginning, lovely in the middle, lovely in the
ending." This as Dr. Henn Collins has pointed out is the true
philosopher's stone whose alchemy will transmute the base metal of our
ordinary consciousness into the gold of Enlightenment.
From "The Sangha" The Journal of
the English Sangha Association, III,11.