PRIDE AND CONCEIT
Dr. Elizabeth Ashby
Bodhi Leaves No. B. 14
BUDDHIST PUBLICATION SOCIETY
KANDY SRI LANKA
Copyright 1962 Buddhist Publication Society
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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
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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//
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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 of
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" of
the unsuccessful person, and the "Equality Conceit" of the man who
says "I'm as good as you." With the underlying implication "And a good
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.
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THE MASTERY OF PRIDE
By Brian Fawcett
Few of us are free from Pride in one form or another. We know
that in the interests of spiritual development it must be killed out.
We are taught as much, and accept the teaching without question. But
the method by which Pride may be eliminated is a problem not easy to
solve, and the indirect, sweeping precepts of the sages are of little
practical help to us. It is all very well saying: "Kill out this, and
kill out that," but what we want to know is, how may we go about it?
In the first place: what //is// Pride?
Let us call analogy to our aid. Regard pride as a weed, propagating
itself with alarming fecundity in the garden of the mind. Its root is
not visible, but the flowering shoots are in plain view. Cut down
these shoots and either they grow again or the roots puts out new
ones. The only way to destroy it is to dig it up altogether. That root
is //Self-Esteem//. From it grow the roots of //Conceit, Boastfulness,
Ambition, Jealousy, Envy and Intolerance//. There are others, but let
us take these six manifestations for the sake of discussions.
Unbiased, detached self-scrutiny will disclose what others may exist
in one's own character, and it is unlikely that all will be found
equally developed. There is cause for alarm when we discover them in
ourselves. Pride is invariably despised when observed in others, yet
we sometimes boast of possessing it. "I have my pride, you know," is a
Beneath every manifestation of Pride, lies //Self-Esteem//. It is
the conviction of superiority over others -- the feeling that we are
what they are not, or that we can do what they cannot do. Successes in
early childhood may sow the seeds of it. The praise of relatives
fosters it. Once planted, it grows, and not even the flattening
criticism by one's own contemporaries in adolescence can stop it. By
and by it becomes a habit to compare oneself with the people one meets
or passes in the street, generally to their disadvantage. What we know
of our own accomplishments is measured by what we presume they lack.
We think we know our friends inside and out, and our judgments are
based on a firm belief in the infallibility of our perception. There
is a tendency to group those who are not obviously outstanding under
the heading of "Ordinary People," and sometimes to place them in the
inferior category for no more reason than that they look as if they
belong there. How often we hear the remark: "He seems so ordinary, but
when you get to know him there's a lot in him!" We are surprised to
see our spot judgement wrong -- that there really is something in that
very ordinary-looking person. Can we honestly claim to be free of this
habit of automatically comparing others with our own ideas of
ourselves? If so, then //Self-Esteem// is not present.
It would be bad enough if Pride flourished in no more then
//Self-Esteem//, but it must manifest itself in every way it can. It
strives to show on the surface, which is perhaps just as well, for
then it becomes obvious. //Conceit//, first shoot of the weed Pride,
is //Self-Esteem// manifesting in visible form. Not content with
merely feeling superior to the people around us, we show it in our
bearing. A glance from some passer-by of the opposite sex may be
interpreted as a look of approval. The fine figure reflected in the
shop window as we pass engenders a feeling of warm satisfaction. Smart
clothes, we believe, do justice to our carriage. We may not be so tall
as that person over yonder, but we have a more distinguished look. No
one would pick out any one of them in a crowd, but all can see we are
different. Crude, isn't it? But that is the way //Conceit// affects
us, and its crudity is indeed shocking when self-analysis brings us
face to face with it. Inspired by a consciousness of a desire for
Truth, our minds turn the searchlight of enquiry inwards upon our own
characters, and then there dawns the realization that //Conceit// has
been part of us for as long as we remember. Formerly, we would have
angrily denied the charge of being conceited. Now we see that it is
well founded. Our "apartness," our treasured "individuality," is
plainly one of its aspects.
//Conceit// has grown without its presence being suspected, and an
even more dangerous and disgusting shoot has sprung up beside it. This
is //Boastfulness// -- //Self-Esteem's// oral manifestation. One of
our national conventions is the taboo on bragging, and the idea of
voicing a plain, undisguised boast would shock us as much as it would
disgust the conventional listener. a very admirable convention too --
but it by no means eliminates //Boastfulness//, for there are other
ways of boasting, and as long as the //desire// to call attention to
oneself exists, that particular ramification of Pride is a danger. We
can get others to boast for us. We can also impress them (particulary
our relations) that they sing our praises to others. In this way we
gain more than were it to come from ourselves, and run no risk of its
incurring disagreeable criticism. We can seek publicity and, once
gained, declaim it. We may artfully bring a conversation round to a
point at which we "modestly" have to admit to something we are really
proud of. It takes a certain amount of courage to probe one's own
secret heart and bring to light some of the many ways in which we who
sincerely believe ourselves to be guiltless can actually indulge in
//Boastfulness//. It is one of the most persistent roots of the weed
of Pride, and the most dangerous because so frequently overlooked.
There are two kinds of //Ambition//. There is //Wrong Ambition//,
and //Right Ambition//. One is based on //Self-Esteem//; the other is
free of any taint of it. //Wrong Ambition// is the desire to excel or
succeed in order to enhance one's standing -- one's reputation. It is
the urge to achieve with the object of "putting the other chap's eye
out!" In its more acceptable, and therefore more insidious aspect, it
is the will to gain admiration and respect -- to become, in fact, a
worldly "success," which nearly always means a financial success.
Confident of our great worth, we cannot be satisfied until repeated
success have called the attention of others to it. We feel that wealth
is a concrete recognition of it.
//Right Ambition//, on the other hand, is above itself. It is the
will to succeed, not for the gratification of self-esteem, but to
further achievement for its own sake. The painter who strives to
express adequately the idea inspiring him -- the poet who seeks to
express an emotion as it has never been expressed -- the craftsman
ever intent on bettering his achievement -- all are followers of
//Right Ambition//. Their "selves" are forgotten. They work as
instruments, and they feel that in the expression of their art is
little personal, but rather a universal power whose tools they are.
Noblest ambition of all is the desire to achieve an objective of
disinterested service to one's fellow creatures, whether human or
animal. it is sometimes gratifying to learn how many of us have this
//Jealousy// might be defined as the resentment felt against another
for competing at the same level. Note that it is //at the same level//
that competition begets jealousy. An admission of inferiority by the
other will quickly banish the jealousy we may feel against him. Those
we admit to be our superiors do not arouse our jealousy. It is a
bestial emotion, but one that undoubtedly had its uses in our passage
through the lives in the Instinctive Mind, for it was an aid to our
survival. Carried over into the influence of Intellect it has no
place, and puts a drag on our upward progress. He who is at one moment
the object of our jealousy, is regarded with affection once that
jealousy has been smothered. What may has served us for the
conservation of the means of life when we existed in a lower condition
is now no more than a vehicle for Pride's manifestation, and its
redundancy is obvious the moment the reason has torn Jealousy's red
veil from the perception. We know it is useless, and long to rid
ourselves of it. We seem to succeed, and then conditions come about
favorable to its reappearance, and the unwelcome pangs are felt again.
Remember, then, that it is a shoot of //Self-Esteem// and until that
root has been killed out the shoot may be beaten down only to blossom
We joke about //Envy//, and are inclined to look on it as less
despicable than Jealousy, its near relative. Think about it -- think
over and around it -- define it to yourself -- get to know it. When
the nature of an unpleasant thing is known, it is less to be dreaded.
With all these ramifications of the weed of Pride the same approach
can be recommended. Define them to yourself. Figure out what they are
and how much you are subject to their influence. //Envy// can be
called the resentment felt against another for possessing that which
one values and does not posses oneself. It may be only a gentle
resentment sometimes, but is dangerous nevertheless, for it may become
fierce. Underlying it is the feeling, "Why should he have it, and not
I?" //Self-Esteem// is outraged.
Then there is //Intolerance//. Sometimes it is the only form of
Pride we are subject to. It is often the most robust shoot of the whole
plant. It springs directly from //Self-Esteem//, for it is a refusal to
accept anything that conflicts with our own ideas. It is to brand as
wrong all that to us is not right. //Intolerance// causes us to condemn
a person for doing that with which we disagree, but let him do just
what we would do ourselves and -- here is what is so unreasonable -- a
feeling of jealousy may be aroused. Pride sweeps us first one way, then
another. There is no keeping our feet when once in its grasp. Don't
expect Pride to be in any way "reasonable," for it wilts and disappears
in the light of reason, its greatest foe.
We are repeatedly being asked: "Why carry the burden of Pride?
Throw it aside! It is so much relief to rid yourselves of its weight
and know the lightness of freedom!" We feel inclined to retort: "
That's all very well, but //how// can we get rid of it? We know we
must, but we don't know how to begin!"
The sickle which can cut down these roots is Reason -- calm
reflection -- Meditation. Make it your task for a few weeks to give up
half an hour daily for reasoning it out, and the results may amaze
you. Look at yourself, as it were, from outside. Be honest with
yourself, in making a searching examination to determine how Pride is
manifesting through you, for fair self-analysis is in itself a
powerful weapon to use against it. Classify those manifestations.
Reason them out. Do they make sense? In your everyday life try and
form the habit of watching with interest to spot each of Pride's
several shoots as it appears, and once a week spend a meditation hour
in asking yourself for a detailed report of every one noted. Form a
picture in your mind of the perfect character, and compare your own
character with it. For example, say to your self: "Now, I think there
was an inclination to boast in my remark to Mrs. So-and-so at tea
yesterday. How would the Ideal Being have acted under the
circumstances?" Or again: "Would the Ideal Being have considered
himself superior in bearing to those ugly people I passed in
such-and-such a street? Of course not! He would have been above that."
The power of standing apart from, and criticizing, the Ego who is
subject to Pride, allows you to find satisfaction in adverse criticism
from others. Whereas formerly you felt bitter if ridiculed or put "in
the wrong," it now amuses you, for you see what good medicine it is
for the Self you desire to set free. When others treat you with
intolerance, welcome it, for they are doing you a favor by striking
direct at your own intolerance. Seek those things which formerly
aroused in you the pangs of Envy or Jealousy. Find pleasure in feeling
that other self hurt by them, knowing that the wounds are suffered by
the false Ego -- Pride -- and not by the real You. It will not be long
before the pain is gone, and then you will have a good laugh at the
memory of that squirming demon who fled surprised and vanquished.
We who are subject to Conceit dread ridicule. Cease to dread it.
When we see the wicked caricatures, or witness those vivid mimicries
of ourselves, it is for us to welcome them, for they are aiding us
materially in the conquest of Pride. So also, to hear ourselves
belittled is an antidote for Boastfulness. When we do, there is no
need to hide a raging heart behind a sickly smile. Once we have
learned the trick of standing apart from ourselves these things can no
But beat down the shoots of Pride as we may, we cannot be free from
the weed until the root has gone. It is right to prevent the shoots
from thriving. Destroy them by all means. But Pride will persist in
making its appearance until //Self-Esteem// is rooted out -- and to
accomplish that is the hardest job of all!
Here is a tip that may perhaps be of service. Try and form the habit
of supposing every passer-by on whom the thoughts rest to be possessed
of at least one attribute superior to your own. Think to yourself:
"This creature isn't much to look at, but I'll bet she is far more
even-tempered than I am!" Look at that rather foppish young man whose
appearance used to annoy you, and think: "All the same, in a pinch he
would show far greater physical courage than I." Cease to regard the
large, loud-mouthed person as empty-headed, and think instead: "He's
probably far cleverer with his hands than I." We are all learning our
lessons in Life's school-room. Some are more advanced than us in one
thing, and behind us in others. The person who cannot resist the
temptation to gratify the senses may nevertheless be a good angel to
others in need of help. The thief may be an actual hero. If we
consistently regard others as possessing at least one of those
desirable characteristics we ourselves are striving for, we are
actually admitting our inferiority, and //Self-Esteem// suffers a
staggering blow. Remember that //Self-Esteem// is a habit, and just as
a habit must be acquired, so may it be abandoned. We are not born with
it. We cultivate it by regarding ourselves as superior to others in
some particular thing -- later in more things -- ultimately in
everything. Kill it out by recognizing the superiority of others in
some way. Credit them with that superiority, even though you don't
know they possess it. //Self-Esteem// will die for lack of
nourishment, and one day will come the first joyful realization that
there is no Him nor Her nor You, but that we are all one. You need not
fear going too far and acquiring an "inferiority complex." Your eyes
will be open, and what you will find is True Humility.
From "The Sangha," V.1.
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