Jul 1, 2013

Mistaking Arrogance for Confidence Part Two

Arrogance is insecurity; confidence is peace of mind
The difference between arrogance and confidence also shows in our emotional state. Arrogance makes us insecure whereas confidence gives us peace of mind. The more arrogant we become, the more keenly we feel the dependence of our happiness upon the misfortune and weakness of others. This ironic dependence makes the seeming confidence of the arrogant increasingly insecure. The more they bolster this false self-confidence on the outside, the less secure they become inside; so the ‘happiness’ of the arrogant is self-consuming.

Arrogance is needy; confidence is free

As mentioned earlier, confident people are deeply aware that they derive their confidence from strengthening their innate qualities and need not depend on others. So the more confident people are, the more peaceful they will be with both themselves and others. Even in disagreement or when pointing out the errors of others, confident people can remain calm and open-minded. Since they need not defend their self-worth by ‘winning’ in the argument, confident people can stay focused on the merits of different views and opinions without becoming hurtful toward others.

Nichiren Daishonin, for example, wrote from exile, “Whatever obstacles I might encounter, so long as persons of wisdom do not prove my teachings to be false, I will never yield!” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 280). His vow to be steadfast in his belief comes with the condition—“so long as persons of wisdom do not prove my teachings to be false.” This was an expression of the unruffled openness of the confident, not of the blind obstinacy of the arrogant.

Think about how people behave at work. Unlike an arrogant manager who takes any suggestion as a personal criticism and everyone in the office as a potential threat, a confident manager takes even personal criticism as an opportunity for self-reflection and further improvement. The inner state of an arrogant person is constantly agitated, waiting for any opportunity to assert a sense of superiority. But the inner state of a confident person absorbs even an untoward event like a pebble tossed into a bathtub, as opposed to a wineglass.

As it is clear now, arrogance is not “too much” confidence. The essential difference between arrogance and confidence is not one of quantity or degree, but of quality and origin. Arrogance is needy and dependent on others, derived from comparison with the external. Confidence is free and independent of others, found and cultivated in the self.

‘Absolute superiority’ is a dangerous illusion

Mistaking arrogance for confidence distorts our view of humanity—the way we relate to others and ourselves. Such misconception spells out only tragic suffering for individuals and society. Long before his rise to power, Adolf Hitler wrote: “Self-confidence must be inculcated in the young national comrade from childhood on. His whole education and training must be so ordered as to give him the conviction that he is absolutely superior to others” (Mein Kampf, trans. Ralph Manheim, p. 411).

The epitome of arrogance, Hitler mistook the illusion of “absolute superiority” as supreme confidence. He debased education, turning it from a vehicle of equality and happiness into a cogwheel in the evil machinery of discrimination and destruction. Education must teach confidence, not arrogance. Likewise, Buddhist learning is to strengthen our faith in the inherent Buddha nature of others and ourselves, not to promote elitism among believers.

Nichiren Daishonin was well aware of the danger of judging one’s self-worth through comparison with others. The Daishonin, therefore, admonished his disciples: “When you look at those of superior capacity, do not disparage yourself. The Buddha’s true intention was that no one, even those of inferior capacity, be denied enlightenment. Conversely, when you compare yourself with persons of inferior capacity, do not be arrogant and overproud. Even persons of superior capacity may be excluded from enlightenment if they do not devote themselves wholeheartedly” (WND, 62).

Here the Daishonin explains that one’s potential for enlightenment is in no way diminished by one’s capacity to understand Buddhism since all people are equally endowed with supreme Buddhahood. What is most important for our happiness is to believe in this intrinsic potential shared by all people. Our tendency to compare our capacity with that of others will only lead us astray from genuine happiness.

Nichiren Daishonin, therefore, urges us to win over our arrogance in order to enjoy authentic happiness: “Now, if you wish to attain Buddhahood, you have only to lower the banner of your arrogance, cast aside the staff of your anger, and devote yourself exclusively to the one vehicle of the Lotus Sutra” (WND, 58–59). Here the Daishonin indicates the close relationship between arrogance and anger. T’ien-t’ai, a 6th-century Chinese Buddhist scholar, described those in the state of anger as “always desiring to be superior to others” (Gosho Zenshu, p. 430). Anger is akin to arrogance; it may be described as frustrated arrogance.

As the Daishonin suggests here, we can overcome our deep-seated arrogance and anger through our devotion to the “one vehicle of the Lotus Sutra”—that is, the teaching of the universality of Buddhahood and its essential practice as chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. As we deepen our confidence in our own Buddhahood and this selfsame potential of others, the need to compare ourselves with others will diminish, and we will be free to appreciate and enjoy lives of our own making.

(Originally published in the World Tribune, March 14, 2003)

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