Nichiren Daishonin was often condemned by his contemporaries as “an extremely arrogant priest”.
Nichiren Daishonin was often condemned by his contemporaries as “an extremely arrogant priest” for his confidence as a votary of the Lotus Sutra to “fulfill the Buddha’s predictions and reveal the truth of his words” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, pp. 400–01). Just as the Daishonin’s confidence was misconstrued as arrogance, we may be inclined to mistake our arrogance for confidence and others’ confidence for arrogance. One of the five delusive inclinations, arrogance is considered in the Buddhist tradition both as a hindrance to enlightenment and as a cause for suffering. For this reason, mistaking arrogance for confidence is likely to set off the downward spiral of delusion and suffering. The fine line between arrogance and confidence, therefore, must be redrawn more clearly to distinguish happiness from delusion.
Arrogance is to judge one’s self-worth by comparison with others
The first of the seven types of arrogance, which are enumerated in some Buddhist scriptures, points to the essential quality of arrogance—“to think that one is superior to those inferior to oneself and that one is equal to one’s equals” (The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism, p. 579). Why is this arrogance? Isn’t it just telling it like it is? What is implied here is that arrogance is essentially our inclination to judge our self-worth by comparing ourselves with others.
Certain comparisons between oneself and others may be objectively true—such as income, IQ or physical appearance. But if we constantly judge our self-worth through comparison with others in whatever standards chosen, we are becoming arrogant. Of course, this is not to deny some merits that comparison and competition bring to our lives—such as motivation for improvement and an opportunity for self-reflection.
Moreover, the correct assessment of our circumstances through comparison is essential to improving our lives. In fact, those living in isolation or unwilling to learn from others are arrogant. Comparison with others becomes a cause for our concern when it becomes a sole measure for judging our existence. Put simply, if we start thinking of our lives as happy or unhappy, meaningful or meaningless, solely based on comparison with others, we may as well consider ourselves as arrogant.
Arrogant people feel good about themselves only through affirming their superiority to others. Our sense of superiority is always relative to whom we are compared with and never constant because of our own changing circumstances. False confidence based on superiority, therefore, easily turns into a feeling of inferiority and self-disparagement, like a millionaire feeling poor among billionaires, a Ph.D. feeling foolish among Nobel laureates or a healthy person feeling overweight among supermodels. This is why false humility or self-disparagement is considered as arrogance in Buddhism. (See the nine types of arrogance in The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism, p. 457.) Put another way, arrogance and self-disparagement are two sides of the same coin; we cannot have one without the potential for the other.
Genuinely confident people, on the other hand, feel great about themselves without comparing themselves with others. Such people are aware of some intrinsic personal strength or merit worthy of praise and respect. Confident people can put into perspective their ups and downs of life in this society driven by comparison and competition. Their missed promotion or lost love does not spell out their failure as a human being. Their financial success or academic achievement does not make them superior to their peers. So long as they continue to be aware of their innate positive quality and strive to cultivate it, people will remain confident regardless of their external circumstances. And Buddhism teaches that the most reliable source of confidence is our innate Buddha nature.
Arrogance is egotism; confidence is altruism
What clearly distinguishes the arrogant from the confident is whether or not they desire and act for others’ happiness greater than their own. Arrogant people are keenly aware that their self-esteem depends upon their superiority to others. So they often take delight in pitying the less fortunate since they can reaffirm their superior status by doing so.
The “kindness” of the arrogant, however, extends only so far as it supports their self-importance; it continues as long as the less fortunate remain less fortunate. Precisely for this reason, the arrogant cannot will and act for the supreme happiness of others because they fear it would only diminish their own happiness. This explains why it is often easier to feel ambiguous pity for our underpaid coworkers than to share their joy over their sudden promotion. One’s loss must be another’s gain—this is the basic assumption of life held by the arrogant who cannot stop comparing their fortune with that of others.
Confidence, on the other hand, makes genuine altruism possible. Since confident people’s self-worth does not depend upon others, they are free to care for others and fight for their happiness with the hope that it exceeds even their own. In fact, the confident see their contribution to others’ happiness as proof of their expanding humanity and as a source of great joy.
Confidence is to appreciate oneself even in the worst possible state.
In the late winter of 1272, Nichiren Daishonin wrote with his numbing hand: “I, Nichiren, am the richest man in all of present-day Japan. I have dedicated my life to the Lotus Sutra, and my name will be handed down in ages to come” (WND, 268). A reformer who had challenged the corrupt religious authority of his day, the Daishonin was exiled, after the failed execution, to a remote northern island of Japan, expected to die naturally or to be murdered. Destitute, he was living in a hut in a field scattered with abandoned corpses, and everything pointed to his approaching death into oblivion.
These words, however, clearly express the Daishonin’s confidence that he gave his life to the spread of the essential teaching of Buddhism, that is, the universality of Buddhahood. His life meant something for him, although it seemed to have come to nothing. When he lost everything, he gained one thing that mattered most—indomitable confidence that all people, no matter how miserable they may appear, have the supreme potential of Buddhahood.
Through his own example, Nichiren Daishonin demonstrated that confidence need not depend on possession or circumstances. Genuine confidence is to love and praise ourselves even in the worst possible state, not for how we appear to others, but for what we are in the innermost of life.
(Originally published in the World Tribune, March 7, 2003)