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Conceit and Meditation

Venerable Sujiva


"Conceit is tolerated in the successful," this saying is applicable to worldly matters but not acceptable in spiritual light. Even then it still has its limits. To what point then, is it too much? Flaunting constitutional laws may be one, overstepping human rights may be another. Results could be disastrous, especially if it involves someone powerful and at the top. In the Buddha's time the massacre of the Sakyans by Virudhaka and his army is a classic example. But this does not occur only with conceit, it may be likewise with other mental defilements when they become strong.

Therefore we may trace all sufferings back to the mind, hence the saying from the Dhammapada, "The mind is the forerunner of all states." Conceit is an unwholesome, unskillful mental state, and as such it inflicts suffering whilst it arises and brings worse after that. It is described as "puffed up" or "swollen headed" as if to say, "I am the greatest and no one (or almost no one) knows better than me."

As a result one exalts oneself and depreciates others. One loses prudence, conscience, mindfulness and hence let the defilements a freehand to shamelessly and carelessly displaying ones property and person. Step on his toes at this point and you're going to get the worst of it.

One may be pround of ones:

  1. Birth - that is, to be proud that one is born of such a noble family, race, etc.
  2. Possesssions - that is, to be proud of being rich, having mansions, cars, jewelry, responsible posts in society, etc.
  3. Virtues and other meritorious qualities - that is, to be proud of having moral precepts, having attained concentration, insights, etc.

In meditation, our aim is to eradicate all defilements and so conceit in any of these categories will have to be watched out for, tackled with and destroyed. In this article however, we will look into the last category.

I have personally been asked more than once, "Why is so and so who gives good dhamma talks, being acclaimed as a good yogi, and even gives meditation instructions act in such a conceited manner?"

Meditation is the process and way to purify the mind of defilements with the selfishness at the focal point and it is amazing that how such a thing could happen. Well, for one, ones own defilements are not easy to see, though it is not true in the case of seeing other's. And when they arise they can very effectively mask reality. Try telling someone deeply infatuated how filthy and smelly his lover's body is and he'll think you're nuts. How on earth did Devadatta commit such an atrocious crime towards the Buddha, and Price Ajjatasattu to his father? They were intelligent men who could have won the path with Buddha's help. We certainly should never underestimate the power of the defilements and be conceited to overestimate our abilities.

So I answer, "Well, obviously more meditation needs to be done and could you imagine how worse it can be without all those Dhamma?" Things usually happen this way: One first undertakes meditation sincerely and seriously. With practice there will be some progress. One would out of compassion try to do ones part for others. As a result, along comes praises, gains, honour, etc. All this may just be too much to take and as the saying goes, it went right up to the head. Here we must be remember that conceit begins with its subtle forms that occur only at the mental level. When it shows up in the face, voice or actions such as praising oneself and running down others thoughtlessly it is certainly very gross. At that point it is not too difficult to spot the sore thumb. Therefore the commentary describes conceit as holding up the banner so that others can see. A Thai saying: "When the buffalo wants to shit, it will know how to raise up its tail" says it more effectively and with humour.

So the next thing that happens will be one thinking highly of oneself and looking down on those who do not meditate.

I know of one layperson who has even gone to the extent of running down ones earlier meditation teachers, giving rude remarks to monks who does not meet with ones standard and turns friends who try to correct one into enemies. The eventual fate of such a person will be isolation from other's worthy company after causing considerable harm to oneself, the Dhamma and the spiritual community. Such a one has been described as the flowering of the bamboo before it dies.

So we see how important it is that a Buddhist needs to meditate to eradicate their defilements with conceit included. Emphasis can be made on conceit when it involves the leaders.

Another thing about conceit when it occurs concerning meditation is that is may even be more difficult to rectify than normal circumstances. This is becuase the conceited is supposed to have experienced some extraordinary and lofty experiences which is considered profound or even holy. It's something that makes him a saint or half-saint. And you simply are not in the position to argue because you still haven't got it. So it needs somebody higher or highest to tell him one or two things. It is unfortunate that such somebody is not easy to come by. It also depends on how high on the clouds he has gone.

Such experiences can come under tranquility or insight meditation experiences.

In tranquility meditation experiences, one may feel proud of having attained certain states of concentration. If there's a big name such as 1st jhana, 2nd jhana, etc to go along with it, it's even better. Included in this category are all the accompanying experiences such as joy, lights, seeing visions etc. One may even believe one has developed clairvoyance, ability to recollect past lives, telepathy, etc.

If one has really attained to such deep states where ones mind is totally detached and removed from the normal range of senses, into states more deep and blissful than deep sleep, it is commendable but nevertheless halts the path of progress should any attachment and conceit develop no matter how slight. Thinking that those deep absorptions are the absolute Nibbana would be worse as it falls under clinging to wrong view. Thinking one has supernormal powers when in fact they are mostly hallucinations can be worse, because one will eventually end up with madness if not corrected in time. For such sad cases the woeful states will surely be waiting for them at their deathbed.

At this point we can see how important it is to note mindfully when such states or thoughts regarding such states arise.

In insight meditation experiences one may also come across the elevating effects of concentration such as light and joy besides the insight knowledge peculiar to insight meditation. In the Vissudhimagga, ten extraordinary experieces or phenomena may be met with due to progress in the practice. It further adds that one may cling to it with attachment, conceit or wrong views. These ten imperfections of insight (vipassanupakilesa) are:

  1. Light or illuminations
  2. Knowledge
  3. Joy
  4. Quietude or tranquility
  5. Rapturous happiness
  6. Resolve or faith
  7. Exertion or energy
  8. Mindfulness
  9. Equanimity or balance
  10. Desire or attachment

Take for example joy (piti): When one experiences joy, it may be so overwhelming that one begins to want more of it and finally indulge in it, such is clinging with attachment. At times one may think highly of oneself that few are those that enjoy such happiness as myself, then there is conceit. However, there may be times when the joy can be so blissful that one is completely oblivious to everything around one, making one think that one has experienced the blissful cessation of Nibbana, then there is wrong view. From here we can see that these three attachment, conceit and wrong views are closely connected. One eventually leads to another.

Although one may have read or being told about the dangers of attachment to such states, very often, yogis still fall into the trap and have to be reminded again and again. Although it occurs strongly at the third insight knowledge of comprehension, it can arise at any stage of the practice. So we have to be on guard at all times, because attachment here may not mean only halting of ones progress but also mental imbalance and rebirth in the woeful states. This is especially so if one thinks that one has reached stages of sanctification when one has in fact not.

Besides these ten imperfections of insight, one may also get attached, become conceited or develop wrong views after one has emerged from the experiences of insight knowledges, except of course the Path and Fruition knowledges. Even a stream winner who has abandoned wrong views, attachment to wrong practice and skeptical doubts is still not free from conceit. Of course it will be considerably lesser than an ordinary person because with the destruction of wrong views, conceit is also destroyed to some degree, especially the grosser forms.

In the Maha Rahulovada Sutta, the Buddha advises Rahula to develop the meditation that is the perception of impermanence to get rid of the 'I am' conceit. This is none other than the practice of insight meditation. When one develops thorough and penetrating mindfulness to note each and every mind and body process moment to moment without fail, the seven factors of enlightment will arise and these will uproot the defilements including conceit.

Firstly when there is mindfulness, defilements have no way to arise. If it has arisen through some negligence, mindfulness will quickly take notice of it and replace it with mindfulness. When it develops into penetrative experiential knowldge (investigation of the Dhamma) it will see clearly the three characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self. Then one will come to some realization that: "Since all is so transient, what is there for me to be proud of? Since there is so much suffering, what is there for me to be conceited about? Since there is No-self, who is there to be conceited?" Further development of such insights will bring joy and tranquility in the realization of non-self. These will further encourage one to go one abandoning any attachments to clinging to the Self and the 'I am' conceit. With increased energy and concentration of such awareness and insight, the mind will become very equanimous to any formations or phenomena that arises. The balance of mind will further help in the development of mindfulness and the eradication of pride, just as one is not easily shaken by praise or blame.

Yes, one can, if negligence manages to creep in, attachment and conceit regarding these wholesome states may still arise. So again may we be reminded to be every vigilant against negligence. And may we all be diligent in our practice to abandon forever all our conceit to realize what the Exalted One has said:

Abolishing the conceit 'I am'
That is truly the supreme bliss. (Udana)

Ven. Sujiva
Santisukharama, Kota Tinggi
16 March 1993

Source: Vipassana Tribune, http://www.quantrum.com.my/bwc/vtribune/

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