What Is Arrogance?

What does Buddhism say about arrogance, and how can I spot it?

Life state—Humility between Pride and Arrogance, a 15th-century fresco in the Hall of Vices and Virtues, Castiglioni Mantegazza castle, Massage, Lombardy, Italy. Photo: DE AGOSTINI / A. DE GREGORIO /GETTYIMAGES.

Q: It’s hard to tell if and when I’m being arrogant. What does Buddhism say about arrogance, and how can I spot it?

A: Buddhism views arrogance as a human tendency that hampers Buddhist faith and practice, and ultimately blocks one’s happiness and enlightenment. It also can cause distrust and disunity among the community of Buddhist practitioners, slowing progress toward the ultimate goal of kosen-rufu—or peace and happiness for humankind.

There are a variety of negative impulses, attitudes and afflictions that hinder Buddhist practice, the three most fundamental being the “three poisons” of greed, anger and foolishness. Add arrogance and doubt to these, and they form the “five delusive inclinations.” All such impulses, sometimes called “earthly desires,” arise from fundamental darkness—ignorance of the sublime potential for Buddhahood that all people possess.

Arrogance is the tendency to look down on people as inferior or unworthy and consider oneself superior to others. In the Ten Worlds, it is associated with the life state called asura, or anger, in which one feels compelled to dominate and supersede others without concern for their well-being.

Nichiren Buddhism is founded on the principle that all people equally possess the Buddha nature and are equally worthy of respect. Arrogance runs directly counter to this, given that it reflects our tendency to judge our self-worth by comparing ourselves to others. Nichiren Daishonin makes clear that it is something we should aim to overcome, writing:

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. Worldly fame and profit are mere baubles of your present existence, and arrogance and prejudice are ties that will fetter you in the next one. Ah, you should be ashamed of them! And you should fear them, too! (“Embracing the Lotus Sutra,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 59)

Q: I see that Buddhism is very serious about battling arrogant tendencies. What are some concrete examples of arrogant behavior in Buddhist history?

A: A cousin and one-time follower of Shakyamuni Buddha, Devadatta, who tried to kill the Buddha, believed that he was superior to the Buddha. Devadatta’s great intelligence and ability gained him wide respect, but it also bolstered his unfettered pride and jealousy.

The Buddha, out of concern for Devadatta, warned him about his arrogance. But this only fueled Devadatta’s animosity, and he spent the rest of his life denouncing the Buddha and trying to undermine the Buddhist Order. Ultimately Devadatta cared only about being regarded highly by others. Shakyamuni cared deeply about everyone in the Order, indeed about everyone he encountered, including Devadatta. The arrogant tend to lack genuine and consistent care for others.

Although Nichiren Daishonin was accused of being arrogant by the Buddhist leaders of his time, his compassionate behavior proved otherwise. As a person of ordinary social status, he sought to debate Buddhist doctrine with leading priests, who were related to the noble class and held in awe by the populace. Nichiren pointed out their misconceptions about Buddhism to clarify what teaching could make people truly happy. He also wrote hundreds of letters to ordinary believers, praising them as great Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and expressing profound appreciation for their sincerity and support. He cared for each person meticulously, praying, inquiring and offering encouragement about every challenge they faced. The elite Buddhist leaders of the time, however, did not usually write to lay followers, let alone show them such care and concern. Rather, fearing they would lose their popularity to Nichiren, they conspired with authorities to have him punished or killed.

Q: What about more recent examples of arrogant behavior?

A: In modern times, the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood, who should have understood the spirit and example of Nichiren Daishonin, instead developed animosity toward the Soka Gakkai and its members. Nikken, the former high priest, came to see the members’ deep respect and appreciation for SGI President Ikeda, who had dedicated his life to ensuring their happiness, as a threat to his own status and authority.

The Soka Gakkai had been devoted fully to empowering ordinary people to change their lives through the Daishonin’s teachings. President Ikeda and the members had also been earnestly supporting the temples financially and assisting the priests in their role. But the members’ initiative in studying Buddhism, and their independent, self-motivated faith and practice for their own and others’ happiness, came also to be seen as a threat by many priests. Without practicing Buddhism earnestly themselves, the priests considered themselves inherently superior to all lay believers.

Calling the SGI and its leaders arrogant, they sought to manipulate, usurp and dominate the SGI members, and when they could not, they tried but failed to destroy the SGI. The priests themselves had succumbed fully to their own arrogance.

Based on this and the examples in Buddhist history, we can see that, at times, those who are supposed to have the greatest command of the Buddhist teachings can succumb to arrogance.

The Lotus Sutra describes “three powerful enemies” who will attempt to persecute practitioners of the Lotus Sutra and destroy its teachings. These have been explained as three kinds of people—lay believers, ordinary priests and “false sages,” or priests of high status respected by the general public—who, out of arrogance, attack practitioners of the Lotus Sutra.

Nichiren states that striving to resist and overcome them enables a person to cultivate immense strength and wisdom.

Q: In today’s world, self-confidence and even aggressiveness are often seen as necessary traits for achieving success and being respected. How can I tell the difference between arrogance and confidence?

A: That’s a very good question. Oftentimes, we tend to assess others based on our own status, position or ego. But, Buddhism encourages us to make our standard the fundamental dignity and nobility of life itself.

In a similar vein, President Ikeda says: “What people cultivate in their hearts by always striving to become a better person, through repeated trial and error, by working hard, making effort and then more effort, is what we may call confidence. On the other hand, if one avoids hardship or difficulty, deciding ‘I’ve done enough’ or ‘Things will work out on their own,’ failing to try one’s hardest, then I think we can’t help but call that arrogance” (Translated from May 25, 2003, Seikyo Shimbun, p. 5).

He went on to say that the confidence of those who have lifted themselves up from the very bottom is genuine. In the process of doing so, they have smashed any petty arrogance and pride, and while continuing to improve and advance, have developed true confidence.

We could say, then, that a vital way to avoid arrogance and build confidence is to always continue to work hard to improve ourselves and to help others do the same, while being sincerely willing to learn from everyone around us. This way we avoid looking down on others and becoming self-satisfied while at the same time building confidence in our own and others’ limitless potential.

(p. 11)