“The Three Kinds of Pride are: (1) thinking I am better than the others; (2) thinking I am worse than the others; and (3) thinking I am just as good as the others.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
Ah, Conceit. Nestled way up there at the number 8 spot in the Ten Fetters to enlightenment. Even after stream entry and the attainment of a once-returner, Conceit remains to be fully dealt with. And more confusing is that we lose Identity View as our number 1 fetter, yet Conceit arises right up until we attain Arhatship. How can this be?
Conceit, in Buddhist terms, is a much more subtle arising of the “I” thought and refers to the “I” thought in all of its subtle manifestations. What we call a life is projection. We project the only life we know. In this way, what the ordinary person thinks they are is really a shadow or an echo – it comes after a projection, as a result of projection.
Tao gives birth to one
One gives birth to two
Two gives birth to three
Three gives birth to all beings and all things
Tao, being the Zen master’s Zero, is the natural state of wholeness before projections, also called Nirvana. After this Zero, we eat from the tree of good and evil, better and worse, duality, ignorance. There are no answers out here in the weeds, only rebirth into delusion. Once one is truly free of Conceit, Restlessness and Ignorance, there is no one to return because one is born with Conceit. What, precisely, is it to be free of Conceit? The Buddha sums it up pretty well right here:
‘I am’ is a conceit. ‘I am this’ is a conceit. ‘I shall be’ is a conceit. ‘I shall not be’ is a conceit. ‘I shall be formless’ is a conceit, ‘I shall be percipient’ is a conceit. ‘I shall be non-percipient’ is a conceit. ‘I shall be neither percipient nor non-percipient’ is a conceit. Conceit is a disease, a cancer, a dart. It is with the surmounting of all conceits that one is called a silent sage. The sage who is silent neither is reborn, nor ages, nor dies, he is unassailed and free from longing. He has none of that whereby he might be reborn. – Buddha, Pali Canon
When we talk about rebirth in a conventional sense, we are already lost in the weeds – there is no solution. The only time we will ever experience is right now. Right now is the only time we will ever be re-incarnated or reborn. Rebirth, like everything, happens not in the imaginary future, but right now. Similarly, conceit happens not in the imaginary future, but right now. Knowing we are only one breath away from death, we might similarly be one breath away from rebirth. A rebirth need not be a conceptual hundred year life of a human being, but only a moment of conceit. In order to free ourselves of this dart we need to find its root, the very moment of its arising and become aware of its functioning. We can not simply know it is there, we need to somehow wear its ass out, snuff it out like a flame.
The ego is afraid of becoming extinguished, but this is misguided. Polishing a shadow, framing an echo, jumping from illusion to illusion – this is death. Only by removing this cancer of believing our own projections can we know what it is to be alive, awake, conscious. In this way, most “spiritual paths” are projections, nothing more than delusional entertainment, and do not lead anywhere. By applying a sober look at conceit, we can better see where we are fooling ourselves.