The Three Conceits (and My Own Subtle Arrogance)

When we’re young and healthy and happy, and flush with the enjoyment of our vigor and our physical and mental prowess, it might be hard to recognize the merits of spiritual practice. Such is the purview of the old and weak, the timid and the sick, and those who for some strange reason choose to focus on the negative aspects of life when the golden ring of youthful pleasure is theirs for the grasping; or so we might think, anyway. The Samiddhi Sutta touches on this issue, among others. It tells of how one of the Buddha’s followers, the youthful Samiddhi, was bathing in a hot spring one morning before going out to beg for his daily meal. A beautiful deva appeared and hovered in the air before him. They bantered for a time in verse, and then she descended and spoke:

You are young, bhikkhu, to have left the world, black-haired, with the bloom of youth. In your youthful prime you do not enjoy the pleasures of the senses. Get your fill, bhikkhu, of human pleasures. Don't reject the present moment to pursue what time will bring. (SN 1.20)

The youthful but already wise, Samiddhi, replied:

I, friend, do not reject the present moment to pursue what time will bring. I reject what time will bring to pursue the present moment. Time's pleasures, friend, as the Blessed One has said, are fraught with pain, fraught with tribulation, leading to greater danger. This Dhamma is here-present, out of time, inviting inspection, leading onward, to be realized by the wise each for himself. (SN 1.20)

The deva was unmoved, however, and kept up her line of questioning. Samiddhi, having reached the limits of his ability to counter the persistent deva, decided to arrange for her to speak with the Buddha himself. And so it was that the Buddha was able to respond to the deva directly, saying:   

Those who go by names, who go by concepts,

Making their abode in names and concepts,

Failing to discern the naming-process,

These are subject to the reign of death,

He who has discerned the naming-process

Does not suppose that one who names exists.

No such case exists for him in truth,

Whereby one could say: "He's this or that"….

"Equal I am, or better, of less degree":

All such idle fancies lead to strife,

Who's unmoved by all these three conceits

Such vain distinctions leaves unmade. (SN 1.20)

If you’re already familiar with the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination you will easily recognize three of its links, in addition to its overarching message, in just the first four lines of the Buddha’s response. Our propensity for subdividing the seamless nature of ultimate reality into myriad things (nama-rupa, name and form) is clearly evident in the very first line: “those who go by names, who go by concepts.” Likewise, our tendency to appropriate various aspects of that seamless reality as our self (upadana) while at the same time excluding everything else and all others is present in the second: “making their abode in names and concepts.” The fact that we do this as a result of our existential ignorance (avijja) is present in the third: “failing to discern the naming-process.” And the fact that this is how suffering arises is conveyed in the fourth: “these are subject to the reign of death.” In other words, as soon as we identify with any particular aspect of the ultimately seamless whole we will surely experience suffering as that which we desire to stay the same inevitably changes, ages, and dies. (Please see Dependent Origination - Past Life and the Twelve-Fold Chain, and the other posts in that series if you’d like to dig deeper into that particular teaching.)

Samiddhi, despite his lack of total confidence in his understanding of the teachings, was essentially on track. “Time’s pleasures,” he says, “are fraught with pain.” The Dhamma, on the other hand, is “here-present, out of time.” Time is measured by the existence of things – by the existence of relationships amongst things. Time's pleasures, then, are predicated on one having appropriated a self – a self that, by its nature, is incessantly measuring things and others and its standing among them – a self that, by its nature, is inevitably subject to the process of aging and death. Samiddhi understood that remaining “here-present, out of time” is to remain in accord with the emptiness, shunyata, of ultimate reality. “‘Equal I am, or better, of less degree’: All such idle fancies lead to strife” – the Buddha’s response to the deva is based upon the nature of this ultimate reality. In shunyata there are no myriad things to be compared and contrasted and judged to be superior or deficient. In shunyata all is a seamlessly integrated whole. (Please see The Heart Sutra and the Nature of Emptiness, and the other posts in that series if you'd like to explore the nature of emptiness further.)

The Three Conceits – a Mundane World Perspective

Let me root this discussion firmly in the mundane realm for the remainder of this post.  In declaring that we are less than someone else we are identifying with a state wherein we are lacking. We have compared ourselves to another or others and have arrived at the conclusion: they are richer than I, stronger than I, more loveable than I, more successful or intelligent or worthy than I. We bring suffering upon ourselves when we make such comparisons – either because our feelings of inadequacy keep us from settling into the peace and joy of contentedness, or because our absolute certainty of our adequacy (our ‘deservedness’) compels us to chase after that which has no bearing on what we most deeply desire (peace and joy and contentedness).

On the other hand, it is also quite often the case that we seek solace in the idea that we are less than another or others. Declaring that we are less than others allows us to avoid responsibility for the hardship and strife in the world. After all, wars are started by those more powerful than us. How can we, powerless as we are, possibly stop them? Peace is the responsibility of our world leaders to initiate. What can we do to help make it flourish? Global warming is a problem that only the most intelligent amongst us can solve. What can we do to resolve it? Thus, the status quo of suffering is perpetuated. Perhaps you will recall the following quote (variously attributed to Edmund Burke or Leo Tolstoy): “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Now, Buddhists are not so much inclined to think in terms of good and evil, but I think there is wisdom in that sentiment, nonetheless – regardless of who might have said it.

Perhaps we could also look to Edmund Burked for wisdom related to our inclination to think that everyone is the same: “The tyranny of a multitude is a multiplied tyranny.” With our willingness to accept that we are all the same we run roughshod over the needs as well as the strengths of others. We see this in our educational organizations when they fail to address the uniqueness of those who learn differently or those who overwhelm us with their capacity to learn. We see it in the legal and governmental realm, as well, when uniformity is valued over individual circumstances.

Yes, but we also take comfort in uniformity. “Hey, I’m just like everybody else,” we might say. “I’m looking after my own interests.” And so we explain away our self-centeredness and those most base and greedy aspects of ourselves by considering them to simply be the natural order of things.

Okay, do I even need to get into the dangers of the conceit of feeling that we are better than another or others? Do I even need to mention how wars are started over such views, how people are subjugated and enslaved by those holding such views, how families turn into private hells by the holding of such views, how the process of finding solutions to the world’s problems is derailed by the holding of such views? No, I suppose I don’t…. Let’s explore, instead, our more subtle forms of arrogance. No, let’s explore, instead, my subtle arrogance! My subtle arrogance, after all, is so much more important than yours…. {wink}

My Subtle Arrogance

I’ve certainly been thought of as arrogant on occasion – when my comments as to what I feel is appropriate for me are construed as sweeping statements regarding what is appropriate for all, or when my openness in revealing my thoughts on a particular matter is perceived as a belief in their absolute rightness. But that’s not the kind of arrogance that I’m talking about here. The arrogance that I’m talking about is so subtle that another might not even notice it; and I certainly wouldn’t have noticed it myself if grief hadn’t presented it to me as if a specimen on a laboratory table – brightly lit and pinned into place for my leisurely examination. So, here, for the entire world to see, are my subtle arrogances:

  1. Thinking that I have something to say here that you don’t already know on your own. Okay, this one isn’t necessarily grief-related but I thought I’d put it on the table, anyway. Oh, the irony!
  2. Thinking that because I’m a “good” person that nothing “bad” should ever happen to me. After all, life owes me a “cookie” for being “good”, i.e. it should reward me by proceeding with relative calm.
  3. Thinking that because I’m intelligent that life cannot present me with problems that my intellect is incapable of solving.
  4. Thinking that because I maintain a healthy lifestyle on both a physical and mental level that I will somehow be immune from the inherent potential of this body/mind to falter or break down (with the exception, that is, of the effects of old age that begin to set in at around age 95 or so).
  5. Thinking that because I maintain a regular spiritual practice that I will somehow be able to ride out (with a smile on my face and two thumbs in the air) any tsunami of hardship that might inundate me unexpectedly.
  6. Thinking that because I was raised in a “good family” (intact and stable) that I will somehow know just what is required to keep a marriage together through thick and thin.
  7. Thinking that because I treat people with respect and compassion and consider the needs of others that I should never, ever suffer the indignity of being treated otherwise.
  8. Thinking that just because I value a calm and orderly life and strive to keep it that way that chaos will never encroach upon it.
  9. Thinking that because I always strive to be fair in my thinking and actions toward others that life will never deal me an unfair blow.
  10. Thinking that because I matter to myself and others in my life that somehow the universe will never squash me like a bug under the boot of an unwary pedestrian.     

So, is there anyone else out there who thinks (thought) that their intelligence, upbringing, position, mental and physical health, financial well-being, goodness, emotional development, spiritual attainment, and just overall downright specialness will keep them from ever having to suffer from the vicissitudes of existence? Am I (was I) the only one?   


Walshe, M. O. (2010). Samiddhi sutta: Samiddhi, SN 1.20 (tr. Walshe, M. O.). Access to Insight, 14 June 2010. Retrieved on 18 December, 2011.

Photography Credits

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. Good morning!

    To answer your question at the end: no, you're not the only person who thought/thinks that. I suspect that everyone has similar thoughts from time to time.

    What you said about comparing ourselves to another person resonated with me the most. I've been struggling with this concept a lot recently. A wise friend told me that I can only be the person that I am - I can't be anyone else, no matter how hard I try. (I've been repeating that last sentence to myself like a mantra over the past couple days!)

    Hope you're well, and I hope you have a wonderful Christmas!

  2. Hello, Kristen! Yes, the comparison habit is insdiously self-destructive, keeping us from really enjoying all that we do have - which is a lot. Sounds like a great mantra you've got there! I'm glad you found it. I hope you (and all my Christian friends out there) have a great Christmas, also! Peace, Maku


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