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Righteousness and Self-Righteousness

December 17, 2012
'Angy Bull Elephant at War' by Grant Eaton via

‘Angy Bull Elephant at War’ by Grant Eaton via

In our Buddhist teachings, we hear a lot about Right Action, but little about righteous action.  The word is abundant in the scriptures; a quick search will turn it up.  Righteousness is commonly described in terms of action or moral conduct. To be righteous is something we do.  It is worthy of praise.  When is doing the right thing not?  That’s what the word means, after, all – morally right, just, fine, and genuine.

But we in the West have a lot of baggage around this word – righteous and righteousness.  We’ve learned that the false feeling of righteousness can lead to horrible deeds.  To call someone righteous is uncommon and to call them self-righteous is a grave insult.  Self-righteousness is the conviction and absolute belief in one’s moral superiority.  It is described in the dictionaries as smug or pious, based on the belief that not only is one doing right, one is doing right better than everyone else.  Very often, it is a symptom of hypocrisy.  A self-righteous person can go on a horrible rampage against perceived injustice, often trampling the harmless and the harmful in the same breath.

I worry about the distinction, because sometimes I feel righteous or perhaps self-righteous.  I feel like I know what is the right thing to do and endure never-ending frustration when others do not seem to know the same, even though they are more educated, more experienced, and more powerful than I.  This has led me to wonder: what did the Buddha say about this feeling of righteousness?  What advice did he give to juniors, if any, about how to act when their elders strayed?  Is any of it applicable over two-thousand years later?  For answers I searched my go-to source for the Pali scriptures, Access to Insight.

First of all, righteousness itself is an often praised virtue.  The notion of self-righteousness, per se, does not exist in the Pali Cannon.  Oh, the behavior may be described somewhere, but the label is not applied, at least in the English translations, making my search more interesting.  Warnings against self-righteousness only seem to exist in the modern commentaries, which I’ll return to, but for now I’m still searching the suttas themselves.

One such commentary did give me a clue about where to start looking in the scriptures.  In a contemporary commentary on the Alagaddupama Sutta (MN 22) the commentor, Nyanaponika Thera, suggests that self-righteousness is a kind of wrong view which leads to conflict.  The verses of the sutta he was explaining are 10-12:

[The Buddha said,] “Suppose, monks, a man wants a snake, looks for a snake, goes in search of a snake. He then sees a large snake, and when he is grasping its body or its tail, the snake turns back on him and bites his hand or arm or some other limb of his. And because of that he suffers death or deadly pain. And why? Because of his wrong grasp of the snake.

“Similarly, O monks, there are here some foolish men who study the Teaching; having studied it, they do not wisely examine the purpose of those teachings. To those who do not wisely examine the purpose, these teachings will not yield insight. They study the Teaching only to use it for criticizing or for refuting others in disputation. They do not experience the (true) purpose for which they (ought to) study the Teaching. To them these teachings wrongly grasped, will bring harm and suffering for a long time. And why? Because of their wrong grasp of the teachings.

“Therefore, O monks, if you know the purpose of what I have said, you should keep it in mind accordingly. But if you do not know the purpose of what I have said, you should question me about it, or else (ask) those monks who are wise.”

The commentary by Nyanaponika Thera states:

The instance of Ari.t.tha’s [sic] wrong view is now used by the Buddha as an opportunity to warn against any other wrong approach to the Teaching, and the misuse of it. He gives here the simile of the wrong grasp of a snake to illustrate the harm and the danger of misconceiving the Dhamma.

The harm done is to the individual’s character and his progress on the Path… It may, however, at first sight be surprising to the reader that, in the section now under consideration, the misuse of the Teaching for the verbal wrangles of disputation is likewise regarded as a dangerously wrong grasp of the Dhamma.

Here the danger and harm have more subtle, but no less real, roots. The danger in contentiousness is chiefly twofold. It provides one of the many evasions by which the mind shirks from devoting itself earnestly to the actual practice of the Dhamma. Secondly, under the respectable guise of the advocacy of the Dhamma, the attachment to “I” and “Mine” finds an easy outlet. In disputations the ego gets the chance to indulge in self-assertion, superiority feeling, self-righteousness and opinionatedness. Furthermore, the ego may attach itself to the Dhamma in an attitude of possessiveness which sometimes may even resemble the behavior of a dog jealously and angrily defending a morsel of food without having himself the inclination to eat it. We see here the danger that an excessive concern with an argumentative advocacy of the Dhamma may strengthen subconsciously the deeply engrained egotistic impulses. It may even become one of the “grounds (or starting-points) for false views” as describe by the Buddha (in §15).

Finally, from indulging in wordy warfare will also spring feelings of partisanship, intolerance, fanaticism and hostility. Truly, we have here a formidable catalogue of detrimental qualities of mind, and from this we can now better understand why the Buddha applied here, too, the metaphor of the dangerously wrong way of grasping a snake.

The Buddha and Nyanaponika Thera warn us that a feeling of superiority which causes disputations arises from a fundamental misapprehension of the Dharma.  The Dharma teaches the elimination of ego and truth of non-self, but only when self exists can one be superior over another.  In the example offered, it is the self-righteous one who has misunderstood the Dharma.  But what if the situation is reversed?  What if it’s the other guy who’s holding wrong views?  (Yes, I know, that’s the problem with being self-righteous.)  In the Brahmajala Sutta, the Buddha instructs his monks:

“If, bhikkhus, others speak in dispraise of me, or in dispraise of the Dhamma, or in dispraise of the Sangha, you should not give way to resentment, displeasure, or animosity against them in your heart. For if you were to become angry or upset in such a situation, you would only be creating an obstacle for yourselves. If you were to become angry or upset when others speak in dispraise of us, would you be able to recognize whether their statements are rightly or wrongly spoken?”

“Certainly not, Lord.”

“If, bhikkhus, others speak in dispraise of me, or in dispraise of the Dhamma, or in dispraise of the Sangha, you should unravel what is false and point it out as false, saying: ‘For such and such a reason this is false, this is untrue, there is no such thing in us, this is not found among us.'”

That seems clear enough.  Cultivate dispassion.  Harbor ill-will toward none.  Speak the truth as you know it.  But what if wrong views have led to wrong actions?  In the Sallekha Sutta, the Buddha tells us to do right even when others do wrong and furthermore that “A person given to wrong action has right action by which to avoid it.”  So they may always change their path.  But what happens when the wrong done by others brings harm to us or others?  How do we know when the right thing to do is to stop others from doing wrong?  And what if there is a power imbalance in play?  Was their ever an instance in the suttas where this was spelled out?

Ken Jones reiterates much of what I already found in his article on Buddhism and Social Action. Jones outlines a “good society” which will 1) help people overcome egocentricity, including self-righteousness, 2) bases person freedom for oneself on the personal freedom of others, 3) be concerned with social growth over material production, and 4)  be based on an economic “middle way” between the production of sufficient, but not excess, goods and preservation of the environment.   It is primarily the first two which interest me.  The first speaks directly to my question while the second is based on a principle of reciprocity. Jones states,

We may recognize an oppressor and resolutely act to remove the oppression, but we do not hate him. Absence of hatred, disgust, intolerance or righteous indignation within us is itself a part of our growth towards enlightenment (bodhi). The great evil of violence is its separation unto death of us and them, of “my” righteousness and “your” evil. If you counter violence with violence you will deepen that separation through thoughts of bitterness and revenge.

He also warns that “Effective social action on any but the smallest scale will soon involve the Buddhist in situations of power and conflict, of ‘political’ power. … In all these cases the Buddhist takes the tiger — his own tiger — by the tail.”

In human society this is practically inevitable.  Anytime disagreement arises between two parties of unequal power (which I define as the ability to affect change according to one’s will) the resulting conflict will become political by its nature.  Even should the lesser party merely give way to the will of the greater, that greater party has exercised power politically. When the lesser party does not give way, then they must find a way to either convince the greater party to change their mind or ally with other lesser parties to build up a commensurate power base to rival the greater power.

Building such alliances is fraught with danger for the ego.  Nothing binds together so strongly as a common enemy.  However, when we refuse to see others as the “enemy,” even when we oppose their actions, can we still build strong alliances?  Also, when the person you oppose is at the top of the pyramid, any activities to build alliances in opposition to them will be subversive and disloyal.  This is a hard line to walk, lest you compromise your integrity or that of others.  So is it better to avoid such alliances altogether?  To simply speak the truth and let the chips fall where they may?

One of the most difficult things about the (self-)righteous urge is the demanding sense of urgency.  A wrong has been done and we wish to change it now!  To make it right now!  Any delay can quickly turn an honest urge for righteousness into intolerant self-righteousness.  As with anger, I have found the antidote to self-righteousness is patience.  Through patience, we allow one of the truths of existence, change, to do much of the work for us.  Of course, there’s still a lot of work left to be done.

In the Dantabhumi Sutta (MN125), a novice monk explains one-pointed concentration to a prince, but the prince does not believe such a thing is possible.  The young monk is naturally confused.  Here is something he knows so clearly to be true because he has experienced it, yet it has been rejected out of hand by someone of high rank and great power in society.  The Buddha explains to the novice that the prince simply wasn’t yet ready to understand the truth.  A prince, surrounded by sensual pleasure, accepting the worth of sensual pleasure, will have a hard time understanding the purpose and worth of renunciation (the Buddha should know).  The prince cannot know the fruits of renunciation since he has not renounced.  He is trapped by ignorance.

The Buddha counseled the young monk to start smaller and follow a gradual path, like one would tame an elephant (the main metaphor of the sutta). After bringing the elephant out of the forest,

Then the elephant tamer addresses him with such words as are gentle, pleasing to the ear, affectionate, going to the heart, urbane, pleasant to the manyfolk, liked by the manyfolk. And the forest elephant, on being addressed with words that are gentle… liked by the manyfolk, listens, lends ear and bends his mind to learning. Next the elephant tamer supplies him with grass-fodder and water. When the forest elephant has accepted the grass-fodder and water from the elephant tamer, it occurs to the elephant tamer: ‘The king’s elephant will now live.’ Then the elephant tamer makes him do a further task, saying: ‘Take up, put down.’ When the king’s elephant is obedient to the elephant tamer and acts on his instructions to take up and put down, then the elephant tamer makes him do a further task, saying: ‘Get up, sit down.’

So on and so forth.  Anyone who has trained an animal knows it is a long, but rewarding task.  Of course, this is just a metaphor.  People are not animals.  It is okay for us to feel a little superior to animals (though not too much, I hope).  Feeling superior to one another is what causes so many troubles.  But the Buddhist suttas make clear that this path is available to all.  Rather than thinking of ourselves as the trainer and others as the elephants, it is better to realize we are all both the trainer and the elephant – the elephant is our own mind wanting to run around and do as it pleases, including trampling over everyone else with our self-righteousness.  We too, are on the gradual path.

Elizabeth Harris explains:

The stress on a gradual process of change and training, beginning with moral habit, stretches like a thread across the Buddhist texts. There is a firm belief that discipline, education and the taking of one step at a time can lead people from a state of relative ignorance to greater wisdom.

This gradual path starts with faith that it will be worthwhile (not certainty, just hope).  It is then cultivated through morality, sense control, moderation, vigilance, mindfulness and so on.  It is a rather long path, after all.  (Although the sutta’s also contain tales of startling, immediate change, they are usually induced through the enlightened wisdom of the Buddha knowing just what is needed in that instance.  We’re not quite that good.)

So in those we believe to be acting wrongly, we should encourage change, but we must accept that such change is most likely to be gradual and frequently too slow for our own tastes.  Helping us accomplish this are compassion and loving kindness continually cultivated for that person.  They act wrongly out of ignorance, something to which we all can relate – and that’s what prevents us from developing the smug superiority that changes righteousness into self-righteousness.

We too are ignorant.  Not ‘have been’ ignorant or ‘once were’ ignorant.  We are ignorant.  That’s why we still suffer.  So we must always leave room to be proven wrong.  Think of how lovely it would be to be wrong!  That means the people in power have been acting righteously all along and that all will work out as best it possibly can.

Perhaps is won’t work out perfectly since this is still samsara after all, but better than we might have feared.  And when it doesn’t, we must renew ourselves in moral conduct, which includes good-will towards all people, and faith that all people are capable of cultivating genuine enlightenment, ourselves included … eventually.  We can’t do any of that if we’re trapped in self-righteousness.  After all, what self is there to be righteous of anyway?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Alan permalink
    December 17, 2012 12:56 pm

    Hi Monica, lovely post, thank you.

    One thought. I’m not sure non-self is the most accurate way to describe what the Buddha taught. Not only do we have the issue that of what the Buddha and his contemporaries thought of as self and how this differs from how we define self today (if, even today we can come up with a common definition). But my understanding is that the Buddha stayed away from defining self or even discussing it as part of a metaphysics. It wasn’t until years later during the era of the commentaries that we got concepts such as ‘karma body’ and ‘storehouse consciousness’. And non-self tends to imply that there is nothing here. Clearly there is, just nothing that has intrinsic existence.

    Ajahn Geoff uses the term not-self, and treats this practice as a strategy, not metaphysics. Simply said the strategy is to label as not-self anything over which the practitioner does not have control. Emotions, sensual feelings, etc. And this done so that ultimately the practitioner can let go (not cling) to even the five heaps which the Buddha used to define what it means to be a human being. Only when we no longer cling to the five Skandhas, and can let go of them entirely, can we experience Nibbana.

    Some interesting reading on this subject (Ajahn Geoff): at (look for Selves & Not-self

    Also Gil Fronsdal:

    Sorry about going off in a different direction from the main idea of your post….just been thinking about this a lot recently….

    Thanks for writing about the dangers of righteousness.

    • December 17, 2012 1:08 pm

      How does “non-self tend to imply that there is nothing here,” in your understanding? I do not see this implication at all. Have others used it this way?

      I am aware of the ‘not-self,’ ‘no-self,’ ‘non-self’ translation debate, but I tend to stay out of it. In fact, I frequently just use anatta to avoid it altogether, but then you have to explain or translate anatta. I use non-self, because that resonates best with me. Non-self is not synonymous with nothingness, in my mind. In fact, my understanding of non-self seems to be closer to how you have described your understanding not-self. I think you’ve made a bit of an assumption about what I think non-self is precisely. Why?

      Also, does your understanding of not-self suggest different implications for the description of self-righteousness I’ve put forth?

  2. Vanessa permalink
    December 18, 2012 1:06 am

    Wonderful post, Monica. Compassion for the the ignorant is compassion for ourselves. So true what you say about patience, too.

  3. Erik permalink
    July 14, 2016 9:02 pm

    Buddha didn’t believe in the judgement of God to come. Do Buddhists believe that? Do Buddhists believe in God period? Thank you…

    • July 18, 2016 8:56 am

      The concept of a monotheistic creator deity (i.e. “God” in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) was unknown to India during the time the Buddha lived, which was about 500 BCE. The historical Buddha, therefore, never commented on ‘God’ as we understand him today, although the Buddhist scriptures do include references to Vedic gods that remain common to Hindu religion.

      Buddhism is generally considered a non-theistic religion, in that it doesn’t really consider God or gods central to its philosophy, psychology, or doctrine. The Buddhist teaching works with or without any such deity.

      Nevertheless, some Buddhists do believe in God, as Christians understand Him/Her. In fact, there is a recent movement of hybrid Christian-Buddhists and Jewish-Buddhists. They may define God a little differently, but they may also believe in His/Her judgement to come. It depends on the individual.

      Hope that helps.

  4. Steve Kull permalink
    December 26, 2016 7:58 am

    There are two kinds of righteousness, one of works and one of faith. The righteousness of faith speaks in your mouth and in your heart. This is the rhema word of faith.
    Jesus gift of righteousness is submitting to the righteousness of God by faith.
    Those who try to establish there own righteousness by works, fail to see why Jesus came to this earth. Romans chapter 10. Jesus forgive us of adharma and bad karma with His dharma righteousness.

    • Michael permalink
      January 10, 2017 8:54 pm

      Steve, you were doing great until you mentioned dharma and karma. These are poor uses of words based on unrelated concepts to any teaching of Jesus Christ. Dharma as Hindus use it is relative, yet God is our Creator, so this is usable, yet poorly related.
      As for the idea of karma, I had this same chat earlier today: Jesus explained the spiritual truth of the law of the harvest as reaping what we sow. It is philosophically relatable insomuch as pure concept, but in practic, they are as unrelatable as the blood of Jesus shed for our sins that brings us peace with Father God and a godless concept of a faceless universal “accountant” that somehow weighs our good motivations and evil ones.
      If you follow Jesus as your Lord and Savior, then karma and dharma are not present in the Gospel. I hope this helps.


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