Recently, I was practicing with a Buddhist friend, whom I’ll call Brian, and the concept of pride came up. Brian’s an older man who suffers from a physical handicap, though he’s able to live independently. Brian seems deeply engaged in the practice, but often disparages his own progress. I suggested that he should be proud of his efforts, and he responded: “But pride is not something we’re told to cultivate. It’s seen as a negative habit.” I explained that I was talking about divine pride, to regard oneself as a Buddha, rather than delusional pride, meaning a harmful arrogance based on wealth or status. 

It’s a distinction that confuses many dharma students, my teacher, Khenpo Sonam, said when I told him about Brian. Originally from Bhutan, Khenpo founded the Lhundrup Choling Dharma Center in Los Angeles in 2008 as part of his ongoing effort to communicate the difficult concepts in his tradition to students in the West. I have always found my teacher’s lessons incredibly instructive because he weaves together teachings from the highest level of Nyingma training with the wisdom he has gained through his life as both a husband and father. 

After our initial discussion, I returned to Khenpo Sonam to ask him to elaborate on the difference between these two types of pride and recorded the conversation to help clear up this tricky concept for other practitioners. 

Could you describe the difference between divine pride and delusional pride? 

Mipham Gyatsho (1846–1912), one of the Omniscient Ones of the Nyingma School, defines delusional pride as arrogance: “Arrogance is the conceited attitude of superiority based on the belief in the transitory collection. It creates the basis for disrespecting others and for the occurrence of suffering.” The belief in the transitory collection is the belief in an “I” and a “my,” or a separate, permanent self. It forms the basis for other unwholesome beliefs. 

So mundane or delusional pride is linked to the delusional or unwholesome view of separateness and permanence. 

Exactly. It all comes down to the view.

And divine pride? 

Again, I would like to offer a quote I believe to be concise and correct. Getse Mahapandit (1761–1829) was an important scholar from Katok Monastery [in Tibet], one of the six principal monasteries of the Nyingma school. He said: “The pride you need to develop here involves thinking that you yourself are the very deity you are meditating on, a Buddha in whom all faults are exhausted and all qualities are complete. When this vivid sense of pride is embraced by a detached frame of mind, the genuine unity of development and completion will have been reached. Its object of purification is the presence of ordinary, impure manifestations, along with the tendency to grasp these impurities as being the self. The process of purification involves training in clear appearance and the recollection of purity, which later transform into pure appearance and pure pride, respectively, through the skillful method of training in the pride of the deity.”  

When he says pure appearance, is he speaking about pure appearance of the deity in visualization practices?

Yes. Deity phenomenon introduced in our tradition is not as an autonomous existing being. Our minds must be engaged with the visualization of the phenomenon as the embodiment of one’s own true nature. [The bodhisattva] Chenrezig is the embodiment of compassion, but there are many more. The more one blossoms one’s own compassion, the more Chenrezig is accomplished and the more one practices deity meditation, the more natural one’s flow of compassion becomes. This practice might not come easily for some practitioners, but through daily cultivation, it becomes stable and constant, providing the light of compassion for oneself as well, which would be important for your friend. 

Deity meditation is taught in conjunction with understanding the view of emptiness, which is also called nonduality or union. In order to understand nonduality it is said: “Appearing, yet free of clinging to reality, like a magical illusion, it lacks fundamental existence. Beholding this wisdom is to see the union of the two truths of the mantra.” 

Your level of practice depends on how profound your view of nondual reality is. At the highest level, one receives initiation to the Vajrayana tantra—the path of pure perception—where you are taught that the deity is oneself and oneself is the deity. It is then considered an inner path, rather than an outer path.

Do you believe a student can grasp this concept before practicing or is it the practice itself that allows for a student to realize this? 

One needs to progressively develop the understanding of emptiness. But not all need to go through the progressive stage. Those beings with higher capabilities can leap directly to seeing the nature of suchness or true nature of reality. Realization of wisdom or understanding of emptiness depends on accumulation of merit and purification of karma

How can a practitioner take their divine pride out into the world for the benefit of others while avoiding delusional pride? 

One must stabilize the understanding that delusional pride is based on a false belief of something that is transitory and the notion of one being greater than others. Likewise, one must understand that divine pride or deity pride is knowing the luminosity of the transient nature, seeing all as pure and pervaded with that equality. 

I gave my fellow student Brian the example of going out into the world with the view that he was Chenrezig as a way to cultivate deeper, less selective compassion for others. Was this good advice? 

It will definitely help someone to think that their nature is innately the deity. Even if someone is carrying a wrong view of the deity, not understanding emptiness or grasping onto the deity as an independently existing phenomenon, if they remind themselves regularly that bodhicitta [the compassionate wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings] is the deity, all errors will be pacified. 

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche wrote in his book What Makes You Not a Buddhist?: “Pride and [self]-pity are closely related. Believing that your life is harder and sadder than everyone else’s is simply a manifestation of clinging to self.” 

That is a very important point and something I believe your friend may be suffering from due to his health problems. Stopping inner commentary is good because self-pity or feeling inferior is typically overcompensated for with deluded pride, which is what you brought attention to. It’s impossible to know how one’s words might land, but your intention to help your friend is correct. 

Further reading: Interested in deity meditation? Read this introductory guide by Tibetan Kagyu lama Sherab Gyaltsen Rinpoche.