'Spiritual one-upmanship', is it good or bad?

It’s quite common to think that, we should not measure ourselves against others i.e thinking one is inferior, equal or superior, but…

Here in, AN 5.180 Gavesi sutta,

We find an upasaka, a leader of a group, I suppose like a lay ‘meditation’ group, therefore he always tries to be better than others in the group.
This can come across as quite conceited or arrogant, yet he leads his group and himself to attain complete freedom, through his ‘spiritual one-upmanship’.
He walks a gradual successive path, pulling others with him.

The Buddha then encourages the attitude of:
"Striving,to go higher and higher, better and better, we will realize the supreme bliss of freedom.’

Gavesi, is not trying to compete with others, but he is trying to be better because he is suppose to be a leader.
It seems like a good thing?

In the Bhikkhunīsutta, AN 4:159, it seems that it may sometimes be.

“When it was said: ‘This body has originated from conceit; in dependence on conceit, conceit is to be abandoned.’ With reference to what was this said? Here, sister, a bhikkhu hears: ‘The bhikkhu named so-and-so, with the destruction of the taints, has realized for himself with direct knowledge, in this very life, the taintless liberation of mind, liberation by wisdom, and having entered upon it, he dwells in it.’ He thinks: ‘That venerable one, with the destruction of the taints, has realized for himself with direct knowledge, in this very life, the taintless liberation of mind, liberation by wisdom, and having entered upon it, he dwells in it. Why, so can I!’ Some time later, in dependence upon conceit, he abandons conceit. When it was said: ‘This body has originated from conceit; in dependence on conceit, conceit is to be abandoned,’ it was because of this that this was said.


It seems to be a good thing when it motivates one to improve one’s practice for the sake of liberation. It seems to be a bad thing if one uses the practice to glorify themselves and put down others:

When they’ve gone forth they generate possessions, honor, and popularity. They’re happy with that, and they’ve got all they wished for. And they glorify themselves and put others down because of that: ‘I’m the one with possessions, honor, and popularity. These other mendicants are obscure and insignificant.’ And so they become indulgent and fall into negligence regarding those possessions, honor, and popularity. And being negligent they live in suffering (MN29).

The Buddha likens that kind of pride to that of a dung beetle:

Suppose there was a dung-eating beetle full of dung, stuffed with dung, and before her was a huge pile of dung. She’d look down on other beetles, thinking: ‘For I am a dung-eating beetle full of dung, stuffed with dung, and before me is a huge pile of dung.’ In the same way, take a certain mendicant whose mind is overcome and overwhelmed by possessions, honor, and popularity. (SN17.5)


A few things to think about:
Who appointed you? Are you doing interventions in your own head?

In trying to seem better than others are others finding it obnoxious? How can you know? Is conceit detrimental to your own practice and to others? Is anybody taking anything on board?

If not it’s time to reconsider your approach to find a better way to carry it out.


Gavesī said:

So let me do better.

This is how Gavesī encouraged himself to try harder. In trying harder he led by example. His example inspired others to try harder on their own. He did not talk down to others or belittle them (that would be one-upmanship). He simply provided an example through his own speech and actions. That is leadership. He led because he saw what needed to be done and did it. That is a leader.


Are you asking me or Gavesi from the sutta in question?

I read your post a few times, I think you are suggesting that , if someone were to find themselves in that position of leadership, that they should question their motives by way of your suggested questions.

This might be the case, but there is no evidence of Gavesi’s ‘entire’ ways of speech when speaking to others, but one can assume if he was following the Buddha , then he would admonish others by way of the Buddha’s guidelines, but in the sutta,only his thinking is made evident.( Not quite, I suppose, he does declare to his followers, that he has taken on percepts).

What if one of his followers were do something contrary to what he taught, would he take the approach that the Buddha sometimes took by calling him a ‘stupid, foolish,idiot man’, moghapurisa (I believe is the Pali).

It seems there are times that even the Buddha spoke down to others, and not even in private, but In front of others. Obviously he knew the right way to admonish others, and the right time to call them ‘idiots’.

There might be a time and place to speak done to others, but that never means, however, that others on the receiving end will be overjoyed by that. Most of the time, when the Buddha admonished a moghapurisa, that ‘idiot man’ would be described as depressed, with shoulders drooping etc

Another aspect to Gavesi, is that he knows what a leader is suppose to be i.e not in the same position as the others.
Because IF he himself was not celibate, for example, how can he encourage or instruct others in the actual practice of celibacy etc
How can he who is drowning save another from drowning, so to speak?

There is a correlation with this sutta and MN 150: not honouring those who are virtuous part-time

In MN150 the Buddha is advising householders who they should respect.

Gavesi’s speech in the sutta, is of him declaring to his followers, that he is one who is taking on more precepts etc;
But when he becomes an arahant, he doesn’t go and declare that to his followers,instead his followers continue to follow and take ordination.
All that Gavesi does at that point is hope that they will also all attain liberation, just like him. He used conceit as a means to end conceit

I agree that the sutta does not say what Gavesi actually did or say.

However, when I gave up dinner last year, I did not go around calling people stupid, foolish or idiots for eating dinner. Instead, I simply said that giving up dinner brought me advantage. I said that because it did. Do you call others stupid, foolish or idiots for not following precepts they have not undertaken?

From the sutta we have:

What is the cause, what is the reason why the Buddha smiled?

We smile at memories of kindness and virtue. I would hope that we do not smile at memories of others calling others stupid, foolish or idiots.

Therefore I think it reasonable to think that Gavesi acted much as you or I would as we try out and adopt the precepts. We find out for ourselves and share our joy and amazement.

The one difference between us and Gavesi is that Gavesi impressed and inspired 500!

That might be enough to make the Buddha smile.

No, but if I was a groups leader and I had been instructing them for a long period, then maybe I would.

Sure. But here we have the example of the Buddha smiling, we however can also smile for other reasons.

"what is the cause, Reverend Moggallāna, what is the reason you smiled?”
Ko nu kho, āvuso moggallāna, hetu ko paccayo sitassa pātukammāyā”ti?

“Just now, reverend, as I was descending from Vulture’s Peak Mountain I saw a skeleton flying through the air.
“Idhāhaṃ, āvuso, gijjhakūṭā pabbatā orohanto addasaṃ aṭṭhikasaṅkhalikaṃ vehāsaṃ gacchantiṃ.
Vultures, crows, and hawks kept chasing it, pecking and clawing
Tamenaṃ gijjhāpi kākāpi kulalāpi anupatitvā anupatitvā phāsuḷantarikāhi vitudenti vitacchenti virājenti.
as it screeched in pain.
Sā sudaṃ aṭṭassaraṃ karoti."

‘If you say so, reverend.’

Very well. I shall join Upaka. :pray:

1 Like

This is written in the sutta- quote you posted but, it does not gel with sutta-central guidelines - does it? Neither does the following:

The SC guidelines include:

“I will speak at a right time, not at a wrong time; I will speak about what is true, not about what is not true; I will speak with gentleness, not with harshness; I will speak about what is meaningful, not about what is not meaningful; I will speak with a mind of loving-kindness, not with inner hatred.” - SC guideline

“Now, Truthfinders (sometimes) ask knowing, and knowing (sometimes) do not ask; they ask, knowing the right time (to ask), and they do not ask, knowing the right time (when not to ask).” - an extract from the following Sutta.

What do you mean?

1 Like

I would have thought the screeching may have caused his smile to disappear?

I have seen cartoons with similar themes that made me laugh. If I saw similar things in daily life it would be a cause for concern - on more than one level?

The sutta-source also seems to suggest that animals can have psychic powers as they saw the flying skeleton as well? This is consistent with shamanic teachings. I am assuming that no ordinary folk saw the flying skeleton?

I think you’ve addressed your reply to the wrong person.

I was commenting on the interesting sutta-quote you posted in the light of SC guidelines. I didn’t connect the quote to you personally. I then posted another quote that was not connected to your response. :slight_smile:

It seems this discussion has already occured elsewhere.

Do you mean the Bhikkhunī Sutta?