In praise of integrity

(For this article in Spanish, click here.)

I recently re-read a good article on Heart of Compassion on honesty and keeping it real, well worth reading twice. It has also prodded me to finish writing down some thoughts on integrity that I’ve had up my sleeve for a while.

Integrity definitionThe dictionary definition of integrity is:

Adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.

One of the things I love most about the old Kadampas is their integrity. They seemed to practice Dharma as if no one was looking, totally for its own sake, with no side-tracking worldly concerns. (The 8 worldly concerns are attachment to praise, pleasure, a good reputation, and gain, and fear of or aversion to their opposite.)

A few years ago, when I was about to go on quite a long retreat, a friend said: “You’ll be setting a great example!” I remember thinking, and replying, “I don’t want to set an example, though. I just want to practice as if no one is looking.” I don’t know if that thought was a cop-out or not, but I know at the time it helped me enjoy the retreat a great deal.

integrity and Understanding the Mind TharpaAlthough it can obviously be helpful to set a good example, it is counterproductive if there is pretension or concealment involved. (Perhaps it is better to be a good example than to set one?)  If I look to someone for inspiration or advice, for example, I am not worried about their faults per se because we all have those. What will destroy my confidence in their ability to help me is if they don’t seem to be doing anything about these faults, particularly if they don’t seem to believe or care that they have them, and even more so if they are trying to cover them up or being prideful. (Others probably evaluate our advice using similar criteria.)

A Bodhisattva promises to work for the welfare of all living beings without pretension or deceit. Here are some useful definitions from Understanding the Mind (where you can read all about them) that have helped me understand what integrity is and aspire to it, since it seems free from these faulty attitudes.

The definition of pretension is a deluded mental factor that, motivated by attachment to wealth or reputation, wishes to pretend that we possess qualities that we do not possess.

The definition of concealment is a deluded mental factor that, motivated by attachment to wealth or reputation, wishes to conceal our faults from others.

If we have wealth or reputation, we have to be particularly careful because we have the grounds for attachment to arise every day – trying to hold onto our wealth or popularity, fearing their loss. Our behavior will no longer have integrity if it is motivated by these concerns and results will not be as good as they could be, even if we are ostensibly helping a lot of people.

Here’s another good one, self-satisfaction:

The definition of self-satisfaction is a deluded mental factor that observes our own physical beauty, wealth, or other good qualities, and, being concerned only with these, has no interest in spiritual development.

If we count among our “other good qualities” the fact that everyone right now loves us, praises us, and does what we ask, we develop a spiritual smugness that means after years of supposed practice and example we have not taken an actual step forward toward liberation or enlightenment.

Crabs in a bucket

If you put a crab in a bucket and it can climb out of that bucket, it will climb out. But if you put two crabs in the bucket, when one of the crabs tries to climb out, the other will pull it back in. (Apparently. I’ve never tried this.) Neither will ever escape. It doesn’t matter that it is possible to escape; the crabs will hold each other back from doing so.

Atisha, founder of Kadampa Buddhism

Sometimes we may not believe in the idea of our own limitless potential and instead have a jealous or insecure sense that someone else’s success somehow diminishes our own. With that mentality, even if we are not fully aware of it, if we see others improving we will naturally if unconsciously reach out to hold them back, or at least experience that most ignoble of  feelings, schadenfreude, when we see them fall back.

However, we don’t only hold each other back by criticizing each other, putting each other down, or rejoicing in their misfortune. Actually, I think we are more effectively held back in samsara when people shower us with praise, power, and gifts, especially if we take it seriously and buy into it. Words of fame and praise do nothing to advance us spiritually, especially if we become dependent on them for our self-image and self-esteem. As Venerable Atisha says in his quintessential Advice for all wannabe Kadampas:

Words of praise and fame serve only to beguile us, therefore blow them away as you would blow your nose.

Profit and respect are nooses of the maras, so brush them aside like stones on the path.

Geshe-la in Tibet
Geshe Kelsang in Tibet

I was once on a little pedestal by dint of my position – not a huge pedestal like Nelson’s in Trafalgar Square, more like one of those plastic pillars a foot high in a MacDonalds playground, but still not quite on the level playing field. When I was pushed off my pedestal (as we all are sooner or later), I took incredible inspiration from the old Kadampas, and still do. The real Kadampas would hide their best qualities in plain sight. On the outside they were a pure example by observing moral discipline motivated by non-attachment and contentment, on the inside they were motivated by a fiercely kind bodhichitta, and, even more deeply and secretly on the inside, they were relaxing in the bliss and emptiness of Tantra. 

It is not what you do but why you do it. There is no such thing as ordinary activity without an ordinary mind. With an ordinary mind, even seemingly pure activities will have ordinary results.

Part 2 of this subject is here. Meanwhile, over to you, do you agree with this or not?

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

23 thoughts on “In praise of integrity”

  1. my wealth is my vajra and my bell, it is the glue that holds me in truth love and understanding, yes I am given material objects and praise from people I have hoped to have helped to feel better when they suffer from delusions arising, we need to know when we take the gifts or praise that the one giving this has a need to feel they have helped too in the giving, we all need to feel part of the connectedness of all that we are 😉 NO MATTER WHERE ON THE PATH WE ARE!

  2. Integrity is just so very important. It definitely is ‘better to be a good example than to set one’. By beinga good example you are helping people more than a hollow pretence ever could. As Gandhi famously said, ‘be the change you want to see in the world’. I doubt he meant pretend to be perfect while remaining ordinary. People talk about the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach to practice, which I think does have its place, but only when used wisely, with no deception of self or others involved.
    It’s a good point you make about changing. There’s a lot of internal work involved in spiritual practice. If people have been pretending to be good little Buddhists for years, without any apparent personal change; then their practice appears superficial, and doesn’t help anybody. I must admit to hating that pretence. Genuine Buddhism requires honesty, doesn’t it. (Though I must confess that I can be socially clumsy, and could also do with shutting up while I work on my mind!)

    1. Yes, I agree, fake it til you make it definitely has its place insofar as it is important to identify with our good qualities even before they are spontaneous and here to stay, but not if we are trying to deceive others or pretend to ourselves that we have no further work to do 🙂

  3. thank you that was so helpful, its good to be reminded of how slippery mind can be.

  4. Thank you my kind teacher! Question – I still want to praise my spiritual friends, but in doing so am I harming them, or should I not worry about that?

    1. Ha ha, good question! If you know for sure they may get big-headed, perhaps don’t lay it on too thick. On the other hand, they might need the practice at not buying into praise and/or offering it to the Buddhas at their heart 🙂 So, as you may not be able to tell, i agree not to worry about it 😉

  5. Those words in praise to the Spiritual Guide ‘You are without pretension or deceit….’ always have a powerful effect on my mind. For me it was a gateway I could walk through with confidence knowing how truly trustworthy someone is who has those qualities and how rare those qualities are in worldly life.

    The ‘spiritual smugness’ you mention is a very interesting observation. Years ago I read an article in that edgy English publication ‘Private Eye’ where Ian Hislop,the editor, mentioned being in the company of ‘smug Buddhists’. I always wondered how they had managed to convey ‘smugness’ to him and because of this criticism, decided it was something I needed to check carefully in my own mind. I suppose you cannot really help anyone whilst you remain ‘smug’ because it’s exclusively about helping yourself really.

    Very thought provoking article. Thank you. I will definitely have to contemplate your insights. Thank you, Luna. The crabs in a bucket is a powerful analogy.

    1. Thank you for telling us about the Ian Hislop quote. I do think Buddhists get that rap relatively often — what do other readers think? Is it fair or not?!

  6. Yes, we need to watch what our mind is thinking, where it is headed, all the time.The old Kadampas are our inspiration; I wish I was more like them! Thanks Luna.

  7. Luna, of all of the fantastic postings from you on your blog, this one is by far one of the best for me. There is not a single word in that where I don’t say, “yup, that is exactly me!” Thanks for showing me such an important mirror of Dharma.

    1. Yup that’s exactly you like an old Kadampa or yup that’s exactly you like someone with the 8 worldly concerns?! Or both, depending on the day?! If you ask me, i put you in the category of people with integrity 🙂

  8. This has particularly struck a chord Thank you. I set up my own business couple of years ago and find it sometimes challenging practising integrity without pretension, concealment and self-satisfaction when on the surface it appears a lot of business requires you to sacrifice all those good qualities to survive. Also trying to get all these words of praise in forms of Linked in recommendations, case studies etc I find really have to dig deep into mindfulness and be wholly aware if our motivation and not let it all deter from our practice but enhance it ! Great way to practice Dharma though 🙂

    1. You’re right! And sometimes in business we feel we have tacit permission to sacrifice our integrity on the altar of fitting in or getting things done … i suppose this can sometimes work in the short-term, but that’s why it’s worth remembering that our main job is practicing Dharma, whatever other jobs we may have as well.

      1. As a counsellor I have worked hard at practicing congruence , trying to ensure my outer presentation is an accurate reflection of my inner workings. That has been quite a challenge. It struck me that your illustration of Old Kadampa integrity goes much further than that. Actually practicing being much better on the inside than externally. That’s the highest calling of all.
        Thank you. I didn’t like what I saw in this dharma mirror today. That tells me to really pay attention .

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