In praise of integrity

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
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?