A word of caution at the beginning: Talking about semantic concepts, like integrity, is tricky. Tricky because our concepts of what integrity is might not be congruent. So what I will do is present to you my view on this concept. In the best case it will cause some friction and spark your reflection processes. You are very invited to not believe a thing, but ponder, reflect and question every word you hear. With this in mind, let’s start.
Integrity and Values
The word integrity comes from the Latin word „integritas“, which means „wholeness, completeness“ and I want to add the image of: non-fractured. Integrity is not a constant state but comes to life in an action.
What happens in an action guided by integrity?
We will forsake a comfortable, agreeable state like safety, or harmony or pleasure, to keep in alignment, to be true to some value or belief we committed ourselves to. We will not eat the chocolate cake, because it is not ours but belongs to someone else. Thus we forsake ourselves the immediate pleasure of sugar and fat for the benefit of long lasting friendship.
Integrity rests upon something. Something like a value, an idea a belief of how an action should be done. Something more important than the immediate benefit at hand informs us how to act and interact.
Where do such values, beliefs, ideas come from?
The first answer might be that they come from the outer: Every religion, every nation, every community, every family has a set of moral rules which secures the social interaction. Those ethics come in form of laws, commandments, constitutions, catechisms, etc. and will provide a structure or framework to protect the social safety.
Such an outer structure might have the genuine interest to contribute to the benefit of their members. But there are some drawbacks in the sole reliance upon values given or imposed from the outer.
First if all such an approach to set up rules for all, must be general. Because of this general nature it cannot it will not be beneficial to all sentient beings in all situations.
Then we know from our own experience that some institutions or individuals will misuse their power to cause tremendous harm to others and justify it with law, morals, a sense of “good” and “evil”. Politicians initiate wars based on values; the law system executes punishments of all sort; relationship between people find a sudden end. And most of the time these decisions are justified with moral values.
If we are members of a group and receive moral standards to live up to, we easily experience a division into “good” and “bad”. The members who keep up with these standards appear as being “good”. If one does not meet these standards, or forcefully acts against them, one is labeled “bad” and usually will as a result receive some kind of punishment.
And a last concern is that the individuals might stop reflecting and pondering upon topics like values, morals, ethics, etc. at all. They externalize their consciousness or develop an attitude of “Everything is ok, as long as I don’t get caught”.
Altogether such ethics and moral values imposed on us from the outer do not seem to be sufficient to inform a life of integrity. Can there be another approach to integrity? An approach that frees the being up rather than subdue it under the tyranny of “good” and “evil” dictated by some outer authority?
An inner Compass
There is an integrity which is not slave to a set of rules, not part of a philosophical framework, not depended on any reference point in the outer.
What can we relay on? What can we have trust in? The Buddha’s well-known discourse to a clan called the Kalamas provides an interesting answer. He said:
“It is fitting for you to be in doubt, to be perplexed. […] Do not go by oral traditions , by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cognition, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think “The ascetic is our guru”.”
So what remains? What can we build upon? The Buddha continued:
“But when you know for yourselves: “These things are unwholesome / blameworthy / censured by the wise / these things if accepted and undertaken lead to harm and suffering then you should abandon them.” (AN I 189)
When you know for yourselves–these are the keywords here. As we heard before this is not a knowing based on books, logical reasoning or teaching from anybody. What is this knowing?
The Buddha points to a knowing and seeing that is coming from the very depth of being. He calls it yoniso manasikara. Yoni stands for the womb, the place of origin. Mana is the mind. And karoti – is the activity. Thus yoniso manasikara is the activity of the mind which arises from the depth of the being. A depth not stirred by the movements of the ego function, but a source of wisdom and insights–both in the way we give attention to our experience and in the way we respond to them–knowing and seeing.
Ethics and suffering
This may sound utterly mystical in the beginning– it isn’t! I bet every one of us has already had these moments when an intuition arises from an insight, It is the notion of an inner compass, a wise inspiration, free from story or proliferation.
Acting from such an inner reference point is not about fulfilling the demands of “I, me, mine”. It is not a slave to desires and aversion, but interested in aligning itself and abiding in peace and ease. It declines towards a relationship to the world, inner and outer, that brings freedom into the being.
Unfortunately, the ability to tap into such a depth of knowledge and wisdom is more often than not blocked, obscured or tainted. What is it that blocks the access to the depth of wisdom and knowing? The Buddha named three processes, you all might have heard about: greed, hatred, illusion. The “I” that wants something. The “I” that shoves away something. The “I” that does not see clearly, it gets lost in confusion, stories, views, opinions. These three movements are the roots of suffering, these are the causes that will bring harm to ourselves as well as to others.
The Buddha was interested in one thing only: to find a way to relate to life which ends suffering. To do so, we need to uncover the very roots of suffering and uproot them from our hearts and minds. Our inspiration to become harmless then equals with our wish to find a deep and lasting peace of heart and mind.
I am not saying “good” or “bad”, I am saying harmless. Rather than imposing a value judgement on our actions and behavior, this teaching is deeply interested in the well being of sentient kind. It is not ME, becoming a good Buddhist, becoming a good person. It is about learning, seeing, knowing, training oneself to uproot whatever causes harm.
This uprooting and training develop as a twofold process:
1. We get to know the depth of our being, get in contact with the aspiration, the wish for less suffering, for more peace and ease in our lives. This includes a nourishment of the being through the pleasures of harmlessness such as kindness, meditative joy, and compassion.
2. And at the same time, we use mindfulness, awareness and attention to see what brings us away from this alignment with our hearts wish for peace and kindness.
The Buddhist approach to ethics
The Buddha did not teach perfection, instead he taught a gradual path of insight and understanding, leading to wisdom. One way to gain wisdom and insight is to enter an active grapple with virtue and integrity. Not a blind commitment but a dance, an exploration.
The simplest set of precepts given in the Buddhist texts is a set of five, the panca-sila: not harming, not stealing, not speaking unskillfully, not to engage in harmful sensual acts and not to take drugs that will cloud the mind.
When one engages in these practices, the liturgy renders them in sikkhapadam “training steps”. I like the term training steps, because it takes the sting of perfection out of the endeavor. A training is for someone with an aspiration, it asks for continuous effort, but also allows for throw backs and reflection on the difficulties that will occur. And this is a crucial point: if we see the difficulties and the doubts as a rich source of information, we will gain insight into the processes of our mind.
Why is it in this situation so hard for me to stay true to my aspiration?
What is it that makes me say this / do that?
Is keeping this precept benefiting, is it leading to more peace, ease, joy?
It is reflection and clarity, not self-mortification we need to understand our processes. It is understanding, not sheepish devotion that will bring more space and ease into our lives. And therefore working, questioning, exploring these training rules will bring more sensitivity and understanding to our inner lives. It will support the development of wisdom, that we need to make healthy and beneficial decisions.
The Beauty of Integrity
Now that we explored the ground on which we can build an integrity that will be worthwhile and beneficial as much for others as for ourselves, we can gain some understanding about its beauty.
Orientating oneself along these precepts can be seen as a gift we make to ourselves as well as to others. The expression of harmlessness that informs each action, verbal, bodily and in thoughts, is a gift of safety and friendship that we offer others.
But exploring the field of ethics, we also do something immensely benefiting for ourselves. We are safeguarding our mind! There are usually two movements, that will a conditioned by causing harm: it is either regret / remorse or justification. Both are problematic.
The first, regret will be like a festering wound, not healing well and being opened again and again by memory. Whole storylines build up around our perceived mistakes and the search for forgiveness from ourselves and others can be long and painful.
The other is the justification. To feel OK with ourselves, we constantly repeat the situation, our role and the role of the other. Every time we go through a circle of justification, we fuel the fire of conflict. And yet we need to keep it alive to not collapse into doubt and pain. Those are perfect traps for papañca, the proliferation of the mind, which robs us of our peace of mind and inner stillness.
The Buddha strongly emphasized a balance between inner and outer, to establish well being for oneself and for others:
“Protecting oneself, one protects others; protecting others one protects oneself. And how does one, in protecting oneself, protect others? By the repeated and frequent cultivation of the mind. And how does one, in protecting others, protect oneself? By patience and forbearance, by a non-violent and harmless life, by loving kindness and compassion.” (SN47,19)
When we rest in integrity others will perceive us as trustworthy companions. The principles of not harming others influence present friendships and relationships and serve as a warm invitation to strangers alike. Being a safe harbor for others will give us many opportunities to share with others, to have connections that touch the center of what people are able to share from heart to heart.
And integrity will develop itself as a true companion for ourselves even in moments of uncertainty and confusion. It turns into a reliable guide and teacher when we need to make decisions. The underlying principle is the wish not to cause any additional harm, either to oneself, or another. This gives peace of heart even in obscure situations where the „right” path to follow might not be as clear and obvious.
This exploration into values and the expression of integrity in words, deeds and thoughts will not always be pleasant, joyful or a picnic in the park. It might demand strength and renunciation from us, or a courage and level mindedness, that has been previously unknown to us. We are invited to grow into a big pair of shoes that are waiting right in front of our feet. But that is the beautiful aspect of humans: we can grow long after our physical body has stopped doing so. There is a strength and fearlessness that grows with integrity, that is priceless. An exploration into values and virtues will help us to access and settle into an inner wisdom and intuition, that can carry one through the strongest storms.
This is integrity's beauty–it reveals itself in a wholeness of the being, not fractured by greed, hatred or delusion, but in a oneness with the heart’s deepest wish for love and freedom.
May we tap into the wisdom of our being.
May we explore deeply into what values are worth embodying.
May love inspire our actions, words and thoughts.