Buddhism: What is Integrity?

Buddhism: What is Integrity? December 5, 2005

This is a re-post from my old blog, July 8. I just reread it, found it poignant, and thought I’d post it again. I find that a lot of my writing is self-reflective and used as a tool to get myself clear on a particular ‘rut’ I might be in so as to get out of it. So when I read old posts/journal entries I often suddenly realize that the ‘rut’ described in them is pretty much the same as the one I’m currently in.

I started a post on integrity on July 1st, but it seemed to trail away from my main point to the point where I could neither stop writing nor make sense of what I had written already. The thought which sparked the post was on religious leaders and their use of dishonesty or secrecy to further their own projects. My mind wandered into politics, where I think it became lost in the sheer size, complexity, and darkness of the great ‘political machine’. But my point, well the point I was hoping to reach eventually, was that honesty and integrity are essential components of the good life; for our understanding of ourselves, for our relationships with others, for our knowledge of the world, and most importantly, for our efforts to help those we find in need.

In Buddhism two images are often used to represent our fundamental ‘nature’: a mirror and light. Imagine a mirror, look at one. What do you see? If it is a good mirror, and clean, then you see the world reflected in it without error. If it is dirty, then the world in it is obscured. For most of us, our mirror-nature is very dirty: covered by the dirt of greed and anger, dusty with misunderstanding and laziness, streaked with worries and dislikes. When we find a clean part, a moment of personal clarity, we feel it; we know that there is a bit of truth. But these moments are rare, so most of us accept our condition and try to make the best of it: fulfilling our desires, avoiding our dislikes, etc.

But in Buddhism we are taught, and with meditation quickly experience, that the mirror can be systematically cleaned: greed can be understood and overcome, as with anger, misunderstanding, and the rest. The process is not easy, because it usually means getting really close to those negative things in our life – the muck of existence – so that we can remove them. But there is a process, there is a path. It cannot be given to you, you have to tread it yourself, and you have to do it with your critical faculties fully intact, examining the teachings with as much care (or more) as you would put into buying something like a new house. Buying a terrible house can ruin you financially for up to maybe 30 years, but buying a foolish philosophy or way of life will ruin you much more extensively and for far longer.

So you have to, everyone has to, examine very carefuly the life you are leading, the world-view you have, the things about the world that you take for granted. Don’t spend too much time examining others, either. Maybe 10% of your time can be devoted to this, but it becomes all too easy to pick on the mistakes and faults of others so much that this negativity becomes a fault of its own. Note the faults of the world, they are out there, but then get down the nitty gritty of your own dirty mirror. This, after all, is the material right before you. Perhaps paradoxically, cleaning the mirror and seeing the world more clearly make you see more beauty in the world, not more ugliness.

The second analogy is that of radiant light as our true nature. Imagine a brilliant, radiant light emanating from your heart. Imagine it as very very tiny at first, just shooting out glimmers and rays of light. But then imagine it growing, and with it imagine feeling warmth, lightness, joy, and equanimity. Imagine yourself actively building this up inside you until you have a body of pure light, then imagine friends and family coming to join you and your light empowering them, bringing out the pure light within each of their hearts, one by one. This is the power and action of enlightenment: creating and spreading pure joy, warmth, and understanding.

This returns me to the beginning: integrity. What does integrity have to do with all of this? Enlightenment, happiness, warmth, joy: these are nothing other than integrity. Integrity is what you have when you speak and you know your words are meant with love, compassion, and understanding. It is what you have when you can say that if today were the last day of your life, you would have spent it exactly as you just have. It is what you have when you can look in the eye of someone who is causing suffering and tell them to stop: out of compassion for them and for their victim. It is a truthfulness which is not only within you, but is also in the world before you. It is the clarity of the mirror, the illuminating quality of the light. It is the sine qua non of the good life; of love, compassion, and understanding.

Integrity allows us to question others, whether it is our friends who may be making a mistake, or the government which is supposed to represent us, without fear that we ourselves are distorting things, that we are the ones making the mistake or seeing things wrongly. Lacking integrity we follow others, fearing that our faults will become the centerpiece for someone else’s ridicule. Lacking integrity we are not taken seriously, like ‘the boy who cried wolf’. Lacking integrity our words are confused, our needs cannot be expressed, our wisdom becomes muddled.

This is no mere speculation, either. I may be young, but I have for most of my life now been exceptionally self-aware (even most often to a fault). I long ago turned my critical eye to the world and found its many faults. Anger at them, and to the world in general, blinded me to my own true nature, giving me false notions of superiority (for seeing all the faults when others did not), false notions of holding the truth (which in fact was nothing more than the affirmation of my anger and skepticism), and false notions about the hearts of many fellow human beings (seeing only faults, blind to the warmth and joy at the heart of each of them).

Now, looking inward, I see that my own lack of integrity has caused so much of my own dissatisfaction in the world, and so much suffering for others around me. I see this in others too, but like I said, only 10% of one’s time should be spent worrying about the faults of others: I need the other 90% (perhaps more!) to examine, come to terms with, and overcome my own faults here, so that I can see, and help others to see, the world as it truly is: beautiful.

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