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In the Anguttara Nikaya 4.73, the Buddha said that a "person of integrity" possesses these four qualities:

  • when asked, does not reveal the other person's bad points and when pressed, speaks of the other person's bad points not in full, with omissions.
  • when not asked, reveals the other person's good points and when pressed, speaks of the other person's good points in full, with no omissions.
  • when not asked, reveals his own bad points and when pressed, speaks of his own bad points in full, with no omissions.
  • when asked, does not reveal his own good points and when pressed, speaks of his good points not in full, with omissions.

I have paraphrased here, but the above is basically my understanding of the sutta. My question is how this can be considered an honest answer, or how someone answering this way could be considered a "person of integrity". I am thinking about a job candidate that has given a reference. If the reference answers in the way a "person of integrity" should answer, they would omit vital negative information and would furthermore only reveal that negative information when pressed.

I am having trouble understand how these "shifty" and "slippery" answers are those given by a person of integrity and would appreciate someone clarifying these points to me.

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This is an interesting point. My (Asian) teacher explained to me that integrity as a concept has a different meaning in Eastern culture.

We in the west often assume that integrity = honesty. But really if you think about it, integrity is the opposite of corruption. Integrity is being true to the right values. In the Eastern society permeated by Mahayana Buddhism social harmony is such primary value. So integrity in this sense means, being committed to maximizing the social harmony and well-being. Even at the expense of technical scientific honesty.

In the examples from the sutta, Buddha praises a man who deemphasizes other's faults, emphasizes other's virtues, emphasizes own faults, and deemphasizes own virtues. This is part of integrity in the above sense.

In Mahayana, upaya or expedient means is something that can be technically not true but practically of value, and so is preferred to naked truth that is often not palatable or even harmful.

My personal opinion is that The Wheel has rolled too far down this path, and I would like to correct that by being a little more upfront about things, but I still have to recognize that things are not always as black and white as our passion for brutal honesty would like us to believe sometimes.

Your example with job references is obviously not a scenario the historical Buddha had in mind. I'm not in a position to give universal guidance on a topic like this, but when I have to serve as someone's reference, I try to give a balanced response. Meaning, instead of unloading my subjective opinion of the person ("the truth") as if it was final, I try to be cautious with my conclusions, especially the negative ones, and give the person benefit of doubt. Which is sort of what the Buddha said.

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    Thanks for your interesting answer. I like the idea of integrity as an antonym of corruption. I need to learn more about the concept of upaya. – Steve H. Nov 16 '17 at 2:21
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I guess it depicts a person who is not in the habit of saying disparaging things about people, and is reluctant to.

Perhaps it implies that there's normally no benefit in saying something 'bad' about anyone, that doing so isn't profitable, benefits no-one, would be malicious, isn't said at the proper time (i.e. right speech).

Maybe that is especially true within the sangha (the sutta is addressed to monks).

Perhaps the example you gave (a job reference) is one of the rare times that might count as being "when asked, when pressed with questions". In that case you might "speak of another person's bad points not in full, not in detail, with omissions", for example suppose you were to say, "he may not be the best candidate for that job", and maybe add an observation which supports that statement.

In a competition, even saying only good things about a person might not get them hired:

I know that academics usually try to write only positive letters, and decline to write if they have nothing good to say, but that's evidently not enough in the corporate world. Anyway, candidates often end up damned by faint praise.

I think that when you read the sutta you should probably understand it as being counter-balanced by an unwillingness to actually lie, even "when pressed with questions". Even so you can decide whether to answer, how to answer, how much to answer, what to answer, etc.

  • Thank you for your thoughtful answer. I see now that my example of a job reference is somewhat unique, akin to testifying in court, as opposed to the normal conversation one might have with one’s neighbors in a more mundane context. In that light, the sutra has a more relatable message. – Steve H. Nov 16 '17 at 2:13
  • Yes. An even bigger difference might be that it's addressed to monks and not simply to "neighbours in a mundane context" -- it may be principally a mote in thy brother's eye kind of message (there's doctrine about "conceit" being a fetter -- see also "just a monk" at the bottom of this answer). But I don't think it's meant to encourage deceit. – ChrisW Nov 16 '17 at 12:53
  • To add to @ChrisW 's excellent remark on interviews, people who call your references already account for the positive bias in what they are going to hear (after all, it was you who provided the reference). So, they are not going to be misled. This art is apparently so well practiced that "you will be lucky to get this person to work for you" is widely understood to be a negative statement! Another example to consider is your own resume.Do you list all your failures and qualities that make you ineligible? Doesn't the employer know that about all resume-writers? Would you say you're lying? – Gotamist Nov 17 '17 at 12:53
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This sutta is about bluster. If you reveal or omissions to bluster by māna, you are no integrity.

Commentary commented like this, too.

There are the same sutta that have an example at the end that compare between fresh bride and senior bride doing with her husband's family:

Seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, vadhukā yaññadeva rattiṃ vā divaṃ vā ānītā hoti, tāvadevassā tibbaṃ hirottappaṃ paccupaṭṭhitaṃ hoti sassuyāpi sasurepi sāmikepi antamaso dāsakam­ma­ka­ra­pori­sesu. Sā aparena samayena saṃvāsamanvāya vissāsamanvāya sassumpi sasurampi sāmikampi evamāha: ‘apetha, kiṃ pana tumhe jānāthā’ti. Evamevaṃ kho, bhikkhave, idhekacco bhikkhu yaññadeva rattiṃ vā divaṃ vā agārasmā anagāriyaṃ pabbajito hoti, tāvadevassa tibbaṃ hirottappaṃ paccupaṭṭhitaṃ hoti bhikkhūsu bhikkhunīsu upāsakesu upāsikāsu antamaso ārāmi­ka­sama­ṇud­desesu. So aparena samayena saṃvāsamanvāya vissāsamanvāya ācariyampi upajjhāyampi evamāha: ‘apetha, kiṃ pana tumhe jānāthā’ti. Tasmātiha, bhikkhave, evaṃ sikkhitabbaṃ: ‘adhunā­gata­vadhu­kā­samena cetasā viharissāmā’ti. Evañhi vo, bhikkhave, sikkhitabban”ti.

There's a translation of that here:

Bhikkhus, from the night or day, that a young wife is brought along, her shame and remorse should be well established towards the father-in-law, mother-in-law, her husband and even towards slaves and workmen. -In the meantime, living together and won over their confidence, she would tell the father-in-law, the mother-in-law or her husband, -leave that alone, what do you know about that.

In the same manner bhikkhus, from the night or day a certain bhikkhu left the household and became homeless, his shame and remorse should be well established towards bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, lay disciples male and female and as far as the novices in the monastery -In the meantime, living together and won over their confidence, he would tell, his teacher, or even his preceptor, -leave that alone, what do you know about that.

Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train thus: We should abide with the mind of a recently brought young wife.

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According to dictionary entries on "sappurisa", this word means "righteous person" or "good person" or "worthy person".

This word is apparently equivalent to "ariya", which means "noble; distinguished" and "a noble man; one who has attained higher knowledge".

Also, according to a brief summary of this sutta (AN4.73) in this dictionary entry:

The unworthy man (asappurisa) always speaks what is discreditable to another, never what is discreditable to himself, and always sings his own praises. The worthy man is just the reverse.

Therefore, this sutta teaches that a good person does not maliciously speak ill of others behind their backs, and does not conceitedly sing praises of himself.

Job candidate and references would be in a different type of context, where a referee is expected to be truthful, but without malice. For this, the Vaca Sutta (AN 5.198) is more apt:

"Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five?

"It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.

"A statement endowed with these five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people."

Here, when a potential employer calls a referee, that would be the "right time". The referee should speak only the truth (both positive and negative facts), but he should do it in a way that is not malicious, but with good will towards the job candidate and the potential employer.

For example, I can say, "Mr. John Doe tends to struggle with learning new things, but he does diligently put in effort to do so. I think if you give him more time, he might achieve the required level of competency in his new job, although I cannot make any guarantees." Such an answer is truthful, balanced, benevolent, and neither tarnishes nor embellishes the reputation of the job candidate.

On the other hand, I could say, "Mr. John Doe is not able to learn new things, and no matter how much he tries, he never gets it. He is a stupid and useless fellow. Don't waste your time and money by hiring him." Such an answer is malicious, although, possibly truthful.

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Clarification can come from looking at the fourth precept of the ten precepts, which requires the novice monk or nun to “refrain from lying.” In traditional Theravadin Buddhist practice, a monk or nun aspires to not only refrain from lying but to actively practice the opposite of lying. This practice consists of actively valuing truth, honesty, and the well-being of others. Such values have a multitude of consequences in real life. For example, to value truth is to seek truth and to be honest includes being honest with oneself. If a monk or nun is to seek truth and to be honest with oneself with regard to being actively concerned with the well-being of others, then three practices necessarily follow: (1) One must aspire (strictly speaking, precepts are aspirations rather than hard rules) to practice the awareness of the views, feelings, motives, and experiences of other people, so that one can take into account their well-being. (2) One must aspire to practice the awareness of the impact of one’s actions upon others and making appropriate adjustments. And (3) one must aspire to practice actively looking for ways in which one can be helpful to others. In the Suttas, the Buddha addressed many specific situations. In order to takes into account the many seemingly contradictions found in the Suttas, it is traditionally assumed that the Buddha was often addressing special situations.

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Althought one might argue that's not the way of integrity: to search for holly people to use them for ones cheap jobs is not a very integrity undertaking, as the use of Dhamme for wordily gains naturally would bite back. So what do you think: is it a noble deed to risk that you are angry simply to keep you from bad ways of thinking and corrup use of Dhamma?

The Lord Buddha taught that his Dhamma, when placed in the heart of an ordinary run-of-the-mill person, is bound to be thoroughly corrupted, but if placed in the heart of a Noble One, it is bound to be genuinely pure & authentic, something that at the same time can be neither effaced nor obscured.

So as long as we are devoting ourselves merely to the theoretical study of the Dhamma, it can't serve us well. Only when we have trained our hearts to eliminate their 'chameleons' — their defilements — will it benefit us in full measure. And only then will the true Dhamma be kept pure, free from distortions & deviations from its original principles.

— Phra Ajān Mun Bhūridatto

Something one sould always think first. When it is daid that a ariyan person does not encover one others deeds, it needs to be understood that such is meant for cases where it might be of no long time benefit for you. Of course it's just a admirable friend who would take on all means to bent you on the right track.

One should not forget that within a certain community shame is a usual tool for taming. And there are less cases where the Buddha but also his disciples relealed the faults. Actually, because certain communities started to stay silient just to have foolish harmony, the Buddha made an explicite rule that revealing of bad things have to be done.

At least gatherings and joining together is simply done for the purpose to learn.

Staying Uncomfortably

Then the Blessed One addressed the monks, “These worthless men, having spent the Rains uncomfortably, claim to have spent the Rains comfortably.

“Having spent the Rains in cattle-like affiliation, these worthless men claim to have spent the Rains comfortably.

“Having spent the Rains in sheep-like affiliation, these worthless men claim to have spent the Rains comfortably.

“Having spent the Rains in heedless-affiliation, these worthless men claim to have spent the Rains comfortably.

“How can these worthless men undertake a vow of dumb silence, the undertaking of sectarians?

(Mv.IV.1.13) “Monks, this neither inspires faith in the faithless …”

Having rebuked him and given a Dhamma talk, he addressed the monks:

“The vow of dumb silence, the undertaking of sectarians, is not to be undertaken. Whoever should undertake it: an offense of wrong doing[2]

Back to your potential worker: if trying to use a hooly person for foolish things, for cheap business, for inhonest ways, not only that he might be incapable but also would possible try to make you a better person.

Althought there is actually no real obligation to help others not be follish if one is able to get not involved, good people, if they are given ways, do their best.

Of course fools misunderstand such, easy eseemate them as their enemies, like foolish children disrespect their patient mother.

Once again, know people who act in accordiance with your wordily gains and people who see not shameful thing in using Dhamma for such purposes, as people of not a little integrity. They are incapable, even if having heard the Dhamma, to distinguish proper time and occation, alway up to make you a cheap favor for cheap gain.

There is a different between Ox, dogs, slaves and a liberal person of holliness. No need to talk about the matter if a wordlig likes to use a Noble One. Nothing than demerits...

So not only in regard of the questioner, but also in regard of the moderators here, it would be proper to see the faults, confess them and feel ashamed, if there is a little bit of integrity within them.

[Note: This is a gift of Dhamma and not meant for commercial purpose or other low wordily gains by means of trade and exchange.]

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