Friday, March 27, 2009

Random Thought: I am Perfect Just as I am

A long time ago, whenever I had to greet and meet somebody "important", I would introduce myself by saying, "I am nobody.  Because nobody is perfect".

I am reminded of this joke this week when I came across one of Shunryu Suzuki's cute, funny, beautiful, poetic, and frustratingly puzzling Zen sayings.  Suzuki-roshi said,

  "All of you are perfect just as you are, and you could use a little improvement".

The most frustrating thing, for me, was that I felt I almost understood Suzuki-roshi.  It would not have been frustrating if I had zero understanding of his little koan, but I understood just enough to annoy me.

Here is the part I understood:  I had experiences of meditation where my mind (temporarily) became very still.  It felt solidly unwavering and deeply calm, like a majestic mountain on a clear summer day.  And when the mind is that calm, all 5 Hindrances (Sensual Desire, Ill-Will, Restlessness, Sloth and Doubt) fade away, disappearing almost completely.  A mind without the Hindrances is like a prisoner being taken out of his rotting cell and allowed to take a warm bath with scented soap in the beautiful outdoors.  That mind is free, light and radiant.  It is beyond space and time.  It is wonderfully fertile soil for infinite joy, love and compassion to nurture and blossom.

When I was with that mind, I understood my perfection almost completely.  At my core, my default mind is limitlessly peaceful, happy and compassionate.  I am perfect.  All I have to do is to allow my perfection to manifest.  And we are all perfect in the same way.  All of us.  Perfect.  The only thing that needs to be done is to allow our perfection to be.  Perfection is not a state of becoming.  Perfection is a state of being.

Wonderful.  Here is my question.  That mind that understands and abides in perfection doesn't always stay that way for a regular guy like me with a real life and a day job.  That mind has only been accessible to me occasionally, and only after many hours of mindful stillness, and then, I go back to my real life.  It is like that prisoner occasionally allowed out of his rotting cell, getting his lovely bath, and then being told, "OK, enlightenment is over, back to your cell".  So my question is, when I'm not abiding in my enlightened mind, am I still perfect?  And given that I spend the vast majority of my time outside the enlightened mind, often being greedy, mischievous, angry, envious, lazy, lustful, ignorant and all (ie, being a bit of a jerk), am I perfect just as I am?  And if I'm so damned perfect, why do I need any improvement?

I think I figured out the answer.

The great Dharma teacher who led me to the answer is, as usual, my perfect little 9-year-old angel.  Like many parents of beautiful little angels they call their children, I feel that my own angel is perfect in every way.  Even when she's "naughty", even when she does things that are "bad", even when she makes me so angry I want to cry, my love for my angel is limitless and unconditional, and my angel is, to me, perfect in every way.

But if our angels are so perfect already, why do we need to teach them ANYTHING?  Why do we have rules for them?  Why do we tell them not to hit other kids?  Why do we punish them?  Why do we try to teach them "values" such as fairness, generosity, thrift and diligence?  The answer is very simple, we do it to protect them from suffering.  As parents, we understand that hitting other kids, not learning to play fair, being careless with money, and so on, are in the long term, causes of suffering for our kids.  So, in a way, our teaching them values does not increase or decrease their perfection in anyway, all it does is protect them from suffering, and freedom from suffering is a good thing.

My answer came when I looked back at myself with this mind, the mind of a deeply loving parent ("the grandmother mind", my friend Marc Lesser tells me), the mind that I normally reserve for my perfect little angel, I now use it on me.  And then Suzuki-roshi's cute little koan made sense.

The answer is that we are all perfect.  We all possess a mind that, at its core, is infinite in peace, love, compassion, happiness and wisdom.  It is a mind that is accessible to all of us with practice.  Just possessing that mind, that Buddha Nature, makes us perfect.  Whether or not we actually manifest that Buddha Nature in our daily lives, does not make us any more or any less perfect.  The "improvements" that Suzuki-roshi said we need, our deep meditational practices, our ethics, our charity, our expression of kindness and compassion etc, these are not for our perfection, our perfection cannot be increased or decreased by them.  Instead these practices are for our suffering.  In spite of our perfection, we are still capable of suffering, and all these practices are to free us from suffering.  

And freedom from suffering is a very good thing.  But, hey, that's just me.


  1. I respect your view, but it's not the way I see it.

    Alan Wallace in "The four immeasurables" describes ethical behaviour in a way that I found as surprising as inspiring. I will quote him here since he does a great job explaning his view:

    "What hinders the effulgence of this buddha-nature? Things like injuring people, slander, abuse, lying, stealing, and killing stop it from springing forth. Stop this things, and then the buddha-nature has a better chance to come out."

    "Spiritual practice, which is intended to remove suffering and to lead us to experience the glorious potential of the human spirit, is like the sprout of a little tree. When it is still very small, even a baby rabbit could come along and decapitate it. [...] You build a fence around it so the rabbits can't get to it. [...] Ethical discipline is really a way of protecting yourself so that your efforts in spiritual practice can flourish without getting stomped to smithereens every other day, or every other year."

    Under this view, ethical behavior is not something we do to avoid suffering per se, but to avoid damaging our mental balance. When you behave ethically you become free from shame and guilt, which add turbulence to our minds.

    One deep bow.


  2. Actually, there is no disagreement. Cultivating mental balance is ultimately about gaining freedom from suffering.

    (It also creates the condition for our perfection to manifest. So I guess you get two for the price of one). :)

  3. I'm glad we agree :)

    How is the SIY program going? I was expecting to see some more talks from Philippe and others in Youtube.

    By the way, Philippe is fantastic :-)

  4. I believe we are expressions of Mother Earth, Father Sky and the ultimate Life Force. Perfect? Yes, because we are the nurturing soil, star dusts and we breathe in and out of life's abundance of energy. We are the micro cosmo of the universe. However, we sometimes mistaken and think that the universe evolves around us. This is where we suffer deeply in our human condition: greed, jealousy, lust, power...

    Each of us is embodied with perfect notes but it takes time and effort to make a beautiful melody. If we want to harmonize with the rest of the world, we will need patience and learn to listen attentively. Listen to the world, our true self, and those around us.

    Meditation may not need to be chants of mantra but align our actions with our heart and Truth. Maybe just maybe we can be a little closer to reveal the perfection that's within each and everyone of us.