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.