Friday, 2 August 2013

Everything is Already Perfect

"According to Eastern philosophy, as a witness you are perfect, whole and complete just as you are. You don’t feel as if you are because you identify with your thoughts and emotions, which are always changing. Ultimately you don’t need to do anything to attain this natural state, because you are this natural state all the time – right here and right now." - Mindfulness for Dummies (2010), p14.
"Meditation is synonymous with the practice of non-doing. We aren't practicing to make things perfect or to do things perfectly. Rather, we practice to grasp and realize (make real for ourselves) the fact that things already are perfect, perfectly what they are. This has everything to do with holding the present moment in its fullness without imposing anything extra on it, perceiving its purity and the freshness of its potential to give rise to the next moment." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994), p45.
"Just as the blue sky is always above us, even when we cannot see it, so it is with our perfect Original Nature. Even when our mind-state is cloudy and our emotions are raining, our Original Nature is always there, shining brightly within us and all things." - American Zen teacher Jan Chozan Bays, How to Train A Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulnes (2011), p97-98.
"Something which comes out of nothingness is naturalness, like a seed or plant coming out of the ground. The seed has no idea of being some particular plant, but it has its own form and is in perfect harmony with the ground, with its surroundings. As it grows, in the course of time it expresses its nature. Nothing exists without form and color. Whatever it is, it has some form and color, and that form and color are in perfect harmony with other beings. And there is no trouble. That is what we mean by naturalness. For a plant or stone to be natural is no problem. But for us there is some problem, indeed a big problem. To be natural is something which we must work on." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p108.
"Meditation by its very nature provides healing of the deepest kind. The disease it helps heal is perhaps the most painful one of all — an epidemic human disorder known as separation (or, even worse, alienation) from our own being and from other beings and things. When you meditate, you heal this separation by gradually reconnecting in the here and now with your feelings, your sensate experience, and other aspects of yourself you may have previously disowned. That is, you become more whole! Most important, perhaps, you reconnect with your basic nature — pure being itself — which is complete and perfect just the way it is." - Meditation for Dummies (2006), p275.
"If not for Bodhidharma’s coming from the west, there’d be no Zen to be passed on. It was all for the sake of beings to individually realize their own self-nature and become buddhas, for beings to personally bring forth the entire Buddhadharma. Moreover, it was for the transformation of the universal spirit, whereby all beings are seen to be, in themselves, complete and perfect, and without the need to falsely seek anything outside of themselves." - Zen's Chinese Heritage: The masters and their teachings (2000), p424.
"Depending on our personal history, we arrive at adulthood with very mixed feelings about this life. If I were to tell you that your life is already perfect, whole, and complete just as it is, you would think I was crazy. Nobody believes his or her life is perfect. And yet there is something within each of us that basically knows we are boundless, limitless." - American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen (1997), p4.
Outside of being mindful, it seems we need to make our lives perfect - through proactively changing ourselves and the people around us. This dualistic perspective - that the perfection we have in our heads is not reflected outside ourselves; that there is some fundamental disconnection between our psychological existence and the world around it - is a self-made trap, and it revolves around a simple choice one makes regarding what is already perfect in the world.

In his book, The Pursuit of Perfect (2009), Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, a former lecturer in positive psychology at Harvard, states the following, pxxi-xxii:
"The Perfectionist believes that a happy life comprises an uninterrupted stream of positive emotions. And because he, of course, aspires to be happy, he rejects painful emotions. He denies himself the permission to feel sad when a work opportunity is lost or to experience the deep pain that follows the dissolution of a meaningful relationship. The Optimalist, on the other hand, accepts that painful emotions are an inevitable part of being alive. He gives room for sadness and pain, allowing such feelings to deepen his overall experience of life—the unpleasant as well as the pleasant."
Even if we somehow obtained a powerful ability to make our environment as perfect as we imagine it should be, the impermanence of the world, and our inability to see everything existing at the same time would mean we would constantly have to adjust everything in real time, and we would likely be creating future work for ourselves as hidden variables react to, and against our manifested visions. American Zen teacher Jan Chozan Bays speaks of this in her book How to Train A Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulnes (2011), p148:
"There are few ideas more absurd than the notion, “If I could arrange things—and people—to be just as I want them, then I would be happy.” It is absurd for at least two reasons. First of all, even if we had the power to make everything in the world perfect for us, that perfection could only last a second because all the other people in the world have different ideas of how they would like things to be and are working to get them their way. Our “perfect” is not perfect to anyone else. Secondly, forcing perfection on the world is bound to fail because of the truth of impermanence — nothing lasts forever."
Embracing this logic, however, does nothing to quell the feeling that one's life is imperfect - the judging, the comparisons, etc., can keep flowing onwards and inwards. The real key lies in identifying what assumptions one has made about one's existence, and looking for possible readjustments. As the the author of Meditation for Dummies (2006) writes, p82:
"The tendency of your mind to compare you to others (or to some impossible ideal) and to judge every little thing you do as imperfect or inadequate just keeps you anxious, frustrated, and upset. Generally, this tendency originates in your stories or life script, a deeply held cluster of often negative beliefs. After all, if you believe that you’re lovable and inherently perfect just the way you are, your mind has nothing to compare you with."
American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck illustrates the situation facing a person if they accept themselves as already perfect, in her book Everyday Zen (1997), as follows, p116:
"...suppose I have no objection to any of my needs or wants, or to any of your needs or wants — it’s all perfect as it is — then what needs to be adjusted?"
This does not mean we freeze in some kind of 'acceptance limbo zone' - our cells will continue metabolising intensely no matter what we do - hunger, tiredness, toilet needs, etc., will come and go, and we may respond to and satisfy those needs without any internal conflict. Basic human biological concerns have never rationally been considered imperfect, it seems; imperfections tend to be things we deem to be unnecessary to human existence. 

Existentially speaking, quantum physics tells us that the energy in our body is the same energy as that found in fire, water, air- everything around us. The energy that makes up our body and mind is just 'packaged' differently. When this perspective is coupled with biochemistry and biology, it allows us to model the history of our physical development - from billions of years ago before our planet even existed, to our modern developed human situation. We can model how the energy from exploding stars became packed in the form of different chemicals, which joined together to form DNA, which in turn selected various resources from it's environment to replicate itself. Our DNA then developed more and more complex methods of protecting and perpetuating itself until it finally arrived in this modern human state. In this sense we are part of something much larger and infinite which can be considered 'perfect' in itself - what the ancient Chinese called the Dao, and the Mahayana Buddhists apparently equated with Buddha Nature.

Becoming "one with the Dao", or witnessing Buddha Nature directly, was the goal of ancient Indian and Chinese Sages, and  traditionally required one to follow The Way - to live in recognition of the perfect Dao, and thus witness the perfection of everything. According to this approach, The Way is perfect because it is the path itself - witnessing the perfect Dao as one passes through -  a physical passing which is the Dao; one's dynamic existence. This simple yet subtly profound situation is referred to by the first Zen patriarch, Bodhidharma (early 5th century AD), in the text attributed to him called  The Bloodstream Sermon, when he writes the following:
"The Way is basically perfect. It doesn’t require perfecting. The Way has no form or sound. It’s subtle and hard to perceive."
Elaborating on how the way to realizing the perfect state of everything is a state of mind, an ancient Chinese Zen master spoke to his students as follows, related in Zen's Chinese Heritage - The masters and their teachings (2000), p81:
"Zen master Xiqian entered the hall and addressed the monks, saying, “[...] You should each recognize your miraculous mind. Its essence is apart from temporary or everlasting. Its nature is without pollution or purity. It is clear and perfect. Common people and sages are the same. [This mind] reaches everywhere without limit. It is not constrained by the limits of consciousness."
The Japanese 'Soto Zen' Founder Master Eihei Dogen, presented a more dynamic view of the mind-body perfect existence in his book Shobogenzo (Translated by Hubert Nearman, 2007), p40:
"Your whole being is your pair of eyes of the True Dharma; your whole being is the embodiment of Truth; your whole being is a single line of Scripture; your whole being is luminosity; your whole being is your whole heart and mind. When your whole being exists, your whole being has no impediments: it is perfect in its completeness and is everturning, like the rumbling on of cart wheels."
Living in this way - with an awareness of the perfect Dao/Buddha Nature within and outside of oneself - as a background to all that one witnesses, can mean that every moment can be as beautiful and elegant as a whole universe. Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki illustrated this in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p32:
"Whatever we see is changing, losing its balance. The reason everything looks beautiful is because it is out of balance, but its background is always in perfect harmony. This is how everything exists in the realm of Buddha nature, losing its balance against a background of perfect balance. So if you see things without realizing the background of Buddha nature, everything appears to be in the form of suffering. But if you understand the background of existence, you realize that suffering itself is how we live, and how we extend our life."
In this sense our material existence is akin to a perfect bed within which we may always sleep, and the way we live our lives is akin to how we position ourselves to sleep in that bed. We can recognize a bed is perfect, but whether we enjoy a good night's sleep in that bed depends on how we position ourselves, what and when we have eaten, what our minds are habitually doing, etc., etc. So everything is how it should be - the bed is perfect, but our experience of sleeping in it depends on what we do - in this sense we reap what we sow.

The perceived imperfection in our lives is created by us - we determine our experiences as much as we determine whether a night's sleep is peaceful and rewarding or not. The irony in all this, which many people who suffer from insomnia experience, is, however, that by trying too hard to have a perfect night's sleep in one's perfect bed, one self-sabotages and does not sleep very well at all. It is only by letting go - going beyond ideas of perfection and realising that accepting whatever necessary situation comes - even imperfection - that one allows the innate perfection of the Dao to emerge by itself. The Dao cannot be controlled.

Have you ever tried to keep a perfect regular count of something, only for the process to be sabotaged and interrupted by oneself - almost as if one did it on purpose? Shunryu Suzuki spoke of an opposite exercise that ancient painters in the East had tried in order to control or emulate the natural, chaotic, yet beautiful essence of the Dao, in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, p32:
"Ancient painters used to practice putting dots on paper in artistic disorder. This is rather difficult. Even though you try to do it, usually what you do is arranged in some order. You think you can control it, but you cannot; it is almost impossible to arrange your dots out of order. It is the same with taking care of your everyday life. Even though you try to put people under some control, it is impossible. You cannot do it. The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous."
I myself have encountered this phenomenon when practising traditional Chinese painting - trying to get the natural essence of a scene just right - like when placing 'moss spots' or small blades of grass; if I try to make it irregular it becomes a regular pattern, and vice versa. At the very core of a work of art which attempts to present the dynamic harmony of the universe - even in the leaves of a plant, or the branches of a tree, is the artist's conception and personal integration with the Dao - it becomes apparent in his skilled work as it filters through from heart to hand.

Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh talks of the perfect qualities of nature relative to artistic endeavours in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness (1987), p58:
"When reality is experienced in its nature of ultimate perfection, an almond tree that may be in your front yard reveals its nature in perfect wholeness. The almond tree is itself truth, reality, your own self. Of all the people who have passed by your yard, how many have really seen the almond tree? The heart of an artist may be more sensitive; hopefully he or she will be able to see the tree in a deeper way than many others. Because of a more open heart, a certain communion already exists between the artist and the tree."
This seemingly miraculous perfection of living organisms is also mentioned by mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p154:
"Never mind dogs. What about a bird, or a cat, or a tree, or a flower, or a rhinoceros?! They are all quite miraculous really. When you really look at one, you can hardly believe it exists; there it is, this perfect thing, just being what it is, complete in itself. Any imaginative child could have dreamed up a rhinoceros, or an elephant, or a giraffe. But they didn't get here as the product of a child's imagination. The universe is spinning these dreams. They come out of the universe, as do we. It doesn't hurt to keep this in mind on a daily basis. It would help us to be more mindful."
Thich Nhat Hanh also enourages one to use living objects as mindful anchors; in The Sun My Heart (1988), he writes the following, p110:
"If we use a leaf as the object of our concentration, we can see, through the leaf, the perfect oneness of mind and universe."
His methodology in this case is to recognise the seamless dynamic and physical connection each object, such as a tree, a leaf, or even a dead object like a piece of paper, has with everything else around it. With reference to a piece of paper, he teaches, in The Heart of Understanding (2010), p9:
"If we only look at the sheet of paper as an observer, standing outside, we cannot understand it completely. We have to penetrate it. We have to be a cloud, be the sunshine, and be the logger. If we can enter it and be everything that is in it, our understanding of the sheet of paper will be perfect. There is an Indian story about a grain of salt that wanted to know just how salty the ocean is, so it jumped in and became one with the water of the ocean. In this way, the grain of salt gained perfect understanding." 
Using this scientific and logical stance to connect oneself with the perfect state of the universe, one can accept the necessary pains of life more easily. The author of Mindfulness for Dummies (2010) recommends the following exercise to utilise this inherent perfection within us during formal seated mindfulness meditation practice, p115:
"Consciously expand your awareness from your belly to your whole body. Get a sense of your entire body breathing (which it is, through the skin). As the energy settles in your body, notice its effect. Accept yourself as perfect and complete just as you are, just in this moment, as much as you can."
This is the opposite of imposing a perfect imagined state upon oneself, there are no aspirations once one has arrived at the practice - there is just full immersion in 'what is'. As Charlotte Joko Beck writes in Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), p87:
"Practice is not about having experiences, not about having giant realizations, not about getting somewhere or becoming something. We are perfect as we are. By “perfect” I mean simply that this is it. Practice is simply maintaining awareness — of our activities and also of the thoughts that separate us from our activities."
This already perfect state has been referred to by traditional Buddhists as a perfectly round moon, or a jewel which is uncovered through mindfulness practice, as related in Zen's Chinese Heritage, p368:
"Bao’en addressed the congregation, saying, “All of you monks fully possess an eternal perfect moon. Each  of you possesses a priceless jewel. Because the moon is obscured by fog its luster does not shine forth. Your wisdom is concealed within delusion, and although it is the truth, you haven’t realized it."
Joko Beck also uses this jewel metaphor to describe our innate perfection in Everyday Zen as follows, p190:
"...we must be careful that we don’t look for the jewel in the wrong place, outside of ourselves, failing to see that our life itself is the jewel—unpolished perhaps, but already perfect, complete and whole."
Mindfulness for Dummies presents a story which reflects the above 'perfect yet unpolished jewel' idea quite nicely - it is about a cracked pot which considered itself imperfect next to other pots, p21:
"The cracked pot noticed the most beautiful wild flowers and plants on its side of the path. The water bearer explained, ‘When I realised you were cracked, I decided to plant seeds on one side of the path, and every day, as you leak, you water that side of the path. If you weren’t cracked, these gorgeous flowers wouldn’t be here for all to enjoy.’ Sometimes you may think you’re not perfect, or your mindfulness practice is not perfect, but how do you know? This story goes to show even a cracked pot can be seen as perfect, just as it is. In the same way, you’re perfect just the way you are, with all your imperfections – that’s what makes you unique."
Ultimately the cracked pot was changed from 'broken' into useful by the water bearer transcending the pot's self-nature - the suffocating, traditional conception of what a pot is - and accepting it's limitations to the point that a new more novel utility was identified - a utility that the other pots were unsuited to.

When one looks back on limitations which were traditionally considered imperfections, one can see, with insight, that those limitations had utility. The telephone was invented due to Alexander Graham Bell trying to create a hearing aid for his deaf family members - his relatives' limitations became useful as a catalyst for the whole world to be able to communicate more efficiently. Even though we may not be aware of it, shortcomings and imperfections are useful, and therefore, as Joko Beck states in Everyday Zen, p14:
"At every point in our practice it’s perfect."
Being able to actually witness this eternal perfection in every moment is a huge challenge - the experience needs to be 'attained' through just sitting in empty non-seeking, self-compassionate acceptance of the present moment. Of course it takes lots of practice, but the reward is beyond compare. As Jon Kabat-Zinn's late Korean Zen teacher, Seung Sahn (1927-2004), writes in The Compass of Zen (1997):
"If you attain this experience of emptiness, then you see that everything is already complete; therefore, “True nature has no taint and is already a perfect sphere.” No matter what we ever do — good or bad — our original nature is always completely free of impurity and complete. There is no such thing here as original sin. Like a perfect sphere, our true nature has no beginning and no end. At this point, you see things exactly as they are. So, “Not attached to any thinking, just-like-this is Buddha.”"
In amongst all this talk, however, it is always useful to take stock of what is being said, and how those words are being related to by the listener - are they being taken as an accurate description of reality, or as mere signposts in a more detailed and complex landscape within which first-hand experience beyond concepts is the ultimate aspiration? In Nothing Special, Joko Beck warns us of the ever-present danger, in amongst all this perfection-speak, of taking conceptual signposting as the territory itself, p175:
"In Zen practice, we tend to toss around many fancy concepts: “Everything is perfect in being as it is.” “We’re all doing the best that we can.” “Things are all one.” “I’m one with him.” We can call this Zen bullshit, though other religions have their own versions. It’s not that the statements are false. The world is one. I am you. Everything is perfect in being as it is. Every human being on the planet is doing the best he or she can at this moment. True enough. But if we stop there, we have turned our practice into an exercise of concepts, and we’ve lost awareness of what’s going on with us right this second. Good practice always entails moving through our concepts." 
So it is never as simple as someone saying "Well, everything I do is perfect, as it is part of the perfect Dao, so I don't need to practice", because if such a person understood first-hand what that perfection of the Dao they were referring to was, then they would have already been practising. It would be akin to someone saying "Because I can label an experience, I know what that experience is" - it is an experiential bluff.

Mere intellectually recognition that the perfect structure of the universe is contained within one's physical being does not mean one is comfortable and one truly considers oneself and all things perfect - for that to happen, one has to literally feel it in the body. One knows and understands hunger because of a physical sensation. A person who has been blind from birth cannot understand what light is just from words alone.

One has to recognise the perfect bed in which one sleeps (the Dao), and place oneself in that bed in a way which ensures a perfect experience of nourishing sleep, and as most people know; that is something incredibly difficult to do day after day. Shunryu Suzuki uses a similar metaphor in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, where he uses an oven to represent  the perfect Dao, and we are the dough placed in the oven to make bread. The practice is adjusting the temperature, time, yeast, etc., to make perfect bread, p56-57:
"How flour becomes bread when put in the oven was for Buddha the most important thing. How we become enlightened was his main interest. The enlightened person is some perfect, desirable character, for himself and for others. Buddha wanted to find out how human beings develop this ideal character — how various sages in the past became sages. In order to find out how dough became perfect bread, he made it over and over again, until he became quite successful. That was his practice. [...] In some sense we should be idealistic; at least we should be interested in making bread which tastes and looks good! Actual practice is repeating over and over again until you find out how to become bread. There is no secret in our way. Just to practice zazen [seated mindfulness meditation] and put ourselves into the oven is our way."

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