We sometimes hear in our Zen teachings phrases such as “The world, as it is, is perfect” or “you are perfect, just as you are.” What could such “perfection” possibly mean, in light of so much obvious counter-evidence?
It seems to me that there are at least two ways in which this concept of perfection can be misunderstood, and one way in which the concept of perfection makes sense and resonates with my experience.
One wrong way is thinking of perfection as something to be personally achieved. This is perfectionism. This is turning Zen into a self-improvement project. I may think that somehow by my own efforts, I can become a more perfect person—more clear, totally pure, always patient, never doing the wrong thing. This isn’t necessarily a bad ambition, in that sometimes it is what first gets us into Zen. There are parts of our personality we would like to get rid of and we think and maybe if we sit long enough on a cushion and offer a lot of incense, that part will get surgically removed. And then we’ll be more perfect. Newsflash: If you haven’t figured it out already, that’s not the way this actually works.
Another unhelpful path is to think of perfection as something we need to get the world to achieve. Our basic delusion, we learn in Zen, is the belief that we are a separate self. And this separate self is constantly rejecting reality. I know I argue with reality a lot: “You’re not supposed to be this way!” And I try to fix it. I try to get in and change it around to meet my beliefs, to live up to my preferences about how it’s supposed to be.
I’ve come to understand “perfection” another way, which I’d like to explain through a metaphor from dance. In non-pandemic times, I was a social Argentine tango dancer, studying both the follower and leader roles. It’s a unique dance and the hardest one I’ve ever tried to learn. Dancing Argentine tango well in a social setting is 100% reliant on the establishment of an energetic connection between the partners.
A good tango dancer feels their energy rooted way down into the ground below their feet, and connects that energy up to their own heart. They then communicate that energy to their partner, partially through the frame they create with their arms, but mostly directly from heart to heart. When the leader brings up the energy through the floor, and sends it out through their heart into the follower’s heart and down into the followers feet and below, we call this “intention.” That is how the leader communicates where they would like to go.
The leader doesn’t move until the follower has received and responded to the intention. The leader senses when this has happened because there’s a feedback channel, starting from the follower’s connection down below the floor, up through their body, and back to the leader. The follower moves, and the leader then follows the follower. This may all take place in microseconds. The dance is about constant, mutual communication.
The worst thing a follower can do is try to plan ahead—to anticipate what is coming next—instead of staying receptive and responsive to what is happening in the moment. The worst thing a leader can do—and a common beginner problem—is to think that their job is to control the follower and push them around the room. Instead of developing the energetic channel, they crudely communicate, “I’ve got this plan and you’re doing it.” This is very uncomfortable for the follower, and can even cause injuries.
When I’m trying to fix reality, I’m like that really pushy leader. I’ve got an idea of where we’re going, and I’m dead set on pushing everyone around till we get there. It usually doesn’t go very well. But sometimes the good, more subtle, leader doesn’t get what they want, either. Perhaps the lead wasn’t actually so clear, or the follower is inexperienced or distracted, but something happens that the leader didn’t expect. The follower doesn’t move, or moves to the left when you expected them to step back. Surprise!
What to do? The first rule for social dancers is to make your partner look good. It would be rude beyond measure, at a formal dance, for the leader to stop and attempt to correct their partner (or vice versa). The pushy leader, though, isn’t paying attention to the feedback channel, and will keep forcing things along, thinking “I’ve got to stick with my plan.” They may also fume, for the rest of the dance, about how “bad” the follower is–which rather kills the fun. The good leader understands that their job is to make the dance beautiful. It should look graceful to onlookers, and also feel beautiful—it should in no way resemble a wrestling match. So whatever the follower has done, it is perfect. That’s what it is. That’s what you have to work with. A good leader doesn’t waste time mentally criticizing the follower, because they are absorbed in the question, “How can I make this beautiful?” One’s job is to lead something that continues the flow.
So that’s my idea of perfection. We have to meet each thing that comes to us with that attitude of, “Okay, that was perfect. Now, how do I respond fully?” Sometimes a tango leader will know what they’re doing, but gets a really bad follower who tries to push them around. Making the dance beautiful is still what you have to do. Reality in general often acts like this bad follower, when it gets us in its teeth and shakes us around. That’s perfect, too. We respond. We respond with as much wisdom and compassion as we can. We do our best to make it beautiful.
So perfection is what reality is. I should mention that while mistakenly thinking of perfection as a goal we should strive for, for ourselves or for the world, is misleading, it’s even worse to believe that it has already been achieved. If I come to believe I’m perfect, I’ll probably think that therefore I don’t need to follow the precepts. Watch out! I’d be dangerous. Or if I think the world is perfect, I may think that I don’t need to pay attention, or need to respond to the pressing needs of others, because things are already okay. The truth is that world is definitely not okay. There it lots of suffering and ugliness out there (and in here). And we have to start by meeting each situation as perfect as it is.
This relates to our zazen practice. If nothing else, our sitting quietly for 25 minutes is a physical embodiment of that acceptance of reality as it is. Even if our mind is going a mile a minute, we’ve still stopped—we have physically stopped. We have put our butt on the cushion, or the bench or the chair. And for just this moment, we have at least physically stopped pushing. And sometimes we can also drop away all those beliefs about how we should be and how the world should (IMHO) be, and all that desire to control things. Sometimes, we can become intimate with reality as it is. Perhaps we will experience something surprising.