Striving for Perfection

By reality and perfection I mean the same thing. —Spinoza

Don’t you see that it’s all perfect? —Neem Karoli Baba

     Well by golly, first and foremost I should apologize for not submitting a blog post last week. As far as I can remember I have never missed an entire week since I started blogging more than ten years ago. Then again I was a monk, and thereby a member of the leisure class, up until about a year ago. I had plenty of free time to contemplate, and philosophize, and write whatever I felt like writing about. Sometimes I’d have half a dozen posts or more lined up and ready for posting. Now things are a bit different.

     So nowadays I usually write a blog post on Sunday, my day of rest as decreed by Jehovah God Almighty. (So, all right, it was maybe Saturday that He allegedly decreed as the Sabbath, but it doesn’t matter and I don’t care.) I was doing fine, keeping my head above water so to speak, and then last weekend a good friend flew over from Los Angeles and I spent the weekend entertaining him and recovering from the intensity of the entertainment. Then on Monday I went back to work at the sheet metal shop and began coming home exhausted again…until this weekend, and here I am typing this, a week late.

     Even so, a certain event at work, and another certain event while entertaining company last weekend, have provided me with the substance of this post. I warn all you Theravada Buddhists out there that this post is not particularly Buddhist. In fact one could argue that it is practically the opposite of Buddhist doctrine. But, it all depends on how you look at it.

     The event at work involved a coworker of mine, a worthy fellow, complaining out loud that work was slavery—almost as though he were a radical libertarian or some such. He was working a lot and seemed to think that there must be a better way. He runs a certain machine, among other things, and so I suggested that someday he could be a perfect operator of that machine…but he was not impressed even with this possibility of perfection. Still, it got me thinking about perfect street sweepers and perfect slaves.

     The other event involved the consumption of a certain entheogenic substance with my friend (who, ironically, has commented publicly on the futility of taking entheogenic substances). One of the most common “symptoms” of the effects of this substance on me is the distinct impression that EVERYTHING is a manifestation of infinity, divinity, and perfection—in other words, It’s All God. I have taken this substance dozens of times over the course of my life, and I have been struck by this impression almost every time I have taken it. It’s like the feeling of ineffable perfection that Dostoevsky’s Idiot would feel for a few moments just before he would have an epileptic seizure, which caused him to believe that the darkness and misery which followed was totally worth it just for those few moments. (And if you haven’t read The Idiot I highly recommend it. It’s my favorite novel.)

     Buddhism of course, especially Theravada Buddhism, claims pretty much the opposite: namely that everything in the Universe is ultimately unsatisfactory and conducive to dukkha, usually translated as “suffering,” though I usually opt for the rendering of “unease.” So, according to Theravada, nothing in Samsara is perfect. Then again, when one sees Samsara as a manifestation of perfection and “God,” one is not seeing it quite as Samsara anymore. One is seeing through it to the underlying Ultimate Reality. But even that is not orthodox Theravada, since the Abhidhamma scholars would say that Samsara is ultimately real, and really is necessarily conducive to dukkha and all that. As you may know, I have never had much use for Abhidhamma and have never been particularly orthodox, even when my practice was fanatically strict.

     So with regard to my friend at work, I am reminded of the old fashioned way of looking at one’s own lot in life, especially in places like traditional India. The Bhagavad Gita especially emphasizes the idea that it is better to do one’s own duty as a kind of sacred Dharma than to deviate from that in the hopes of achieving something better. So if you are a street sweeper or a slave you should strive to be the perfect street sweeper or slave rather than escaping that in order to be, say, a spiritual teacher or a king. At a societal level also this tends toward greater stability, as people of the lower classes especially “know their place.”

     Higher religions tend to maintain some aspect of striving for perfection, in some form or another. Even some forms of Christianity, whose founder allegedly told someone, “Why do you call ME good? There is none good except God,” may hold out the possibility of achieving some form of perfection even in this world. Saint John of the Cross, the Mystical Doctor of the Catholic Church, asserted that an adept contemplator (in Buddhist lingo, an adept at jhāna) can become “God by participation,” by eliminating all self-will from oneself and thereby becoming a divine puppet, a vessel of God. Buddhism also holds out this possibility of attaining perfection, although this world, this samsaric universe, is necessarily imperfect, so that a perfected being ceases existing in this context, even ceases existing at all. Nirvana literally means “blowing out,” like an extinguished flame.

     Striving for spiritual perfection, like a perfect knowledge of Ultimate Reality, is clearly a virtue. I am not here to bash that; and for people in general it may be necessary until one reaches a very advanced level of attainment. But my entheogenic experiences, plus the sayings of people like Neem Karoli Baba, imply that there is a deeper level of truth than imperfect beings striving for perfection. In a sense they are already perfect. So: the perfect sage, the perfect street sweeper, the perfect thief, the perfect idiot, the perfect fool. In a sense.

     Ram Dass told a story about how he was in India when Bangladesh was separating itself from Pakistan (it was formerly known as East Pakistan). There was rioting and other kinds of violence and misery running rampant in that country, and Ram Dass felt he should do his part to help the situation somehow, like by taking his Volkswagen minibus there and serving as an ambulance driver. When he told his guru Neem Karoli Baba about his concerns and intentions, Maharajji got a sad look on his face and said, with feeling, “Don’t you see that it’s all perfect?” Or in other words, as he also used to say, “Sab Ishwar hai—It’s all God.” At the highest level, Samsara is a manifestation of perfection and divinity, much as a mirage is a manifestation based on an underlying reality.

     So at a profound level it doesn’t matter what we do or don’t do, because we’re perfect already. The trick is to realize this; and with a clouded mind, like the mind of the average person, it is pretty much impossible to realize this. That’s where the striving comes in: not so much to attain perfection but to clarify and simplify the mind enough to see that it was always perfect from the beginningless beginning. Hence some Mahayana Buddhists claim that there is no point of enlightenment, and that we are already Buddhas, but just don’t notice it. Even misery is perfect, in a sense.

     Of course people, especially superficial and materialistic people in the west, don’t see this. They are conditioned to be dissatisfied with what they have and to crave something closer to their consumeristic ideal. They would consider the perfect slave or perfect misery to be worse than nonsense. What would be the point of progress? One of my favorite metaphors to describe the situation is Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear.

     King Lear is one of my favorite plays, and it is considered to be a masterpiece, considered by some critics to be too immense to perform effectively on a theater stage. At the same time, most of the major characters, including Lear himself, die horrible deaths. One person has his eyes gouged out. Lear’s innocent daughter Cordelia is murdered as a reward for her loyalty, sincerity, and virtue. Lear himself goes insane with grief and indignation. His court jester apparently dies of a broken heart. And so on. But though the characters in the play are wallowing in misery and grief, at a higher level it is, as I say, a masterpiece. Similarly, there are higher levels above our own dissatisfactions, and even the darkest stuff is a manifestation of “God,” the dance of Shiva or the purifying wrath of Kali. Or through a somewhat more Buddhist perspective, it is the phenomenal universe functioning perfectly in accordance with its timeless nature.

     But as I say, this is not a particularly Buddhist point of view. Ultimate Reality is infinite and formless, and because of this it really can’t be held down to the dualistic extremes of existence and nonexistence. Nevertheless we humans must think and communicate in accordance with dualism; and so we must choose an invalid dualistic extreme to describe our world. Most religious people choose existence and call the highest state God, whereas the Buddhists choose nonexistence and call the highest state Cessation or Emptiness or some such. And it is by this same token that some choose the invalid extreme of It’s All Perfect, while others choose It’s All Suffering. But both choices have their good points.

     Anyway, enough for today. Be happy, whether you think your reality is perfect or not.


"It's all God"


  1. A lot of perfection wrapped up in this simple little essay as well. Well done.

  2. You mention Ram Dass. I was in Amsterdam around 1973 and planned to return home via Colchester, on the north of the Thames Estuary. I saw a sailing yacht in the harbour, with a Colchester origin, and wondered if I could get a ride. I learned that the group on the boat were known as “The guys who are going to sail to Africa.” Well, it soon became clear to me that they were never going to sail anywhere; they were going to stay in Amsterdam and be known as “The guys …” When I went on the boat, I found three copies of Ram Dass’s book “Be Here Now” lying around. But for three months, the guys had been arguing about when they neared Gibraltar, should they sail through into the Mediterranean or down the West coast of Africa. Obviously, they should have just set sail, IMHO the decision would have emerged en route. Their motto should have been “Being in Amsterdam for a long time and having people think we are going to do something out of the ordinary.” I realised not long before I met Goenkaji that one could go only so far with the rational mind, there must be something more. The Amsterdam guys hadn’t made any progress with Ram Dass, nor as sailors.

  3. I’m reminded of Zen’s Buddhanature – everybody is already enlightened they just don’t realize it.

  4. Looks like a try to answer an issue perfect, or? And? Perfection lies beyond formations and called Nibbana.

  5. I ha ve long struggled with this 'long and arduous path of perfection' vs. 'we are already perfect' conundrum and could not figure out which ideal is correct.

    Then I read this book about Ajahn Chah, Venerable Father, by Paul Breiter, former ven. Varapañño. Later in his life Breiter veered off towards Zen, so when Ajahn Chah came with a visit to the US, he was very happy to talk about his new Mahayana ideas with his former teacher.

    And Ajahn Chah's reaction to the Tathagatagarbha doctrine really settle the matter for me:

    'I told him that one of the ideas that some teachers gave students was that since everything is empty, there weren’t really such things as attachment and suffering. You can’t do it that way, Luang Por said, you have to use the conventions. I said that many people contend that since the mind is inherently pure, since we all have Buddha nature, it’s not necessary to practice. His answer was, “You have something clean, like this tray. I come and drop some shit on it. Will you say 'This tray is originally clean, so I don’t have to do anything to clean it now’?” '

    The Thai firest tradition also says our minds are 'naturally pure and perfect' but what they mean with that is that our mind is a shining tray with loads of shit on it. So yeah, it is not really enough to realize we are perfect already. You have to really get rid of all the shit to being the mind back to its 'original state'.

    1. Some would say that the shit itself is perfect shit.

    2. Well, if they are happy with their suposedly perfect shit, good for them. As for me, such coprophiliac ontology does not really tickle my fancy.

      On a more serious note, I think that admitting to shit being perfect is almost always the first step on the road to the left-hand path, real kapalas, ritual fucking etc. Not really my cup of tea.

    3. The thing is that you have to purify your mind to see that the shit is, after all, perfect. So the practice ironically can remain the same.


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