The Presence of Perfection

The Mind   |   Audrey Lin  |   May 8, 2011, 5:34 pm

In a lecture on the Sixth Patriarch Sutra awhile back, there was a line that described perfection as limitless. Marty told a story about his days cultivating at Gold Mountain Monastery, and how this line about limitless perfection reminded him of a 9-year-old monk who asked Master Hua, “What if you’re already enlightened?”

Master Hua had replied, “Then you must become an arhat.”

But the monk pressed on, “What if you’re already an arhat?”

“Then you become a bodhisattva.”

“And if you’re already a bodhisattva?”

“Then you become a Buddha.”

[At this point, Marty chuckled a little, remembering how steadfastly the young monk was towards reaching a final, definitive answer, a grand finale to his debate. He described, “It was as if he were playing a chess match.”]

“Ah-ha! And if you’re already a Buddha?” the monk responded, as if to say check-mate, I win.

“Then you become a bodhisattva again,” Master Hua replied.

In doing so, I’ve noticed a voice called my own harshest critic.

As a perfectionist, this story gave me lots of food for thought. The idea of perfection as an ever-changing, evolving phenomenon is a bit of a paradigm-stretch. It’s pretty liberating. Living in a contemplative environment, I have plenty of space to examine the contents of my mind. With very few distractions around, I find myself facing the habit-patterns, reactions, preconceived notions, and other conditioning of my past on a daily basis. In doing so, I’ve noticed a voice called my own harshest critic. Each time I make a mistake, each moment I could’ve been more productive, efficient, or kind, this inner critic is on my back, amplifying my shortcomings more and more. I often find myself thinking, “I could’ve done this” or “I should’ve noticed that…”

But when I think about it, there is always more to be done. There is infinite room for improvement. Even if I’m more generous, kind, efficient, productive, etc. than I was last week, I can always do more. The possibilities of how each task, conversation, project, or day can go are endless.

When you’re cultivating, you focus on the principles behind each act rather than goals or objectives.

In a way, that’s the beauty about being here at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas (CTTB). In the end, all the real work boils down to how we do it, rather than what we do. Whether I’m doing dishes, coordinating an event, sorting through trash, or teaching a class, what matters most is how well I uphold my values while I’m doing it. The results are secondary. A little while back, a professor was telling me about the early days of CTTB, when the city was just starting up in the 70s. “As long as you were sincere and trying your best, that’s all that really mattered,” he had said. When you’re cultivating, you focus on the principles behind each act rather than goals or objectives. The work is just an excuse to practice.

Of course, when my intentions and values are sincere, then good results will naturally follow. If there really is intrinsic value to a certain act or project, then I will naturally have a desire to work hard, be honest, and serve selflessly throughout the process. When there is no greed, desire, or self-gratification involved– when my purpose is pure– how could I not try my best?

Perfection, then, becomes a process. It’s the act of letting go. Relinquishing my narrow pursuit of a target, goal, or personal ambition to tap into the timeless principles that drive each moment of my life. Seen in this light, perfection is no longer a lofty ideal, an admirable ability or far-off accomplishment. It’s a presence. Each moment is an opportunity to practice. Every step is a chance to learn and accept the past. And each breath holds the boundless potential to learn, let go, and step into perfection.

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