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Click for Tsakli GalleryThe Problem With Perfection

The message of enlightenment is one of hope and promise. Hope that life is not necessarily the horror movie it appears to be when you watch the evening news. Promise that not only is there light at the end of the tunnel, but that the essential nature of both the person trudging through the tunnel and the tunnel itself is light.

It is a popular message, because it is inclusive. Unlike some spiritual beliefs, the literature of enlightenment does not consider the attainment of its goal the exclusive right of a chosen few. Anyone can become enlightened, or more accurately, can realize their own enlightenment. You just start from where you are and practice, and eventually enlightenment will be the result.

Ah, but does practice make perfect?

That is the question I am pondering over my coffee this morning. I sit and watch the customers stand in line and try to see the perfection in each of them. In many ways, it is there. Each person is completely unique, a composite of the experiences in his or her past and how they have allowed those experiences to shape their lives. Each has his or her own spiritual path, even if that path is the denial that such a thing as spirit exists. Each of them is a manifestation of the essential nature of the universe, light dancing in jeans and T-shirts and short summer dresses. I can definitely see perfection here. The short summer dresses help.

But at the same time I would bet that very few of these individuals would actually consider themselves perfect. No matter how healthy their bodies and their egos, all of them know that they have things they are still working on. I know many of these people, recognize them from group meditations at the local Tibetan Buddhist stupa, or from satsangs with visiting teachers, or from the local Zen center. I know that they have a strong feel for enlightenment, and that its pursuit plays an important role in their lives. I know that the same is true of me, and of many of the folks reading this. But few of us consider ourselves perfect.

Why then is there such an enduring myth of the enlightened as perfect? Why do we project perfection onto people just like ourselves who have done the same things that we do - meditate and practice what we see as our spiritual sadhana and try to do the best we can with our lives - and believe that they are somehow perfect when we are not?

The enlightened are inspiring. That may be their greatest advantage to the spiritual seeker. While I don't believe that it is possible to ever say for sure whether another human being is enlightened, I believe that you can make a sound judgment based on your intuition and your seeing, especially if you have had the opportunity to meditate with them. The clear experience of diamond mind in another person is inspiring, because it helps to convince you that the mindstate is not just empty words in a book. It is attainable. And if they can do it, so can you.

But just because your subjective experience of meditating with someone may convince you that they are enlightened, or at the very least experiencing flashes of enlightened mind, does that necessarily mean that the person no longer has things that they are working on?

It is a question worth pondering. In this life I have sat and meditated with several spiritual teachers. Many people consider each one of them to be fully enlightened. Each of them contributed greatly to my spiritual progress, and I thank them deeply for their efforts. And meditating with some of them, I experienced mindstates that convince me that the teachers were indeed practicing meditation from the platform of enlightenment. It is a realization that is impossible to put into words, but unmistakable when it happens. It is like silence meeting silence on a noisy street, smiling to one another in the realization that they are one.

But do I consider any of them perfect? No way, Josť. I think too much of them, and would not place that burden upon them.

For a burden it is. The literature of enlightenment is rife with theories of how enlightenment is synonymous with perfection. "Enlightened teachers live a life fully in accord with the laws of nature." "Because they act from the same level as the laws of nature, they can do nothing contrary to nature." "Because they have merged their minds with infinity, their thoughts and actions are completely positive." "The enlightened cannot do anything that is negative, because there is no longer any negativity in their being."

Man, can you imagine living with that as your job description?

Try to imagine yourself enlightened. (It's not an empty exercise. That, after all, is the whole purpose of self discovery.) You sit to meditate one morning and slip seamlessly into the infinite silence of eternity. There is no you, no experiencer, just silence experiencing silence. You find that the meditation goes on longer than you intended, and when you open your eyes, you find that the silence doesn't go away. Thoughts are still there, just like every other day, but there is something else there as well. It's the silence. You just can't shake it. No matter what you do, no matter how much you dance around or sing to the heavens, the silence is there. And you find that you identify more with it than you do the dancing and the singing. It is who you are.

Cool. But it's a weekday, and you have to go to work. You put on your best business suit and start the commute, just as you do every other weekday morning. The silence is still there. A car cuts you off on the freeway, and the silence is still there. Someone steals your seat on the subway, and the silence is still there. You get to work and your boss has left a nasty email message for you, complaining that your status report is late. You read it, and the silence is still there.

But so is everything else. The driver pulls out in front of you and you experience a moment of panic and then a flush of anger at his thoughtlessness. The subway rider pushes you out of the way to get to the last empty seat, and inside you feel the same frustration you felt when he pulled the same stunt last week. You read the email message and mentally start composing the reply, in which you point out that the reason your status report is late is that you were at your desk until 2:00 a.m. trying to meet an unrealistic deadline. And the silence is still there.

I don't believe that enlightenment transforms either life into a totally positive experience or the enlightened person into a totally positive being. Everything continues pretty much the way it did before. You still experience the same events and react to them in many of the same ways you always did, because the effects of imprinting and conditioning are still there. The only thing that is different is that now, lurking beneath all of these transitory experiences is the simultaneous experience of something non-transitory. Silence - deep and eternal silence.

Back to our little exercise in imagination. It's later the same day. Work is over. You have gone for a run and showered and meditated, and the silence is still there. It was there during the run, it was there as you stood under the stinging spray of the shower, it was there during your meditation. Cool. You can't wait to share this experience with the folks at the meditation class you teach in the evenings.

The class goes well. You lead a group meditation, and it's a killer. Everyone seems to have deeper experiences than usual. And the silence is still there. So you tell everyone about your experience this morning. Because they have just sat in a room with you and experienced the same silence in their own meditations that you are experiencing as an all-time reality, they believe that you have, in fact, realized enlightenment.

Then the shit hits the fan. Raised on traditional spiritual dogma that says that the enlightened are perfect, the students begin to project that perfection onto you. Their whole attitude towards you changes. Whereas yesterday they perceived you as just another seeker, just like themselves, now they perceive you as that which they are seeking. They start to see everything you say and everything you do as enlightenment. You try to just be yourself, and be honest with them, so you tell them the story of how pissed off you got at the thoughtless driver who cut you off in traffic, and they project perfection onto that anger, and consider it part and parcel of enlightenment. You see this in them and, disturbed, you try to explain that you were just reacting out of habit and that it's the silence that they should focus on, and they interpret your disturbance as enlightenment. They start to watch everything you do and ponder everything you say, considering every action and every word perfect, because it comes from an enlightened being.

It's a bitch. I am far from enlightened, but I have seen this projection of perfection enough to recognize it when I see it, and to intuitively feel the intense burden that it puts upon those brave enough to reveal their own experiences of enlightenment to the world. People put the enlightened up on a pedestal and project their own desires for perfection onto them. Unfortunately, they also sometimes react angrily when the teachers, who after all are just trying to live their lives the best they can, do or say something that doesn't feel perfect. One of my favorite quotes on this subject was written by Rama in his book Meditation: The Bridge Is Flowing But The River Is Not. He said:

Pedestals were invented by a very wise man who perceived the
need in human consciousness to cast people down. This wise
man realized that it would be impossible to cast people down
unless you had put them up on something first. So he invented
the pedestal, which is now employed on a regular basis. You put
people on it so you can cast them down later. Indeed, he was a
wise man.

I can understand the tendency to project perfection onto the enlightened. It is inherent in the experience of enlightenment itself. When you have a satori experience, and perceive for yourself what all these enlightened teachers for all these centuries have been talking about, one of your first perceptions can be a realization that on one level, life is essentially perfect. Experiencing that eternal silence that coexists with everything you think or perceive or do, you realize that it is nothing new, that it has always been there, has coexisted with everything you have ever thought or perceived or done. The only thing new is that you have realized that it is there. So in one sense, you realize that life is perfection.

But in another sense, you are the same individual you were yesterday. You still have the same hangups and strengths and weaknesses you had before this silence thing happened. The experience of infinity as an all-time reality does not suddenly make the finite go away, or transform it into something different. Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. Or, as Rama used to say, "Chop water and carry wood."

Whatever you think of him, you have to admit that the man had a sense of humor. In my opinion, he needed it. When I look back at the pressure that his students put on him to be strong and wise and loving and supportive and perfect - to be, in essence, Daddy - it just breaks my heart. Rama was human, just like us. He had strengths, just like us. He had weaknesses, just like us. What he had that many of us do not have on a daily basis - yet - was a perception of Self as infinite silence, underlying everything he thought or perceived or did.

He shared his strength with us. He shared the silence with us, explored the difference between him and us, hoping to dissolve it. And he shared the weaknesses with us as well, trying to show that, like us, he still had stuff that he was working on. But many of us, while embracing the strength and the silence, chose not to see the weakness. We saw it and experienced it, but we also transformed it, projecting onto it our need for perfection. It was a heavy burden, and in my opinion he stumbled and fell beneath it.

Several people, readers of my stories, have written to me in email, asking why I left Rama's study. I have avoided answering the question up till now. Or I have fallen back on the practical reasons. I felt the need to be on my own, and find my own path rather than rely on someone else's. I felt that my goals were no longer the same as the goals that Rama expected in his students. I just needed some time off. All of these are true. But none of them is the truth.

The truth is, I just couldn't sit in another meeting and see Rama on stage saying, "I am the happiest person I have ever met." He said it a lot. There was a time when it was true. But towards the end I don't believe it was. I base this belief on the use of one of the many techniques he taught me - the ability to see. He taught me to use my seeing, to listen not only to the words but also to the feeling beneath them, to the truth or non-truth in the speaker's voice. It is one of the few lessons I think I learned well in my time with him.

Rama would sit on stage and mouth the words, trying his best to be strong for us, to be inspiring, to be perfect, and it would break my heart, man. I had to leave because I just couldn't sit through it one more time.

The problem with perfection is that it breaks the heart. It breaks the heart of the person it is projected onto, because they can come to believe that they cannot do what they do while just being themselves. And it breaks the hearts of those who seek it in others, because except on the level of life where everything is perfect, perfection doesn't really exist. So in my opinion our attempts to project it onto the enlightened almost always backfire, because sooner or later we encounter something we cannot accept as perfect, and get to experience perfect disillusionment.

I don't think it's necessary. I believe that one can work with a spiritual teacher, whether they are enlightened or not, and relate to them simply as a teacher, without the need to believe that they are a perfect teacher. I know that this places me at odds with many of the authors of spiritual literature in the past, and I fully admit that they may be as correct and as perfect in their interpretation as I am incorrect and imperfect in mine. But I am comfortable with this. I don't want to be perfect. I just want to be enlightened.



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