Practice makes Perfect- or does it?
By Mary Jaksch

All spiritual traditions connect practice with some idea of perfection. In the Buddhist tradition, for example, with the advent of the Mahay'na, came the teaching of the paramita's, the perfections of morality, practice and wisdom. These teachings still undergird Zen practice and training to this day. In this essay I take a look at the mixed and sometimes painful responses we tend to bring to the idea of perfection and aim to show that it is useful to see 'perfection' not just as a pinnacle, but as a process.

What is perfection? When you track your internal response to this question, you may find a mixed bag of thoughts and emotions. Maybe you are transported back to your childhood days wanting to be 'good' or even 'perfect', feeling the pain of never quite 'coming up to scratch'. Or perhaps you react with irritation or even anger when you hear the word perfection. Maybe you experience a sudden sense of failure. Each person has their own response to 'perfection'. As one Zen student said, 'For me, it's not about perfection; that's completely out of reach. I feel I have to work incredibly hard at just being adequate!' (This is a person of outstanding professional excellence!) Another student said, 'On one hand all my childhood voices that speak of being good come into play; and on the other hand I find something wonderful about the thought of perfection, as a pinnacle of human beingness.' Some people respond with anger and even give up trying when they think about perfection. An artist said, 'In my family we have a saying, 'Nobody's perfect, so why try'? and I notice that I sabotage all my efforts at perfection.'

There is a yearning for perfection in all of us. It is a yearning to be complete, flawless, totally acceptable and lovable. Because this yearning accompanies us from earliest life, we all carry stories about perfection. Some of our stories are encouraging, but many others are negative, and the cruel ones deny us any hope of improvement, let alone perfection. Even at our best moments, our inner voices sometimes undercut the experience of competence: 'That was just a fluke!' or 'You're not the real thing!' we hear ourselves scoff. Such responses can be very discouraging and undermine confidence.

When someone takes on a rigorous spiritual practice, such as Zen, ideas of perfection can create inner turmoil and block the light of awakening. In the following, I would like to take up the human response to 'perfection' and look at the issues of shame and doubt, confidence and arrogance, and aspiration and ambition that cluster around perfection.

With high expectations comes the experience of shame. In fact, perfection and shame are often bedfellows, especially when perfection is seen as an expectation of excellence. In his book 'Shame and Pride', Donald Nathanson says: ''shame seems always to involve a more-or-less sudden decrease in self-esteem, a moment in which we are revealed as somewhat less that we want to believe.' The experience of shame comes in a wide range -from mild embarrassment to mortification. And it is accompanied by a characteristic response of body and mind. Our body posture collapses, our head tends to hang and we avert our eyes. There is a feeling of being diminished and of contracting. In a moment of shame we feel sharply separated and even isolated from everyone and everything around us. We suffer and this suffering makes us look inward and, in doing so, we lose contact with the world. Our ability to empathize with others and to feel compassion is sharply diminished. When we feel shame, we contract around our small, separate 'self'.

In Zen practice we often experience shame when we embark on koan study. Again and again we come to Dokusan and when the teachers asks, 'What is MU'?, we can't find anything with which to reply. A lot of inner stories can hook themselves onto that 'I don't know'; stories about 'I'm no good' or 'I'm hopeless at this', or 'What a stupid question -Zen isn't for me!' and so on. All these stories centre around 'I', 'me', 'myself'. It is only when we begin to relinquish our tight hold on the idea of a separate 'self' that the experience of shame diminishes and we begin to see koan study as a process in which not-knowing plays an essential part.

A true, quiet and unmistakable confidence emerges with the experience of awakening. Suddenly we cover our own ground and stand on our own feet! The first time I noticed this was many years ago, when I was at my first sesshin in Honolulu with Robert Aitken Roshi. After sesshin had finished I drew an old-timer aside and quizzed him about Dokusan.

'When you are on the Dokusan line,' I asked, 'do you think about your koan'?
'No,' he said, 'I don't think of anything on the line. I just follow my breath. And then I go in to the Dokusan room and Roshi and I take a look at the koan together.' That's confidence - no thought of excelling or failing.

Here is an example from the Zen tradition. It is the story of Huineng, the 6th Zen Ancestor, who, so tradition has it, was illiterate. His teacher Hungjen had sent him to work in the monastery rice sheds. Hungjen wanted to find a successor and asked his monks to write a poem that demonstrated their attainment. One day Huineng heard someone quoting from a poem that the Headmonk Shenxiu had written on the wall anonymously. Huineng immediately realised that the poem did not arise from intimate insight. He then asked to be taken to the auditorium where the poem had been written on the wall. Huineng's story continues:

At that time the lieutenant military inspector of Chiang Province was there; a man named Chan Chiyung; he read the verse aloud. After I'd heard it, I said I had a verse too, and asked the lieutenant inspector to write it for me.
The lieutenant inspector said, 'How extraordinary that you too would compose a verse!'
I said to the lieutenant inspector, 'If you want to learn supreme enlightenment, don't slight beginners. A person of the lowliest rank may have the very highest knowledge, while a person of the highest rank may lack practical wisdom. If you slight people, you will have done incalculable wrong.'

This is true confidence. He offers the military inspector a teaching, admonishing him compassionately. And this even though he is illiterate, has no standing in the monastery and his clothes are dirty from the dusty threshing sheds! There is no thought of self here; no thought of 'higher' or 'lower' or 'important' or 'insignificant'. Because Huineng's mind is wide and open and he is not contracted around a sense of separate 'self', there is no shame, even when the military inspector looks down his nose at him and says haughtily, 'How extraordinary that you too would compose a verse!' Huineng's only concern is that the military inspector's prejudice may create bad karma and restrict his development of wisdom. This is ultimate confidence.
Confidence is related to pride. Just think of a toddler taking its first few steps! The toddler beams with delight and pride and a new confidence is born. Pride is the natural and healthy pleasure that we take in our growing competence. In contrast, conceit is an unhealthy obsession with our own capacity compared to that of others. Pride is born of loving-kindness. When we are kind we can take joy in our own possibilities and that of others. Conceit has its roots in hidden doubts about our own competence. We pretend that we are better, higher, or more important than others, all the while desperately hiding our own doubts about competency.

In terms of the spiritual path, conceit is linked to ambition, whereas pride is linked to aspiration. Ambition is a wish to be better, more successful, or more powerful than others. In ambition 'I' is pitted against 'you'; it is a narrow state of mind and its close cousin is envy. Instead of being able to freely celebrate the achievements of others, we suffer the pangs of envy when we see others seemingly overtake us.

Aspiration is a wish to develop our fullest potential so as to be of use and service to others. Yamada Roshi said, 'I want to be a great tree, offering shade to all beings.' What a wonderful aspiration! You can sense that there is not the slightest trace of self-centredness here. It's easy to confuse aspiration with ambition. When I ask students about their aspiration, some hesitate to speak of their aspiration, in fear of seeming ambitious. However, it's useful to give voice to our aspirations; they are the light by which we walk our path. Nobody can fashion aspirations for us. They arise as expression of our deepest nature.

While it may be difficult to see both the peaks and troughs of spiritual practice as part of a process of perfection, there is a particular field of human endeavour where it is easier to find a new understanding. This is the field of creativity. Each person is creative in their own way and has their own experience of the creative process. However, I find that my own experience of the creative act as a path of disconcerting and sometimes painful peaks and troughs is shared by many other writers and artists.

Here is what the creative process is like for me. At first there is the flash of inspiration: 'Oh yes, I'll write about that!' This flash is rather like a bolt of lightning: for a moment the landscape is all lit up. And next thing I'm plunged into darkness and all my certainty disappears. I can sense forms and structures in that darkness but I can't see them or touch them. With the darkness comes a kind of despair that says, 'I just can't do this!' If I continue to struggle, against all odds, something begins to happen. An idea appears. And then, rather like flock of birds, other ideas or images begin to flutter by and settle beside it. And suddenly something has emerged on the page. Once on a roll, each thought seems to breed another and I end up in places I wouldn't have imagined at the start. I always want to avoid the dark phase of creativity, but I can't. I can't side-step the struggle or avoid it without losing inspiration.

If you look at the creative path in terms of perfection, you can see that each step on the way, even the dark not-knowing and despair, is an integral part of this process. And the creative drive does not arise from someone else's idea of perfection. The drive wants to make real that first flash of inspiration; to get as close as one can to the perfection glimpsed for a moment. In a way the creation is already there right from the start but we have to struggle to breathe life into it and to bring it into the light.
We find these two aspects -on one hand the struggle of practice and on the other hand the innate perfection -in the two poems that the protagonists write in the Sutra of Huineng.
Shenxiu's poem reads:

The body is the tree of enlightenment
The mind is like a clear mirror-stand.
Polish it diligently time and time again,
Not letting it gather dust.

This poem is about practice. In ancient times mirrors were made of metal and had to be polished regularly to maintain their capacity to reflect. In terms of Zen practice this is the work of character formation. We practise the foundation of zazen and bring mindfulness, loving-kindness, and compassion into our life. We continually let go of unskilful mind-states and wipe away the dust of the 'three poisons', greed, aversion and ignorance.

Huineng's poem reads:

Enlightenment originally has no tree,
And a clear mirror is not a stand.
Originally there's not a single thing-
Where can dust alight?

This poem is about our inherent perfection. When we truly experience who we are in the depths, we find that there is nothing at all to be called a 'self': the wind howls in the chimney, the rain drums on the iron roof—nothing else is there at all. In this realm of emptiness there is nothing to polish and nothing to perfect. And yet this perennial truth is usually obscured for humans. The 12th century Chan master Tahui described Sh'kyamuni's enlightenment experience as follows:

When Sh'kyamuni saw the morning star he said, 'How strange! All the many beings are endowed with the virtue and the wisdom of the Tathagatha, yet simply because of their delusions and preoccupations, they cannot bear witness to their endowment.'

A way to reconcile the seeming tension between practice and innate perfection is to see practice and perfection as two sides of a single coin: hold the coin one way and you see the effort of practice in terms of zazen and the work of bringing mindfulness and compassion into your life. Hold the coin the other way and everything drops away as the great truth shines forth in perennial perfection.
There is a wonderful description of the path with its two sides of practice and perfection in the Mahaparanirvana Sutra:

If you say that sentient beings need not practise the holy paths because all of them have the Buddha-nature, that is not true'It is like a man travelling in the wilderness who approaches a well when thirsty and tired. Even though the well is dark and deep and he cannot catch sight of any water, he knows that there must be water at the bottom. And if with various opportune means, he gets hold of a can and rope and draws water up, he will see it. The same is true of the Buddha-nature. Even though all sentient beings have the Buddha-nature, they have to practise the non-defiled and holy paths before they can perceive it.

In our ordinary life we travel through the 'wilderness' of suffering and confusion. And even in the midst of this suffering and confusion we yearn for something, a sense of completion and perfection. This yearning sends us on our spiritual search and drives us to find what we are looking for. When we look closely at this story, we can see that each step on the way is part of the process of perfection: the thirst, the darkness, the struggle and the insight. As Aitken Roshi says:

You find that each act on the path of perfection is perfection itself. That is to say, each point in the sequence is the absolute.

When we let go of our stories about being less or more, smaller or greater, sullied or perfected, we can taste perfection as our breath right now, rising and falling and as the sharp call of the seagulls circling below the clouds. When we let go of ideas of 'self' and 'other', we find that our own aspiration is a shining light that guides us in the process of perfection.

© Mary Jaksch 2004

No reproduction without the authors permission please.