We are continually making comparisons, this vs that, good vs bad, here vs there, etc…In this episode, I will discuss the topic of perfection and the problems we run into when we compare things. The understanding of non-duality permeates through all Buddhist teachings. In order to properly understand perfection, we must not compare to anything else.
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Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast, and this is episode number 21. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today, I am talking about perfection. Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast, a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teaching, presented for a secular-minded audience. The Dalai Lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode. If you enjoy the podcast, please share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. If you’re in a position to be able to help, I would encourage you to make a one-time donation or become a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com. Now let’s just into this week’s topic.
This week, I wanted to discuss the topic of perfection. Several months ago, I had some friends visiting, and we decided to go for a hike up in the mountains around Park City. On this occasion, we were hiking up a trail, and at one point, as the trail was curving around, we went through a little grove of trees. I turned around and I noticed one of the trees in the grove had this interesting bend to it. The trunk went straight up, and then it just kind of shot out to the right and then back to the left and straight up again, almost like a horseshoe shape right in the middle of the trunk. It was maybe a foot or a foot and a half between where it started to bend and then where it went back. It was just a really interesting bend in the tree. It looked so unique among all the other trees, because it was such an interesting find, so I stopped and I took a picture of it. Then, later on, as I was looking at the picture, it occurred to me that it was interesting that this tree that was crooked among all the other normal, straight trees caught my attention as a beautiful thing. The fact that it was so unique made it stand out.
I thought that was interesting, because as I thought about this more, I thought how interesting that with a tree, being different and bent out of shape, it looks beautiful because it’s unique. Yet, if these were people we were looking at, our tendency is to do the opposite. We would say, “Oh, there’s the one that stands out. Something’s wrong with that one.” There’s this pull to conform, as if there were a way to be that we should all try to be. Then, when you don’t conform with that, it’s a little bit scary. With trees, which are also just a product of nature, we don’t necessarily view it that way. In fact, I think more people … Everyone who was hiking with me noticed the tree and thought, “Wow, that’s so cool,” and we were taking pictures of it because it was just this beautiful, unique tree.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the conception of perfection, because if you look at the story and you were looking at those trees, the tree was a perfect tree. The reason it’s a perfect tree is because all trees are perfect. They’re trees, right? They’re just perfectly being trees. There is no way that a tree is supposed to be. If you find a tree on the slide of a cliff that has the roots anchored into all these random spots that’s clinging on the cliff, you’d also look at that and say, “Wow, what a unique tree.” In nature, we observe this all the time, whether it be trees or almost any other form of nature. Anything that stands out or is unique, we pause and we have a sense of awe. The reason the Grand Canyon gives us such a sense of awe is it’s this magnificent thing that’s so different from everything else. Yet, every other form of nature that does something similar works the same way. It’s the uniqueness that makes it so perfect.
In that context, when we’re saying perfect, it’s not in comparison to anything else. See, I think this is where the problem with the word “perfection” comes in, because perfection alone, the definition of perfection, is something that’s in a state or condition or quality of being free or free as possible from all flaws or defects. Well, if you take something that has no comparison, then everything that makes it what it is is perfect, because that’s just a part of what it is. The tree with a weird bend in the middle of it isn’t a flaw. It’s just a part of the tree. Now, if you were to compare that tree to another tree, let’s say one that’s just a straight tree without any bends, and we made the mistake of saying, “Okay, now this tree isn’t perfect because it has a bend in it.” Well, that would be silly. We wouldn’t do that with trees, because we understand that a tree is just a tree. We don’t feel that need to compare one tree to another tree.
Yet, we do that with each other all the time. If we were to take the word “perfection” and talk about this in the context of a person, it becomes difficult to say, “Oh yeah, that person is perfect,” because now we’re comparing to either an image we have in our mind of what a perfect person is or just to other people. When it’s used as a form of comparison, perfection doesn’t make sense, but if you were to say, “Here’s a person who’s perfectly who they are,” this is a perfect person. I’m perfectly me, and you’re perfectly you. In that sense, the word “perfection” can be very powerful. Again, with the definition, it’s free or as free as possible from all flaws. What’s interesting about that is that if you were to look up the word “flaw”, you’d find that the definition for the word “flaw” is that it’s something that’s free of an imperfection. Well, that makes it circular logic, because it’s perfect if it doesn’t have flaws, and the very definition of a flaw is something that is an imperfection.
Again, the idea here is that when we understand and use the word “perfection”, it should come without any form of comparison. When you see a beautiful sunset and you think, “Wow, what a perfect sunset,” you’re not comparing it to another sunset saying, “Well, this one’s not perfect because last night’s sunset, that one was perfect,” because there’s no comparison. It’s unique in the moment being what it is. Because it’s completely unique in that moment, it makes it perfect. Well, why does that have to be different for the way we view ourselves and the way we view others? Somebody can be perfect just the way they are, because we don’t have to compare them to who they were before or who they’ll be in the future or to someone else or to a concept of how they’re supposed to be versus how they are. There is no comparison, and when there’s no comparison, then we’re left with just perfection.
For some reason, we tend to spend a lot of time in competition comparing things. For me, being a twin, growing up I remember comparison was a regular, everyday thing in life. For example, if my twin brother got a certain grade in a certain class, then we were compared and it was expected of me to be able to have the same grade in that same class. If I didn’t, it was like, “Well, why didn’t you get that grade? Your brother was able to get that grade.” That was the form of comparison. Now, as a father, I always think of this notion of my kids are very different from each other. Their personalities are different. They just have their own little unique ways. If someone were to say, “Well, which of your kids is the best?” Well, it’s not a competition. There is no competition. They’re all perfectly who they are, and you don’t look at them in the sense of a competition.
Maybe they could compete in a race, and I could say, “Well, this one’s faster than that one,” but overall, you don’t look at your kids and say, “Well, this one’s the best one,” unless you have a distorted image in your mind of how they’re supposed to be. Then, whichever one matches the standard in your mind of how they’re supposed to be, then yeah, you might be thinking this one’s better. But I would get rid of that thinking really quickly, because that produces a lot of suffering on your part as a parent and on your children’s part, because there is no way that you’re supposed to be. You’re just who you are. Everyone is the best in the world, and everyone’s the best in the world because nobody’s being compared to anyone else.
There’s a story about a monk named Banzan, and I like this story because it kind of illustrates the teaching of non-comparison and of perfection. The story goes like this: the monk Banzan was walking through the marketplace, and he overhears a customer who’s talking to the butcher. The customer says, “Can you please give me your best piece of meat?” The butcher simply replies, “Well, all the pieces of meat I sell are the best pieces of meat.” In that very moment, the story goes that Banzan was enlightened.
I’ve heard of this story, and it seems like such a simple story, but there’s a very deep teaching connected to this. This is the idea that all of the pieces of meat are the very best. Why is that? What does that mean? Well, the idea here is that there is comparison. How could one be better than another? This one is what it is, and that one is what it is. You take a piece of meat and you say, “These are the ribs.” Oh, well, that’s great. Yeah, but that one’s the leg. Yeah, well, they’re different. You can’t compare them, which one’s the best. They’re both different. Even if you were to take the same pieces, well, there’s this leg and there’s that leg, which one’s the best piece? They’re both the best piece, because that’s that leg and this one’s this leg. Only when you bring in comparison do we run into the problem of misunderstanding the teaching here, what is meant by perfection.
Buddhism brings this sort of awareness into our life, this awareness of every piece is the best piece, this awareness that a crooked tree is a perfect tree. I want to elaborate a little bit more on this with another Buddhist teaching. I recently came across a Japanese expression and a teaching that says nichi nichi kore ko jitsu. Translated, this means every day is a good day. As I pondered this idea, I thought about the many days in my own life that I would unequivocally categorize as bad days. One instance, about eight years ago, I was a helicopter pilot working towards accomplishing one of my childhood dreams, which was to be a helicopter pilot. I’d just received my private pilot’s license, and I was beginning phase two of my training at a local school to get my commercial pilot’s license. I remember getting a strange call from a friend of mine. He said, “Hey, have you been watching the news?” I said, “No. What’s happening?” He said, “Well, there’s a helicopter school that went bankrupt, and it’s kept all of their students’ money. Is that your school?” I said confidently, “No. I have a flight lesson scheduled in about 30 minutes. My flight instructor would have called me to tell me it was canceled if something was going on.”
As I drove to the airport and I approached my school, I had this sinking feeling as I noticed the police tape blocking the front entrance. It was my school that was on the news, and it was my money that they were talking about. I was heartbroken, heartbroken to discover that my $70,000 school loan to become a helicopter pilot had literally vanished overnight. For me, this was a bad day, and I’ve had other bad days since then, many even worse than that day. So what does it mean to say that every day is a good day? Well, as I mentioned before, Buddhism teaches us to not compare. When we think of good, we’re typically contrasting good with bad, but this expression of every day is a good day is saying that it’s good because there is no bad; there are only days. They’re just days.
Alan Watts used to say, “Did you ever see a cloud that was misshapen?” A cloud can’t be misshapen because there is no shape that a cloud is supposed to be, right? We could say that every cloud is good, because there is no wrong way to be a cloud. So when we’re saying that every day is a good day or every cloud is a good cloud, it’s not in comparison. It’s not in comparison of good versus bad. We just don’t compare clouds. This is the same idea behind the expression that every day is a good day. Imagine for a minute that you’ve been planning a backyard party for several weeks, and you’ve sent out invitations, you’ve set up the tables, you’ve done a considerable amount of decorating around the yard. Then the day finally comes and the guests start to show up and it begins to rain. Well, is that a good day or a bad day? Meanwhile, across town, a farmer’s been preparing his field to plant alfalfa, and he’s frustrated because his sprinkler system’s not working. He’s worried about his seeds going to waste, and then it begins to rain. Is that a good day or a bad day?
Well, the day itself is never bad. It’s never good. It’s only our perspective and space and time based on where we are and how we are that we determine the things that we think are good and the things that we think are bad. You wouldn’t compare one cloud to another, deciding which cloud is good and which one is bad, but why do we do that with days? Again, to say that every day is a good day, it just means that every day is a day. It’s not in comparison of good versus bad, or today versus yesterday, or today versus tomorrow, or my good day versus your bad day.
Gyomay Kubose says, “To understand that every day is a good day is Buddhism.” This is the content of enlightenment. Enlightenment is not something apart from an ordinary day. Enlightenment is to live each day as a good day, and what kind of day do you think you would have if you weren’t comparing it to any other day? Maybe we could appreciate each moment for what it really is: a unique moment in time that cannot be compared to any other, because this is the only moment there is, right here and right now. That’s the teaching of nichi nichi kore ko jitsu. So when we’re talking about perfection, we’re talking about perfect in the sense of not being compared to anything else. One of the mistakes that we make is there’s how we are and then there’s how we think we’re supposed to be. That’s duality. Those are two different things. Then, there’s how life is and there’s how I think life is supposed to be. Well, those are two different things. Again, we’re in the world of duality.
What Buddhism is constantly teaching is this idea of non-duality. The true nature of reality is that reality is just what it is. When we get caught up in that dualistic thinking—me, you, good, bad, this, that—that’s where we run into trouble. That’s where we run into problems as we try to make sense of things. This concept had me thinking of something that I wrote a few days ago about the concept of “them”. What I’m trying to get across here is this understanding of non-duality. This permeates through all Buddhist teachings, this concept of non-duality. In this case, I was thinking about “them”. We all know about them, those who don’t view the world like us. For some, them could be the right-wing nut jobs or the bleeding-heart Liberals, the Trump supporters, or the Bernie supporters, or the Hillary supporters. It could be the gun lovers or the gun haters, the believers and the non-believers. What makes “them” so scary is that they don’t always view the world the same way as us, but what if we weren’t afraid to try to understand them? What if we actually tried to get to know them? What if we were okay with allowing them to be them? What if we stopped trying to convince them to be like us?
Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “A label is an intellectually lazy way to assert you know more about a person than you actually do,” but what if we stopped viewing them through the labels we give them? The problem isn’t that we’re all different, it’s that we’re not okay with the fact that we’re all different. We want them to think, believe, and act like us, but we fail to realize that we are all them to someone else. I know I’m one of them to you on some topic or another, and I hope you know that I don’t view any of you as them, because to me, we’re just us. This is non-duality. We may have different ideas, different beliefs, fears, and ways to approach life, but it’s the fact that we’re all different that makes us the same, because we’re all unique. It’s like the clouds in the sky. When have you ever seen a misshapen cloud? We’re all unique. I may not agree with you, and you may not agree with me, but that’s okay.
Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The more you understand, the more you love, and the more you love, the more you understand.” The world doesn’t need us all to be the same. That would never happen. That would be like expecting all the clouds to be the same, if we had an idea of how clouds are supposed to be, and then we’re frustrated every day because we’ve got all these clouds that are refusing to conform. Well, that would just be silly. The world just needs us to understand each other and to love each other and to be okay with our differences. The truth is I don’t know how to fix the divisiveness and the hatred and the intolerance that I see in the world today, but I do know that I can do my part to try to understand them and to love them, because I am them. We’re all perfect because we’re all unique. We’re all that crooked tree. We’re all the best. We’re all the very best piece of meat, because all the pieces of meat are the best piece of meat. This is the nature of understanding enlightenment. It’s non-duality.
Buddhism brings this sort of awareness into our life, and this is what I wanted to share this week as a topic with you as I was thinking about perfection, the concept of perfection and the concept of being the best. The society in which we live is very competitive, and the way we tend to view ourselves is always in competition to someone else. I would hope that we can learn to see ourselves and others the way that I saw that tree that day in the grove, thinking, “Wow, what a beautiful tree. It’s so unique. It’s so different.” Because that’s exactlY how each of us are. We’re just unique. We’re like the clouds. There is no misshapen cloud, and there is no misshapen human. We’re just who we are. You’re you and I’m me. This is non-duality. I truly believe that if we want to contribute to making society or the world a more peaceful place, we must start by making our own lives more peaceful. This is why I do this podcast, and I’m determined to produce content and tools that will help us to be more mindful. Mindful individuals can make mindful families and societies, and the world could certainly use a bit more mindfulness.
Speaking of mindfulness, I do want to reiterate a couple of news items. One is that I’ve been invited to host a humanitarian workshop in Uganda January 26th through February 4th of 2017. It’s going to be an exciting trip where we’re doing mindfulness practice, humanitarian work, and a little bit of adventure. We’ll be going on a safari. If you’re interested in going to Uganda and doing a mindfulness retreat plus humanitarian work and adventure, please visit mindfulhumanitarian.org and feel free to sign up there.
The next item of news is really exciting for me. We’re starting to get these workshops underway. I’ve been wanting to do one-day workshops in various places where you can come and learn all of the introduction to secular Buddhism just in one go, in one day. The idea here is that the workshop will teach the foundations of mindful living and an introduction to secular Buddhism. It’s just a one-day thing. You’ll come on a Saturday or a Sunday and we’ll spend the day doing a workshop and learning all of the philosophical concepts of Buddhism and mindfulness. The first one is going to be September 3, 2016, that’s a Saturday, in Seattle. So if you’re in the Seattle area and you’re interested in doing this workshop, be sure to visit secularbuddhism.com/events. We’re doing another one in September, September 18th, in London. This is on a Sunday. Sunday, September 18, 2016, we’ll be in London doing a one-day workshop. Again, you can register your interest in these events by going to secularbuddhism.com/events.
Then, the final component to all this, your generous donations are allowing me to continue producing weekly content for the Secular Buddhism podcast as well as the content that’s presented in these workshops, retreats, and seminars. If you’re interested and in a position to be able to help, please visit secularbuddhism.com and make a one-time donation or sign up to be a monthly supporter of the podcast. I’d really appreciate your support. Thank you all for listening and for your continued support. I’m really excited to continue producing these podcast episodes and to see where all this goes in the future. So thank you. You guys have a great week, and I look forward to another podcast next week.