March 2020 Message
The Perfection of Imperfection
by Reverend Dean Koyama
To reveal, with reverence, the true realization: It is the wondrous state attained through Amida’s perfect benefiting of others; it is the ultimate fruition of supreme nirvana. It arises from the Vow of necessary attainment of nirvana, also known as the “Vow of realization of great Nirvana.”
When foolish beings possessed of blind passions, the multitudes caught in birth-and-death and defiled by evil karma, realize the mind and practice that Amida directs to them for their going forth, they immediately join the truly settled of the Mahayana. Because they dwell among the truly settled, they necessarily attain nirvana.
(Kyogyoshinsho, Chapter on True Realization)
The importance of Ohigan is to rededicate ourselves to the practices, which will lead us toward the ultimate goal of Enlightenment. The idea behind this is that during the spring and autumn equinox the day and night are perfectly equal. The temperature is moderate. So in other words, the conditions are perfect and ideal to practice. There can be no excuse not to practice. The practices usually associated with Ohigan are the 6 paramitas. By perfecting these six paramitas, (Dana-giving, Sila-right behavior (precepts), Ksanti-patience, Virya-effort, Dhyana-meditation, and Prajna-wisdom.) we would be able to cross over from the shore of delusion and ignorance (shigan) to the ultimate shore of enlightenment (higan).
What does it mean to be perfect? According to Webster’s Dictionary, perfection means, “being entirely without fault or defect (flawless), satisfying all requirements, and corresponding to an ideal standard or abstract concept.” It is an inherent wish for each one of us to attain a state of perfection. If it is in school, the ultimate state of perfection is the 4.0. But now, I’ve heard that there are some students with more than a 4.0 GPA who still can’t get into a University.
In sports the idea of perfection is exemplified in the Olympics. I am a big fan of the Olympic Games. I like to see the competition, the challenges of breaking the Olympic and World records. I like the events where it is obvious who wins. It is obvious who threw the javelin the farthest; who is the fastest in the 100 meters; who can run the longest, who can jump the highest; who wins a game by getting the most points. It’s easy to see who wins.
In some cases, the idea of perfection is subject to a panel of judges. Recently, at the NBA All Star Slam Dunk contest, there was an exciting battle of competition between the two finalists, Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic and Derrick Jones Jr. of the Miami Heat. In the finals both had perfect scores resulting in a two dunk overtime round. Both scored a perfect score of 50. In the final dunk of the night Derrick Jones received a 48 from the judges. Aaron Gordon chose to do a much more difficult attempt by jumping over the 7- foot 5-inch Boston Celtics center, Tacko Fall. After just brushing over Fall’s head, the judges gave Gordon only a 47 that was met with the disapproval of the judges by many who witnessed this amazing competition for the Slam Dunk Champion.
In Buddhism, the idea of perfection has been associated with the goal of achieving Nirvana. When this is attained the common thought is that one will be in perfect bliss, one will have perfect knowledge, one will be perfect in wisdom and compassion. And so we have come to equate the state of Nirvana, as being totally flawless. As a result, this ideal state of Enlightenment will be forever distanced away from us, if we remain unenlightened.
In Reverend Gyomay Kubose’s book, The Center Within, he recalls a time when he went to view an ikebana flower arrangement show by a local instructor. He was overwhelmed with the beauty and mastery of her craft, but one particular display caught his eye. He writes:
“This year’s arrangement consisted of a single flower, a chrysanthemum. However placed in an important position next to this single flower was a worm-eaten leaf. Usually half-dead or half-destroyed leaves are discarded. Yet this leaf was placed in a most important location, on the top. Despite its half-eaten condition, this leaf looked so shiny. The leaf had no hesitancy, no inferiority complex. It did not matter that it was ‘imperfect.’”
Once I was involved with the preparation of a cha-ji, a formal tea ceremony gathering. There had been a group who had been practicing the way of tea (cha-do) for many years but had never in their long history ever held a formal tea ceremony gathering. This is where not only tea is served but also a full meal is involved and the precision and timing must be perfect. The preparation takes place over the course of many days before the gathering. The tearoom is thoroughly cleaned from floor to ceiling. The tea utensils and dishes are carefully selected. Only the freshest and finest of foods are used. The garden outside the tearoom must also be tended with all unsightly weeds and fallen leaves gone. Everything is done to create an atmosphere of perfection. It requires a lot of work. The guests that had been invited were long time tea teachers. They knew full well of the different steps and procedures for making the tea, yet somehow out of their pride and ego were reluctant on ever hosting the formal gathering themselves. The person who had decided to host this event, had studied for many years, yet she did not have the same qualifications as these important teachers. However she felt that it was necessary to take the practice of tea to the next higher level. Therefore she was quite nervous about the whole thing.
On the day of the gathering, the guests arrived. They were ushered into the waiting room and finally into the tearoom. The ceremony progressed smoothly and without flaw for the first ten minutes or so. Then breaking the silence and the perfectly tranquil atmosphere, the host called out, “What do I do next?” There were a few giggles from the guests. After the proper instructions were given, the ceremony continued. A little later, again the host became confused and needed help as to the next procedure. And so it went this way until the ceremony and meal had ended and the guest had left.
Afterward the host was so disgruntled. She was so discouraged that the cha-ji had been a failure. She felt that it had not been perfect because she had forgotten the steps. In my mind, though, I thought that it was perfect. Again, I knew that no one in this group of tea teachers had ever hosted or participated in a cha-ji before let alone taught their students of the intricacies of this very formal event. This was the first time it was done in the area. I thought it was perfect because when the host realized that she didn’t know what to do next, she asked for help. There was no pretense. There was no faking it. There was just the honesty and sincerity of her being that came out.
How many of us, if given the same situation would have just tried to go on with the hopes that no one would notice our mistakes? Or we would use the excuse of not knowing as the reason for our imperfection and then try to lay the blame on somebody else for not teaching us of the proper way? It was perfect because it made the guest tea teachers realize that they too had to study further. It was the perfect cha-ji because of the mistakes.
Perfection in Buddhism is not getting rid of our flaws. It is admitting them and realizing that in spite of all of our flaws, we are still embraced with the perfect “self-benefit and benefiting others” spirit of wisdom and compassion. In other words, despite our flaws and imperfections, or perhaps it is more accurate to say because of them, we are embraced in the infinite wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha through the Primal Vow which works so that all sentient beings will attain enlightenment. Then the six paramitas take on a new meaning. Instead of practicing them to attain enlightenment, we practice them as our grateful response for being just the way that we are.
Namo Amida Butsu,
Rev. Dean Koyama