hen my youngest son was little, he would now and then insist, “Mom, nobody’s perfect,” usually when he’d done something he realized that maybe he shouldn’t have. It was a good reminder, and I’ve tried to bring it to bear with regard to myself and others whenever I’m tempted to let disappointment, frustration, irritation or downright animosity get the better of me. However, while I think it’s important not to expect perfection in ourselves and in those we encounter in our lives, it’s also important to retain a belief in perfectibility.
This notion of perfectibility is reflected in the term “Buddha seed” or “Buddha nature,” the conviction that each of us has the potential to become a fully enlightened being—a Buddha. The enlightened being we know as Buddha (which means simply “awakened one”) began life as Siddhartha Gautama, the son of the ruler of a small kingdom in what is now northern India. Through his own persistent effort to find meaning in his life and in human existence in general, he eventually fulfilled his potential and attained complete enlightenment.
What I find inspiring in this story is that he started out just like us, an ordinary human being beset by desires, delusions, doubts and distress. Yet he was able to transform himself into something extraordinary by means of his own actions of body, speech and mind. So we learn not only from his teachings, but also from his example, that we all have the potential to attain enlightenment. In other words, we are all “perfectible.”
How, then, does a belief in perfectibility function in everyday life? For one thing, when someone disappoints, angers, or merely annoys me, I find I can maintain a more peaceful, relaxed mind if I remember that I and that person are the same in that we both have the potential to become much better beings than we are at present. While getting upset with someone helps neither me, nor the other person, nor the situation itself, focusing on that person’s potential makes it possible to remain calm and at least some of the time act more skillfully than I might if I allow negative emotions to direct my behavior.
I’ve found this practice immensely useful in relationships with family members, the students I work with, my colleagues, and even public figures, who in the past have caused me to grind my teeth in rage when I read about or hear them on the news. (This practice is particularly useful in election season.)
In addition to reducing the consternation I would otherwise experience in regard to others, a belief in perfectibility also helps me remain peaceful in my relationship with myself.
Instead of becoming discouraged when I react to situations unskillfully (for example, losing patience, becoming antagonistic, and saying something unhelpful or even hurtful), I can remember that I am not stuck with the person I am in that moment; I have the potential to develop into something better. In such situations, it’s helpful both to
recall my son’s words about no one being perfect, but also to remember that I and others can actually accomplish perfection if we believe it is possible and put effort into the process.
Which brings me to my final point: belief is a practice. It’s not just an abstract idea we assent to; it’s the behavior we engage in based on that idea. Buddha told his followers not to take his teachings on faith alone, but to try them out in their own lives to see if they made a difference. My experience has led me to conclude that it actually helps to relate to people in terms of their potential, looking for what they are capable of doing and being, rather than focusing on how they fall short. So while I don’t expect perfection in myself or in others, I retain belief in perfectibility. I believe that each of us, if we want to, can become an enlightened being—we just have to put it on our “to-do” list.
Photo / Keith Nordstorm
Illustration / David Laferriere