The Physical Zendo is closed Monday, July 15th and Tuesday July 16th

What motive does a Buddha have to practice? Barry Magid March 22nd 2008

33 fingers, Case 9 Perfect and You Can Use a Little Improvement

The Main Case

Shunryu Suzuki addressed the assembly, " Each one of you is perfect the way you are and you can use a little improvement."


Sometimes a teacher uses a sharp sword, sometimes a kind hug. Here Master Shunryu used both at once. Granting way and denying way. Zap! How can perfection be improved upon, or is it a dead end? Improvement is always running away from where you are. Our teachers were never complacent nor were they flighty.

Can you stand to be perfect? Can you stand to be flawed? Where do you turn away?


The heat of Master Shunryu's heart
burns away both faith and doubt,
leaving a withered tree in the golden wind.

Traditionally, during sesshin, I've given talks based on one of the classic koan collections, the Mumonkan or the Blue Cliff Record. Although at this center, we don't practice formal koan study, nonetheless I think that it is part of my job to bring out these old koans to help us sharpen and inspire our practice. It's not always easy to what those old stories are pointing to; sometimes we can bring them alive in our present-day practice, sometimes they lay inert on the page or seem merely to be particularly opaque riddles. At one time, of course, they were nothing of the sort - they are the record of vivid, often life-changing encounters between students and teachers, encounters whose very vividness caused them to be remembered, written down and studied over the centuries. But there is nothing sacrosanct about these stories. If Zen is going to be a living and not a fossilized practice, it must inspire generation after generation to take the old lessons, and make them new. Today's case is taken from a modern koan collection called 33 Fingers, compiled by Michael Wenger at the San Francisco Zen Center. Whether Zen students a thousand years from now will be repeating the stories he's collected is anybody's guess, but for now, they offer us a collection of sayings and doings of modern masters from a variety of schools, to remind us that Mumon, Unmon, Dogen and Rinzai are still with us, sometimes wearing robes, sometimes wearing jeans.

"Each one of you is perfect the way you are and you can use a little improvement." Suzuki Roshi marvelously summed up in one line something I've tried to say may times, but never so succinctly. What he's saying may sound paradoxical unless we see the true relationship between "perfection" and "improvement." Another way of putting it might be to ask what motive does a Buddha have to practice? If everything is perfect just as it is, why sit long, long sesshins, why go through this tough way of practicing? Do we do all that as a means to an end, and when we finally "get" it, then we can ease up? That's how we think if we imagine we have to keep improving in order to someday be perfect. But that's really completely backwards. We don't practice to become perfect. Practice is the expression of our perfection, which is to say, an expression of who we are. Fully being who we are expresses itself in practice. To continually practice is to be continually aware, to be continually aware is to be aware of our habitual resistance to life-as it-is. Being human, that resistance never ends once and for all, and our practice never ends once and for all either. Why should it? Do we expect to eat or breath or sleep once and for all and never have to do it again? Been there, done that?! Not if we're going to stay alive!

What we have to do is really feel the motivation that arises, not from trying to change ourselves, but from always trying to be ourselves as fully as we can. That motivation doesn't have anything to do with better or worse, faith or doubt. When better and worse, faith and doubt burn away, the verse tells us, we're left with what? "A withered tree in the golden wind." This is a reference to another famous koan from the Blue Cliff Record (Case 27), where a monk asks Unmon, "What happens when all the leaves fall, and the tree is finally bare?" That is, what happens when all attachments drop off, what are we left with? What is the bare tree? Unmon answers, "Golden wind." Not still, calm, motionless air, but WIND, active, moving WIND. The free flowing movement of the wind, unimpeded by any leafy obstructions, is the free flow of our functioning, our motivation, our being. Perfect, but not still. Always moving, always improving.

In the daisan room, we have a calligraphy by Soen Roshi that reads, "Bamboo/ from each leaf/ pure wind." Unmon gives us a bare, leafless tree in the wind; Soen, a leafy stalk of bamboo, constantly shaking its leaves in the wind. Two different perspectives on perfection: the one, the perfection of realization, the perfection of all the attachments of body and mind dropping off; the other the perfection of everything just as it is, whether it realizes it or not.

Everyone here is practicing perfectly- everyone is here simply being who they are - how could you get it wrong? Everyone here needs to make a greater effort, to practice harder, moment after moment, to stay awake, to stay aware, to pay attention.

Feel the wind. Shake those leaves!

If you found this talk helpful, consider donating to Ordinary Mind

This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.