The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

The End of Perfection

by Terrance Keenan
November 4, 2014
Tue, 11/04/2014 - 16:05 -- Terrance Keenan

Chapter 2

The End of Perfection

The spiritual life is often described as being on a path. It implies direction, purpose, and an end. Even an endless path suggests to us an evolution toward some kind of perfection. One is either on it or off it. I think I can tell those who are on it from those who are not. I am not—or if I am, I am on it only tentatively, by default, an accident, or some mistake. Some day I’ll be found out and bumped off by those who deserve to be on it. I can never reach perfection, though I assume it’s out there.

Buddhists sometimes refer to the wayless way or the pathless path. To enter the way of the Dharma is to enter a territory without maps. Maps and paths are concepts. Concepts no longer apply. This is terrifying to most of us (especially if we are trying to find our selves!). The Lotus Sutra says the Buddha’s teachings are like the wind, powerful but without a discoverable source, leaving no trace in the sky.

There is a wonderful scene in the film Black Robe, a film about the coming of Jesuitical Christianity to Canada in the early seventeenth century. A group of men are traveling by canoe. They are a mix of trappers, Jesuit priests, and Native American guides, the latter tentatively converted to Christianity. The canoes come around a bend. The spreading vista of a lake and deeply forested eastern mountains opens before them. It is a breathtaking scene of wilderness at the edge of winter, just before the first snows, before the grey waters freeze. Totally still, silent, vast, sleeping. One of the priests gasps. He curses the landscape as a God-forsaken, demon-ridden realm, wild, outside God’s laws. He is afraid. To him it is like death. It is without guarantees. It is without maps, wildly imperfect, without order, directionless, chaos. There is no reasoning with it.

Later in the film, the lead guide is wounded in a skirmish with a band of hunting Iroquois. The wound is mortal and he asks to be left to die on an island in the lake. The Jesuits struggle with this but eventually give in to his wishes, for he has become a burden to their mission. They pray for him and ask him to believe and that then God would admit him to heaven. But he does not believe. He has dreamed of this place and now realizes the dreams were death dreams. As his daughter paddles away with the Black Robes, she sees his spirit rise out of his body. He is smiling the smile of soul peace as his spirit walks toward the trees, his hand in the hand of the She-Manitou, the messenger of the Creator, to “walk the ghost trail in the stars.” It was not for him a question of belief or hope. It just was as it is. If you are the answer you cannot know the answer, you can only be the answer. Being cannot be acquired. We desire acquired wisdom (science) to become infused wisdom (Dharma). That isn’t how it works.

Until recently, I thought I first met St. Nadie in a not-very-coherent poem I wrote about twenty years ago, called “St. Nadie in Winter.” I did not recognize the voice had always been with me. It is clear to me now I was only half listening to the voice all that time. The poem had some surprising bits in it that I did not understand but that I knew held the seeds of something interesting. I spent many lines trying to make what I sensed to be important to come out. But I was in the middle of my long, painful apprenticeship to the art of poetry and, like any apprentice, I did not have the master’s perspective. Desire, death, remembering, freedom, and fear were things I had not lived sufficiently. I was so busy looking for meaning for me I couldn’t hear the wisdom of No One. I ended up playing a game of words and pretend. We do not leave make-believe behind when we emerge into so-called adulthood. We just call it rationalization. It is said rationalization is more important to life than money, food, or sex. While we can get through weeks, months, even years without some of these others, it is impossible to get through a single day without rationalizing something. How difficult it is to know the actuality of our inner voice, to know it is not some fiction we have created, a rationalized mask over our own godless wildness. I wanted to be free of myself and was at the same time afraid that to be so was a kind of death.

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