Embracing Imperfections

People who know me know how imperfect I am. Buddhists, on the whole, have an odd relationship with imperfection. I remember in an interview Barbara Walter’s asked the Dalai Lama if he was enlightened. Here is the exchange:

Barbara Walters: Are you enlightened, your Holiness?

Dalai Lama: No. I do not know what would happen tonight. I do not know. And my memory – what details? . . . what happened yesterday? – I’ve already forget.

Barbara Walters: If you were enlightened you would remember everything?

Dalai Lama: Oh yes.

Barbara Walters: You haven’t reached that stage yet?

Dalai Lama: No.

[End Quote]

If you were enlightened then you would remember everything? Now I’m going to give the Dalai Lama the benefit of the doubt here. He was asked on national (worldwide?) television if he was enlightened. How can you possibly answer such a question and still appear to be both humble and wise? His was a good answer: In effect he said, “If you think that being enlightened means being perfect and all-knowing – then I am not enlightened. I don’t know, maybe the Dalai Lama really believes that the Buddha was omniscient. Maybe he doesn’t. But that’s not the point.

The point is that many Buddhists do equate enlightenment with this kind of perfection. (They equate enlightenment with physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual perfection.)

And this is very unfortunate.

Enlightenment has nothing whatsoever to do with being perfect, period.

It seems to me that the closest an enlightened person might ever come to being perfect is in the acceptance of his or her own imperfections. (Although I suspect even his or her acceptance would be imperfect.)

Suppose (pre-enlightenment) you have a poor memory (are always forgetting people’s names), can’t roll your “R’s”, have unattractive feet, can’t hit a golf ball straight, are losing your hair, wear contact lens, have allergies, and . . . well you can’t even count the number of imperfections you have for there are so many (plus you’ve never been that good at math anyway), and have a habit of writing run-on sentences, then post-enlightenment you will most likely still have all of those imperfections. Maybe you wouldn’t even consider those imperfections.

This is kind of a nice thought. I mean if you’re a little insecure about your shortcomings now – the thought that even enlightenment wouldn’t fix them is, I think, a little comforting. I mean what more do you want?

In fact, I suspect that the closer you are to enlightenment the more imperfections you would notice in yourself.

What about character imperfections? Surely an enlightened person would have no character flaws. Can you imagine an enlightened individual who is either arrogant or humourless? The Buddha couldn’t possibly have been conceited or stubborn.

Maybe, maybe not – what do you think?

Certain imperfections you just can’t change. Some you can. Certain flaws slowly change through their very acceptance. Sometimes you just can’t remember why you ever considered a particular “imperfection” a flaw in the first place. Perhaps for some individuals enlightenment is easy and all the real work is done after enlightenment. In the sutras, Buddha occasionally comes across a little conceited. Might it have been the case that he was just plain arrogant and had to work on this character flaw for years following his enlightenment? Maybe he never quite licked it.

I really like the following excerpt from the song ‘Anthem’ by Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

This is beautiful. How could the light get in if you had no cracks? And I might add that those cracks (imperfections) are also needed for the light to get out. The more imperfections you notice in yourself the better! More imperfections = more light.

Oh, how wonderful! Noticing and accepting your many flaws – perhaps this is the ultimate spiritual practice.

Radiant spiritual light is shining through the multitude of our embraced (even partially embraced) imperfections!

Wow! Doesn’t the mere thought of this make you want to go stand naked in front of a full length mirror under bright lights in order to search for and embrace your own imperfections? (Uhh . . . maybe it’s just me, never mind.)



  1. Tallis,
    I agree with you that enlightenment has nothing whatsoever to do with perfection. But furthermore, what is "perfection" anyway? Awise man once told me that perfection is yet another human construct that doesn't exist independent of the human mind. I think that's true.

    Ans speaking of Leonard Cohen (an all-time fave of mine by the way), I wonder if you have seen this excellent video where 'ol Leonard talks about his Buddhist practice. He has some wonderful insights...perhaps you would enjoy it:

  2. forest wisdom,

    Thank you for your perceptive comment. I just watched the Leonard Cohen video. I'm not sure which I like more, the way he talks or what he says – he’s an interesting guy. Thanks for the link.

  3. I think the way he talks and what he says are part and parcel of each other. Yes, he is a cool dude. I wouldn't mind being like him when I "grow up." ;)

  4. is enlightenment just a case of the kundalini energy rising up out of the head? or does the kundalini not require to be raised for one to become enlightened. im perhaps a bit too attached to this idea. heh. z.

  5. hi z,

    I’ve always thought of kundalini rising as a kind of positive (perhaps necessary) consequence (by-product) of certain forms of deep meditation – but not as a sufficient or necessary cause of enlightenment in and of itself. Let me know what you discover . . .

  6. The kundalini thing happened to me. It was accidentally stimulated by ethnogens and I experienced a sort of 'ego death', followed by a total withdrawl of senses, followed by a return to the senses immediately following a 'conversation' with a higher being in a formless realm. All that and I'm not enlightened, although I've certainly 'lightened up' significantly since then :-)

    I follow the Theravedan practice which leads to attainment in stages, including direct perception of subatomic particles as an 'entry point' to higher training.

    I was a serious runner back in high school. We used to sit at the lunch table and work out the ideal quarter mile splits for our ideal mile run. Fun exercise, and it built up our intent, but the actual mile time was primarily conditioned by daily practice and sheer presence of mind during the race. Enlightenment? Go for it! Really! Keep going!

  7. Perfection is, I think, a chimera not worth bothering with, implying as it does something that isn't.

  8. "Enlightenment has nothing whatsoever to do with being perfect, period." Excellent sentence there Tallis! I agree completely.

    I've always said our perfection is in the knowledge and acceptance of being an imperfect being.

    I really enjoy your writing. Keep up the good work!

  9. Hi Grayson,

    This post stimulated a couple of thoughts in me:

    (1) The baby panic (or Moro) reflex has two stages. The first is a sharp withdrawal of the arms. The second is a kind of embracing / clasping response.

    (2) My Alexander teacher Marjory Barlow used to recommend, as an exercise in inhibiting habitual reaction, just looking at oneself in a mirror. Just looking, and seeing how possible it is not to want to change anything.

    Putting these two together, I think that the wish to embrace one's imperfections is liable to be a kind of reaction rooted in fear -- not the same as really cutting out the root of suffering.

    Whatever view you or I express about enlightenment, the reality of it is always Not That! I think that DL in his wisdom gave an answer that arose out of knowing that it is always Not That!

    All the best,


  10. Enlightenment to me is a journey, not a destination.

    Thus, it is important to walk this journey with Wisdom and Compassion.


  11. Dear Tallis,

    A nice article.I copied the link of this article for further reference in my blog.

    For me, the path of enlightenment should be at least starting with self-awareness.The practice should be gradually approaching. Maybe perfection is complete humbleness of a being since he has seen zeroness and his personal god in him.


  12. Kyle, thank-you for the encouragement. Your blog is refreshing to say the least; I never know what I’ll find there.

  13. Mike, I can always count on you to see the other side. Thanks for your insight.

  14. Robin, perhaps enlightenment is both a journey and a destination; perhaps it is neither of these things. Regardless, I enjoy the cats.

  15. Burmakin, thanks for the link. Nice blog!