There was a beautiful garden inside a famous Zen temple complex. The man in charge of maintaining the garden was quite passionate about his work. He loved weeding, fertilising, cleaning, pruning and planting around all day. Frequently, the gardener would notice an old Zen master who would be standing beyond the garden walls and observe him doing his work, with great compassion reflected in his eyes.
One day, the gardener learnt that there would be important dignitaries visiting the temple. This news inspired him to work extra hard—he carefully pulled out all the weeds, pruned the shrubs, combed the moss, and spent a long time meticulously raking up and carefully arranging all the dry autumn leaves.
As he worked, the old Zen master standing beyond the garden wall watched him with interest. When he had finished, the gardener stood back to admire his work. He turned to the old man watching and asked, “Doesn’t it look beautiful?”
“Indeed,” replied the Zen master, “but there’s something amiss. If you’d like, I’ll put it right for you.”
The gardener hesitated at first but then the compassionate look on the master’s face made him nod in consent and he walked towards the old man and helped him climb down the wall. Slowly, the master walked to one of the trees in the middle of the garden, held it with both hands and shook it up. Dry leaves fell down all around the garden. “There,” said the old man, “now you’re done.”
Perfection in imperfection
The Zen story reveals how the human mind has been trained to have fixed ideas about what constitutes perfection and imperfection. In fact, the very idea of imperfection is absurd because how can there be anything imperfect, unless there was someone to judge it as being so.
Imperfection is only a concept. There is nothing imperfect in existence. Can’t be! It’s very existence makes it “perfect”. But we have notions of perfect/imperfect fed into our heads from early age. Imperfection is a subjective phenomenon, totally depending on the individual. In absence of a mind that discriminates, there is only perfection.
In our highly mechanised society, we are used to machine-made things—from our food to our cars, everything is manufactured to specifications and cloned in factories so that every item that comes out of the assembly resembles every other item exactly. If there is even a slight variation, it is considered defective and not fit for consumption.
No two snowflakes are alike
But life isn’t created on an assembly line. It comes in all shapes and sizes, never repeating itself, no matter how many trillion life forms take birth. The reason why every snowflake is unique is that the greater Intelligence that powers our Universe is creative and original. It isn’t concerned about trying to impress anyone; nor does it rely on any die to produce life forms.
Manicured gardens might be soothing to our disciplined minds that have learned to put everything in a certain structure but life grows wild and untamed. Life flourishes when Nature is left to its own. Untouched by humans, it finds its own way to thrive—a phenomenon we urban dwellers find difficult to appreciate or understand. The beauty of such unrestricted growth is not the same as the concepts of beauty that we have grown to accept as standard.
The autumn leaves are dry and brown but they are part of life’s circle of birth and death. When left alone, these leaves merge with the soil in due course and soon new life springs forth from it. The old, dead leaves shed their old form and come back in the form of new growth. Seen from this perspective, autumn leaves reflect the perfection of life. And perhaps that is why the Zen master decorated the garden with the autumn leaves.
We extend the idea of perfection and imperfection even to our relationships—a phenomenon reinforced daily by commercials in which perfect relationships are achieved when you use or own products that make you the “perfect” partner.
Relationships are dynamic and evolve constantly. Aiming to have a “perfect” relationship assumes that there can be such a thing as an “imperfect” relationship. When we do so, we miss the point of relationships completely. All relationships are perfect because they serve as mirrors reflecting what we need to learn the most. They offer us the impetus to know ourselves intimately and to grow as individuals.
The Japanese tradition of Wabi Sabi respects the idea that life is always perfect and that is why it honours the so-called imperfection in outward aesthetics. By definition, Wabi Sabi is the art of finding beauty in the imperfect, the impermanent and the incomplete. A crack in the porcelain mug, for instance, would make it unfit for use in our modern, westernised culture. However, in Japan, it is revered as a sign of authentic beauty and a gentle reminder of the impermanent nature of existence.
No matter how conventionally beautiful and “perfect”, every form disintegrates with time. Seen from our finite perspectives, this transience and imperfection of life may seem dreadful. But such transience and imperfection is what makes life truly beautiful and worth cherishing, if only you care to look at it that way.
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