Giving up self improvement
How to give up self-improvement (from the Appendix to "The Life and Letters of Tofu Roshi" by Susan Ichi Su Moon, Shambala 1988)
I want to talk to you today about the importance of giving up self-improvement. This is one of our hardest tasks, as we train ourselves to follow the Buddha Way. In this modern age, we are met at every turn by new and tempting opportunieis to improve ourselves. We are offered everything from workshops on how to be a better parent to classes in strengthening the quadriceps. We are so deeply habituated to this way of thinking that we do not even recognize it in ourselves. This is the great danger. How many of you first began to sit zazen with the hope that it would in some way make you a better person? For many of us it may take years of hard practice before we are completely sure that we have hoped in vain. Buddhism teaches us that everything always changes, but we must finally admit that it does not change for the better.
...Giving up self-improvement is easier said than done. Each of us must walk this path alone, going nowhere.
...I respectfully ask you not to waste your time. You may delude yourself by promising to give up self-improvement soon, after you have stopped biting your fingernails, lost ten pounds, or learned to jitterbug. This is a trap. Tomorrow it may be too late - in the final stages of the disease, the sufferer loses all control and those around him find themselves hiding course catalogues and health-club brochures. ..
...Remember, you are perfect already, exactly as you are. In a manner of speaking. And if you were really perfect, you wouldn't have a friend in the world.
I love this book - a fictional account of the author learning about zen from a wonderfully entertaining but fictional master, Tofu Roshi.
The appendix on how to give up self-improvement is something I had not really noticed when I first read the book back in the early 90s. Now, having spent more time with zen I see the amazing value in this. The rarity of it alone should spark the reader's interest - what religion or activity sells itself by saying that it should not be used to improve yourself. That trying to do so is besides the entire point?
I also am drawn to this appendix because I am a relentless self-improver. I doubt I could stop, but perhaps this only shows how little experience I have with zen?
For example, I am virtually unable to eat "empty calories" - for food to be suitable to me it must offer some nutritional value (the more the better). Especially good are foods claimed to help reduce the chance of cancer or heart disease. Keeping up with the information of which foods are best etc is time consuming but I enjoy it. Is it a sickness? Is it a distraction from experiencing the rest of the world - an inward focus that prevents a relaxed enjoyment of life? Most would say "of course not" but I sometimes envy those humans whose families and cultures have lived in the same place for centuries and simply eat the same foods their ancestors ate. They enjoy them and don't worry about them - they eat for the pleasure of it, not because they've determined it benefits them health-wise.
Saw the movie "Click" last night. It's got some very Zen-like philosophy in it (about taking time to enjoy a quality life moment by moment rather than throwing away the present to achieve a better future).