The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good: An Obstacle to the Spread of Tibetan Buddhism

© 2014 Charles T. Tart

While I’m not a good follower of any particular religion or spiritual tradition, I do think enormous amounts of perspectives and practices that increase human wisdom and decrease human suffering are embedded in the world’s religions and spiritual traditions, and I would like to see such knowledge and practices refined and made more effective.  It’s one thing to be told you ought to be good, in spite of the basic biological instincts that are driving our behavior.  It’s another thing to have had actual experiences of some larger spiritual reality which make it natural and intelligent to be spacious, wise, and compassionate.  Toward this end, although I don’t characterize myself as a “Buddhist,” much less a “good Buddhist,” I’ve found Buddhism, in various forms, particularly useful for our times.  I was  recently talking with some lamas about ways to help the Tibetan Buddhist dharma spread in modern, Western culture.  This small note to members of this meeting group, lamas and Westerners, is about a particular obstacle to that which is especially prominent in Tibetan Buddhism.


There was a point touched on in our recent discussions that I really wanted to expand on, but we ran out of time, so I’ll mention it here while it’s fresh in my mind.  I’m sure my perception is overly simplified, but I think it’s worth thinking about.

I have taken teachings from many Tibetan lamas, and, almost universally, they present themselves as passing down the teachings of a Lineage, with (1) each previous teacher being a Perfect Master (although they don’t say this about themselves), and (2) that the possibility of enlightenment within this lifetime is totally dependent upon your devotion to the current teacher of the lineage.

When I’m presenting myself as a student, when I take teachings, rather than as a scientist and learned scholar, as in our meetings, I try not to question this pair of claims, and I try to maintain an attitude of listening and trying to understand, as that’s why I’m there.  I know my own knowledge is in adequate and I want to learn from those who know so much more than I about exceptionally important matters.  I know, from my own unfortunate experience, that if I try to be a scientist and professor while taking teachings, my previous ideas, prejudices, and beliefs are certainly going to get in the way of my understanding, and probably my ego will be strengthened by the intellectual objections it could raise to aspects of the teachings, making me feel especially smart and competent.  Such an outcome is of no use to me for trying to learn, and I am moderately successful at at putting the scientist and professor aside while taking teachings, and listening and trying to understand with a relatively open mind.

At the same time, I have studied my own psychological processes in depth over my lifetime, so I recognize that I (and probably almost all Western students) have a childish part of me that is emotionally powerful, that can distort my perceptions and thinking, and that desperately wants a Perfect Being, a perfectly loving Father or Mother, to take charge of my life, so I won’t have to think for myself and would never make a mistake or suffer again.  Western psychology has made it clear, as well as my own experience, that this attitude, especially when it’s relatively unconscious, makes me more neurotic and less effective at learning anything about life.

So when a lama teaches the perfection of his or her particular lineage, and the necessity of total devotion to the teacher, it has tremendous appeal to this childish part of ourselves and you get very unrealistic perceptions and feelings, what’s technically been called a transference reaction, to the teacher.  While transference can produce powerful emotional effects, is very likely to go in the wrong direction psychologically.  The student is “in love” with the teacher, but the basis for that love is primarily a fantasy, so the consequences are likely to be quite negative.  I’ve seen it many times in others over the years who thought they had the most wonderful teacher in the world, thought they had made great spiritual progress, and then, when the teacher did things that did not fit with the students fantastic ideas of perfection, the student went to the totally opposite extreme, saw the teacher as a fraud and a charlatan, and lost practically all benefit from whatever teachings they might have received.

So the first obstacle for spreading the Dharma is that this way of presentation appeals to something very childish and neurotic people: do you want them to be the main people who are attracted and become students?  Secondly, many Westerners are quite sophisticated about the fact that all religions and spiritual movements, whatever their source or ultimate truth, are practiced by human beings, and real human beings have faults and make mistakes.  Thus for these more sophisticated potential students, when they hear claims of a perfect lineage and the need for total devotion to the teacher, they suspect that the lineage and teachers are themselves deluded and/or practicing some kind of scam on naïve people.  Thus some very intelligent potential students are repelled right from the beginning by this kind of approach.

I have been waiting for years, without success, to go to a teaching where the teacher will occasionally remind the students that we teachers in the lineage are human beings, we have, to the best of our knowledge, good intentions to help other people, as well as enough personal knowledge and experience to have been considered lineage holders by our own teachers, but we make mistakes and we don’t know everything.  So, if we teach something that doesn’t really make sense when you examine it further, or suggest you practice something that doesn’t work for you or that works badly, we’re sorry, we thought this would help, but give us a break, were just human, and doing our best.

As part of trying to learn from teachers, I have tried to take that attitude, even if they never say anything like that, so I think I’ve had fewer problems than many students I’ve seen in having extreme reactions to something a teacher does that does not come up to my standards of perfection.

I’m sure “perfect students” can overcome this obstacle, but I’m certainly not one….

Funny, lately I’ve kept coming across an old saying, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Anyway, it’s something to think about.  As I said at our meeting, I think it’s important that various lineages remain intact because that provides a special kind of training in realization that gives a deep life to the teaching, but also in the West there are going to be many variations on the teachings, both for good reasons and bad reasons, and there’s nothing that can be done about it but hope for the best and give them guidance when possible.





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