We all make mistakes from time to time. Life is about learning to make our mistakes less often. To realize this goal, we have a policy in our monastery that monks are allowed to make mistakes. When the monks are not afraid to make mistakes, they don’t make so many.
–Ajahn Brahm, from Opening the Door of Your Heart (Lothian Books)
James: (I am not a teacher and the following are my thoughts and mine alone). I have often found that perfectionism is a common obstacle to many people. Striving for perfection is in my view another form of desire because we refuse to accept that we are already perfect as all has Buddha nature. Perfectionism asserts that mistakes are negative and signs of failure.
In reality we can not make progress without making mistakes. If we adjust our lives so that we won't make many mistakes then we greatly hinder our chances and opportunities to peel away the layers of karma to reveal the perfect jewel of enlightenment. Not to mention loosing out on a lot of the joys of life out of a fear of making mistakes. But guess what?--everyone makes mistakes and suffers pain.
Even Buddha suffered aches and pains after his enlightenment. He understand that, "Enlightened people do not cease to experience the pain of existence. They only stop creating illusions that amplify that pain and cause new suffering." However, If we compare ourselves say to advanced students or the great teachers then we will come up feeling inadequate and get discouraged to where it would be easy to give up the Dharma thinking we will never become who they are.
The key I think is to set modest goals and realize that the middle-path isn't a short-cut or express lane but rather a journey that will most likely take many, many, many lives to fulfill. There is no reason to be discouraged by this, however, because instead it takes the pressure off of feeling like we have to realize enlightenment in this life, which often brings frustration, low self-esteem and discouragement. Of course we should strive to do our best and live the Dharma as best we can but mistakes will happen and that is simply apart of the journey. Step by step, moment by moment, enlightenment unveils itself.
When we refuse to accept imperfection then we set ourselves up for disappointment and suffering. On the contrary when we accept that things don't have to be perfect to be good or beneficial then we can stop worrying so much and enjoy being perfect in our imperfections!! I think that is one of the reasons why the teaching on the present moment is so important because it is keeping goals realistic. Thus the teaching of "before enlightenment I chopped wood and carried water and after enlightenment I chopped wood and carried water."
Before enlightenment perhaps we chopped wood and carried water with a constant thought stream of self-judgments such as: "I should be chopping wood faster," or "Look at how much water is splashing over the side of the bucket, I must be worthless at this job." Little perhaps do we realize that like a famous story goes--the water splashing over the side of the bucket could be watering flowers down below, flowers that we did not notice because our focus was on trying to be perfect.
After enlightenment chopping wood and carrying water is perfection already expressed because the focus is no longer on doing the task perfectly but on simply doing and fully experiencing the task itself as it unfolds.