The (Surprising) Imperfection in Perfection

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Lao Tze said that great completion seems lacking.

In Japanese aesthetics, there is a notion called Wabi-Sabi. I host an Internet group which features this art form. Essentially, it features the beauty of imperfection. There is an unusual beauty in the impermanent, incomplete, flawed, aged and weathered objects. Perhaps this is the very definition of “soul,” which deals with depth and non-superficial beauty.

Now, how about the other way around? Is there imperfection in perfection? I think there is. In the 90s, I read the very first book in the Western world which deals with this type of aesthetics. It is the book, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, by Leonard Koren. Koren compares and contrasts wabi-sabi art with modern art. Modern art aims for perfection. In modern architecture, we often see perfectly straight lines, perfectly round circles, perfectly symmetric objects, perfectly slick and perfectly polished surfaces, etc. Note that such ideal of perfection is not seen in natural and authentic objects. Natural objects are not perfectly straight or round. They tend to have flaws and imperfections. They also tend to show wear-and-tear. Paradoxically, it is such imperfection and wear-and-tear which makes the objects more interesting. In addition, the presence of flaws tend to be an indicator for authenticity. If you see a leaf which does not have bite marks or yellow spots, it is probably not a real one.

Alan Watts is one of the forefathers of American Zen. To me, he is the master of integrating Eastern philosophy (associated with Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism) with Western theology and Christian thought. In particular, his rendering of Vedic wisdom into simple layman’s terms is superb. We have a common saying — be careful with what you wish for. Another idiom says that “the grass is always greener on the other side.” Many of us have complained that life sucks. Verily, the life of an ordinary human being is not easy. There are all kinds of challenges. Alan Watts once invited us to do a thought experiment — imagine that we were God. Would this be better? Would this take care of our problems? As God, whatever we dream or desire, it immediately becomes reality. Is this good then? Is it an ideal situation? This may seem like perfection in the beginning, but then we would become used to it. Once habituation sinks in, it would become boring. If we always get what we want, would life even be meaningful? What should God do?

God’s problem is that there is too much perfection and there is no surprise or drama. God is omnipotent and He knows everything. Ironically, this is a curse — for life becomes flat. How can God get out of this pickle? The only thing God can do is to forget that He is God. He dreams a dream of being a mortal, with various limitations and frustrations in life. What He wants may not materialize. There is no unpredictability. He no longer knows everything. Also, He no longer lives forever. He gets sick, gets old and dies. Leaving the perfection of being God, all of a sudden, there arises the possibility of experiencing both joy and pain, ecstasy and despair, ups and downs. He can now experience passion. He has to struggle against the odds as He tries to get things done. In his new life as a mortal, he will have laughter and tears. He can now experience the full spectrum of human emotions. A mortal can fall in love and he faces the real possibility to have his heart broken.

There is a Chinese saying that it is more enviable to be lovers than to be immortals. The point is not to live in perfect bliss. It is to experience fully what it means to live! This is not possible if you are God who always get what you want. Chinese folk tales are full of stories about goddesses (or daughters of Heaven) giving up their immortality and the bliss of heaven to come to the human world, just to experience romance and the sentient life. They know that the human experience, even though it is full of difficulties, is richer than life in paradise. A similar theme can be found in Western fairy tales also. Hans Christian Andersen told the tale of Little Mermaid, who forsakes her wonderful sea world to become human, enduring excruciating pain. “Common sense” tells us that it is better to be an immortal living in a problem-free, suffering-free world. Christians aspire to a life in heaven. Buddhists dream of Nirvana. But Mark Twain portrayed “the good place” as a place where “all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever.” Somehow, that notion of heaven sounds like eternal boredom to me.

The imperfect human life is a rich experience which gods and immortals are envious of. This is perhaps the secret that few people know. But it is revealed in the Vedas and in Taoist folk tales. The Vedas tells a story of God forgetting Himself and taking the myriad forms of creation in order to put Lila (divine play) into action. Imperfections and limitations are beautiful.

So, God becomes human. It is more fun!

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