Wild Geese

Wednesday January 18, 2006


A few weeks ago, I attended a film on the life and teaching of the 11 th and 12 th Century Islamic philosopher Al-Ghazzali at Birmingham’s ever-wonderful Electric Cinema. As well as the film, there was a talk and chance for questions with the film director and an Islamic scholar from the British Library.

It was an altogether fascinating event, and I appreciated getting to know this extraordinary thinker a little better. I was impressed also by the way that Al-Ghazzali’s biography was explored in the film. Although the film was a testimony to an incredible admiration, nowhere was there any indication that Al-Ghazzali was in any way perfect or immune from human shortcomings. Yes, he was an impressive individual. But he, like all of us, had his weaknesses: the speakers spoke freely not only of his brilliance, but also of his arrogance, his pride and his occasionally harsh treatment of others. Of course, in Islam human beings simply cannot be perfect. Perfection belongs to God. We are imperfect. But that does not make us lost causes: we do not need to be perfect for our lives to be worthwhile.

I was stuck by the difference between this human evaluation of this clearly very great man, and the kind of hagiographies that tend to occur in Buddhism. I must confess here that I am uneasy with many Buddhist hagiographies, and I am uncertain of the value of thinking in terms of perfection, because I think that it can tend to obscure or even denigrate our humanity. Do we really understand the Dalai Lama (or any other Buddhist figure – take your pick!) better, for example, by assuming that he is perfect? Hagiography may uplift the faithful, but it often obscures the real social, political, historical and, above all human contexts in which we all live and move.

What, after all, does perfection mean? And on what basis might we make such a claim that this or that person was perfect? It is not only that I haven’t met any perfect human beings (although I don’t think I have) but also that I simply wouldn’t know what it would be for a human being to be perfect. I wonder if the dream of some kind of perfection is a potentially dangerous delusion, obscuring a truly attentive appreciation of what it is to be human, independent of the judgements of “perfect” and “imperfect”, and leading to harsh judgements upon those who we deem to be less than perfect. The pursuit of perfection can lead to a disdain for what we, most deeply, are, a frustration with ourselves, with others and with the world. Perhaps it is more frutiful to see that it is possible to lead lives of many excellences, without these being perfect lives; to see that all of us are prone to error, to the many limitations and shortcomings that simply come from being human, without seeing these errors as defeats: and on this basis to work continually not towards perfection, but towards something that is both quieter and more meaningful…

Why practise, it might be asked, if practice is not about perfection? Because, I would suggest, it is not necessary to be perfect to act with kindness. It is not necessary to be omniscient to have a degree of wisdom. Because we can open up spaces of kindness, grace and dignity within this world without having to wait for perfection before we do so. Because apart from anything else, time, it seems to me, is limited: far too short to be chasing after perfection.

The following poem, I think, says it all. I discovered it on retreat recently, and it has continued to play on my mind. It is called Wild Geese, and was written by the wonderful Mary Oliver.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

# · Terry

Isn’t everything perfect in the moment, how could it be any different? Of course it could be different but then something or someone would have to change and then that moment too would be perfect!

# · Don

I’ve been reading a lot of buddhabooks since christmas. Struggling with the ‘hagiography’, among other primitive tendencies of buddhism. I was feeling depressed as I sensed that the more I study buddhist thought, the more it will appear like a repackaging of the christianity I grew up with. When I read the Mary Oliver poem, I was rather astonished that I had repeated the same words during a responsive reading at a Unitarian Universalist service last week. What a coincidence.

# · Gareth

Hi Will..

I remember when I first encountered Wild Geese, about a year ago – and it really struck a chord with me then, as it does now. Thank you for posting it.

I’ve encountered a great deal of hagiography myself – it’s fascinating to observe different people’s thoughts about ,and reactions to, the same person. Often perspectives that are in complete opposition to one another- which is right?

Take your pick…

# · Dave

The Oliver poem is great, but I was really liking your post even without it.

I just finished Patrick French’s book Tibet, Tibet. I found that his warts-and-all portrait of the Dalai Lama actually raised my estimation of the man. To think that such a gifted person could also be capable of great blunders is so much more conducive of a compassionate (and therefore realistic?) view than simple idolization.

# · Will

Hi, Dave,

I loved Patrick French’s “Younghusband” – one of the most entertaining and affectionate biograpies I have ever read. So Tibet, Tibet has gone onto my reading list. Thanks for letting me know it is out there.

Yes, I think that you are right about an honest look at somebody making them eventually seem more impressive than any amount of idolization.

All the best,


# · Dave

Oh, in that case I should elaborate a bit: Tibet, Tibet is simply the best book on the country I’ve ever read. The subtitle describes it as “a personal history,” which is probably more accurate than to say simply that it is a travel book. French is highly critical of the unreal “Tibet of the mind,” as he calls it, even while acknowledging this Western fantasy’s hold on his own imagination. He also sketches indelible portraits of the former Panchen Lama, Mao, and the Cultural Revolution, not to mention some of the characters he met on his journey (and previously during his years at Dharamsala). The book includes a thorough but unobtrusive critical apparatus for those who want to explore further.

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