QUESTION: After a good few years of working hard towards personal improvement and continually tripping over myself, I'm struggling to see any real change in my propensity for being foolish. Given the depth of my defectiveness, how realistic is it to expect a significant change at the human level?
SHORT ANSWER: Wrong target.
LONGER ANSWER: To err is human. It does not end. Insight might grow, but that is not an end in itself. Insight might give rise to boredom, however, which could be useful. There is an inevitable self-contradiction - and, therefore, self-defeat - in the notion of ‘self-improvement’. However, while we are ‘struggling to see’, the Buddhas can see us perfectly well already. We do not need to do their job for them, just play our own part.
Actually, viewing from the outside, an observer might well see great ‘improvement’ in you at the same time as you yourself find more and more reason to despair. It is not self-improvement that is required, only a diminution in self-concern. From that might well flow various observable ‘virtues’, but it is not by directly cultivating them that Dharma arrives. They are symptoms and by-products.
This is why teachers say, “Just do the practice and there will be no need to worry.” Chasing after an improved view of oneself is futile. Sometimes, when we examine ourselves, we see virtues and sometimes vices, but it is all just a hall of mirrors. In the morning I do my work. At lunchtime I prune the roses. In the afternoon I do a different job. In the evening I eat my dinner. Namo Amida Bu. Namo Amida Bu. Have I 'improved' in the process? Who knows! It is not my concern.
I think I need to write this on my hand where I can see it!!! I find it so tempting, the idea that I can improve myself, the idea that the chaos recedes a little more as time goes on and that the failings I have are worn away little by little. It does feel paradoxical too, that others (and myself) can see that good changes can and do happen over time, especially when we put ourselves in good conditions, but it feels difficult for me to put that worry (or hope of improvement) down - I keep picking it back up. Thank you Dharmavidya, Sujatin.
I just finished reading "The Other Buddhism, Amida comes West" which speaks to self-improvement quite a bit. There is, in particular, a sub-section titled "Foolish beings of wayward passion" which discusses the definition of "bombu." iI've gone back to this definition (or one very similar) many many times over the years to gain or re-gain perspective on my own project. Namu Amida Butsu