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My Bad

How has a mistake, shortcoming, or misfortune enriched your Buddhist practice?

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As students of Buddhism, we try to be good people. In our practice, we try to cultivate the paramitas— patience, generosity, exertion, and the like—for these are essential to a well-lived life. And not only do we try to be good people living a good life; we aspire to be enlightened people living an enlightened life. But let’s face it: most of the time we’re greedy, crazy, and full of ourselves, just like everyone else.

We are, after all, deluded beings. We make mistakes, including mistakes in how we tread the path. Some of them are enormous, some of them are silly, some of them are enormously silly. We are human beings. We suffer, like Hamlet, the slings and arrows of our outrageous fortunes, to say nothing of the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

But sometimes it is precisely such things—our mistakes, our shortcomings, our misfortunes—that are the source of our best learning. We at Tricycle thought that in our second annual Tricycle Question we would try to shine more light on this side of practice. We asked ten practitioners and teachers to share their experience.

So here is our question:

How has a mistake, shortcoming, or misfortune enriched your Buddhist practice?

My Bad
Illustrations © Minette Mangahas

Susan Moon
Susan MoonI have heard people say, “The first time I sat down in the zendo, I knew I was home.” That certainly didn’t happen to me. Over thirty-five years ago, soon after I paid my first visit to the Berkeley Zen Center, there was a one-day sitting, and Abbot Mel Weitsman suggested to me that, since I was a beginner, I could just sit in the morning and leave at lunch. The minutes stretched out into aeons, my knees hurt, and my mind hurt even worse. What was I doing there? I must be crazy! I wanted to find the deepest truth, and they were telling me to count my breaths! I was claustrophobic in the tiny attic—hot, dizzy, overcome by waves of nausea. Everything went black, and I had to put my head down on the floor in front of me.

When I got home, my housemate asked me how the sitting was. I said it was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life.

“Really?” he said. “What’s so hard about sitting quietly on a cushion for a few hours?”

But I kept at it. I love the teachings of Shantideva, the koans, Dogen. I love bowing, incense, chanting, oryoki meals. And I love the idea of zazen, of quiet contemplation.

Many years after that first one-day sitting, I bought myself a sitting robe and went to a three-month practice period at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery, in northern California. I loved everything about it except sitting zazen, the heart of our practice. Period after period, I wrestled with my monkey mind, left off counting breaths to count how many states I’d been through the night before, searched for meaning, gave up, tried again. During breaks, I sat in the garden and wept.

Then I read of the ancient Chinese Zen master who told his student, “To wear this robe and not understand the great matter is the greatest misery.” This was a comfort! That old Chan master knew how I felt. I wasn’t alone.

Susan Moon, a Soto Zen teacher, is the author of “The Life and Letters of Tofu Roshi” and editor of “Not Turning Away: The Practice of Engaged Buddhism.”

Mushim Ikeda-Nash
Mushim Ikeda-NashIn August 1988, I returned from eight months of monastic Zen practice on a mountain in South Korea. When I landed at the airport in San Francisco, my head was shaved, I was wearing gray monastic robes, I had around fifteen dollars in cash and no savings, and I was pregnant. Since the order into which I’d been ordained was celibate, getting pregnant was most definitely a mistake, revealing some deep shortcomings in both the monastic system and my own ability to keep the precepts, and resulting in the misfortune of having to contemplate getting an abortion. Most people I knew agreed that this would be the sensible thing to do.

But I just couldn’t bear to. I figured I needed to find a way to continue with my practice and find work, and that’s what I did. When I was five months pregnant, I sat the Rohatsu sesshin on Mount Baldy with Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. He gave me the koan “How do you manifest true nature as baby?” He also said, “You must educate baby!”

I’d read that if you stick out your tongue at a newborn, the baby will imitate you. “This may be the only chance I have to give it a try!” I thought the day my son was born. I stuck out my tongue and my son mirrored me without hesitation, thrusting out a tongue the size of a raspberry. He looked slightly amused and very tired and relieved to have made it into this next round of existence. I knew at that moment that this “mistake” had resulted in the happiest moment of my life.

But I was mistaken again. Each moment afterward has been even better. As I write this I have the flu, so I’m languishing and being cared for by my twenty-year-old. He’s frying an egg for me and making some toast!

Mushim Ikeda-Nash leads meditation retreats for people of color at Vallecitos Mountain Refuge, Manzanita Village, and Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, and is a core teacher at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland.

Andy CooperAndrew Cooper
My failure to accomplish or attain any of what I had hoped I would when I set out on the Buddhist path is, I think, the thing that has most enriched my practice, such as it is.

Andrew Cooper is a contributing editor at Tricycle.

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awd-s's picture

In 2008, my normal equanimity departed, replaced by raging monkey-mind and feelings of depression. I recognized what was happening to me. I got myself a medical inspection and was prescribed medication. On reading the drug information sheet, I was alarmed by the long list of potential side effects. I balked and gave myself six months to regain my composure by other means: by aerobic exercise, and by joining a church and meditation group. Doing so introduced me to new people, ultimately opening the way to Buddhist practice. One day, after about four months, I realized my depression had departed and my equanimity was restored. Faced with the alternatives of easy or hard, I chose the harder road to travel; that decision changed the direction of my life for the better. Looking back, I can see that I have often taken the road less traveled leading to this moment now.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism teaches that life at each moment encompasses all phenomena. Because of our profound connection with the world around us, it behooves the practitioner to reach out to others, to be engaged with our community.Self-absorption or theorization with no action is not Buddhism.

eror's picture

That's an inspiring story, thank you for sharing it. Much braver than i.

filmtao's picture

This was during my first intensive with Adyashanti. I went to the microphone with a question about the void and at one point I proudly stated that I was "open" as a person. "Well, Miss open", said he..and he continued speaking.

Just that phrase hit home and filled me with embarassment for he had seen through, and sensed my delusion. I was displaying spiritual ego up there at the microphone. He had quoted his teacher as saying, "only phonies don't get enlightened." I felt like a phoney that day.

Kenneth Daly's picture

For years I have asked job applicants a question about how they handled the worst mistake they ever made.  I said I didn't want or need to know what the mistake was, but just how they handled it.  There were no right answers to the question, but there was one definitely bad answer: I don't make mistakes.  In about 20 years of interviews, only one person flat out said "I don't make mistakes."  A few struggled with their answers as they fought the inclination to say they didn't make mistakes.  Interestingly, a number were quite open and honest about what the mistake was.  Many gave what they thought was the "correct" answer, i.e., that they admitted the mistake and took responsiblity.  Among them it was fascinating to try to discern whether they really meant it.  In any case, I found this "my bad" series interesting for the same variety of responses, ranging from personal acceptance of the respondent's fallibility to rote recitation of a book answer. 

Not that my insight into myself is any better.  I thought about making this comment for a few days.  It was only today that I said, wait a minute, this question applies to me, too.  When my wife was first diagnosed with brain cancer, I was interested in Buddhism as a philosophy,  In the 15 months since then, more and more Buddhism has become a practice that has kept me sane, particularly the four noble truths.  (1) Life sucks.  (2) Get over it.  (3) That means, get over yourself.  (4) Now, move on.

jblueq's picture

Your iteration of the 4 Noble Truths tickled me to outright laughter, at the same time thinking "Damn, now I finally have a way to present this to other people that makes sense to *them* in language they understand!" I liked your whole post, but that last little bit really made it special. Thank you, Kenneth.

Kellersmom7's picture

Please know you all do such a wonderful job at bringing us subscribers intersting and thoughtful articles.  So thank you all for everything you do.


Have a wonderful day. And for those who celebrate the upcoming Holidays; enjoy your time with family and friends!



Mudo's picture

Thirty years ago I was in New York City staying in a friend's loft in Soho. At the time I was looking into Zen practice, had read some books but had never sat zazen.

Looking in the Yellow Pages I discovered I was a mere two blocks from the Soho Zen Center. I called and was told of their beginner's night. The night came and I arrived (early!), walking up the stairs of an apartment on (as i remember) West Broadway.

Sitting in the kitchen at the top of the stairs, reading a newspaper and drinking tea was Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi. He indicated the direction of the zendo, a small room in the front of the apartment. 

There were two Asian men in the room already seated. I took my place on a cushion and twisted myself into a full lotus position. The three of us waited silently until Roshi appeared.

First thing he did was ask me (in a heavy Japanese accent) why I was sitting like that. I said I'd seen it in a book. He told me "You not ready for that" and I gratefully unfolded myself. He instructed us in breath counting and we sat for a couple of short periods. Afterwards he spoke for a few minutes. Then we were done.

I walked out of the zendo and was in the hallway when I heard Roshi's stern voice call out, "Scuse me!" Then again, louder, "SCUSE ME!" I peeked back into the zendo. He pointed at my cushion and said, "You leave your place a MESS! You clean your anus when you take a SHIT! This much more important than that!!"

I was horrified.

I slunk over and neatened my zafu and zabutan and dashed out.

Only later did I realize that in my haste I'd left my book (Aitken's "Taking the Path of Zen"). The next day I called and was given permission to come over and get it. 

Roshi was sitting in the kitchen reading the paper. I went to the closet and got my book and as i was leaving I said, "I'm terribly sorry about yesterday." He looked at me quizzically. "About leaving my place a mess," I explained.

"Oh that. Forget about that." He went back to his paper.

The lessons are obvious and have never left me.

janetmartha's picture

love this! _/\_