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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?

Joan Halifax
Joan Halifax Roshi“When you see something, shine through it; when you hear, shine through what you are hearing; shine through the five skandhas; shine through the six fields of sense perception—in front, behind, left and right, through seven calamities and eight disasters, become one with radiant vision of the whole body. See through all things, internal and external; shine through them. When this work becomes solid, then perception of reality will be perfectly, distinctly clear, just like looking at the palm of your hand.

“At this point, while increasing the use of this clear knowing and insight, if you enter awakening, then shine through awakening. If you get into agreeable circumstances, then shine through agreeable circumstances. If you fall into adverse situations, then shine through adverse situations. When greed or desire arise, shine through greed and desire; when hatred or anger arise, shine through hatred and anger; when you act out of ignorance, shine through ignorance. When the three poisons of hatred, greed, and ignorance are no more, and the mind is pure, shine through that pure mind. At all times, in all places, be it desires, senses, gain, loss, right, wrong, visions of Buddha or of dharma, in all things shine through with your whole body.—Hakuin’s “Four Ways of Knowing”

One time, my first Zen teacher said: “Good karma is bad karma; bad karma is good karma.” Little did I realize how accurate he was. Thus I welcome every adversity.

Joan Halifax is the founder, abbot, and head teacher of Upaya Zen Center, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Lin Jensen
Lin JensenI had the goods on my father and pressed my advantage to the fullest. Out of misguided national pride, Father had offered a visitor from his Danish homeland a higher salary than he’d ever paid any of the farmhands who’d worked for him for years, and they’d noticed: “I guess you’ve got to speak Danish to get a raise,” was the way they put it. I told him off and he folded because I was right and he was wrong.

The showdown took place in the hallway between the bedrooms and the bathroom. I was on my way to the fields to work. I was sixteen at the time, and had never talked back before. Father would shut me up, saying, “I don’t want another word out of you,” and he’d mean it. Another word would result in a beating that left welts on my butt for weeks. Father had just gotten up and was still in his pajamas. Why I chose this time, I don’t know. I guess I’d been waiting in ambush for just such a moment. A father in pajamas is no match for a grown son in field pants and boots.

I can be hard to take when I’m wrong, but I’m often insufferable when I’m right. It doesn’t help much to be right. I’ve learned that much about life, thanks to the pain and embarrassment that played out in the face of a man cornered in the hallway in his pajamas.

Lin Jensen is the Senior Buddhist Chaplain at High Desert State Prison, in Susanville, California. His most recent book is “Together Under One Roof: Making a Home of the Buddha’s Household.”

Pico Iyer
Pico IyerMy biggest mistake, of course, was thinking I wanted to pursue Buddhism. I had just discovered Asia and its ravishing aesthetics, and I knew that the regular life around me on the twenty-fifth floor of a midtown Manhattan office building wasn’t very real at all. But in my youth, eager to idealize the road less traveled, I was sure that whatever was the opposite of the unreal must, by definition, be real. So I took myself off to a temple on the backstreets of Kyoto, where I learned very soon all that Buddhism wasn’t: my projections, my romances, my delicate ideas of it. Solid ground, hard work, and fullbodied commitment to the moment seemed more the thing in a Zen setting.

I had thought it was important to become something; following my mistake suggested that it was important only to be something. I had imagined moonlit haiku on the meditation platform and strokes of wisdom from the wooden stick; I found that Buddhism in a living form seemed to be taking place much more approachably among those matrons munching “Moon-Viewing” burgers in the Golden Arches or those kids taught in the video-game arcade to think of others before themselves.

I couldn’t have known better, I suppose. I was born in England, to Hindu parents, and Buddhism, seen from there, was exoticism, a cool way of dropping out and even of rebranding oneself (while wondering what kind of “self” really exists).

Yet half a lifetime later, I’ve never left the vicinity of Kyoto, and I find myself in a room, a life, more monastic than any I could have imagined in my little temple space. My elderly friends at the ping-pong table teach me how to keep my eye on the ball. The girl at the 7-Eleven offers compassion by putting ice in my shopping bag so my eclair won’t melt. No texts or lofty ideas seem to be in the vicinity at all. It’s only our mistakes, my neighbors are suggesting, that bring us to the place where we should have been all along. Thinking I might be interested in Buddhism helped me understand how much I could learn from not being interested in it at all.

Pico Iyer’s most recent book is “The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.”

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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.

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.