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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?

Sylvia Boorstein
Sylvia BoorsteinAll worrying is gratuitous. (Concern, when things need to be addressed and something can be done, is valuable.) Compulsive fretting—“What if this...?” “What if that...?”—the result of the imagination stretching to read a situation as problematic is, I think, a form of obsessive-compulsive illness and probably derives from genes and circumstances of life. I think of it as a form of the traditional hindrance of restlessness. The mind, jumpy with energy, develops ideas of calamity.

My parents weren’t fretters, nor, as far as I recall, were theirs. I see myself as a recovering fretter. The turning point in my life was my realization as an adult that the fretting was a habit associated with my mind. Habits, when recognized clearly, can be changed. To a significant degree, I’ve changed my mind. When I’m tired or confused, I might fret, but I catch it soon, and then I can stop. Since I am sure that the habit is a mind glitch that is part of my karma and not a moral flaw, I don’t need to be embarrassed about it any more. I have brown eyes, I sometimes worry, and I’m short. That’s all.

Sylvia Boorstein is a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, in Marin County, California. Her most recent book is “Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life.”

Jeff Greenwald
Jeff GreenwaldAs a travel journalist, I find that maintaining mindfulness on the road, while facing the frustrations that inevitably beset the traveler, is a continual challenge. There are constant opportunities for missteps, descents into anger, greed, ignorance, desire, or pride. Such episodes might occur in an American airport, on a stalled bus in Mali, or in the Chinese vegetarian restaurant where I was served horsehead soup.

Ten years ago, in Laos, I fell into a heated argument with a riverboat pilot who wanted to charge me twice the local fare—500 kip—for my passage across the Mekong. I fretted and growled and argued for a full ten minutes before awakening to the fact that (1) I was arguing over seven cents, and (2) I really did weigh twice as much as a Lao. A similar incident occurred in Thailand, where a shopkeeper raised my ire by charging me a few baht more than his last customer—an elderly woman—for bottled water. After much self-righteous dukkha [suffering], I learned that he’d given a discount to his mother.

Missed connections, visa snafus, the language barrier— I’ve lost my cool over all of these, and so much more. Each time, I emerge with the realization that a few mindful breaths can always turn exasperation into practice. Someday I hope to internalize this knowledge and embrace the phrase carried by Tibetans on the arduous pilgrimage to Kailash: Kha zher, lam khyer, “Whatever happens, whatever arises, bring it to the path.”

Jeff Greenwald is a contributing editor at Tricycle and the author of “Shopping for Buddhas.”

Martine Batchelor
Martine BatchelorAs a young nun in Korea, I had to take care of the occasional Western visitors and answer their questions about Buddhism. One of my difficulties was remembering all the lists of Buddhist terms. One afternoon I found myself trying to explain (and remember) the Four Noble Truths. I was relieved that I could at least remember the first two—suffering and craving—but I could not recall the third one. Then, just as it was on the tip of my tongue, I noticed a monk taking a bucket of persimmons that I had spent most of the afternoon picking. I leapt up, wrenched the bucket from his hand, and told him in no uncertain terms to whom these persimmons belonged. By the time I returned to my guests, I had remembered the last two truths—the cessation of craving and the cultivation of the eightfold path.

After the visitors had left, a nun who had observed the whole scene asked me if I had noticed anything. “Noticed what?’ I asked. “Your behavior,” she replied. “What behavior?” “Well, you became very angry about the persimmons while you were explaining the Four Noble Truths. It was a little strange.” Only when she mentioned it did I become aware of what I had done. I had reacted unthinkingly and blindly to the “theft” of “my” persimmons—pure craving in action!

Martine Batchelor, the author of “Women in Korean Zen,” was a Zen nun in Korea for ten years. She teaches meditation worldwide. Her latest book is “Let Go: A Buddhist Guide to Breaking Free of Habits.”

Robert Aitken
Robert Aitken RoshiOnce, at dokusan [teacher interview] time, someone came to see me in tears. I said sympathetically, “What’s the matter?” She told me that she was upset about her practice. I assured her that she was doing fine. She calmed down, but she left our sangha after a short while and joined a group with a different kind of practice. Later, we met socially, and she told me that when she had come to me in tears, she had been overwhelmed by Mu—her first koan—and had felt that she was on the verge of something. I realized that I had misunderstood her weeping and had missed a chance to help her across. I should have shouted, “What is Mu! What is Mu!” After that I was much more careful to respond appropriately when someone came to me in tears for dokusan.

Robert Aitken is a retired master of the Diamond Sangha, a Zen Buddhist society in Honolulu, Hawaii. He is also a cofounder of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

Illustrations © Minette Mangahas

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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.