How has a mistake, shortcoming, or misfortune enriched your Buddhist practice?
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?
Misfortune and shortcomings are precisely where Buddhism shifts from abstract theory into existential reality. This has hit home for me in the great difficulties my wife and I have experienced with past pregnancies: a terrifying ectopic pregnancy, the near-fatal birth of our son, and a sudden miscarriage. Through these hardships and my inability to do anything to prevent or alleviate them, I have come to understand why the Buddha included birth (along with aging, sickness, and death) among the four fundamental realms of suffering. The last three are easy to understand, and I have seen each of them up close in my life. But we tend to regard birth as a joyous occasion. The suffering of birth is harder to acknowledge, but to deny it would be untrue. The suffering of birth was brought home to me only after seeing for myself how dangerous and beyond our control pregnancy and birth can be.
Without these kinds of personal sufferings or awareness of our fundamental shortcomings, we may think of Buddhism as a process of becoming ever happier and more peaceful, of expanding our minds into the infinite or reveling in the play of interconnection. But many of the Buddha’s most important insights were hard, with razor-sharp edges. The truths that the Buddha nobly pronounced speak of harsh realities: if we live long enough, we will find that what we love dies while we stand helpless, and what we hope for fades unborn. And yet, too, terrible birth pains may bring forth love and happiness. Birth is suffering and, often, inexpressible joy. To say otherwise would also be untrue.
Jeff Wilson is an assistant professor of Religious Studies and East Asian Studies at Renison College, in Waterloo, Ontario, and a contributing editor at Tricycle.
Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara
It is with both shame and more than a little embarrassment that I remember my years of drug use. What had started out as a sincere attempt to gain insight and clarity—to open the doors of perception and attain cosmic consciousness!—through the use of psychedelics led in time to a downward spiral of uppers, downers, soporifics, and booze. The degrading experience of substance abuse and addiction has enriched my practice and understanding more deeply than any other episode in my life. Nothing has helped me more in realizing and sharing the complexities and simplicity of the Buddhist teachings.
I learned a lot about how easy it is to fool ourselves. I thought I was moving toward lucidity and understanding, but actually I was drifting into darkness and danger. I now have a distrust of easy fixes, be they promises of instant insight or of transformational makeovers. In positive terms, I’ve come to deeply value well-rooted traditions, both eastern contemplative and western psychological. There’s such power in simple daily meditation, honest reflection, and unadorned reverence.
Was my early experience a misfortune or a blessing? When I look into the eyes of a troubled seeker, when I hear of a violent act, when I see the injustice woven into our world, I am thankful for the insight that our demons live entwined with our noblest desires and that, for compassion to be served, judgments based on a sense of moral superiority must be set aside.
Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara is the abbot of the Village Zendo in New York City.
For twenty years now I’ve had a health condition known as multiple chemical sensitivities, which limits the places and people I can visit and the events I can attend. I’m sickened by many of the items, like carpeting and furniture, that fill most homes and public spaces and by the personal care products that most people wear, and I find that ordinary tasks like shopping, eating in restaurants, staying in hotels, even reading books can seem like extraordinary challenges.
Needless to say, I’ve had my share of anxiety, anger, and grief over my limitations. But at the same time, they’ve been a powerful and relentless teacher, reminding me of my mortality and inviting me again and again to let go of my expectations of how life should be, and to release my identification with the body and the self-construct I keep resurrecting and take to be me.
My health condition repeatedly prevents me from doing what I feel moved to do and strips me of any illusion that I’m in control of my life. I’m regularly confronted with the wise teachings of the Buddha, who advises us to find true happiness not in pleasure or accomplishment, but in the deathless. Deprived of many of the options that most people have, I find that my life is monastic in its simplicity—and I feel profoundly grateful for this precious moment.
Stephan Bodian is a teacher in the Zen and Advaita Vedanta traditions and the author of “Wake Up Now.”
When I considered the question about a mistake, misfortune, or shortcoming that might have enriched my Buddhist practice, what immediately came to mind are the basic shortcomings of life on earth. In fact, the mistakes of evolution are the only reason that I have a practice in the first place, and the only reason I even need a practice. If the adaptations of the growing primate brain would have included a built-in mindfulness, or perhaps a less obstinate package of desires, fears, and basic mishugas, I might never have seated myself on a zafu. How many of us would keep on sitting gratuitously, just for sitting’s sake?
Maybe our collective sitting practices will eventually correct the mistakes of evolution. Perhaps the efforts of all the world’s Buddhists will somehow manage to tweak the genome and create beings who are by nature mindful; who are born with full-on, selfless, moment-to-moment lovingkindness and compassion.
Evolutionary science, however, would remind us that desire, aggression, anxiety, and self-involvement all served essential survival functions for our ancestors on the African savannah and for a long time after. If those traits are still necessary for our current survival, then humans who practice diminishing the strength of those functions are placing themselves at risk. So Buddhists may well be on the way to extinction! If that is the case, you might as well enjoy the dharma here and now. And be sure to give a deep bow to evolution for enriching your practice.
Wes Nisker is a teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, California. He is an author and performer, and the founder and coeditor of the Buddhist journal Inquiring Mind.
Lý Quốc Phú
When I first involved myself in the Buddhist community, I started a meditation group with two kind and generous friends schooled in vipassana meditation as taught in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin. I was not a nice person. I was mean, calculating and manipulative. My friends and I disagreed on a number of issues, and lacking any knowledge of conflict mediation, I bullied them until they left.
The effects of that hostility stayed with me for years, even as it flowed into remorse. I could not bring myself to reflect on those earlier days without cringing with regret. I practiced several letters of apology, but sincerity was still lacking. Eventually I thought I might find my way to sincerity at the same kind of vipassana retreat that had so profoundly influenced my friends, and which I had previously belittled with baseless ridicule.
The retreat was a most humbling experience. Years of meditation had taught me to sit with comfort, but my mind flew about like an uncaged bird. I had never gone so long without speaking a word. But by the eleventh day, I had cultivated a foundation of concentration and mindfulness unlike anything I had ever experienced. In my final letter of apology, I wrote to thank my friends for the exceptional kindness they afforded me even when I had scorned them. After all, it was the seeds of their experience and kindness that led me out of my anger to a practice rooted in mindfulness and equanimity.
Lý Quốc Phú has been a grassroots organizer in the Buddhist community since his teens. He has organized meditation groups, campus clubs, youth retreats, and a basketball team. He currently contributes to the blog Dharma Folk.
Do you have your own "My Bad" you'd like to share? Let us know in the Comments below.