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the art of making mistake after mistake

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

There is a Zen expression: shoshaku jushaku that is rendered in English as; to succeed wrong with wrong or, one continuous mistake.

In Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind Shunruyu Suzuki writes:

“ Dogen Zengi said, ‘ shoshaku jushaku’. Shaku generally means ‘mistake’ or ‘wrong’. Shaku jushaku means to succeed wrong with wrong or one continuous mistake. According to Dogen one contineous mistake can also be Zen. A Zen master’s life could be said to be so many years of shoshaku jushaku. This means so many years of one single-minded effort.”

In this light mistakes are not to be avoided but are seen as expressions of the path. Mistakes offer an opportunity to learn from something that did not go as expected. What went wrong once recognized as such opens the door to further mistakes which means to further possibilities of learning, of learning to unlearn mistakes.

This is a multivalent expression often used by Dogen in his writings where something can mean one thing and the opposite of what it apparently is conveying at the same time. The Zen dialectic at work here invites a closer look at the expression in order to tease out a possibly deeper meaning from what the words are saying at a surface level. What this implies is a semantic leap. To leap beyond what the words are saying to something they are not saying, could be saying or maybe attempting to say, saying although not saying. This is how we could slso understand how Suzuki Roshi came to draw the conclusion that one continuous mistake means so many years of single-minded effort. He leaped out of one continues mistake to reach the years of one single-minded effort.

In Dogen’s eyes mistakes are not to be avoided for they can be gateways to the path. One may hear an echo of Chögyam Trungpa’s saying here that obstacles are not to be seen as hindrances that need to be removed before the path appears before us for to him obstacles are the path itself. As with making mistakes facing obstalces are occasions of encountering the path, becoming the path through forgetting the self that sees its self-images reflected through obstacles and mistakes. We move from obstacle to obstacle, go from one mistake to another and embrace each of these as possibilities of letting go of frustration with self or other, recrimination, self-blame, guilt disappointment or embarrassment. We let for the feelings to arise but then let them go, let them go means not clinging to them. Like during zazen, we let thoughts and emotions associated with mistakes to arise then fall away.

Going from one mistake to mistake is another way of letting the path appear, another way of viewing the path, treading the path, treading the obstacle, treading the mistake. A moment of being swallowed by a mistake is also a moment of letting go of the self that views mistakes as just mistakes and wants to erase them, prevent them from occurring so that it feels freeded from the illusion that makes us keep making mistakes which of course itself is another mistake.

As we move through mistakes we come to see that the self that wants to practice without making mistakes is nothing but a mistake. Moving from mistake to mistake we come to see that the path of one contienous mistake is an invitation to let go of the mistake of self-clinging, of holding on to protective veils which then allows for the practice of so many years of one single-minded effort to release us.

In The Unnamable Samuel Becket writes: ever tried, ever failed, try again, fail again, fail better. Failing better, better succeeding in making mistakes is an expression of the leap into the unknown from so many years of single-minded effort or one continuous mistake. To fail better, to succeed in making mistakes is the moment of realizing that it is a great mistake to think we could actually be practicing without making mistakes.

The path we could say then is not about avoiding obstacles or mistakes, failures or stumblings. It is about learning to stumble better and to stumble better means to stumble wholeheartedly. To stumble wholeheartedly is to awaken to the beauty that lies at the bottom of what feels flawed, fragile, vulnerable or imperfect in the human condition.

I stumbled on this passage of Master Dogen’s Extensive Record in one of Rev. Domyo Burk’s insightful blogs titled: You are not practicing if you are not making mistakes. True, one could also replace practice with life and say in all simplicity that to live is to make mistakes, hence the proverb: errare humamum est. If you don’t err you are not human.

Back to Master Dogen’s astonishing words: Last night this mountain monk unintentionally stepped on a dried turd and it jumped up and covered heaven and earth. This mountain monk unintentionally stepped on it again, and it introduced itself, saying “ My name is Shakyamuni.” Then this mountain monk unintentionally stepped on his chest, and immediately he went and sat on the vajra seat, saw the morning star, bit through the traps and snares of conditioned with, and cast away his old next from the past. Without waiting from anyone to peck at his shell from outside, he received the thirty-two charactristics common to all Buddhas and, together with this mountain monk composed the following four lines:

Stumbling I stepped on his chest and his backbone snapped

Mountains and rivers swirling around, the dawn wind blew

Penetrating seven and accomplishing eight, bones piercing heavens

His face attained a sheet of golden skin.”

To practice is to see that as we move along, make mistakes, face obstcles, fail to fail better, stumble and stumble again we see that whatever we encounter is a calling to awaken. What awakens us is not what we expect or want. To practice is to allow for the path of stumbling along to swallow us with its big open heart.

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