In his book Joyously Through The Days, Zen teacher Les Kaye talks about the wish to become pure: “Humans have always dreamed of transforming themselves, of becoming ‘pure,’ of gaining freedom from the ‘impurities’ of the human condition.” This wish, this dream, is what draws some people to traditions and practices like Zen. Les Kaye’s teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, used the expression “looks like good” as a way of describing something that appeared to be in harmony with the Dharma on the surface, but not in harmony through and through. A variant on “looks like good” might be “looks like pure.”

If you’re paying attention to your life, paying attention in detail, you have to notice that you goof up a lot. When you notice, it’s probably upsetting. Especially if you tend toward perfectionism. Mostly, we don’t like the idea that we make mistakes, that we goof. Especially if others see us goofing. That makes making mistakes even more uncomfortable. Zen practice can look like a cure for mistakes. You could imagine that some kind of enlightenment experience will cure you of whatever causes you to goof up. More superficially and maybe more temptingly, the outward forms of Zen practice might look like a refuge from mistakes.

In his book Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit, Robert Kennedy writes, “A visitor to a Zen temple can usually recognize the beginning students at a glance. Their heads are perfectly shaved, their robes complete and in order, their sleeves folded just so, their hands held this way and not that way, their eyes cast down as they have been told.” In other words, “looks like good.” Not that following Zen forms closely and carefully (or any practice forms) is always a mistake. It’s only a problem if you think doing so is somehow pure, of if you think it’s a refuge from mistakes, a way of escaping or by-passing the impulses, habits, and other forces that fuel human mistakes.

If you’ve been paying attention to your life, you know there are countless ways to goof up, innumerable impulses and forces that are at the root of goofing up. The fact is they’ve set up housekeeping in your life with a lifelong lease. Roommates til death do us part. When I think about this, if I’m not careful I get discouraged. I’ve concluded the two main causes of goofing up are selfishness and carelessness. Selfishness is the worst. By selfishness, I mean putting myself and my own felt (or marginally conscious) needs ahead of everything else. And by carelessness, I mean just not paying careful enough attention to what I’m doing. Simple. Basic.

These two frequently work in tandem, leading to all kinds of goofs. For example, I managed a very lovely set of cascading goofs over the last couple of days. It started when I discovered a Japanese market near where we recently moved. I was excited. I like Japanese food. We’d invite our daughter-in-law and grandchildren for dinner. My wife and I had a lot of stuff to getdone: keep the grandchildren on track doing their homework, shop, cook, and get it all ready early. I said I’d cook, the schedule was tight, and I was so focussed on the Japanese food that I didn’t make veggies for my wife’s dinner. She always (always!) has a big serving of veggies for dinner but I didn’t prepare any for her. Even though I felt like I was being good by preparing dinner for everyone, my over-engagement with the Japanese parts of the meal took me off course.

It cascaded. I felt bad and wanted to make a greater effort not to goof. And especially in taking care of my wife. I felt bad…guilty. I knew she wanted a dresser of hers moved to another part of the room. So I moved it, but I was so distracted wanting to “look like good,” that I rushed; I didn’t take proper precautions and I scratched up the floor we had just had refinished. It was inattention and carelessness in the middle of what looked like taking care of something. And there’s more – the cascade went on – but I think the point is clear.

What does this have to do with Zen? There’s a famous story about Baso (Matsu) and his teacher Nangaku. Baso was an ardent practitioner of zazen, sitting day and night under all conditions. One time, Nangaku asked him why he was sitting so much and Baso said it was to become a Buddha. Nangaku picked up two bricks and started rubbing them together and Baso asked him what he was doing. Nangaku replied he was polishing a brick to make it a mirror. Baso asked, “How can you make a mirror by polishing a brick??” And Nangaku said, “How can you make a Buddha by sitting zazen.”

This is a popular story Les Kaye uses in his book in the chapter “Continuous Effort.” That’s the part of his book I referred to earlier to illustrate that practice doesn’t make us into something else. In the context of mistakes and purity, if you have the idea that you can be transformed from an impure being into a pure being (whatever that might be), you’re going to be disappointed. Or you’re going to put a ton of energy into “looking like pure” by following surface forms fastidiously. Maybe you’ll succeed to the extent that you can trick yourself into believing that you’ve been transformed be cause you “look like transformed.”

I sometimes think about the maddening logic a guru I once admired used if you dared to point out that he made a mistake, even a small one. He’d say he did it on purpose to give his students a “way out.” That if he embodied purity and perfection continuously, it would be a trap that hampered or denied his disciples’ freedom. Pretty slick. He apparently tricked himself into believing his mistakes were part of the apparatus of his flawlessness. It’s like the joke, “I did make one single mistake once, when I thought I was wrong about something but actually turned out to be right.”

Does all this suggest Zen practice is useless when it comes to how we live? That we’re destined to make the same mistakes over and over? I don’t think so. Dogen Zenji famously said a Zen master’s life is shoshaku jushaku, which translates as “to succeed wrong with wrong” or, more colloquially, “one continuous mistake.” Suzuki Roshi said it also has the meaning (or the feeling) of “one single-minded effort.” He also said, offering a clarifying example, “one who thinks he is one of the worst husbands may be a good one if he is always trying to be a good husband with a single-hearted effort.” (It’s a coincidence that this quote touches the example I gave above of my own recent husbandly goofs.)

We’re not destined to make the same mistakes over and over. Not if we pay careful attention and are alert to our tendencies. We learn to do better. But we never arrive at a state of pure goofless-ness in this human life. As Les Kaye writes, “No matter how much we grind it, a brick can never be perfectly smooth. Just like that brick, no matter how much we polish our self, there will always remain some surface roughness.” I would add that there will always remain deep roughness, too.

So how do these examples – the brick and mirror story and shoshaku jushaku – come together in the light of Zen understanding? Do you know the Zen expression “not one, not two?” This is a compact, cryptic reference to the alignment and unity of form and emptiness, of relative and absolute, of identity and differentiation. More practically, it’s a reminder that what we might think of as opposites are not absolutely opposed to each other and that to see clearly and function freely, we need to have a big fluid view and move flexibly between what might at first seem to be incompatible positions.

This sounds pretty abstract, but Suzuki Roshi’s comment on what it means to be a good (bad) husband is a simple and concrete example. Do we make mistakes? Do we goof? Sure. Are mistakes and goofs bad? Yes. But also No. Everything is moving and changing. Life is actually alive. What we think of as a mistake – stepping on someone’s toe – is a mistake. But it is also many other things. It is a link in a long – a very long – chain of causality. It is a connection. It is a wake up call. It is a meeting. And, circling back, it’s also a mistake.

Can we, should you apologize for a mistakes when you cause trouble for others? Absolutely and without reservation. Should you seal up what happened as just and only “a mistake?” Probably not. What do you think?


  1. Ken says:

    Totally understand mistakes, especially with our wives! My observation: Mistakes happen, Shit happens, (my wife is know learning to knit with a group called “Knit Happens!”), also Love happens, Miracles happen, and finally Everything happens of Itself. The Miracle and Mystery happens and it is not a mistake, even as we think we are making them.