“Life is one continuous mistake” — for years, this has been one of my favorite Dogen sayings. I’ve always appreciated the humor of it — it feels honest, or at least like an honest description of my life. Only, it turns out that Dogen never said it. On the Internet, it seems, quotation marks are a shorthand for “This is fake.”
Dogen did, however, say something similar: “There is the principle of the Way that we must make one mistake after another” (Dogen’s Extensive Record, p. 132). Pretty close. But what are these mistakes we keep making? And why?
There’s a word, mayoi (迷い), that shows up a lot in Buddhist writings — the dictionary will tell you that it means “delusion” or “confusion” or “the state of being lost.” For years, I read it without much thought. It’s sometimes used as the opposite of enlightenment, so I read it that way, and since enlightenment seemed a lot more interesting than being lost, I figured that was where I should place my attention. But there are different ways of being lost. There is more than one kind of mayoi.
The first way to be lost is to be wrong. The classic example is a coiled rope on the ground — if you see it out of the corner of your eye and take it for a snake, you might run, or scream, or try to beat it with a shovel, but in each case, you’ll just be wrong. It’s a rope. In the same way, if you ever drive in circles because you are just sure you know the way to the interstate, you understand — the more deeply you believe that you know the right road, the less chance of ever finding the right one. To be clear, in the case of the rope, the problem is not that your eyes misinterpret something you see — the problem is that you believe your own idea about it, so you don’t question it anymore. It’s natural to think you know the streets in your town; the mistake is in not noticing that this time, you got it wrong. This is how we usually understand mayoi: not just being lost, but compounding it by insisting we are not.
The second way to be lost is to know, deeply, that you do not know where you are. Or that you do not know how to get where you are going. Or that you do not know the answer. If you think you know the way to the interstate, you only look for the one landmark that you’re sure is supposed to be there. But if you know you don’t know the way, you look for everything. You drive with your hands at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock on the steering wheel. You ask people for directions, and since you know that you don’t know how to get where you’re going, you recognize that anyone you see might have the answer. Teachers are everywhere. Clues are everywhere. It can be frustrating, even scary. But it’s also very thorough. This is the other mayoi: being lost completely, and knowing it.
Thinking you’re not lost is much more dangerous than knowing that you are. Being sure you are not lost guarantees mistake after mistake, by definition, so if we want to, we can understand Dogen’s statement in this simple way. We don’t know what we don’t know, so in every moment, we work from assumptions and patterns that are unconsidered, unquestioned. I have a friend who didn’t know he was allergic to cats and dogs until he moved out of his pet-filled childhood home and suddenly felt like a new person. For years, he just thought he wasn’t an athletic type, and that was why he never had much energy. In college, I subsisted on what I call the “yellow diet”: Mountain Dew and anything with cheese on it. I didn’t know how unhealthy I was until I moved to Japan, where Mountain Dew and cheese were both luxury items. Even if we’re confident in our ignorance, that doesn’t necessarily make it willful. There’s just so much to examine — where do we start?
Tracy and I recently started a “Zen and Parenting” blog, and for the obvious reason (if you have kids), we’re calling it One Continuous Mistake. So this question of making mistakes, and how mistakes relate to practice, has been on my mind. It seems that we have two modes: one is to be totally ignorant of our actions; the other is to be aware of our actions, but still lost. How can we be skillful and lost at the same time? I see four ways to explore this:
- Fumble around, actively. I used to train at Shogoji, a monastery that had no electricity. We all wore little headlamps at night, but when the batteries died on us, we would find ourselves navigating the maze of hallways in perfect darkness. I became more competent with time, but to be competent, I could never get cocky — one wrong assumption and I would fall down a flight of stairs or crash into a glass kerosene lamp. I explored those buildings as if I was a blind man and Shogoji was a face I needed to memorize forever. I’ve lived in my current house for two years now, but if I had to find something in the dark here, I’m not sure that I could; even now, years later, I probably know Shogoji better. It’s about choosing to pay attention.
- Embrace not knowing. Notice when you’re lost, and choose to stay there. When our son was born, I knew nothing about parenting. I still don’t. As with the dark halls of Shogoji, I’d like to think I am becoming more competent as a father — I hope so. But when I think I have it figured out, I screw it up (and when I remember how much I thought I knew before we had kids, I just laugh). When I read a parenting book with some sort of “system” and decide that this is the one-size-fits-all solution to, say, tantrums, it goes wrong. Very, very wrong. A book is useful if it gives me an idea about how to fumble around. It might offer new mistakes for me to make. But if I take it as a map of the territory, then I’m more lost than before. …All of this is to say that we can seek out this realm of not knowing. Having kids works, but so does a dance class, or traveling in a place you’ve never been, or entering into a friendship with someone very different from yourself. Learning what you don’t know about playing music is a window into how little you know about anything.
- When you make a mistake, make it big. Knowing you are lost is not an excuse to be meek. Don’t hold back. If your job in the orchestra is to hit the gong at the critical time, and you get lost and you’re not sure of your cue, you have two choices: hit the gong, or don’t. If you decide it’s better to hit it, HIT it. In Zen practice, the question is whether or not, not how much. The degree is always the same — 100%. Mistakes are not optional — as Dogen says, we “must make one mistake after another.” On some level, you’re probably making a mistake right now. So am I. But knowing that cannot be a justification for a life lived halfway, for a moment half expressed, for a child half hugged. Never withhold.
- Make wherever you are into where you are. This is one of the simplest arguments for zazen, for taking up a practice of sitting still. If you wake up in perfect darkness, you may be afraid or even cry out, but eventually, you will start the slow, deliberate process of mapping your world, figuring out where you are. You must do that. Even then, there is a degree to which, in that blackness, you cannot know where you are. You cannot know all the details of the room of your life. You cannot make all the good choices before making some bad ones. But even though you may not know the way to the door, in another way, you know exactly where you are: you are here. I am here, where my feet touch the ground. I am here, and though I may spend my all my remaining years trying to be more competent at navigating the maze of my life, I will never be anywhere but here. Sitting down in zazen is a way of coming to see that, but even more, it is a way of expressing it. “The room is perfectly dark and I have no idea where I am or how to get out? No problem.”
At the start of a hiking trail, we stand and pore over the map showing us how to get to our destination. But there on the same map is a big red arrow pointing to where we are standing, reminding us, “You are here.” We can make wrong turn after wrong turn; we can get hopelessly lost. We can give up and go home. But that red arrow doesn’t go away. It’s one of the hardest things, but next time you don’t know where you are or what to do, try starting with “I am here.” Plant yourself under that arrow. Then go make some mistakes.
Please visit One Continuous Mistake if you have time. Tracy writes really beautifully about the complications of our children and our lives, and I, true to form, write long essays about things I really don’t understand. There’s also a Facebook page. Also, if you’re interested, note that you can now follow this blog through Twitter as well.