166 - The Wesak Ceremony: Celebrating and Expressing Gratitude for Our Teachers
168 - Is This IT? Dogen's Everyday Activity (Kajo) - Part 1

How can practice with mistakes – so we make fewer mistakes, but also so we aren’t paralyzed by fear of mistakes, stressed out trying to avoid them, or stuck in regret or self-recrimination once we’ve made them? It helps to understand how mistakes are viewed in Zen. They’re a sign you’re actually practicing, and there’s a sense in which this is no such thing as a mistake.



Quicklinks to Outline Headings (sorry for incomplete text):
An Alternative Way to Relate to “Mistakes”
What IS a Mistake?
Our Aversion to Mistakes
Shoshaku Jushaku: Compounding Our Mistakes
The Necessity of Mistakes
In What Sense Are There No Mistakes?
Mistake or No Mistake, This Is Our Lively Life
Practicing with Our Mistakes


Mistakes in practice and in our lives: What are mistakes, and how can we practice with them?

Reminder, my definition of practice = what we consciously choose to do with body, speech, mind to decrease suffering and increase wisdom and compassion.

So how do we practice with mistakes? How should be best relate to them, work with them? How do we correct or minimize our mistakes (or should we)? How do we avoid being overly stressed or fearful about making mistakes, and how to we avoid getting stuck in regret or self-recrimination once we’ve made mistakes?

An Alternative Way to Relate to “Mistakes”

I started thinking about mistakes recently because I am learning the accordion.

My story of playing the accordion:

Mistakes no matter how much practice… write to teacher… surprising response (“restraint”)… resistance to improv (mistakes! Ouch! Trying to create something beautiful)… give it a try… “are no mistakes”, just tensions to be resolved… ironically, relaxed, fewer mistakes… more playful, written music is just one path…

What IS a Mistake?

Mistakes: “an error in action, calculation, opinion, or judgment caused by poor reasoning, carelessness, insufficient knowledge, etc.”[i]

Buddhism: These are all “action” because there are three ways to manifest “action” (therefore error): Body, speech & mind…

But what makes an error? Compared to what?

An intention.

Body: Intend to do/achieve some particular outcome, like throwing a ball into a hoop, or sitting down on a chair. If the ball bounces off the rim, or we miss the chair and fall on the floor, it’s a mistake. If I intend to play a particular piece on the accordion, or if I intend for the music to sound pleasant instead of discordant, pressing certain notes will amount to mistakes. We may care or not about our mistakes, depending on how attached we are to the outcome, how much it means to our sense of self, but if we do care we may feel a mistake deeply…

Speech: Intend to have a particular outcome via expression – affect on someone, being understood… Mistake = outcome not what we intended.

E.g. I explain to you how I feel like you betrayed my trust because of something you did, intending for you to understand and therefore hopefully agree to try and avoid that kind of behavior in the future, so we can continue a relationship. Instead, you get defensive and angry and break off our relationship, and I don’t feel like you understood my feelings at all. Now, maybe in this situation I think you made the mistake, but if I’m willing to bear at least some of the blame, I recognize my verbal expression to you did not achieve what I hoped. Was there another way to get through to you?   Contemplating our mistakes in speech = similar results as for physical mistakes.

Mind: Intend to understand, to have a clear view, to be able to make plans for action that result in what we want. Being deluded, ignorant, having an incomplete understanding is a mistake… We tend to be even more identified with our minds, and how do we even know we’re making a mistake in understanding?! Usually only in retrospect, when life has taught us something new…

Our Aversion to Mistakes

Different relationships to mistakes… some people more comfortable with mistakes than others. Some of us okay with physical mistakes, or mistakes in speech, etc., but not other kinds of mistakes

Some people have a fierce pride, high self-esteem; they know they’re doing their best, and you gotta crack some eggs to make an omelet, so they’re going to make mistakes and refuse to apologize for them… (although this is likely to involve a certain defensiveness and secretly the person regrets their mistakes or at least would rather not make them)

Most of us, though, are very conscious of trying our best to avoid mistakes. Why?

1 – We form our intention(s) for a reason! To be responsible, take care of things, create something good, nurture our relationships, cultivate wisdom, etc. We want to avoid mistakes in order to stay true to our intentions.

2 – We want to feel competent, to have confidence in our ability to form and follow through on intentions, to have a sense that our “executive I” has some measure of control over our body, speech, and mind..,

3 – We want to be seen by others as competent, disciplined, reliable, etc. Synonyms for mistake: blunder, confusion, fault, gaffe, lapse, miscalculation, misstep, snafu, blooper, delusion, misinterpretation, misstatement, muddle, overestimation, misjudgment, slip of tongue…

Maybe, in the interest of our so-called Zen practice of “letting go,” we should minimize our stress over our mistakes by being less ambitious.

If we have no specific intentions, no particular expectations, no aspirations or goals, there are no mistakes, right? E.g. If you don’t care about being understood, failure to communicate isn’t a mistake. If you don’t aspire to take good care of your family, your family ending up destitute or dysfunctional isn’t a mistake because you never promised anyone anything…

Should we just chill out, relax, float downstream? Live with fewer intentions, avoid setting goals or having hopes, shrink from making any commitments or promises? Should we learn to respond to life spontaneously, within no plan?

Shoshaku Jushaku: Compounding Our Mistakes

13th-century Soto Zen master Dogen used a certain phrase in his writings many times: Shoshaku jushaku. This can be translated a number of ways, but most often is said to mean, “to succeed wrong with wrong.” Here’s what Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said about this in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

Dogen-zenji said, ‘Shoshaku jushaku.’ Shaku generally means ‘mistake’ or ‘wrong.’ Shoshaku jushaku means ‘to succeed wrong with wrong,’ or one continuous mistake. According to Dogen, one continuous 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. [ii]

Good luck: Searching online, found a whole paper about Dogen’s use of the phrase shoshaku jushaku, apparently written by Diana Lobel as part of a book, Philosophies of Happiness: A Comparative Introduction to the Flourishing Life. (Columbia University Press)[iii]

Lobel explains the phrase is found frequently in Zen literature and Dogen uses it many times. Thomas Cleary translates it as “adding error to error.” Kaz Tanahashi translates the phrase as “filing a file”[iv] – a “file” being a very hard, rough tool used to grind down other object. Tanahashi explained to Lobel that shoshaku jushaku suggests using a file to try and grind down another file, thus making both tools duller.

You would think, then, that Dogen would use the term shoshaku jushaku to refer to extra confused students are compounding mistake after mistake, and thereby wandering further and further away from the path of practice. It sounds like bad situation, right?

But in his essay, “The Mind Itself Is Buddha,” Dogen says (according to Tanahashi):

Many students misunderstand this teaching, as they do not file a file about it [examine it thoroughly]. Because they do not file a file, they fall into a group of those outside the way.[v]

It’s not unusual for Dogen to flip the meaning of certain phrases in order to challenge us… in this passage and in others, the Dogen presents adding error to error as a situation full of tension: An error is still an error, and yet somehow doing so is a critically important part of the Buddha way. Tanahashi’s translation suggests that to “file a file” or “add error to error” means to examine the teaching thoroughly.

In a footnote in the translation of Dogen’s Extensive Record by Taigen Dan Leighton, I found a useful third translation of this line from Dogen:

Without making mistake after mistake one departs from the way. [vi]

The Necessity of Mistakes

Maybe letting go of intention is appropriate at times, but then you would not sit meditation, you would not play music or plant a garden, you would not learn anything, or make the sometimes difficult decisions needed to raise a child well, or take a stand against injustice, or…

Practicing with mistakes: Still have an intention! Intention is a direction, aspiration, guides our actions, helps us make decisions and prioritize…

If we don’t try, we aren’t walking the path of awakening. And yet, inevitably, when we set an intention our actions of body, speech, and mind will fall short.

E.g. Our precept “Do not speak dishonestly – communicate truthfully. In the realm of the inexplicable dharma, putting forth not one word is the precept of not speaking dishonestly.”

Our intention means we try to minimize making mistakes, but our life of practice can be seen as “one continuous mistake.”

If we give up our intention, something is no longer a mistake, it’s just laziness, chaos, letting entropy win. Keeping up our single-minded effort results in mistake after mistake but that is practice.

This is why Suzuki Roshi said, “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.”[vii]

In What Sense Are There No Mistakes?

There’s always another level to Zen, though… in what sense are there no mistakes?

We’re talking about the absolute aspect of reality here; this isn’t just about dropping any intention or effort so we can’t make any mistakes in the relative sense…

This is from Dogen’s Extensive Record, containing his Dharma Discourses to his monks (a different text than the Shobogenzo):

Buddha Underfoot

  1. Enlightenment Day Dharma Hall Discourse [1241]

The teacher Dōgen said: Two thousand years later, we are the descendants [of Śākyamuni]. Two thousand years ago, he was our ancestral father. He is muddy and wet from following and chasing after the waves. It can be described like this, but also there is the principle of the way [that we must] make one mistake after another. What is this like? Whether Buddha is present or not present, I trust he is right under our feet. Face after face is Buddha’s face; fulfillment after fulfillment is Buddha’s fulfillment.

“Whether the Buddha is present or not present, I trust he is right under our feet.”

I don’t know what Dogen meant, but when I imagine, for myself, what it means when the Buddha is present or not, I think of my conscious experience. When I am not trapped in my limited self-view, when I have some sense of perspective and gratitude and interdependence, the Buddha is present in my experience. When I am all wrapped up in my misery, when I’m upset about making mistakes or paralyzed because I’m afraid of making mistakes, the Buddha is not present.

And yet, Dogen says, regardless of our conscious experience, the Buddha is right under our feet. What does this mean? Peace and liberation are available right here, right now, in this moment, in this body. We can’t be anywhere other than where we are, even if we’ve wandered off the intended path into the weeds. Zen teacher Koun Franz describes it like this on his blog, Nyoho Zen:

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.[viii]

Most of us think, darn, too bad I made that mistake, I’m not doing my best. But we are doing our best. We’re not just performing according to some ideal we hold. If we step back from absorption in the role of protagonist in our life and imagine what the unfolding of our life would look like to a sympathetic novelist trying to portray it, we would see our mistakes as essential to living a full life – growing, developing, walking the path…

As the saying goes, “If you don’t make mistakes, you don’t make anything.”[ix]

Mistake or No Mistake, This Is Our Lively Life

Dogen says, “Face after face, fulfillment after fulfillment, is Buddha’s face, is Buddha’s fullfillment…”

Elsewhere in the Extensive Record (Tuning the Strings on the Path without Mistakes), Dogen says, “Just this is it.”[x]

In the section called Buddha Underfoot, Dogen continues:

Last night, this mountain monk [Dōgen] 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 Śākyamuni.” 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 birth, and cast away his old nest from the past. Without waiting for anyone to peck at his shell from outside, he received the thirty-two characteristics common to all buddhas and, together with this mountain monk, composed the following four-line verse:

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 the heavens,
His face attained a sheet of golden skin.[xi]

Dogen words are poetry, so any prose explanation I give will just obscure the resonance within you the words are meant to evoke. Don’t worry if you don’t understand intellectually. Do you understand with your heart?

Dogen didn’t just step on the dried turn unintentionally once, he did it again! Imagine doing this…

The turd then introduced itself, “My name is Shakyamuni.” This is life, this is our practice.

Then Dogen makes a third mistake and steps on Shakyamuni, even though the Buddha has introduced himself. In so doing, Dogen became a causal factor in Shakyamuni’s complete and perfect enlightenment… (he didn’t just fail to prevent the Buddha’s awakening, he participated in it in some strange way)

Practicing with Our Mistakes

If we can appreciate this aspect of reality (wherever we go, there we are), this is way to ground ourselves whenever we get overwrought about our mistakes. We take a breath, try to step back, recognize that even though we’d really rather our life hadn’t involved stepping in that shit, we did, so here we are. If we can embrace our life just as it is, there’s a chance gratitude and liveliness will return.

We can also ennoble our lived experience in a relative sense by reminding ourselves that mistakes only happen when we are trying, when we are extending ourselves, growing, learning…

We also need to turn toward our mistakes – not in order to beat ourselves up, but to learn from them. This is why one of our Zen precepts says, “Do not dwell on past mistakes, create wisdom from ignorance.” Given our cultural tendency to be hard on ourselves, I suggest we further translate that precept to, “Do not dwell on past mistakes, but allow them to create wisdom from ignorance.”

To bring this back to my experience with the accordion… my own expression in verse might be best:

I want to be able to play for you this beautiful song without mistakes.
The song deserves that effort, it is so perfect, it will cause your heart to swell.
Sadly, this imperfect person cannot yet pull it off.
When I am alone, though, I spontaneously and deliberately
Wander slightly off the written music –
Not too far, still paying tribute to the song’s beauty,
And discover there are no mistakes, only tensions to be beautifully resolved.
My authentic self wants to play you a song without mistakes,
And my authentic self emerges in my response to this moment –
A response which can never be planned.
In the end, I think I will be alright.



[i] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/mistake
[ii] Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (p. 21). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.
[iii] Lobel, Diana. Philosophies of Happiness: A Comparative Introduction to the Flourishing Life. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2017. Online pdf of appendix that probably was later made into a chapter of the book: https://cup.columbia.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Philosophies-of-Happiness-Appendix-19.pdf)
[iv] Tanahashi, Kazuaki, trans., ed. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2010. “The Mind Itself is Buddha” (Chapter 6)
[v] Ibid
[vi] Leighton, Taigen Dan. Dogen’s Extensive Record: A Translation of the Eihei Koroku (Kindle Locations 2860-2861). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition: “In the Shōbōgenzō essay Sokushin Zebutsu (This Very Mind Is Buddha), Dōgen says, “Without making mistake after mistake one departs from the way.” See Nishijima and Cross, Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, book 1, p. 49.”
[vii] Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (p. 21). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.
[viii] https://nyoho.com/tag/life-is-one-continuous-mistake/
[ix] https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/If+you+dont+make+mistakes%2c+you+don%27t+make+anything.
[x] Leighton, Taigen Dan. Dogen’s Extensive Record: A Translation of the Eihei Koroku (Kindle Locations 2142-2153). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.
[xi] Ibid


166 - The Wesak Ceremony: Celebrating and Expressing Gratitude for Our Teachers
168 - Is This IT? Dogen's Everyday Activity (Kajo) - Part 1