In Praise of Failure

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Dharma Talk Christopher Kakuyo Leibow

For today’s dharma talk, I want to start with a personal story. Let me paint you a picture. I’m about 43. I am sitting on the floor in a small room in a stranger’s house with my back against a wall. It’s late. I am watching reruns of Perry Mason on a 12-inch black and white TV. All my positions, what few I have, are in a closet. I am alone, have recently ended a failing relationship, I also just got laid off, and found out that my dog was moving to California with my ex-wife (another failed relationship). I get up and walk down the hall, waive to the odd man I am renting the room. I just had to get out of there; the walls were closing in. I get on my motorcycle, at least riding makes me feel free. It won’t start. Try again. It won’t start. I lean against it in silence. The sun is now setting. I take a long drag from my cigarette – and keep thinking how and the hell I ended up here – 43 years old, no house, no car, no job, no wife, no kids, nothing. I am 43 years old and have nothing but a suitcase of unpublished poems. Oh yea, there’s that, a failed poet! Nothing but a 43-year-old failure. 

I was then reminded of an old song – the lonesome loser – and my sister, 14 sitting in the car’s back seat, said to me, this song always reminds me of you. I don’t know why.

That was a hard day-   

That day was the best day of my life – Thank god for that day!

Today I want to talk about glorious, fabulous failure. I love these lines from the poet Longfellow.

Defeat may be victory in disguise;

The lowest ebb is the turn of the tide.

It took me a long time to understand the truth in these lines; I didn’t get them that day either. That day wasn’t a great day; on that day, it sucked. 

It was rough. There was no epiphany until much later. It would have been hard for me at that moment to see clearly. I was heavy with disappointment. Sadness. Shame. I appreciate these lines from Leo Babauta, author of Zen Habits. He writes. 

“I feel this heaviness in my chest when I fail. It can make me feel like crying. I feel lonely and I want to give up. I want to fall on a bed and shut out the world. But that doesn’t work, because the feeling follows me into bed, and actually intensifies until finally I have to get out of bed to try to escape it. Failure can hurt.”

We create all kinds of states of mind. We do it daily by the stories we tell ourselves, the stories that we make our world. It would have been hard to have seen the wonderfulness of that evening. I was in a failure mind, defeat mind, disappointment mind, blame mind. I couldn’t see clearly yet

Does that sound familiar?  

I didn’t understand yet how glorious it was. When something fails, it doesn’t work. That is it. My motorcycle failed to start. That’s all. My first love after my divorce failed to blossom; my failed marriage was unable to continue, and my career failed to flourish. Most things we call failures in our lives have more to do with expectations than anything else. Another definition of failure is a lack of success or the inability to meet an expectation. I expected my motorcycle to start; I expected my relationship to last. This is the hardest part. I found these lines from Paula Thompson.

“The problem is that we can read too much into failure. Too often, we tie it to our sense of self-worth, self-esteem, and self-acceptance. The expectation we fail to meet is often our own, or one that we’ve created in our own head.”

These lines remind me of what Rev Koyo Kubose taught – that it was important to free ourselves from the tyranny of our expectations of others. Today I want us to see if we can change our relationship with failure where we can stop identifying with failure. Where we can see failure as defining an event and situation but not defining who we are.

Buddhism is excellent for doing just that. 

Dogen, the father of Japanese zen, taught that at the heart of the Buddha way, or more precisely, to embody the Buddha way, we must make one mistake after another. I guess you can extrapolate from those lines that the Buddha’s way is the way of continual mistakes. I can do that – my old tradition, that path of perfection to earn love – I failed at that too. 

Rev Koyo taught that every spiritual journey starts in the dark. Maybe every Awakening experience starts in failure. 

Awakening and failure are interdependent. 

I want to look at both the Buddha and Shinran Shonin as examples. First, is the Buddha.

The Buddha Failed. 

Did you know that the Buddha was a failure? 

He was until he wasn’t.

The Buddha set off to find the way to free us from birth, old age, and death. He studied with Alara Kalama, a great holy man- he quickly learned deep meditative states, but it wasn’t what he was looking for, he went to another holy man Uddaka, and learned even more, but it wasn’t what he was looking for, so he started to practice severe austerity with a group of five ascetics 

This journey took six years, and in the end, he almost starved himself to death by avoiding all physical comforts and pleasures, as they did. The Buddha, it is said, was so thin at this point that you could see his backbone through the skin of his stomach – his eyes were sunken in as a dead man. He realized that dying would not get him the answers he was seeking. The Buddha had failed to find what he was looking for – The holy men and the life of austerity had brought him no closer. 

A young woman saw the Buddha and his state and gave him the rice gruel she was carrying as an offering to a tree spirit which probably saved his life. These lines are from Nubuo Haneda in Dharma Breeze.

“Tradition tells us that after Shakyamuni left his palace and became a seeker, he spent six years studying various doctrines and performing various practices such as yoga and meditation, he even took up aesthetic practice, but he had serious doubts about those practices.

When Shakyamuni renounced those practices and received a pot of milk from a maiden to recover his strength his co practitioners thought the had failed and ridiculed him saying you have become a backslider and taken the easier lifestyle.”

Disheartened by his failures, Buddha sat under a fig tree, vowing not to rise until he achieved supreme Awakening. I love this from Nubuo Haneda.

“Then Shakyamuni sat under a tree to meditate. What does it mean he setting or a tree it means he became passive, having removed himself from all active attempts to seek liberation is. Sitting under a tree was a symbol of passivity now, he became an empty receptacle that could be immediately filled with the Dharma.

Shakyamuni realized that the most important thing in the path to enlightenment was not his religious practice, not his attempts to change himself into a new being, but an immediate recognition of the Dharma, the truth of impermanence. The Dharma was life itself.”

I love this.  

It was Shakyamuni’s failure that opened him up. That made his Awakening possible.  

Shinran Shonin was similar. 

Shinran Shonin, was eight years old when he received his ordination as a novice Tendai Buddhist monk from Jichin at the Shoren-in Temple. He was given the Dharma name Hannen. Later he went up to Mt. Hiei, the center of Tendai Buddhism, where he practiced as a monk, chanting and other practices for over 20 years. 

 When he was 29 years old, he started to take and inventory of his life. Taking a really close look, he became frustrated to the point of feeling like a total failure, unable to achieve enlightenment. In the midst of this inner conflict and his sense of failure, he decides to leave, Mt Hiei. 

I think that while he was on MT Hiei, he realized, as he writes later. 

“I am absolutely incapable of any religious practice.”

And also writes this poem

Like a fledgling attempting to fly against the wind,

Snow weighting its fragile wings,

I struggle

Powerless as I try to help myself.

Some may see this as defeatism, giving into a sense of failure. I get that. But Shinran didn’t give up because of it – he found a different way. 

Like the Buddha before him, Shinran stopped trying to change himself into a new being. This new way for Shinran could only be discovered by failing on Mt Hiei; he could only find the path to his authenticity through his failure. By failing and coming down from the mountain, he met Honen, his teacher, and found Awakening. 

From these two examples, we can see that failure makes all the difference in the world, and we want to learn how to see it differently. 

 I want to share these lines with you from Costica Bradatan is, an associate professor at Texas Tech.

“Failure is the sudden irruption of nothingness into the midst of existence. To experience failure is to start seeing the cracks in the fabric of being, and that’s precisely the moment when, properly digested, failure turns out to be a blessing in disguise.”

And 

“Our capacity to fail is essential to what we are. “We need to preserve, cultivate, and even treasure this capacity. It is crucial that we remain fundamentally imperfect, incomplete, erring creatures; in other words, there is always a gap left between what we are and what we can be. “

I think that if we let our failures give us space to reconsider and reconceive ourselves and our expectations, there is light. We no longer fear failure but invite it to the dance of being human; that’s when things happen.  

DT Suzuki once said that Awakening is an accident and that Zazen ( zen meditation) makes you accident-prone. I think that same sentiment can be used with failure. If Awakening is by accident, embracing failure can also make you accident prone. It is really about changing how we see and embrace failure.

Someone asked Thomas Edison about his 1000’th failure to make the lightbulb. “How does it feel to fail so often?” He smiled and said, “I have not failed. I know 1000 ways how NOT to make a light bulb.”

What I learn from the Buddha and Shinarn’s example is a lesson on how to fail, how not to run away from failure but to welcome it and learn from it. Humility is vital – I define humility as the willingness to learn.

And to be a student of my failures, I first need to be willing to learn. This can happen when we acknowledge that our failures do not mean we are failures. When we can say to our failures and our failing Namu Amida Butsu – come as you. We can learn from both the Buddha and Shinran that the key is to keep going amid our greatest failures, as Rev Koyo would say.

 There is an old saying in Japan, Two times down, three times up. 

For the Buddha, that meant to stop torturing his body and sit at that spot under the bodhi tree, with no preconceived ideas, just sit until he awoke. 

For Shinran, it was to come down from the mountain and embrace his limitations. Changing our relationship with failure is not just accepting that we fail but understanding that it is in the failing that we can be transformed. I love this from Pema Chodron.  

“We say, ‘I’m a failure.” But what if failing wasn’t just “okay,” but the most direct way to becoming a more complete, loving, and fulfilled human being?”

Failure is integral to the path that we walk. That is why it is called Buddhist practice and not Buddhist Perfect. Think about it. We call it a practice. Inherent in practice are mistakes and failures, lots of them. Again back to the world, Dogen – to embody the Buddha’s way is to make one mistake after another. Failure is an integral part of the Buddha Way. 

So from here on out, let’s not make it so serious. Let’s move beyond the success and failure dichotomies; let’s play – play, play is beyond failure and success – let’s play in the field of the Buddhas. Come come and dance.  

I would like to close with these lines from Bill Bohlman

Only through this acceptance of our shortcomings, our bonbu nature, can we see the actual cause of suffering. Failure is not only an option; it is our default setting. We are incapable of liberating ourselves; to think so is to only go deeper into the delusion of our ego. 

…Namu Amida Butsu, is our guide. When we are able to bow and open ourselves to life as it is, [then] we are able to overcome suffering and be symbolically born in the Pure Land.  

Namu Amida Butsu.

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