Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Zen Failure?

"In China and Japan there are many stories of teachers who attained enlightenment suddenly like this: 'Umph!' [laughs and snaps his fingers] You may think it was sudden, but it was actually the result of many years of practice and of failing many times. Dogen Zenji's famous words concerning this are "Hitting the mark is the result of ninety-nine failures." The last arrow hit the mark, but only after ninety-nine failures. So failure is actually ok."

Shunryu Suzuki, 1904-1971

Although I just dug up this quote from an old post I wrote several years back, it's message has been on my mind a fair amount lately. Last weekend, the board at Zen center, sans myself, made the decision to choose another candidate for our Executive Director position. Having served the sangha in a variety of capacities, including as chairman of the board for the past 4 1/2 years, I thought I had a really good shot at being hired for the position. Needless to say, I was really disappointed when I wasn't chosen. Given the precarious state of my finances, the decision also leaves me hanging on the edge that I've become so familiar with.

For a few days, I also experienced some stories that might be called "failure narratives." Thoughts that maybe if I had done a little better at the interview, things might have turned out differently. Or, on the flip side, seeing the board's decision as a failure to consider the long term picture, as opposed to immediate needs. Whatever truth elements are present in stories like this, they don't really satisfy the cravings beneath. The desire to have things go the way I wanted. The desire to be right. The desire to have my efforts be rewarded. The list goes on and on.

What is failure? And what is success anyway? Even the confirmation of enlightenment the old monks and nuns experienced didn't mean the end of pain or even suffering completely. "Success" for newly awakened ones simply meant a new beginning that didn't erase the old, but instead enfolded it within a much broader field, transforming the previously stuck into flow.

My arrow was pointed at a specific job at zen center, but there was so much that was out of my control. Failure narratives assume a kind of control that wasn't there, just as had I gotten the position, to say I was "successful" really wouldn't accurate either.

I've had some pretty miserable moments in the past week, and it's good to acknowledge recognizing the ultimate truth in things doesn't always bring instant liberation. Which makes me think that there are some really juicy stories missing from all those pithy koans and biographies of the Zen ancestors.

Dropping off body and mind probably included some wailing and grieving and even a bit of outrage I can imagine. Not just beforehand, but during and even afterward.

Yesterday, I was plucking dandelions to make medicine with. Anyone who has gotten beyond the commonplace hatred of these weeds Americans have knows that they're really bitter plants. Good for digestion and liver health, and all sorts of other things. But still real bitter to the taste buds.

Over the years of consuming bitters like dandelions, I've come to appreciate the flavor. Even find a certain joy in it. Although it's more difficult to locate that in things like not being chosen to step into a new leadership role in my sangha, I have found some appreciation still. Having given the process my all, I know what it's like to give fully and not receive what you wanted in return. (Obviously, this isn't the first time I experienced this, but it was a really clear example in this case.) I also feel the deep abiding okayness of the world, of "my" world, regardless of outcomes and regardless of how I feel about it all in any given moment.

Success and failure, gain and loss. It seems our job in life is to keep aiming and re-aiming our arrows, regardless of what comes our way.


Algernon said...

For all of that, sorry to hear the position didn't turn out for you.

Nathan said...

Thanks. It's still a bit disappointing, but I'm doing fine. Hope all is ok for you as well.