I’ve recently read an inspiring book called Fire Monks, which tells the story of how five Zen monks from the San Francisco Zen Center, against all odds, saved the center’s monastery at Tassajara, near Big Sur during the raging forest fire there in 2008. In one segment, the writer, Colleen Busch, quoted a phrase that SF Zen master Suzuki Roshi liked to use: it referred to life, even a Zen master’s life, as shoshaku jushaku, Japanese for “one continuous mistake.”
That resonated with me. Being a perfectionist, I’m always trying to get everything just right. I think it’s a common ailment among humans: We think we can outwit life and, by doing things just right, insulate ourselves—from rain water coming into our houses, from waste water leaking out, from fire, from flood, from storm, from sickness and death, from all the shocks that flesh is heir to. We cannot. Everything we do, every decision we make is dogged by mistakes. Indeed, when looked at carefully, most life decisions are impossible decisions, impossible to get right, that is. We are constantly making mistakes, always falling short to one degree or another, except where we’re very lucky.
Even in baseball (I’ve also been reading A. Bartlett Giamatti’s profound study of American sport, especially baseball, Take Time for Paradise), the situation is the same. As Giamatti points out, America’s sport is a game dominated by failure. Most attempts to reach base safely, not to mention getting home, are failures. Even the .300 hitter, the game’s crème de la creme, fails to hit safely 2 out of 3 times. Which is to repeat that life is one continuous mistake; we work hard to realize our “dreams,” but most of the time, most of us fail.
I have been reminded of this lately while doing work on my house. To engage in this kind of work—carpentry, painting, roofing—is to engage in continuous mistakes. Measurements don’t work out. One forgets to consider some inner cut. A carpenter I used to work with years ago had a wonderful way of dealing with this: “The universe,” he said only half joking, “is off by a quarter of an inch. Measure all you want, you’ll always be off.” I think he was right. We humans insist on making right angles of the world, when in fact, nature is all circles and curves. So whole pieces of lumber or fittings get wasted. The paint is either too thick or too thin and the color never looks the way it did on the sample. And when it comes to painting it on, there are always “holidays,” or slips of the brush splattering glass instead of wood, and if you’re really paying attention, boards that turn out to be dry-rotted or termite-infested. One continuous mistake.
Nor is it any different in the writing business. Years ago at Harcourt Brace, a manuscript I was preparing for publication had book titles typed in capital letters—a convention for typed manuscripts before computers (typewriters had no italics). The editor was always supposed to convert such caps for the printer by marking them ‘ital’ and lower-casing all but the first letter. In the first book I edited on my own, I overlooked this little detail, so the book was printed with book titles in all caps. Humiliating; but I never mentioned it and no one seemed to notice. Writing one’s own books carries the same, or even greater hazards. The writer lives in fear of that mistake—the one that appears in the title, in chapter titles, in boneheaded misquotes, in whole paragraphs that get cut off. In fact, I have never written an essay for publication that didn’t get mangled by the publication in one way or another. Most people never notice, but the writer does, living always with the knowledge that no book, no piece of art is ever perfectly rendered, and it haunts him. One continuous mistake.
Even when a star rises to the top, how many are there who avoid conspicuous, often fatal mistakes? Consider the last few presidents we’ve had—successes in the most exalted sense, having made it to the highest position available in America, or, for that matter, the whole world. And yet, think of the recent ones: Lyndon Johnson resigning in frustration over the Vietnam War, with war protesters shouting outside the White House, “Hey Hey LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?” Richard Nixon following him, with a great landslide victory over Humphrey, with a re-election landslide over McGovern, which triumph led to encomiums about his political genius; and within weeks had him embroiled in the greatest scandal in American history, Watergate, and within months, with impeachment looming, resigned in disgrace. Consoling himself only with that pathetic mantra, “I am not a crook.” Then Ford pardoning Nixon, another scandal, mouthing his presidential mantra that no one is above the law, but of course sometimes the law must accede to “reality” (i.e. power). Jimmy Carter taking office next, with high hopes, but shortly after his major achievement at Camp David, confronted with the Iran hostage crisis that drove him from office in ridicule. Then Reagan: Mr. “Morning in America.” But before too long, mired in his own disgrace, Iran-Contra, confirming him as lawbreaker-in-chief, and in hindsight seen by many as the architect of the long-term collapse not so much of the Soviet Union, but of American capitalism itself. Then G. H. W. Bush faltering on every level, shortly after claiming a transformative victory over Iraq. And Clinton with a few victories in the economy, but so unable to control his wee wee he ends up barely fighting off impeachment, his legacy “I never had sex with that woman.” And W; need we say anything about W? Non-existent weapons of mass destruction as justification for war? Deaths in the millions for what? To create the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression? And now Obama, failing utterly to fulfill the promise, siding with the worst elements that brought the nation to the brink, abandoning those who swept him into office, and unable now to get even a small bill through Congress.
In short, the U.S. presidency, not to mention the current Congress, is one continuous mistake.
The trick, for the zenist, and for all of us, is how to come to terms with this, with this knowing that no matter how carefully one proceeds, mistakes are continuous. (The obverse is that in zen, it is said, one can never make a “wrong” decision; or a “right” decision, for that matter. One just does what is needed at the time.) Or, as Suzuki Roshi used to say, just commit and do your best: ‘It’s the effort that counts, the sincere commitment to wake up, wherever you are. That’s all anyone can ask.’ Which is also to say, awake to what life is. Despite the assurance of our myths, life is not success; life is not progress; life is not keeping the rain out completely (other animals simply get rained on; and don’t melt). Life is one continuous mistake. Which is pretty much how it proceeds. Mistake after mistake, leading over time, perhaps, to a little tinkering here, a bit of tinkering there with just enough of us getting by to keep it going, the only success being its continuation; our continuation. It goes on; we go on: the entire creation. Which is about all we can say; and isn’t that, mistakes and all, miraculous enough?