Failing the Way

It’s summer at Green Gulch Farm, and my one year old loves nothing more than to chase birds. Does he fail to catch them? They hop off, they fly up, they fly off… he shrieks and points and shrieks with delight.

I remember as a child somewhat older than he is balancing a shoebox on a stick attached to a string – ingenious way to catch birds. I too failed, but I don’t think it discouraged me. Bird caught or not, the afternoon was well spent.

Now still older, I’m less absorbed and in different mysteries. I’m chasing birds but as a hopeless grown up I’ve by and large forgotten that it’s chasing birds. Perhaps in proportion to the alarming beauty of the birds that I’m at present stalking – Huayan Dharma, Dogen Zen, the Awakened Way itself – I’m all the more discouraged when they slip through my hands, fly up to the next tree and then out of sight. I don’t just point and shriek with delight, but I slump. At some level at least feel I’ve missed again. I’ve failed again and I’m failing again to live my impossible ideals.

So can we fail at the Dharma? Are we failing now?

I say an afternoon chasing birds is an afternoon well spent. I say birds aren’t for catching; I say birds live in sky, not in boxes. I say point, and shriek, and point again. There is nothing to hold to, nothing to catch, in this world of unceasing hoppings and flittings. Much less a bird and much less a vast vow.

We can say I fail, or you fail, or I succeed, or she succeeds, but isn’t that getting the game wrong?  Let’s not ruin our beautiful afternoons with such nonsense.


5 thoughts on “Failing the Way

  1. Jiryu,

    I’ve always thought that the practice of zen is just this chasing birds. Remember the story of the father luring his children out of a burning house? We are the children.

    When the children are out of the house they can see their are no toys. They can see the burning house. They can see the father who lied to them expediently and why.

    The chasing of birds serves a purpose and is fun. The cessation of chasing birds also serves a purpose but may be less fun. After that what?

  2. I have recently been thinking about the concepts of honor and rank and I believe these concepts require correlatives such as dishonor and failure. In community we engage in a friendly competition wherein we strive for the Bodhisattva ideal. When we do well we receive honor and rank. When we do poorly we rely on the compassion and loving-kindness of the community to gently discipline us and help us become stronger practitioners. I have done well and relished the approval of the sangha and done poorly and received compassion or strict discipline accordingly. Living outside of community, I have been constantly reminded of my failures. I can’t meditate for as long and sometimes get up in the middle of my meditation session and fail to implement my practices as well as I would like. Without the schedule to guide my life my weakness and lack of discipline become more apparent. However, I do notice that my practice is still growing and perhaps this is sufficient. Perhaps enthusiastically and courageously pursuing our highest ideal is sufficient, and I should celebrate my efforts and vow to continue to fight for wisdom, compassion, and bravery. In short I do believe in high standards, I don’t believe in the usefulness of the word failure, and at this point in my education training is very challenging with a vast opportunity for improvement.

  3. I am touched by this post. Thank you.

    I relate to Michael Wenger’s sentiment that “Zen practice is about falling down and getting back up again.”

    So many well intentioned efforts trashed against the bricks by greed, hate and delusion… Yet still something in me still wants to try.

    Bird in sky, fish in sea… If we catch them, won’t they assuredly die?

    An afternoon spent pointing and shrieking in joyful effort is an afternoon well spent indeed. Nothing wrong, nothing flawed. This is the beauty of the art of our living.

    Enjoy your summer, my friend.
    Yours in failing effort,

  4. our little dog meli is three years old, still much the puppy, and walks with me on the leash right by my heel until she’s distracted by something . . . her favorite distraction is birds: grackles, mockingbirds, pigeons . . . birds. at a certain proximity to chase is irresistible though the result is always the same . . . at the limit of the leash she pops up, then regains her feet and watches as the bird flies away . . . a game that never gets old.

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