Doing Right Wrong
‘These two mistakes,’ the teacher asked, ‘were they your mistakes or mine?’
‘They were my mistakes,’ said the monk.
‘The teacher shouted, ‘Mistake!’
The traveling monk gave up and started to leave.
The teacher said, ‘Spend the summer retreat here, and we’ll explore these two mistakes together.’
The monk immediately walked away.
~ Blue Cliff Record, Case 98
Last week we looked at Doing Wrong Right, and this week, using the same koan, we are flipping it, and exploring Doing Right Wrong. How is it possible that even with our best efforts, we cannot create a world that is right? In Zen, of course, it is in this very life of imperfection that we realize not one thing is out of order.
My father was often a hard person to get along with as I was growing up, and he certainly was in his later years. I always saw him as a physical man: a former WW II Marine who became a news cameraman. He once made the news himself when he punched out a competitor who had taken his reserved helicopter. When he was losing the physical-age battle ~ going blind, facing infirmity and exhaustion ~ it was hard on him. And if it was hard on him, he shared that difficulty with those around him.
One time we were at the county hospital, and I felt he was being particularly rude to a very helpful and kind floor nurse. I told him to cut it out, and he responded with ‘Fuck you!’ So I came back with, ‘No, fuck you!’ and we went back and forth like that for at least five minutes, until I realized we were disturbing the whole wing.
Like the monk above, I gave up on the Mistake Game. For the last months of his life I gave him a gift: I allowed him to be the way he wished to be. I stopped trying to fix him and his world; we would share it together, no matter what it looked like. With that, I am not sure his life was much improved, but I was certainly more at ease.
A few months later, Buck passed away. Like the monk in the koan, he walked away, and some might say he and I did not get a chance to explore mistakes together. But in fact we did. It was when I stopped doing right wrong.