A student asked a teacher, “’The great way is not difficult if you don’t pick and
choose.’ What is not picking and choosing?”
The teacher said, “‘Above the heavens and on earth, I am alone and honored.’”
“But that’s still picking and choosing.”
“Peasant! Where’s the picking and choosing?”
The student was speechless.
~ The Blue Cliff Record, Case 57
The above koan is often seen as one about the making choices. But there might be another point to lean into with this koan: the student’s failure. In our lives, we try to avoid failure at all costs, naturally, and that is a noble, if impossible, cause. What if failure is not only an option, but a treasured outcome? Getting it wrong, as the above peasant-student evidently did, might be more meaningful than getting it right.
There is a non-Zen angle to all this, of course, one that is spoken in football locker rooms at the end of games on any given Sunday: failure is as bump in the road on the way to winning. There might be two Zen takes, however, that are a bit different. One is that failure creates vulnerability, which itself opens a window into opportunity. In my own Zen practice, failure has provided an energy, a heart, that success has seldom matched. Some years ago, I had a bit of an opening, and my first koan, Mu (which we now call No), took on a new light. Did I pass the koan? Nope. No to No. I was perplexed, and crushed. And not for a little time, but for years. But that failure provided for me an opportunity: like a dog sitting before a vat of hot grease, I could neither eat nor wander away. That wonderful tension still haunts me; I can smell the fat now. I later passed my first koan, which for me was more of a shrug than an epiphany. A couple of years after that I presented my understanding of a particular koan to a different teacher. He sighed, shook his head, and told me I was not getting the point of the koan at all. Without ceremony, he booted me back about two years of study. At the time, I was devastated and crushed once again. Now, looking back, I wish I had failed more spectacularly.
The second Zen point is that if we allow ourselves to tumble and fall through that window of vulnerability, we may get a chance to explore a realm which we always sensed, but never took ownership of. Some call it original home, or the original dwelling place. In that original realm, which is this realm, failure and success really need each other, as do heaven and earth, picking and choosing, dog and fat. They are not complete without each other; they are co-dependent for their existence. How wonderful to have the opportunity, the life, to feel that deep, sweet and bitter disappointment. It is a blessing.
“Show me your failure!”, I recently heard a Zen teacher say to no one in particular. Yes, I can do that.