Sitting in meditation can make one sensitive and intuitive. It can also make you self-conscious and hypervigilant about making mistakes in the zendo in front of Buddha and all those people watching. Of course, there were my ordinary mistakes such as pouring boiling water on the teacher when serving tea or dropping food when serving the community. But there are also deeply archetypal scenes that haunt dreams and daydreams. These are imaginary and dreadful situations where you appear naked in the zendo, wet your pants, or offer loud flatulence when bowing.
I have not yet enacted one of my more dreaded embarrassments, even though they may appear in my nightmares. I was, however, in the zendo when someone else did what I most feared—in full view of the community. Such a scene, during a meditation retreat, is embedded in the psyche and never forgotten. Wisdom is exposed for the perpetrator by living through embarrassment during a powerful enactment. For the observer, spiritual growth can also be firmly rooted in their path. Seeing someone live through your worst nightmare without lasting damage can be enlightening. The emotions are engaged, and they circulate awareness and embarrassment in the body.
In one seven-day sesshin at the Berkeley Zen Center, my job was to serve the food. All participants took part in organizing the retreat’s activities. When the meals were ready, I helped the cook put the food in the appropriate pots and bring the food to the zendo. In the zendo, the cook started the elaborate meal ceremony by offering three full bows as a symbol of respect for the source of the food and those who would receive it. This short but poignant ritual is accompanied by bells. All attention was tuned up; hungry meditators could smell the food and were anticipating a delicious meal and a rest thereafter.
The cook for that meal, George, was a warmhearted and friendly man in his seventies. He was well versed in how to enact the ritual. He bowed once—ding. He bowed twice—ding. And he bowed a third time—ding! But something went horribly wrong; when he stood up from his third bow, his sweatpants dropped from his waist and went down to his feet. George stood briefly and bravely in his underwear, in front of Buddha and all retreatants. When he realized that his pants were no longer in place, he scooped them up, pulled them back on, and hurried out of the zendo without stopping to enjoy lunch.
My first reaction was to pretend that George’s pants had not fallen off, so I could begin serving the food without further incident—let’s cover up what is uncomfortable because I have a schedule to keep. But I looked up to find the center’s founding teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman Roshi, seated at the front of the room, convulsed with laughter—contagious laughter. And so, I stopped pretending that I hadn’t seen George’s pants fall off when he was bowing, and I began to laugh, too. Since I was carrying the food with both hands, ceremonially, to the front of the room, I couldn’t stop to wipe my eyes or nose—liquid from these orifices was streaming down my face. The thought of my dripping face only made me laugh more. Now everyone to whom I served food began to laugh—whether or not they had seen George’s pants fall off.
Laughter and tears are especially contagious when we have been softened by meditation. We experience our emotions more urgently after days spent in silent self-reflection. Emotions are exaggerated, and there is intimacy with others in the silent closeness. People told me later that they had not seen George’s pants fall, but my laughing had set them off. Still we served the food, and those seated for the meal ate between giggles. I finished serving and removed the food bowls from the room.
When the meal ceremony concluded, I took the pots and serving bowls back to the kitchen. On my way, I found George sitting quietly on a bench in the garden. I had begun to wonder how he had survived his public humiliation, and I felt more than a little guilty for having laughed so intensely at his embarrassing revelation. I asked him if he was OK. He assured me that he was. To my eyes, he appeared to be beaming with calm and joy. He had lost his ego while naked in the zendo.
Sensing his stability, I asked him what happened. How had his pants fallen off? He said that they were held in place by a drawstring. When he felt the drawstring loosen, he took a big inward breath to puff out his belly and snug the pants. The inhalation had worked well for the first two bows, but the exaggerated inbreath had further stretched out the drawstring, and the pants had become even looser. What goes up must come down, and when he exhaled for the third bow, his waist circumference diminished. That’s when the pants gave way. Deep breathing in the zendo is not always safe.
George twinkled when he told me that after he had pulled up his pants, he wanted to walk up to the front of the zendo. Then in his imagination, he would have stood before Sojun Roshi and announced, “Master, I have been enlightened.” Looking at George’s softly smiling face I had to agree with the validity of his intention. He had passed through the gate of public humiliation, and he had faced the loss of his ego’s clothing. By announcing his awakening, he would have conveyed the wisdom of that moment to the entire community. He had gone beyond pants and adult pride in wearing them properly. He was upright and fully present for the humiliating revelation. Perhaps his experience could shed some light on the traditional Zen stories of enlightenment that occurred after a student’s nose, arm, or pronouncement had been tweaked by the teacher. Pride in our own competence can be our largest obstacle to fully experiencing reality.
Indeed, something more had happened for George and for me, something more than the experience of a public humiliation. He had found his ease after his embarrassment. What was the meaning of this embarrassment? None of us wants to be that person who moons the zendo when bowing. Why do we fear our mistakes? What does public exposure mean to us? Does it make us less lovable? Does our self-image collapse? Will we lose our friends’ respect? It seems to me that public humiliation might be as good as zazen for lessening the toxic effects of the ego. And considering how long it takes to lessen the ego’s grip, humiliation may be one of the fastest and most effective Zen sangha practices.
George bestowed a teaching gift to me and to anyone willing to receive it. He was the bodhisattva of humiliation. After George’s pants fell off, I wondered how much of my energy went into protecting my self-image, and how much this self-protective energy blocked me from letting go of self-clinging. I achieved a new-found freedom from self-consciousness, and I was more at ease in the zendo and elsewhere. I was confident that no matter how I failed, it would be difficult for me to top George. And if I actually could, I might become enlightened by my own act of public humiliation.
San Francisco Zen Center founder Shunryu Suzuki Roshi taught in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
When we reflect on what we are doing in our everyday life, we are always ashamed of ourself … [quoting a student] “but the year has already begun and already I have failed.”
Suzuki Roshi continued,
[The 13th century Zen master] Dogen Zenji said shoshaku jushaku. Shaku generally means “mistake” or “wrong.” Shoshaku jushaku means to succeed wrong with wrong, or one continuous mistake . . . A Zen master’s life can be said to be shoshaku jushaku. This means so many years of one single-minded effort.
We spend hours practicing meditation, making great effort to reveal the truth about the present moment. Clearly the effort we make is not to “look good” or to be right or to avoid mistakes. For Zen students who focused on being correct, Suzuki Roshi had a term: “Looks like good.” The single-minded effort is not to look good or be free from mistakes but rather to practice honestly and sincerely without trying to become good at it. Our practice of making mistakes, understanding our life is one mistake after another, is a single-minded effort. We don’t stop practice when we make a mistake, we don’t stop to think it should be otherwise. We keep practicing and let go of each mistake—apologizing when necessary. We can watch our mind try to reject, excuse, or erase a mistake, but we need to learn to let go of mistakes.
Because of George’s emotional humiliation and his subsequent composure, I developed my own explicit Zen teaching about mistakes. At retreats I taught my students, “Make your mistakes often and publicly.” I encouraged my students to do the most formal practice we could command as a sangha. But rituals were done with a different view. We did not perform ceremony to enact the form so that the ritual was performed exactly according to tradition. Instead, we aimed to complete the ritual perfectly while paying as much attention to the quality of our attention: the wavering attention leading to mistakes, our awareness of the mistakes, and our own reactions to the flub-ups. Whose fault was it that the food was cold? What about when the meal was served in the wrong order? When the chant leader has forgotten the chant? What then?
I taught my students that we didn’t practice in order to do the rituals perfectly. We practiced with exquisite attention to the form so we could watch our mind noticing our mistakes and clinging to them in our favorite emotion. We want to become perfect by doing the ceremony perfectly. If we fail to enact the ritual correctly in front of the sangha, how do we meet this exposure, this embarrassment? Rituals became opportunities for me and our sangha to make mistakes in front of the community. We could honestly practice Dogen’s shoshaku jushaku coming to life in our zendo. I could watch my mind wandering, making excuses and protecting my fragile ego. Emotions energized the experience and made working through them more compelling. This is a most valuable teaching for a Zen community.
We can survey our self-criticism and self-reproach by watching our mind at any time of day, in the zendo or out. But our self-consciousness and observing mind can be amplified by the hours of meditation with a witnessing audience. In any group spiritual practice, we combine increased attention with increased sensitivity. Performing in front of a group can be an emotionally vulnerable time. If you have opened a more spacious awareness, previously hidden emotional reactions and ego defense mechanisms become palpable. Emotions circulate in the body. Where do you feel embarrassment—in the body or the mind? Both places are stirred up. Noting that stirring, that circulating, can help us find settledness even within difficult emotions.
We can learn about the ways our mind grasps for “looking like good.” Pride and egotism are vividly revealed through emotions. Spiritual practice within a peer group will help to heighten emotions. When we experience these strong emotions, we can circulate them in a larger space. The space we have amplified and that we share with our fellow practitioners can help us release and heal even strong habitual emotions.
Adapted from Naked in the Zendo: Stories of Uptight Zen, Wild-Ass Zen, and Enlightenment Wherever You Are by Grace Schireson © 2019 by Grace Jill Schireson. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.
Further reading: If you enjoyed this essay, you might want to check out Gesshin Claire Greenwood’s guide to dealing with leftovers in Zen cooking, Koshin Paley Ellison’s podcast interview with Tricycle’s Editor and Publisher James Shaheen, or this humorous anecdote about when a Buddhist journal misprinted Zen teacher David Schneider’s sexual orientation.