Zen Wisdom-The State of No-Mistake is Called Nowness

After my heart teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the first Zen teachers I read and studied extensively was Roshi John Daido Loori.

Founder of the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism, Roshi Loori is considered one the great American masters of the Zen koan system.  Although he recently passed on, you can find a wealth of his writings and lectures at Zen Mountain Monastery website, where he was Abbot.

I guess one of the things that really attracted me about Roshi Loori’s teachings was that the man came across to me as the real deal—a “no BS”  kind of Zen teacher who was also a rebel of the best sort.

As one of his students wrote in tribute to him, “Although Daido Roshi first regarded himself as a staunch layperson and had little taste for certain of the ceremonial and authoritarian aspects of practice (he famously threw back at Maezumi Roshi the first list of koans he received from him, declaring, “I’m not going to do these!”), he later moved in the direction of what he described as “radical conservatism,” a move he saw as necessary for authentic Zen practice to take root in America. He later ordained as a Zen priest and eventually received dharma transmission from Maezumi Roshi, becoming a lineage holder in both the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen Buddhism.”

To convey something of the depth and spirit of Roshi Loori’s teaching, here is an excerpt from a talk he gave on the Zen koan Dongshan and Shenshan Cross the River. I hope you find, as I did after reading it, that you have whole new way of looking at “mistakes” and the meandering path to awakening!

A hazy autumn moon, solitary and full,

falls as it may on the winding river ahead.

There are those who seek perfect clarity,

yet sweep as you may, you cannot empty the mind.

(The Capping Verse to Dongshan and Shenshan Cross the River)

“You can’t teach someone to walk a tightrope by telling them to move their muscles a certain way. The only way to learn is by doing it. Somehow your body acclimates to it, your mind learns, and it seeps into your subconscious. It happens all at once. Is the Dharma any different? Of course you’re going to fail; step after step after step. Yet you will learn every time you fail. You say you’re going to stay with the breath, and pretty soon you start chasing after thoughts. You acknowledge your distraction, you let it go, and you come back to the breath. You keep doing this until you’re able to stay with the breath. After a while you get pretty good at it, but all of a sudden you seem to be back to square one and you can’t stay focused for even five seconds. Your mind is all over the place. Then it comes back.

Repeated practice creates learning. Repeated mistakes create learning. That is why Mistake is in reality called learning. The state of no-mistake is called nowness. It is called “now.” It is called “thus.” In nowness there is no before; there is no after. There are no goals, no agendas, no fixed direction. There is just the moment. It arrives as it departs, simultaneously. It has no before or after. It is so difficult for us to grasp this truth. We need goals. We want agendas. We crave direction. The notion of wandering aimlessly is very frightening for most of us…

The state of no-mistake is called nowness. In nowness there is no before or after, no goals, agendas, or fixed direction. Like the meandering river, it twists and turns in accord with circumstances, but always knows how to find its way to the great ocean.

When you are on the river, you may be paddling north for an hour, and suddenly there’ll be a bend up ahead. When you look at your compass, you see you’re going south. You may have to go the same length, except now you’re paddling in the opposite direction. Then you go east, then you go west, then north again. Is the river making a mistake on its journey to the ocean? Should the river be like a pipeline, one straight channel without bends or curves? Think of a river flowing through the forest. It is all curves and bends. It changes from season to season. When trees fall down and block it up, it rises up behind them, opening a new path. It twists and turns in accord with circumstances. It responds spontaneously, dealing with each moment as it comes up. Ultimately, the river will make its way to the great ocean.

If you wish to travel like this you must go alone. Alone. Not lonely, but alone. All one, containing everything. And not carry any baggage. Put down the backpack, take off the blinders. Whatever you are carrying will affect what you do. Most importantly, You must trust yourself implicitly. Give yourself permission to be yourself.

The capping verse: A hazy autumn moon, solitary and full, falls as it may on the winding river ahead. It falls as it may, randomly. In its haziness, it is not controlled. The hazy moon of enlightenment is imperfect. Anuttara-samyaksambodhi is imperfect. It has pimples and bumps. It is the Tenth Ox-herding Picture with the old sagely guy stumbling through the marketplace with a bag on his back. He is laughing at falling leaves, playing with children. This is a step beyond the crystal-clear moon of enlightenment. Dogen says, “No trace of enlightenment remains, and this traceless enlightenment continues endlessly.” There are those who seek perfect clarity, yet sweep as you may, you cannot empty the mind. Keizan Zenji said that. Sweeping itself can sometimes fill the mind. The simple activity of emptying fills it.

Remember, the whole thing is hopeless. Taking care of the environment is hopeless, but we’ll do it. Achieving enlightenment is hopeless, but we’ll do it. Clarifying the mind, emptying the mind — impossible. We’ll do it. Just like the Four Vows say: “Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.” How in the world are we going to do that, if they’re numberless? “Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them. The dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them. The Buddha Way is unattainable, I vow to attain it.” Utterly hopeless. Yet we’re doing it.

We are Don Quixotes, jousting with windmills. That is our practice. The apparent impossibility does not make one bit of difference in our resolve. What is required is the kind of tenacity, the kind of vow that comes out of this practice. Imperfections notwithstanding, we will ultimately take care of this earth, and of each other. That is our vow.”

(Commentary from a Dharma Discourse by Roshi John Daido Loori on Dongshan and Shenshan Cross the River)

Related Posts:

A Koan on Life and Death and What is Permanent

Now and Zen—Are You Still Carrying Her?


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

7 Responses to “Zen Wisdom-The State of No-Mistake is Called Nowness”

  1. This is great and thanks for posting. I have been neglecting my zen practice because I find few things I can relate to in zen. I tend to be more in agreement with teachings like those of Stephen Batchelor. This entry reminds of what I think is beautiful and skillful about zen

    • Ananda, that’s exactly what “rediscovering” this wonderful talk did for me too. So, thanks! I’m so glad I shared it.

      Of course, my heart teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, is very poetic and yet very skillful in a unique way, I think, so I have always been open to something like what Roshi Loori is transmitting in this talk. Yet, I really see what Stephen Batchelor is doing, and think it is right on and very important to a developing Western Buddhism. I must sound schizophrenic, but I think Batchelor is also conveying true dharma. I am happily agnostic about many traditional things in the Pali canon that seem to fly in the face of 21st century science and knowledge, but am always open to what appears in my actual practice.

      Some would argue you can’t be a “true” Buddhist without some beliefs, but I don’t find that spirit in what essential to the Buddha of the Pali canon (not that the Pali canon is without problems, as Batchelor argues in his most recent book)

      I guess that’s why I resonate so much with Theravada insights and practice; it’s all about what’s skillful, and my “metaphysical” concerns and questions and conundrums (most of which the Buddha wisely remained silent about) aren’t relevant to unbinding and the end of suffering and the finding of happiness. And yet, I need what is being offered in this talk by Roshi Loori, and in my heart teachers many fine books.

      Thanks for stopping by. I’ll try to share more of this good stuff in the future.

      With warm metta,

  2. Thank you so much for this, Steve. I can’t even express how much I needed that just now!

    And I love Roshi Loori’s face. 🙂


  3. Tenacity!

    That’s it. “Pick yourself up. dust yourself off, start all over again.” Words from an old Fred Astaire song in a movie with Ginger Rogers.

    We can’t live without making mistakes. We’re bound to hit snags in the river as it bends, meets fallen trees and bouders. But, it still flows despite the many changes during the rainy season or a drought.

    Makes me feel good about mistakes. Thought I was the worst offender and how could I be of any help to anybody when I have so many faults?

    This indeed was a great man with words that touch my very being.


    michael j

    • Thanks, Michael! Same feelings here. I rediscovered this today, and had to share it. You and I and many are learning how to flow like water with our lives, and think of the great power of water! It can wear down mountains, move huge boulders, and yet, it just flows and flows. Stick you finger in it, and it does not resist. And yet, it’s almost incompressible, giving it a “hardness” beyond rocks.

      I too love the indomitable spirit this talk conveys; it rings true, and inspires what is best and truest in us.

      Thanks for stopping by, my friend! Keep on flowin’!



  1. nowness « form is empty - 2010/05/03

    […] link: metta refuge […]

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