Being Willing to Make Mistakes

Ajahn Karuṇadhammo • May 2013

How much are we willing to learn from our mistakes? This is a crucial aspect of the training—the willingness to recognize when we’ve missed the mark as well as being open to making mistakes. It’s not always easy to practice in this way. I think many of us here come with conditioning around how important it is to be right all the time. We can grow up with a sense of shame—Unless I’m doing everything perfectly all the time, then something is wrong with me. As far as I can tell, there are only a few lucky people who learned while growing up that it’s just fine to make mistakes. In the community here, there are many of us who are strong-willed in certain ways. We have plenty of leaders here and sometimes it can be difficult for us to break that classic paradigm, The way I think we should do it is the right way.

We begin to unravel this paradigm by learning that it’s okay to not be right all the time and to use honest self-appraisal to examine ourselves. This allows us to say Okay, perhaps since everybody else is doing it a different way, I need to consider that, or a number of people are indicating to me that I may have missed the mark—maybe I should think carefully about what happened. This is a sign of internal strength. I also believe highly realized people tend to take this approach as well. Those who have penetrated the perception of not-self can see there is no “me” or “myself” that needs defending. They know it’s not a problem if they’re not always right.

This comes down to a matter of skill. Either it’s a skill we’ve learned, or one we haven’t, or perhaps we’ve partially taken it on—but it’s nothing personal. As Luang Por Pasanno was saying, even the Buddha after his enlightenment was constantly readjusting. Sometimes he’d set down rules, only to realize later they needed to be changed. In those cases he would call the monks together, explain the need to alter a rule, and adjust it accordingly. Right after his enlightenment, the Buddha was inclined not to teach. As the story goes, the Brahmā God Sahampati realized this was the Buddha’s inclination, came down from the brahmā realm, appeared before the Buddha, and said, “Please reconsider this. There are those who can learn!” The Buddha thought, Maybe there is a possibility of teaching others how to realize what I have realized. So even at that point he readjusted, and he certainly didn’t take it personally.

This is a good reflection to bring to mind. Essentially, it’s a reminder to be honest with ourselves—whether it’s relating to community life, the monastic discipline, the training, the views and opinions about how things should be done, or one’s personal meditation practice—we can strive for a more open and balanced point of view. We do this by honestly looking at our internal experiences, allowing ourselves to be present with our fears of being wrong, and saying to ourselves, Okay, I need to make a change; I need to adjust. And then simply let it go and make the adjustment. Once that’s done and the change has been made, we can move on and not worry about it so much.