How to Fail Well

Ajahn Amaro

How to Fail Well

Thus it is important to learn how to fail well; to learn how to fail in a good way, to handle our tendency to get lost, be caught up and miss the point. It is important to learn how to work with that in a skilful way. I like to use the phrase: ‘We need to learn how to fail perfectly’ or ‘to know how to be perfect failures’.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t try or that we are casual or careless about what we do. It means that we work with things the way they are – we work with our efforts and our aspirations, and we work with our limitations.

When the Buddha established the monastic rule (the Vināya), he didn’t sit down, work out the whole code and then hand it over to the rest of the Sangha. Each rule was conjured into being for the needs of the community, and out of particular events, actions and behaviour by different members of the Sangha. Each rule came from a particular circumstance.

When a rule was established, sometimes a bhikkhu would observe or enforce it in a destructive, hurtful or overzealous way. The Buddha would criticize that person by saying, ‘Foolish man [or woman], how on earth could you do that?’ And the person who had misbehaved might recognize their fault and say, ‘Yes, I am very sorry. I was totally foolish. I thought it would be a good thing to punish that novice by cutting off his ears. I thought that would be a good way to make sure he wouldn’t forget the lesson.’ The Buddha would reply, ‘This is not wise. Mutilating the novices for the sake of giving teachings is not to be done. (In fact, curiously, it is only a very minor offence to cut the ears off a novice, even though you would certainly be jailed for doing that nowadays.)

The transgressor would recognize the fault and the Buddha would say, ‘Well, it is good that you recognize your misconduct and that you see the fault.’ (That phrase is crucial). ‘To see your transgressions as such and then to endeavour to do better in the future; this is called furtherance in spiritual training, in the Dhamma and discipline of the Tathāgata.’

‘It is good that you recognize your misconduct and that you see the fault.’ That is a very helpful little phrase. It brings us into the best spirit with which to relate to our mistakes. When you do something stupid, your own equivalent of cutting someone’s ears off, you recognize your fault as a fault. You acknowledge the transgression. You don’t pretend that it hasn’t happened. You don’t make excuses for yourself. You recognize your transgression as a transgression and then endeavour to do better in the future. You recognize a shortcoming and take the cue from it to guide your future actions in a different way.

This reflection by Ajahn Amaro is from the book, The Breakthrough, (pdf) pp. 312-314.