Mindfulness and Forgetfulness

I’m out $100 on a plane ticket I can’t use. Before I booked the ticket I double checked my calendar and my events page to see when I needed to be in Scotland. Unfortunately both were wrong. I’d forgotten that the event in Glasgow that was initially suggested to take place on Saturday and Sunday was later changed to a Friday and Saturday event. So the actual dates in Glasgow are Friday November 16th and Saturday November 17th. Full info can be found on the Merchant City Yoga webpage. Scroll down to about the middle. That’s what I should’ve done before buying that plane ticket.

I discovered this error during a last minute check of the Internets when I was packing to leave my hotel in Koblenz. The discovery scrambled my brain such that I left a bunch of important stuff behind in the room. Luckily I know how stupid I can be, so I habitually carry back-ups of my most essential stuff in my backpack (extra underwear, extra toothbrush, etc.).

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post about my stay at the Southern Dharma Retreat Center (who apparently do not like me anymore, by the way, though I’m at a loss as to why). In that post I casually mentioned that I’d left my electric razor behind when I went to my next destination. When I looked at the comments section I discovered that whatever point I’d been trying to make had been completely ignored by the commenters. Instead there was a long line of comments about how I was obviously not truly mindful since I forgot my razor. Many who posted seemed quite gleeful in pointing this out. Like, “Ah ha! I got you! You’re a total phony! A real Zen Master would never forget his razor! A real Zen Master would be mindful!!”

It was a true facepalm moment. It had never even occurred to me that anyone would react like that. For one thing, I have never based my public persona on the idea that I was a shining example of mindfulness. These folks had me confused with those other guys they see in the back pages of the Buddhist magazines.

But more importantly it represented part of one of the biggest problems the Buddhist world in the west is dealing with these days. And that is the way we expect nearly supernatural powers to be displayed by our so-called “Masters” and react with disdain if our ideals are not met. Anyone who fails to measure up to what we think of as perfection is a phony and can therefore be ignored as we continue our quest for someone who does measure up.

The spiritual supermarket is filled to the brim with people who understand this. So they carefully tailor their public personas so as to seem as perfect and infallible as they know their followers expect. Problem is, this always breaks down. Always and forever. No one can keep that stuff up 24 hours a day 7 days a week. No one.

Generally they solve this problem by surrounding themselves with people whose job it is to keep outsiders from seeing their less Enlightened moments. But this breaks down too whenever one of the inner circle takes off their blinders and notices what’s actually going on. Often this is triggered by some kind of traumatic event, such as when the Enlightened Master in question attempts to have his way with one of his inner circle. That’s the most common scenario. This person then writes a tell-all book about the real truth of her or his former Master, after which the group that surrounds the Master has to reconvene and do damage control or else fall apart.

These days with the media invading everything we do, it’s a lot harder to present an impenetrable wall of infallibility. So we’re seeing a lot more Masters get scandalized. Which, I think, is generally a good thing. But I feel like most people’s reaction upon seeing such scandals is to think, “Oh! That guy was a phony. But maybe some other guy is the real deal.” Or they get cynical and decide that nobody in the world of spirituality has anything to offer at all and that absolutely everything spiritual is just a big con job.

There is a middle ground. I discovered it by being in close proximity to my teachers. They were both very open about their human sides. And yet I could see that there was also something very profound and deep about them as well. This kind of thing can never happen with teachers who get too big, who have thousands of followers arranged in concentric circles intended to protect their image of perfection from those further away whose donations are important to finance their summer homes and car collections.

In his book Sex and the Spiritual Teacher, Scott Edelstein talks about how it can be that a teacher can exhibit real insight and yet sometimes behave very badly anyway. He points out that the Buddhist view does not look upon a person as a single coherent entity who moves through life unchanged while all about him or her is in constant flux. Rather, the Buddhist view is that all of us are just the manifestation of causes and conditions. It’s possible, then, to be a brilliant expounder of the dharma when in the zendo giving a lecture and two hours later be a big asshole behind closed doors.

Granted, it does say something if the contrast is very great. And all of what I said about people who create and protect phony personas of the stereotypical “Enlightened Master” figures into this too.

But we, as students, have to understand the role we play in this. When we insist upon perfection as a criteria, we’re really only hurting ourselves. We’re missing the real beauty of the imperfection inherent in all of us including our Enlightened Masters.


Brad is still in Europe. Check his events page for upcoming gigs in Berlin, Glasgow, Manchester and London


Help Brad buy more plane tickets he can’t use — or at least some toothpaste and shaving cream to replace what he left behind — by donating to this page!

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22 Responses

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  1. Fred
    Fred November 9, 2012 at 4:02 am |

    This quest to see perfection in those ” further down the path ” comes from ego.

    Enlightenment isn’t an advanced state that an ego wears.

    I have an ego, but I am not that ego. I have a mind, but I am not that mind. I have
    a forgetful mind, but I am not that forgetful mind.

    The Universe is perfect in every way. So is the decay of this brain and body.

  2. Dorg
    Dorg November 9, 2012 at 5:38 am |

    YES! This why you have to keep being a Zen priest, Brad, to point out that spiritual attainments aren’t a ticket out of real life. You don’t get to go on auto-pilot. That idea of enlightenment is more like a suicide wish to escape from reality rather than a determination to come to grips with it.

    Even the Buddha had problems, he couldn’t control his big-headed disciple Devadatta and that schism broke up the Sanga for awhile. Shit happens.

  3. Sean H
    Sean H November 9, 2012 at 6:11 am |

    “When we insist upon perfection as a criteria, we’re really only hurting ourselves.”

    The singular is “criterion.” Jeez…

  4. katiecantread
    katiecantread November 9, 2012 at 6:12 am |

    I think forgetting your razor means you forgot your razor. I also think packing extra items is being mindful and not forgetful. You are aware that shit happens and you planned for it.

    I hope I am able to come to one of your lectures in the future!

  5. jannis
    jannis November 9, 2012 at 7:52 am |

    Don’t be to mindful,

    no one would take a master for granted without his stick [1] even Jesus had one. So I don’t know if Jesus tried to convince people with his stick, but no one should be convinced. Usually unmindfulness (if there is an opposite wording) is something which I would take more serious. What people usually see as mindfulness is from my perspective delusion. Fun, Sex and Rock are as part of it as well. Although ZEN from the outside view is misinterpreted and can never be processed pure rationally – leaf alone purity. The usual apostleship which get’s promoted by from my perspective serious masters is living a normal life, if that is possible. So normally speaking I prefer normal conversation over dharma war. Although it is tricky because I wouldn’t know what to talk about, like talking about the weather. But somehow there has to be the student – teacher relationship with kind of shifting powers. And the teacher with more experience, knowledge, wisdom – I would say ultimately it is about finding a person which to trust. Which teaches: “you shouldn’t trust me, I’m not god and you are not Jesus”. Although a teacher can teach how one behaves, talks and what to wear so others recognize as a master. It doesn’t mean I would say that one person is the master. A community or sangha forms a commitment-ship and I have respect for everyone taking such responsibility. Probably is about that a master got so annoyed by a student that he tells the student: “Go figure it out, you are the master!” People which are saying: “I’m not the master” are more appealing to me, it has some sense of being respectful and seeing ones true nature as human, which due to meditation/zazen has more deepened over the years, developed to someone with a notion of knowing what to say.

    No worries about the razor, toothpaste and underwear, they are available everywhere.

    With mindfulness

    [1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FP_Omp6rs6E

  6. blake
    blake November 9, 2012 at 8:01 am |

    This is why it is so important to find a teacher you can interact with face-to-face on a personal level (oh and a sangha is helpful, too). It shows you what someone “further down the path” is like. Strange as it sounds, they seem to be like everyone else when it comes to putting on pants, driving a car, and forgetting things in hotel rooms.

  7. BobbyByrd
    BobbyByrd November 9, 2012 at 9:28 am |

    Seems like Suzuki had (according to the Crooked Cucumber) the same problem. Forgetting things, events, whatever. I do too, in fact. The big and the little. But the more I sit I find I don’t kick myself in the ass as much. Just try to move onto the next thing. Of course, fact is, at 70 I can’t kick myself in the ass anymore.

  8. MJGibbs
    MJGibbs November 9, 2012 at 1:13 pm |

    Preview of film about Joshu Sasaki Roshi:


  9. Fred
    Fred November 9, 2012 at 2:08 pm |

    Joshu Sasaki Roshi:

    ” “If someone would turn up who can totally abandon their ego and manifest that zero state that is neither subject nor object and that is a complete unification of plus and minus, then I think I would make them a successor.”

  10. King Kong
    King Kong November 9, 2012 at 3:18 pm |


  11. Fred
    Fred November 9, 2012 at 5:19 pm |

    Ruth Baer : “mindfulness is the nonjudgmental observation of the ongoing streams of internal and external stimuli as they arise”

    The observation of stimuli implies an observer.

    Gudu rejected it. Others have stated that the zazen does the zazen. There is no
    gap between the observer and the observed.

  12. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer November 9, 2012 at 6:11 pm |

    “Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was Logic killed the Beast.”


  13. King Kong
    King Kong November 9, 2012 at 6:38 pm |


  14. AnneMH
    AnneMH November 9, 2012 at 9:13 pm |

    I must agree, a lot. It may just be that i think I have learned something or experienced something after all these years and I still forget things all the time. Mostly I run out of gas or get really really close to it. Others I have met who have practiced a long time also do this but I hope we have some sort of different perspective. Not a perspective that says we screw up and we have meditated so very much and are so very cool that someone else better run out and get us a new razor, but also not one that has us beating on ourselves for it either. Basically we just need to plan and get a new razor. All that other stuff actually gets in the way of just solving what needs to be solved.

    And it is frustrating because these conversations are not the same on the internet even though I am really glad to have this option. So this has encouraged me to sign up for another 1 day retreat with a teacher I really like,

  15. Pat
    Pat November 9, 2012 at 11:41 pm |

    My Partner is on very strong medication for vasculitis – what it has done is fry his brain !!- he can get very hyper or dull and forgets almost everything ( it’s like he is trying to catch butterflies – what are underpants ?). The point is that External conditions have changed his mind to such an extent that i often don’t recognise the person – yet on a deeper level it’s exactly the same person i’ve know for all these years.

  16. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote November 11, 2012 at 9:22 am |

    Pat, sympathies to you and your partner, and what a great example of why judgements about a person’s mindfulness or lack thereof can be irrelevant, as far as what another person might have to offer.

    Everybody is offering all the time.

    I like what Cohen said in the preview of the film about Sasaki, “we wanted to see the dark side made bright”.

    I know when Kobun was asked about how life was after enlightenment, he said “it just gets harder.” I realize Kobun’s statement was in response to his audience and the public perception that life should be easier, things should be easier with enlightenment (and one should be mindful all the time, no doubt), but when I read in the Pali Canon how Gautama the Buddha described the initial meditative states as including ease and joy I think that is the thing that can bring the original teachings to me and to a wider audience. Follow that inner happiness Gautama described as characterizing the meditative states, that I think I can get myself to accept as a way.

    Of course, the trick for me and for the typical Westerner in practice is how to sit (or stand) in a posture for longer than 5 minutes without breaking anything. Somebody around here said something about chair practice not being real zazen, so somebody must know something about real zazen, and how to instruct those persons who feel that 5 minutes in some posture other than upright in a chair will break their knees- mustn’t they? Kidding, if wishes could be horses then we would all swim like Kong!

  17. King Kong
    King Kong November 11, 2012 at 12:36 pm |


  18. CosmicBrainz
    CosmicBrainz November 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm |

    Reminds me of this song:

    Judging people is neither good nor bad but ignorant. Judging judging is also neither good nor bad but ignorant. Letting go of words and non-words is true understanding and neither ignorant nor not-ignorant.

  19. Andy
    Andy November 12, 2012 at 2:55 am |


  20. Tattoozen
    Tattoozen November 12, 2012 at 7:59 am |

    I’ve noticed that the more I meditate the more I tend to forget “little” things like names or where my keys are. If memory is our brain running the same thought of an experience over and over until it carves a (metaphorical) groove in the brain, it seems like zazen screws that up by not letting that obsessive tape loop get started. the whole reason i started zazen was to turn off the unending sound of my own mind telling me how fucked i was. years later i dont have a real “reason” i sit anymore, but that tape loop was my initial reason to try meditation,

    I’ve tried to moderate this a bit always leaving my keys in the same place and trying mnemonic tricks for names. Maybe “mindfulness ” is knowing you have a crap memory and figuring out how to minimize the problems that brings…

  21. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote November 12, 2012 at 9:08 am |

    @Tattoozen, I’m not sure about zazen and the lack of mindfulness, but I find pressing my brain for logic like math or computers will leave me wacked. Needing a head-slap.

    Effort in zazen is the peculiar part of the whole deal, isn’t it? The effort is the peculiar part of the whole deal- get it? Ha ha, Kong, I’m comin’ for ya!

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