Posted inHenry's Messages, Koans

The Art of Being Wrong: Part 2 of 4

February 1, 2015

This is where a koan’s capacity for liberation lies—not in the discovery of some new knowledge but in its power to help us give up our familiar template of knowing.


This post is a continuation of The Art of Being Wrong Part 1.

Peripeteia as defined by Aristotle is a literary device. But it seems to share a deep resonance with the way our actual lives unfold. Our lives are stories too, after all. Peripeteia of one kind or another is a key element in the path narratives of many spiritual traditions. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a spiritual path where some kind of “turning around”—whether from worldly concerns to more divine ones or from self-regard to other-regard— doesn’t play a key role.

Early Christianity stressed the moment of metanoia—the change of mind that brings a deep shift in one’s orientation. Metanoia may also be translated as “repentance” and in that sense represents a recognition that one has been wrong. Or take the story of the Buddha. Prior to his awakening, he recognized the limitations of a life of materialism, he left the comforts of princely life to live as a wandering ascetic, he mastered the meditation systems of his day, but it was only with awakening that he discovered how wrong he had really been. As recounted in Zen tradition, on the night of his great awakening, as he sat in meditation, upon seeing the morning star, revelation struck, and he cried out, “I and all beings have simultaneously attained the Way,” affirming that he and the rest of the world were not two things.

Zen, almost since its inception in China, has been strongly influenced by its “sudden school” teachings, which emphasize breakthrough moments of revelation, and they too are often couched as recognitions of having been wrong. When after years of discouraging practice, Kyogen accidentally flicked a broken piece of tile against a stalk of bamboo, the sound is said to have awakened him. In the verse he composed afterward, he said, “One knock, and I have forgotten everything I ever knew.” His whole view of the world was knocked away.

If we borrow Aristotle’s term and apply it to the spiritual path, we find there is often a striking congruence. Perhaps this is why it’s so compelling in narrative. It affirms a deeply felt intimation that our lives proceed through being disabused of our preconceptions. We are after all vulnerable, fallible, and self-deluded creatures who will never fully comprehend our existence and nature. No wonder hubris was the favored fault of Greek tragic heroes or that Christianity posits pride as the gravest sin. A reversal knocks us back. If nothing else it teaches us humility. It shows us the limits of our understanding.

The wisdom and liberation offered by a moment of peripeteia may have more to do with letting go an old way of seeing the world than with the discovery of a new one. Many spiritual paths hold up some kind of benchmark experience as a pivot in the story of an individual’s practice. In Pure Land Buddhism there is shinjin, in Zen there is kensho, in Theravada Buddhism there is sotapatti, or “stream entry,” in Christianity there is repentance, and so on. There are particular benchmark experiences for particular approaches. These are neither as definitive nor as universal as we might like to believe. Other paths, other benchmarks. Yet they all have one thing in common: a reversal in how one has construed the world. Before the reversal— whether it is profound or subtle, sudden or gradual—one sees the world in a certain way, one thinks that way correct, and that way is a big problem. The reversal entails seeing one was wrong, and this allows one to engage with one’s life in a better way. In the sense that the common thread is the discovery of one’s error, the fit with peripeteia is extraordinary.

Zen’s tradition of koan study can be framed as a way to encourage in the student a repeated giving up of her habitual ways of seeing and knowing. Whether or not this is rightly described as “cutting off thoughts,” it always involves a letting go of one’s certitudes and complacencies, and entering a state of “not-knowing.”

This is where a koan’s capacity for liberation lies—not in the discovery of some new knowledge but in its power to help us give up our familiar template of knowing.

It is less about the landing than the leap. In this sense, koan training favors “reversals” explicitly, seeking to resolve our existential angst not so much through an arrival at a new state of understanding as through the relinquishing of understanding itself. With that relinquishment, we are free to meet the moment with a fresh intimacy, engagement, and compassion.

Seeing the contingency of our own way of construing experience, being shocked out of our view of things, instructs us spiritually perhaps less by the content of what we see than by what it models—namely, that we have been wrong. The point is not that we then see “the truth,” or some “pure” or “unconditioned” reality, however much we may feel that we have. That would in effect soon crystallize into just another view. The liberative power of ongoing koan training is that it offers nofinal story in which to settle.

Again and again, we are knocked by a peripeteia, which we might call an “insight” because it leads to our experiencing self and world in a new way. Yet if we examine the content of the insight, it may be pertinent primarily to our previous way of seeing things: that is, we discover it was faulty. It didn’t hold up the way we thought. We tend to think the gift is to have seen something new, but perhaps it’s more to have seen through something old, and the real discovery may not be a truer formulation but the giving up of any view. That’s where the blast of fresh air comes in, that’s where the real waking is—where there is neither the old dream nor a new one but just the marvelous shock, indeed the relief, of finding we had been wrong.

For the next installment:  Click to read the Art of Being Wrong Part 3.

If you missed Part1 :  Click to read The Art of Being Wrong, Part 1.


The Art of Being Wrong, by Henry Shukman, was first published in Tricycle Magazine, Spring 2013.

Image: Balls, by PuraVida_Fotographie, CC0 at

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