By David Sease
(David is a lay Buddhist who lives and practices in South Carolina.)
Where I’m from in South Carolina, churches often have billboards out by the road. Many of the billboards have quotes on them that are often funny or witty and they almost always point to some religious teaching that takes place within the church or within their church’s tradition. Until recently, one of my favorites was “Sign broken, message inside”. On the way to work the other day, I saw a message on the billboard of a Baptist church that really resonated with me. It said, in big, black, plastic letters, “Practice makes perfect. Be careful what you practice”. I have thought about that quote almost every day since I saw it and it has really inspired my Buddhist practice.
I grew up hearing the saying that practice makes perfect. As a kid, it meant that I needed to practice my piano for an upcoming recital or something like that. Later in my teens, twenties, and thirties, it meant that I needed to get together with the band that I played in so that we could practice for an upcoming concert or tour. It made perfect sense. If I wanted to play well at the recital, I needed to practice a lot so that during the performance, I could easily retrieve the parts that I needed to play. If the band wanted to play a good concert, we knew that it would be helpful to have hours of practice so that no matter what happened during the show, we could at least play our songs well. For years, that is what practice meant to me. Review, review, review, review, and review so that when the “big event” took place, it’d go smoothly. I kind of separated this part of life into two parts; practice and “big event”.
Since I’ve been training in Buddhism though, the idea of what practice is has changed, and it is not limited to just focusing on “the big event” like it used to be. It reminds me much more of my experience skateboarding, where I’d go outside and “practice” doing a trick for what seemed like hours. There was never a “big event” for which I was preparing. I wasn’t going to be in a competition or anything like that. I was just trying to learn tricks. The practicing of a trick is what skateboarding is for me. It is fun in and of itself. As a novice triathlete, I do a lot of training for upcoming races. I swim, run, and ride my bike for miles, over and over, hopefully building up enough strength to complete whatever race I signed up to do. I am learning though that even the race itself (the big event) is a type of practice for future races. In other words, there is an element of practice in the daily training and in the race itself.
Looking back through my life, whether it was practicing piano, guitar, math, skateboarding, being a friend, or whatever, it was always like this. I was always practicing for more than just the recital, concert, or math test. I was actually practicing being a human, one that had hobbies, relationships, and responsibilities! This is the wonderful thing about looking at life from a Buddhist perspective. In a spiritual sense, our lives are both the “big event” and the practice. We always get a chance to look at what we are doing at any moment, recognizing the gravity of the situation (since it is the “big event” of life) and at the same time, realizing that we are just learning every step of the way, seeing each moment as an opportunity to practice doing whatever we are doing. This brings me great relief because it means that there is room for mistakes. I have to take on the responsibility to look at these mistakes and learn from them, but I am not going to mess anything up by making a mistake.
For a while now, I have appreciated the verses and scriptures that we recite during our ceremonies. I have also always appreciated the verses that we have around the Priory. For example, whenever we brush our teeth, we pray that all living things may profit and understand the truth quickly. We pray that we will avail ourselves of purifying patience when we wash our hands after using the restroom. Since I use the restroom and brush my teeth every day, I have a wonderful opportunity to recite these verses multiple times a day. These verses remind me to train. They remind me to bring my mind back to whatever it is that I am doing. I often wished that I had a little verse like these for more things that happened in my daily life. And then, one day, on the way to work, a Baptist church gave me the verse I was looking for. “Practice makes perfect. Be careful what you practice”.
Among many other roles I have in life, I am a father and a husband. Now that I have learned this wonderful quote, I can put it into practice all the time. For example, when my son or wife is explaining something to me or telling me a story and I hear my phone beep because a text message has come in, I think “practice makes perfect, be careful what you practice”. Do I want to perfect being a distractible person who habitually checks his phone the moment it beeps or do I want to practice being present in the conversation that is going on by sitting still within the urge to check my phone? When someone at work does something that irritates me, I think, “do I want to perfect being a person who attaches to irritation and expresses it when someone does something I don’t like or do I want to practice patience by trying to be open to working on sympathy and tenderness instead? Do I want to perfect the skill of hardening my opinions by holding on to them by conducting real or imagined arguments with other people with whom I disagree or do I want to practice purifying patience and understanding and learning how to conduct positive discourse?
By choosing to follow the impulse to grab the phone, become irritated with a co-worker, or to harden my opinions, I am indulging in these habits. I give energy to them and in a sense, perfect them. On the other hand, by choosing to sit still within these very temptations, I am practicing letting go of these inclinations. Reminding myself of this quote helps me to practice letting go. After all, it is an easy decision. Of course, I would rather be good at being sympathetic, tender, charitable, and benevolent than I would being irritable, distractible, and opinionated. So, like the sign says, I need to be careful of what I practice, lest I perfect being irritable, opinionated, and distractible.
Reminding myself that practice makes perfect has been helpful in noticing the relationship between cause and effect. When I practice something, I give it attention and energy. That attention and energy will likely propel whatever is being practiced into a future existence that I will have to deal with, even if it is just the “me” of five minutes into the future. If I practice being greedy, angry, or deluded, the effect is that I will be more likely to retrieve the skill of being greedy, angry, and deluded in the future. These are not states of being that I want to perfect. On the other hand, if I can remind myself of what it is that I am practicing, the purpose for which I am training, I can choose to try to do things that will limit suffering for myself and others. I can choose to live from a place of stillness.
Because I am not a fixed, solid, unchangeable self, that is unable to grow and learn, I can look at life as a series of opportunities to practice the Buddha Dharma. If I don’t do it perfectly in one moment, it is ok because after all, this is just practice. I think that there is merit in the process of making that mistake as long as I am willing to look at it and practice being still and following the precepts the next time that opportunity comes along. It is important though, for me, to remember that I need to be careful of what I practice! I don’t think it is necessary for me to perfect following the path of the Buddha, it is just important that I practice following it.