Buddhist-Christian Studies 21.1 (2001) 63-67
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A Buddhist Reflects (Practices Reflection) on Some Christians' Reflections on Buddhist Practices
A tourist lost in New York City asks of a passerby, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?"The musically inclined informant replies, "Practice, practice, practice!"
Often people who have just heard I am a college professor with a specialty in Buddhism ask me "Are you a practicing Buddhist?" This question has always stumped me. My most common retort (it's not really an answer), "I keep practicing; maybe someday I'll get it right," both evades and critiques the question. As we use the term in everyday conversation, "practice" generally means disciplined repetition of an activity, usually in preparation for a performance of some kind. In relation to a religious path, "practice" usually refers to the integration of certain prescribed actions (practices) in one's life. My retort derives from the mixing of these two meanings of the word "practice," and the assumption that--for one reason or another--religious practice does not lead to a perfect performance in the spiritual equivalent of Carnegie Hall.
The form of the question puzzles me. Why do they ask about my practice? Why not just ask me "Are you a Buddhist?" I think they expect to discover that I engage in a Buddhist equivalent of going to church. Maybe the inclusion of practice in the question indicates anticipation of some level of earnestness, of application of my self/energy/time in service of my religion--some outward, observable manifestation of my religious orientation, above and beyond just teaching college students about this religion. Perhaps they expect me to confess to being a vegetarian, or meditating, or chanting, or attending Buddhist services of some kind. Although I find the question somewhat intrusive, I understand that most often it arises from well-meaning curiosity, if not genuine interest, and I try to follow my retort with something more pedagogically effective.
For most of my life, practice has been about music. I sang before I talked; I began to study piano at an early age; in elementary school I took up guitar and clarinet; in high school I started voice lessons. Learning to play all of these instruments required [End Page 63] practice. Recently, I took up the electric bass guitar, and I'm back to daily practicing. Practice does produce something; it is linearly causal. If I practice my instrument, I get better at producing the sounds I want to produce. Only a nonmusician would say this does not amount to a real accomplishment. At the same time, the activity one practices is the same activity one hopes to perform: I play the bass when I practice, in order to be able to play the bass. Still, I must practice--to get where I want to go, to improve the quality of my playing. After all, I first heard the Carnegie Hall joke from my guitar teacher, who told it both to amuse me and to inspire me to practice, practice, practice. At about the same time, author Catherine Drinker Bowen advised a group of us high school students that--based on her experiences growing up in a family full of musicians--the most effective way to learn an instrument is to fall in love with one's music teacher. In other words, desire serves the crucial function of inspiring one to practice. Yet I know that the same desire that motivates me to practice so that I can play more skillfully (as in "practice makes perfect") can hold me back if I focus on that future desired skillful playing (the "perfection") instead of the present moment of my playing. Further, I can practice to the point of technical expertise--I can accomplish that skill level I am aiming for in practice--and still not produce the musical quality I aspire to play. Practice does produce something necessary, but that something does not suffice. Musicians are no better at naming that other necessary ingredient than are...