By Rev. Jon Turner
When I was a little boy, my father would often drive our family north to Lindsay, California. It is a small farming town near Fresno, in the San Joaquin Valley. We made it into a summer vacation to see our relatives. My mother and father both grew up in the Valley. We always called it the Valley and we all knew what that meant. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I realized that there was also a San Fernando Valley.
We would stay at my grandfather’s house on his 80 acre orange grove. He was a farmer. This was my mother’s father. It was a long trip to the Valley and very hot in the summer. I think this was even before cars had air conditioning or at least before ours did. The only relief was to have all the windows rolled down.
It was easily a four hour drive and after about an hour my sister and I would start asking if we were there yet. And the answer was almost always no. Then we would ask how far. My Dad would answer in miles but we needed time. To us it always seemed much longer than he estimated.
It was very hard for me to sit still for four hours. I was very active. I was also focused only on the destination rather than the journey. I rarely looked out the window at the scenery. I often had my eyes closed trying to sleep. I was just trying to get through the four hours.
This mindset is also very common in Buddhism. When I began practicing Buddhism, I always wanted to know when will I get there. How long does it take? Am I on the right path or did I take a detour somewhere along the way. How do I know if I am really making any progress?
I also didn’t really understand the relationship between practice and the effect it would have on me. I didn’t know the exact mechanism at play when one chants or bows or listens to the teachings. I always wondered if I was really getting anywhere.
This is much like driving to Lindsay. When you pass Bakersfield thinking it is Fresno you suddenly realize that you are still nowhere close. Half way is a difficult spot to be in. Half done is good but you still have another half to go.
This kind of thinking – focusing on the destination – is normal. It also reflected how excited I was to see my grandparents. But it makes for a very difficult journey. My parents had to be very patient with me.
It is very interesting that the trip home always seems so much shorter. It is shorter because we relax and enjoy the view. We exhale knowing that we are going back to our true home. We let down and just experience the trip.
In Buddhism, it is often said that the journey is the destination. Unlike the driving metaphor, practice is the final goal. There really is no destination. We never stop. I was told that a newcomer to Buddhism recently asked if Buddhists ever get tired of practicing. This is an excellent question. If Buddhist practice was really like driving then of course the answer would be yes. But it is not. Practice is not a means to an end. Practice itself is awakening. Awakening is an activity not a state to be reached or achieved.
But even so it is still reasonable to wonder if you are making any progress. To ask if we are there yet isn’t quite right but you can still wonder if Bakersfield is close or not. There must be some progress on the path – there must be some way to gauge the effects.
My first suggestion is to try to focus on the return trip home. Relax, breathe and enjoy the journey towards your true home. You are no longer headed to somewhere foreign. You now have confidence in the path – getting to Lindsay was not a certainty but once there the route has been verified. The path has been established. Heading home is all downhill from there. It is no longer work. It is now fun.
After summer services, we begin family services and Dharma school on the first Sunday after Labor Day. In other words, school is back in session. Once we begin, I focus only on practice. But on Labor Day, I do make it a habit of comparing where I am now to where I was last Labor Day.
I take an inventory. This is a one-day exercise that examines one year of practice. And I have found that things really do change from one year to the next. I am not the same person I was a year ago. Progress is being made. The teachings are effective in transforming my life.
So for myself, when I now ask are we there yet, the answer is always yes. At least, for another year.
Rev. Jon Turner