“How do I know my practice is working?”
“Your life is improving.”
Variants of this conversation have happened countless times. Students of the ethical and meditative teachings of the Buddha (and others) will sometimes get frustrated and think, “Why am I doing this?” Where is the evidence of my progress?
It is often difficult to assess our own growth and only slightly less challenging to perceive growth in others. In SN 3:24 the Buddha poses a question to King Pasenadi about whether he would evaluate potential soldiers based on their castes or clans, or instead, based on their skill levels. Sensibly, King Pasenadi says that the skill of the candidate is the most important factor.
The Buddha then draws an analogy with the training of monastics who come to his order from widely varying backgrounds. He says emphatically that those who have abandoned the five hindrances – sensual desire, ill-will, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and remorse, and doubt – and cultivated virtue, concentration, wisdom, liberation, and knowledge are the more worthy recipients of support from the faithful.
As a king intent on waging war
Would employ a youth skilled with the bow,
One endowed with strength and vigor,
But not the coward on account of his birth –
So even though he be of low birth,
One should honor the person of noble conduct,
The sagely man in whom are established
The virtues of patience and gentleness.
(from SN 3:24, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)
What does this mean for us? It can be a guide for evaluating our own progress, our own behavior. If our behavior is better, our life becomes easier. It’s interesting that the Buddha summarizes the absence of the hindrances and the presence of virtue, wisdom, etc. with the words “patience and gentleness”. These could be our measure of how we’re doing, day by day. We could also look for these qualities in others, especially in people we consider unlike ourseves – in dress or ethnicity or body shape or education or age. Sometimes people may have poor grooming or table manners, a grating accent or other unattractive feature, and we might be blinded to their patience and kindness. Many an annoying person actually has a heart of gold, but we have to look for it.
We can stay alert to our own patience and kindness, the quiet virtues. Often we judge ourselves too harshly; it can be easier to notice what we do wrong than what we do that’s right or neutral. If we tune into the wavelength of noticing peoples’ virtues rather than how they are different from us, we may be surprised.