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Transcribing the oral tradition...
Aileen, Shetland Islands
Padmavajri, East Sussex
Suriyavamsa, Glasgow, UK
Colum, London, UK
Jinamitra, Welwyn, UK
Candradasa, FBA Team
Viriyalila, Portsmouth, USA
Sheila Groonell, Aryaloka, USA
You can also listen to this talk.
Notes on Patience
Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/audio/details?num=LOC79
Talk given at San Francisco Buddhist Center, November 2008
It is quite awesome to be here, I have to say. I’ve never quite been in a situation like
this before [LAUGHTER]. We’ll see how it goes.
Clarification of a few terms and names: Sangharakshita, Mahayana Buddhism
and the Bodhisattva
So, I’m just going to refer to a couple of things in my talk and I know we’ve got a
range of experience going on here, so I just want to clarify a couple things. One is,
there’s a Buddhist teacher, who some of you might not have heard of, called
Sangharakshita, and he’s actually the founder of our order, which is the Western
Buddhist Order. Our order was started in 1968, in London. It emphasizes creativity
and imagination, spiritual friendship, study, meditation and Right Livelihood.
Mahayana Buddhism is a form of Buddhism that appeared later, after the time of the
historical Buddha, and it also very much emphasizes compassion and imagination –
very “other-regarding”. So, Mahayana Buddhism especially emphasizes compassion
in the form of something called the Bodhisattva Ideal, and I got this off of a book
cover, actually, but I think it explains the spirit of the Bodhisattva well:
“In Mahayana Buddhism the Bodhisattva’s life exemplifies the resolution of the
conflict between our own desires and the needs of others…The development of inner
calm and positivity that leads to true wisdom is balanced by genuine and active
concern for others, which flowers into great compassion.”
So, if we think of wisdom as a willingness to acknowledge how things are (and) how
things work, including ourselves. Part of this means that we are interacting with
forms of life that do not want to acknowledge how things are, and that we are also one
of those forms of life. So, this is how things are, which is to say that there is
suffering, because most of us do not accept life on its own terms. We prefer our own.
And we stubbornly might even cling to our own terms, even if, on some level, we
know that it’s unrealistic. So, the Bodhisattva, this kind of ideal sort of being, is
willing to acknowledge things, and beings, and ourselves, as we are.
And this requires an enormous amount of patience, which is the subject of this talk.
More specifically, in Sanskrit, the word is kshanti, which I’m going to be talking
about. It’s usually translated as “patience”. It can also be translated as “forbearance,
endurance” and “tolerance”.
"It is difficult to translate kshanti by any one English word because it means a
number of things. It means patience: patience with people, patience when things don't
go your way. It means tolerance: allowing other people to have their own thoughts,
their own ideas, their own beliefs, even their own prejudices. It means love and
kindliness. And it also means openness, willingness to take things in, and, especially,
receptivity to truth."
So kshanti means not only patience, but a constellation of other positive, life-
affirming mental states that we can cultivate: tolerance, love, kindliness, generosity,
openness and receptivity. It DOES NOT mean gritting your teeth, harming yourself,
silence, bottled up rage, or being a passive victim. When we are patient, in this sense
of the word, we are taking care of ourselves. Sometimes we take care of ourselves by
being patient. I think we can all agree that most of the time, if not all the time,
impatience kind of adds more problems to situations.
Kshanti is one of what are known as the Six or the Ten Perfections of Mahayana
Buddhism, depending on which list you have. The Six Perfections are grouped into
three sets of pairs. There’s generosity and morality, patience and vigor, meditation
and wisdom. These various pairs balance each other. So, patience is balanced with
energy, and energy is balanced by patience. In the end they will merge. We might
notice that we have a tendency toward one or the other of these kind of pulls. I think
personally, I’m more of an energy type, enthusiastic. Which for many of us, for me,
means that I’m easily frustrated and prone to getting irritated. So, I’m aware of that.
It’s just important for us to be aware of our tendencies and work with our habits when
we’re trying to practice. And I think that this is probably one of the main things we’re
doing in Buddhist practice. We are working with our tendencies and becoming more
and more aware of habitual responses that we have that aren’t that helpful sometimes.
It’s easy to think of patience as being something that’s kind of passive but this shows
that that is not what is meant by kshanti. Kshanti is an expression of wisdom infused
with energy, especially infused with loving energy. So Sangharakshita also says:
“Kshanti is a form of awareness, an awareness of suffering in which one does not
react with anger.”
So, I think of awareness of suffering as being like a prerequisite for us to be able to be
patient. If we can see somebody who annoys us as a suffering being, and
acknowledge our responsibility in that dynamic that’s going on between us and this
other person, in a way that’s all we need to do. So, I think tuning into suffering is very
important. Which is not to say that the person is not responsible for their actions, but
it’s not really about that. I’m thinking more in terms of, if we can look without self-
reference at someone who is shouting at us, you will see that there is some pain there.
It’s not really about excusing them. It’s just about being aware of suffering as part of
how things are.
Patience features prominently in pre-Mahayana forms of Buddhism as well. The
Dhammapada says, “Patience is the highest austerity.” At the time of the Buddha and
even today in India there are all kinds of people who are going around trying to purify
themselves and practice spiritually by kinds of self-mortification: starvation, holding
your arm up for six months until it starts to wither away, this kind of thing. And this
kind of idea, maybe in more subtle forms, definitely exists today. But the Buddha
said, “you don’t need to physically harm yourself.” In other words, you do not need to
go out looking for trouble, trouble will find you. Because our world is absolutely full
of opportunities for us to practice patience. So, “Patience is the highest austerity.” I
think the Buddha was quite a genius when he came up with that.
What Patience is Not
I’m going to say some more about patience and things that we can work with, but
maybe before I do that, maybe we could be clear about things that are NOT patience.
Would anybody care to give an example? Something that is NOT patience? A
[Audience members: “Despair.” “Anxiety.” “Anger.” “Endurance.” “Swallowing
feelings.”] Good. Great, thank you. Repressing…
[“Seconds on ice cream?”] [LAUGHTER] Seconds on ice cream!!
Okay one more on impatience.
[“Restlessness.” “Aggression.”] Thank you.
So, I was thinking about the difference between patience and impatience and I was
reminded of the Taoist saying, “Soft overcomes hard,” or “Soft wisdom overcomes
hard wisdom.” And, by hardness I mean resistance, being brittle or rigid. These are
not wholesome mental states. I find that personally sometimes my response to stress
or some kind of issue is that I do tend to get this kind of protective thing that comes
up, or this kind of pseudo-protective thing, like a kind of toughness. So that’s one of
the things I work with. I’m sure we all have our own customized responses.
So, the idea is that we need to keep the energy flowing between us and the world,
even when we momentarily might hate the world sometimes. But we can’t completely
separate ourselves from it. Just basically learning to live in a way that’s healthy for us
and for the world.
Mahayana literature takes kind of an uncompromising stance about anger. For
example, I believe this is from Shantideva, an Indian master, who says, “One moment
of anger destroys all merits one has accumulated through practice.”
So, that can be a bit depressing [LAUGHTER]. Because, what’s the point, really?
So, sometimes things can get a bit over the top in Buddhist literature, so I think one
thing that’s good to do is not worry about taking things super literally, and looking at
the spirit of the teaching rather than getting caught up in ideas that might just make
ourselves feel bad about ourselves and not really help that much. So, I think the spirit
of that quotation is that, as aspiring bodhisattvas, we want to just be able to
acknowledge our connectedness to other beings, ...