We’ve been discussing the Buddhist concept of the six paramitas or perfections. In recent weeks, we’ve examined the first two paramitas of Generosity and Ethics, and now let’s turn to the 3rd paramita: the Perfection of Patience (Kshanti Paramita).
This paramita represents the enlightened quality of patience, tolerance, forbearance, and acceptance. Even in simple activities, it can be helpful to remember the goal of patience. Every time Mark and I go for a walk with our dog Amanda, we have to adjust our pace to wait for her to sniff with intense interest every telephone pole, fire hydrant, bush, and fence post along the way. If we’re in a rush and strictly insiting that she “heel,” none of us enjoys the walk. We’ve learned to escort Amanda home before we go on a brisk walk for our own exercise.
The other day I met a neighbor who was watching the glacially slow progress of his 13-year-old Golden Retriever along the North Boulevard walkway. When I complimented the man on his patience, he smiled and said, “At the equivalent of 91 human years, she has earned the right to move as slowly as she wishes.”
An essential element of the paramita of patience is the strength of mind and heart that enables us to face challenges and difficulties of life without losing inner tranquility. A young woman who lives on our street told me that her infant daughter Eliot had suffered a stroke while still a fetus. Soon after birth, the baby started undergoing painstaking exercises in rehabilitation therapy. The mother said that two thirds of fetal stroke survivors have mental retardation or cerebral palsy. She’s grateful that her daughter is one of the lucky ones whose brain plasticity is functioning well, and she’s highly motivated to help Eliot undergo slow, repetitive drills to develop skills that most babies pick up spontaneously. This loving mother exemplifies calm patience.
The paramita of patience challenges us to cultivate the ability to be loving and compassionate in the face of criticism, misunderstanding, or aggression.
Consider how hard it is to accept adversity, insult, and distress with patience and tolerance, and without resentment, irritation, emotional reactivity, or retaliation.
A while ago, I heard Jill Carol, a writer and blogger, speak at The Jung Center on the topic of love. She described how her evangelical Christian parents had trouble accepting that their only child is an agnostic lesbian.
After years of mutual misunderstanding and criticism, Jill’s mother and father reconciled with her and her partner, and they all made an effort to listen patiently to one another in spite of their differences.
Soon afterwards, her 90-year-old father was dismayed when Jill and her partner decided to adopt an African American baby. While he prayed to find some way to be open to his daughter’s path, she asked him, regardless of his beliefs, to act kindly towards her son. When he actually met the baby, her dad’s heart melted, and he moved spontaneously beyond rigid limitations of prejudice and religious dogma. After he played with the child and rocked him in his arms, he said, “I want to live to be 100 so that my grandson will be old enough to know that he has a grandfather who loves him.” Jill’s point was that love can move us beyond indoctrination and habitual beliefs to be patient and tolerant.
The paramita of patience, acceptance, and tolerance is not a forced suppression or denial of thoughts and feelings. Instead, it is a quality of being which comes from opening the heart. Ideally we can make an effort to see the goodness and beauty in others, regardless of the situation. The enlightened quality of patience leads to equanimity, so that we are neither elated by praise, prosperity, or agreeable circumstances, nor are we angry, unhappy or depressed when faced with insults, poverty or hard times.
There is a Taoist story about an old farmer who had tilled his land for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they sympathized. “We’ll see,” the farmer answered. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful!” the neighbors exclaimed. “We’ll see,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their condolences for his misfortune. “We’ll see,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Noticing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “We’ll see,” said the farmer.
Consider how much patience this farmer needs to deal with his reactive neighbors, who continue to cling to pleasant experiences and to resist unpleasant ones. They seem slow to learn how to flow with the winds of change, and yet, without mindfulness practice, that’s how most of us are.
It takes steady practice to maintain inner peace, calmness, and equanimity and have enduring patience and tolerance for ourselves and others.
You may have noticed how it’s often most difficult to be patient with our own foibles. One day when Mark and I were cooking a tasty fish stew together, he asked me to add a bit of salt to the pot, as a finishing touch.
In the process, the top of the container popped off, and the stew was buried in salt. Not only were we stew-less and hungry, but, once I apologized to my co-chef, I had to practice patience with myself for my unintended culinary fiasco, which wasted so much food. I find it much easier to be patient with Mark when he’s a less-than-perfect chef.
The ability to wait and to have forbearance is integral to Dharma practice.
A Bodhisattva’s patience transcends irritation or resentment, even in the midst of being hurt physically, emotionally, or mentally. If we have a clear understanding of impermanence and of karma, the chain of causes that lead to any condition, we can develop patience for the benefit of all beings.
A buddhist elder named A. T. Ariyaratne leads a movement called Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka, where civil war has ravaged the country, and where he has received death threats from radicals on both sides of the conflict. His movement uses Buddhist principles of Right Action to organize citizens to dig wells, build roads and schools, and work together to heal their nation.
Ariyaratne has proposed a 500-year peace plan for Sri Lanka. He reflects upon the causes and conditions of the civil war—500 years of struggles among Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists; including 400 years of colonial oppression, and 300 years of economic disparity—and he concludes that it will take 500 years to change these conditions. His program centers around rebuilding infrastructure, educating citizens about religious and cultural differences, and addressing economic injustice. He suggests that every 100 years a council of elders evaluate the progress of the peace plan.
Ariyaratne’s patient, timeless vision doesn’t depend on winning the next election or even living long enough to reap the fruits of his plan. Day by day, he’s living according to the rightness and the truth of the work itself. By practicing the perfection of patience, he doesn’t give up on or abandon others—but helps them to transcend suffering, in small, steady steps.
With the strength of patience, we can maintain effort and enthusiasm in our Dharma practice. Our practice of patience assists us in developing the next paramita of joyous effort and enthusiastic perseverance.