The Perfection of Patience: Kshantiparamita

“Patience is a virtue,” as the saying goes. So, do we have to just grin and bear everything? Patience in Buddhism is a powerful practice that doesn’t mean we simply tolerate things, but that we actively work on our mind to make sure it doesn’t fall victim to disturbing emotions. Patience gives us the strength to work to benefit both ourselves and others, and is one of the factors that propels us toward liberation and enlightenment.

Introduction

The third of the six far-reaching attitudes (perfections) is patience, a state of mind where we don’t get angry, but instead are able to endure various difficulties and suffering. We might encounter all sorts of harm from others, but it doesn’t disturb us. It doesn’t mean that we no longer have any enemies or people who will try to hurt us, but it means we don’t get angry, frustrated, discouraged, or become reluctant to help them. If we’re always losing our temper, how could we really help others? There are three kinds of patience within this attitude:

Not Becoming Upset with Those Who Do Harm

The first type of patience is to not become angry or upset with those who do harm. It’s not just about people acting negatively, but also those who actually are nasty to us, treat us badly, and actually harm us, both physically and mentally. It even includes people who don’t thank or appreciate us. Especially if we’re helping others, it’s important not to get angry with them if they don’t take our advice or if it doesn’t work. There are a lot of people who are very, very difficult to help, and so instead of losing our patience, we need to endure all of the difficulties involved.

If we’re teachers, we must never lose our patience with our students, no matter how slow or unintelligent someone is. It’s up to us as a teacher, whether we’re teaching Dharma or something else, to be patient and not give in to frustration. It’s like teaching a baby: we need to be skillful; we can’t expect a baby to learn as quickly as an adult.

Enduring Suffering

The second type of patience is to accept and endure our own suffering, something that Shantideva speaks a lot about. He says that if we’ve got a problem that can be solved, there’s no point in getting angry, upset or worried. Just do what’s needed to solve it. But, if there’s nothing that can be done about the situation, why get angry? It doesn’t help. It’s like if it’s cold and we have warm clothing. Why complain and get angry that it’s cold, when we could just put on some extra layers? If we don’t have any warm clothes, then getting angry or upset isn’t going to make us warm.

We can also look at the suffering we experience as burning off negative obstacles, becoming happy that negative karma is ripening now, rather than in the future when it could be even worse. In a sense, we’re getting off lightly. Let’s say we bang our foot against the table and it really hurts – well, that’s great, because we haven’t broken our leg! Thinking like this can help us not get angry. After all, jumping up and down and making a big scene when our foot hurts isn’t going to help in the slightest. Even if our mommy comes and kisses it for us, it’s not going to make it all better!

Another point applies to when we’re trying to do very positive and constructive work, like starting a long retreat, going on a journey to help others, or working with some Dharma project. If there are lots of obstacles and difficulties at the beginning, then it’s actually great. It’s like all of the obstacles burning off so that the rest of the undertaking can go well. We should be happy that it’s burning off now, rather than making a huge problem later on.

Shantideva said that suffering and problems have good qualities as well. It’s not that we should go out and actively look for problems to torture ourselves with, but when we are suffering, there are various good qualities that we can appreciate. Suffering lowers our arrogance and makes us humbler. It also allows us to develop compassion for others suffering similar types of problems. It’s like if we contract a certain disease, we have a natural appreciation of and compassion for our fellow sufferers. When we get old, we can finally really understand the pain of old age. We don’t usually have compassion for old people when we’re 16, because we can hardly fathom what it’s like to be 70. But when we do reach old age and experience all of it, then we have a great deal of compassion and understanding for old people.

Also, if we have some understanding of behavioral cause and effect – karma – then when we suffer, it reminds us to avoid acting destructively. Why? Simply because acting negatively is the cause for suffering. It will encourage us to engage more strongly in constructive actions, which are the cause of happiness.

Enduring Hardships for the Sake of the Dharma

The third type of patience is to endure the hardships involved in studying and practicing the Dharma. It’s going to take a tremendous amount of work and effort to reach enlightenment, and we need to be realistic about this so as not to become discouraged: we need to be patient with ourselves.

It’s important to understand and accept that the nature of samsara is that it goes up and down, not just in terms of higher and lower rebirths, but in general, all the time. Sometimes we’ll feel like practicing, and sometimes not. Sometimes our practice will go well, and sometimes not. What else can we expect? It’s samsara, after all. It’s not going to get better and better every day, so we need to be patient and not just give up when one day doesn’t go as planned. Maybe we thought we’d already dealt with anger and would never get angry again, but all of a sudden something happens and we lose our temper. Well, it happens. We’re not getting rid of anger entirely until we’re liberated as an arhat. So, patience is the key.

Shantideva on Developing Patience

Shantideva explains a number of ways to develop patience in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. Let’s look at a few examples:

If we burn our hand in a fire or on the stove, we can’t get angry at the fire for being hot. That’s the nature of fire. Similarly, what can we expect from samsara? Of course people are going to let us down, people are going to hurt us, and things are going to be difficult. If we ask somebody to do something for us, we should expect them to do it incorrectly. If they don’t do it in the way we like, whose fault is it? It’s our own fault for being too lazy to do it ourselves and asking them. If we should be angry with anybody, we should be angry with our own laziness!

“What can we expect from samsara” is a helpful phrase to remember for all the different types of patience that we need to develop. Do we think that life’s going to be easy and everything’s going to work out nicely, always and forever? The nature of every moment of our lives is samsara – and that equals uncontrollably recurring suffering and problems. So when things don’t work out the way we want, or people hurt or disappoint us, don’t be surprised. What else can we expect? This is exactly why we want to get out of it.

It’s like complaining that the winter is so cold and dark. Well, what do we expect from winter – that it’s going to be lovely and warm and we’ll be able to sunbathe?! Just like the nature of fire is hot, and we’ll burn our hand if we stick our hand into the flames, winter will be dark and cold. There is no point in getting angry.

Another method that Shantideva suggests is to view other people as if they were crazy persons or babies. If a crazy or drunk person yells at us, we’re even crazier to yell back, aren’t we? If our two-year-old screams “I hate you!” when we turn off the television and send them to bed, do we take it seriously and get angry and upset that our baby hates us? No, because it’s a baby. If we can view other people who are acting horribly as if they were a cranky baby or a crazy person, it really does help us not to get angry with them.

Additionally, if someone’s giving us a really hard time, it is very helpful to view them as our teacher. We’ve all got that one extremely annoying person we can never seem to avoid, right? Well, when we’re with them, we should think, “This person is my teacher of patience.” Actually, if people didn’t annoy us or give us a difficult time, we’d never be able to learn patience. We’d never be challenged, and so we can see that these people are very kind to provide these sorts of opportunities. His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says that the Chinese leaders are his teachers, and that Mao Zedong was his greatest teacher of patience.

Summary

Every single day that we’re stuck in samsara, we’ll encounter problems and frustration. Sometimes, things will go exactly the way we want, and sometimes life will seem to spiral out of control. Everything we do has the potential to go wrong, every friend we make has the potential to become an enemy. No matter how much we’ve helped our best friend, they could end up saying awful things about us behind our backs.

In these situations, it seems natural to get angry, which drives us to believe that in destroying our enemy, we’ll finally get the peace of mind we crave. Unfortunately, even if we destroy our archenemy today, tomorrow and the day after, new ones will pop up. Shantideva advises us to simply cover our own feet in leather, rather than trying to cover the whole planet in leather. In other words, there is no point in attempting to overcome all of our external enemies, when all we need to do is destroy our own internal enemy – anger. The leather here for us refers to patience, the gateway that leads us to bear the hardships that others place upon us, and that we’ll meet on our road to liberation.