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Teachings on the Practice of Patience

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Middle Way (Volume 68:3 p. 141) November 1993

Patience is a virtuous mind that is able to bear harm, suffering, or profound Dharma. Patience practised with bodhichitta motivation is a perfection of patience.

We need to cultivate patience even if we have no interest in spiritual development because without it we remain vulnerable to anxiety, frustration and disquiet. If we lack patience it is difficult for us to maintain peaceful relationships with others.

Patience is the opponent to anger, and anger is the most potent destroyer of virtue. We can see from our own experience how much suffering arises from anger. It prevents us from judging a situation correctly, and it causes us to act in regrettable ways. It destroys our own peace of mind and disturbs everyone else we meet. Even people who are normally attracted to us are repelled when they see us angry. Anger can make us reject or insult our own parents; and when it is intense it can even drive us to kill the people we love, or even to take our own life.

Usually anger is triggered off by something quite insignificant, such as a comment that we take personally, a habit that we find irritating, or an expectation that was not fulfilled. Based on such small experiences, anger weaves an elaborate fantasy, exaggerating the unpleasantness of the situation, and providing rationalisations and justifications for our sense of disappointment, outrage, or resentment. It leads us to say and do harmful things, thereby causing offence to others and transforming a small difficulty into a great problem.

If we were asked 'who caused all the wars in which so many people have died', we would have to reply that they were caused by angry minds. If nations were full of calm, peace-loving people, how could wars ever arise? Anger is the greatest enemy of living beings. It harmed us not only in the past, it harms us now, and, if we do not overcome it through the practice of patience, it will continue to harm us in the future. As Shantideva says:

This enemy anger has no function
Other than to cause me harm.

External enemies harm us in slower and less subtle ways, and if we practise patience with them we can even win them over and turn them into our friends, but there can be no reconciliation with anger. If we are lenient with anger it will take advantage of us and harms us not only in this life, but in many future lives. Therefore, we need to eliminate anger as soon as it enters our mind because if we do not it will quickly become a blazing fire that consumes our merit.

Patience, on the other hand, helps us in this life and in all future lives.

Shantideva says:

There is no evil like anger
And no virtue like patience.

With patience, we can accept any pain that is inflicted upon us, and we can easily endure our usual troubles and indispositions. With patience, nothing upsets our peace of mind and we do not experience problems. With patience, we maintain an inner peace and tranquillity that allows spiritual realisations to grow. Chandrakirti says that if we practise patience we will have a beautiful form in the future, and we will become a holy being with high realisations. There are three types of patience:

  1. The patience of not retaliating
  2. The patience of voluntarily enduring suffering
  3. The patience of definitely thinking about Dharma

The patience of not retaliating

To practise this type of patience we need to remain continuously mindful of the dangers of anger and the benefits of patient acceptance, and whenever anger is about to arise we need immediately to apply the methods for eliminating it. We have to begin by learning to forbear small difficulties such as insignificant insults or minor disruptions in our routine, and then gradually to improve our patience until we are able to bear even the greatest difficulty without getting angry.

When we are meditating on patience we can use many different lines of reasoning to help us overcome our tendency to retaliate. For example, we can contemplate that if someone were to hit us with a stick we would not get angry with the stick because it was being wielded by the attacker and had no choice. In the same way, if someone insults us or harms us, we should not get angry with them because they are being manipulated by- their deluded minds and also have no choice. Similarly, we can think that just as a doctor does not get angry if a feverish patient lashes out at him, so we should not get angry if confused living beings suffering from the sickness of the delusions harm us in any way. There are many special lines of reasoning like these to be found in the commentaries to the stages of the path (Lamrim), such as Joyful Path of Good Fortune, and in the commentaries to training the mind (Lojong), such as Meaningful to Behold.

The fundamental reason why we receive harm is that we have harmed others in the past. Those who attack us are merely the conditions whereby our karma ripens; the real cause of all the harm we receive is our own negativity. In such circumstances we have to suffer even mores harm in the future. By patiently accepting injury, however, the chain is broken and that particular karmic debt is paid off.

The patience of voluntarily enduring suffering

If we do not have the patience of voluntarily enduring suffering we become discouraged whenever we encounter obstacles and whenever our wishes go unfulfilled. We find it hard to complete our tasks because we feel like abandoning them as soon as they become difficult, and our miseries are further aggravated by our impatience. However, it is possible to accept and endure pain if we have a good reason to do so; and whenever we practise such patience we actually reduce our sufferings. For example, if someone were to stick a sharp needle into our flesh we would find the pain unbearable, but if the needle contained a vaccine that we needed, our tolerance would increase considerably.

Even to succeed in worldly aims people are prepared to endure adversity. Businessmen, for example, sacrifice their leisure and peace of mind just to make money, and soldiers put up with extreme hardship simply to kill other soldiers. How much more willing should we be to bear difficulties for the sake of the most worthwhile aim of all - the attainment of enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings? Because we are in samsara we often have to endure unpleasant conditions and misfortune. With the patience of voluntarily enduring suffering, however, we can happily and courageously accept these adversities whenever they arise. When our wishes are not fulfilled, or when we are sick, bereaved, or otherwise in difficulty, we should not be discouraged. Instead of feeling self-pity, we should use our suffering to strengthen our spiritual practice. We can recall that all our suffering is the result of our previous negative karma and resolve to practise pure moral discipline in the future; or we can contemplate that for as long as we remain in samsara suffering is inevitable, and thereby increase our wish to escape from samsara; or we can use our own suffering as an illustration of the much greater suffering experienced by other beings and in this way strengthen our compassion.

If we are able to endure adversities we will reap great rewards. Our present sufferings will diminish and we will accomplish both our temporary and our ultimate wishes. Thus, suffering should not be seen as an obstacle to our spiritual practice but as an indispensable aid. As Shantideva says:

Moreover, suffering has good qualities.
Because of sorrow, pride is dispelled,
Compassion arises for those trapped in samsara,
Evil is shunned, and joy is found in virtue.

The patience of definitely thinking about Dharma

If we listen to, contemplate, or meditate on Dharma with a patient and joyful mind so as to gain a special experience of it, we are practising the patience of definitely thinking about Dharma. Such patience is important because if our mind is impatient or unhappy when we engage in Dharma practice, this will obstruct our spiritual progress and prevent us from improving our Dharma wisdom. Even if we find some aspects of our Dharma practice difficult we still need to engage in them with a happy mind.

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