Cultivating Patience

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When you hear advice regarding patience and tolerance in response to anger, do you think that this is suggesting that we should simply submit ourselves to abuse and exploitation from others?

As we will see Shantideva did not advocate passive abuse or simple, unquestioned acceptance of suffering and pain. What he is advocating is a resolute stand against adversities.

In his commentary, the Dalai Lama draws a distinction between meekness and tolerance. He suggests that genuine tolerance can only arise where one has consciously adopted a stance not to retaliate against an actual or perceived harm. The crucial point here is the "consciously adopted stand."

What is  patience? According to the Buddhist understanding of the principle, is "a resolute response against adversity stemming from a settled temperament unperturbed by either external or internal disturbance." Far from a passive submission, it is an active approach toward adversity.

The process

Shantideva presents the practice of patience in several steps”

  1. First we have to be determined to tame our anger. Anger is not just one of our feelings. It can become a state of being and a way of doing things that affects our whole life. So we must begin by recognizing the destructive power of anger and the need to practice its antidote, patience.

    Shantideva then presents three approaches to practicing patience.

  2. We will benefit greatly by becoming more tolerant of the pain and hardships that life brings. This requires a re-framing of our attitude toward discomfort and learning to consciously accept life’s vicissitudes. Denying that pain and suffering are natural facts of existence only compounds our misery. Just being able to  internalize this fundamental truth of our existence can profoundly affect our day-to-day life. 

    As difficult as it may be for those of us in a modern 21st society to see any positive about suffering, Shantideva teaches that it is our experience of suffering that enables us to identify with others' pain, thus allowing us to generate genuine compassion for them. 

  3. Our narrow view of the reality of our life situations results in blind anger. By understanding the complexity of our situations we can become more patient of others, even if they harm us. If we are unable to recognize that the actions of people and events are determined by a network of many factors. – often outside their control – we are more likely to find ourselves gripped with anger fact. If we can develop the insight that recognizes that it is illogical to isolate from the complex conditions only the person harming us and hold him or her alone responsible for the act of harm, we are better able to respond with patience rather than anger. 

  4. Finally Shantideva, recognizing that our most destructive anger is in response to the actions of  others, urges us to develop tolerance toward injuries (real or imagined) from others. Until we learn to interact with others in a way that is not tainted by strong negative emotions such as anger, no genuine development of patience can take place. If we can learn to see that the actions of others usually stem from a state of ignorance. we can learn that it is more appropriate to have compassion rather than anger toward those who cause harm to us. 

Note: Commentators divide Shantideva’s teaching on patience in a variety of ways. While following the steps outlined above we borrow in this lesson Bob Thurman’s elegantly simple breakdown:

  • Tolerant Patience  
  • Insightful Patience 
  • Forgiving Patience