Patience is a Virtue – Perfection of Acceptance

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

In the traditional teaching of the Six Refinements in Mahayana Buddhism there is the ideal of tolerance, sometimes translated as acceptance, and in the Edward Conze translation of the Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines text the ideal is named patience. “Maxima omnium virtutum est patientia”, or “Patience is the greatest of all virtues,” first appeared in an ancient Latin. In 1377, the poet William Langland wrote the phrase as ‘patience is a virtue’ and it still resonates as an aphorism of wisdom today. In Western language means the ability and intent to wait without anger or expectation for something or someone, and this view has value in a Buddhist practice. Patience, for some, takes on a religious dimension when one is told to be patient while waiting on deliverance, ascension or a land of virgins. On a path of transformative social engagement patience allows the thought and action of its Western meaning, as well as the bodymind practice of tolerance.

Chapter 30 of the Perfection of Wisdom text offers The Perfection of Patience as a practice necessary for all bodhisattva-in-training:

When he hears someone else speaking to him harshly and offensively

The wise bodhisattva (in-training) remains quite at ease and contented.

He thinks; ‘Who speaks? Who hears? How, to whom, by whom?’

The discerning is devoted to the foremost perfection of patience.

In these two verses can be experienced situations centering on the ideals of patience and tolerance.

Speech is the dominant way the human beings communicate their pleasure and displeasure in the midst of experiences. There will be instances when you are spoken to in less than respectful and gentle manner. Some may resort to yelling and screaming, calling you rude and offensive names, questioning your knowledge or truthfulness . . . each of which might result in the arising of negative thoughts like anger, fear or hatred, or might result in you reacting with violence or aversion, each of which are bad choices for a bodhisattva-in-training. These are opportunities to engage in the practice of patience, to practice making better choices. Before you respond, the bodhisattva-in-training whose goal is to thing and act wisely asks themselves questions.

Asking yourself the question, ‘Who speaks?’ offers an appropriate view of the speaker. Your experience may be that this is the person’s usual way of communicating with others, and as such they intend no harm even as they might cause it. Also the appropriate view that the state of mind they are in, and the situation they find themselves in causally condition how they speak must be considered.

‘Who hears?’ If the person hearing allows emotion to dictate their response then the experience will only get worse; while if the person hearing responds from a foundation of loving-kindness and acceptance the result has a greater opportunity to be one of harmony and contentment.

Engaging moments of discernment allows you to practice patience, to accept the reality of the situation without emotional context, and without preconceptions. This is practice that leads to a refinement of patience, and eventually to wise thought and action in the midst of subsequent experiences. The appropriate action and intent of waiting without anger or expectation before responding in a situation is the practice of patience, and of acceptance.

When I was in the military ‘Be Patient’ was an order that a soldier was trained to follow. Waiting was often the only option so one either succumbed to anxiety and anger, or found contentment and value in the wait. There is much truth in the military saying, ‘Hurry up . . . and wait’. You sometimes hurry to arrive at a destination only to find that the destination isn’t ready for you yet. Then how do you react? A bodhisattva-in-training accepts the reality of waiting and finds equanimity in the act of patience.

For bird watchers, nature photographers, and kindergarten teachers patience is a necessity. These are vocations where patience is part of the job description: watchers have to watch, photographers want certain light and particular subjects, and kindergarten teachers guide the development of active bodyminds. There is no way to hurry the outcome so the ability to wait is an appropriate part of their livelihood.

In his book “Born in Tibet”, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche relates a parable about patience, told to him by one of his venerated teachers, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche.

Parable of the White Hat (my title)

Once there was a great teacher called Patrul Rinpoche. He did not belong to any monastery, but traveled everywhere about the country, without any attendants or baggage. One day he went to visit a certain hermit who had been living alone in a hut for many years: In fact he had become quite famous and many people came to see him there. Some came for advice and some to test how advanced he was in spiritual knowledge. Paltrul Rinpoche entered the hut unknown and unannounced.

“Where have you come from,’ said the hermit, ‘and where are you going?”

“I came from behind my back and am going in the direction I am facing.”

The hermit was taken aback, but he asked, “Where were you born?”

“On earth” was the reply.

“Which school do you follow?”

“The Buddha.”

The hermit was now feeling rather put out, and seeing that his visitor was wearing a white lambskin hat, he asked him, “If you are a monk, why are you wearing that hat?”

“Now I see your sort”, said Paltrul Rinpoche. “Look here. If I wear a red hat, the Gelukpas will be looking down their noses, and if I wear a yellow one, the others will at me. So I have a white one; it saves trouble.” He was referring jocularly to the fact that the Geluk order of monks wear a yellow what and all the remaining orders a red one. This was a little joke about intermonastic rivalries!

The hermit did not understand what he was saying, so Paltrul Rinpoche began asking him why on earth he had come to live in such a remote and wild part of the country. He knew the answer to that one, and explained that he had been there for twenty years meditating. “At the moment”, he said, “I am meditating on the perfection of patience.”

“That’s a good one”, said his visitor, and leaned forward as if confiding something to him. “A couple of frauds like us could never manage anything like that.”

The hermit rose from his seat — “You’re the liar,” he said. “What made you come here? Why couldn’t you leave a poor hermit like me to practice meditation in peace?”

“And now,” said Paltrul Rinpoche, “where is your perfection of patience?”

Patrul Rinpoche is skillfully guiding the hermit to recognize his own pomposity and pride so he could then re-realize the value of the ideal of patience he thought he was practicing. Much like the wounded man in the Parable of the Arrow who demanded the unknown before dealing with known, the hermit was attached to what he didn’t know and this hindered what he had the opportunity to learn. Patience allows . . . deep listening. Deep listening isn’t possible without the level of intent that patience allows.

Patience is not inaction, it is part of contemplating action. At the core of patience is equanimity and the acquiring of an appropriate view of a situation. Time is a precious commodity, each moment has value, so we don’t choose to ‘spend time waiting'; instead waiting is an opportunity to spend time being how we are. It takes showing yourself some patience during your early steps on the Noble Path. It takes time and energy to recognize the value of the Eightfold Path, and to realize the practices of appropriate intent, view, speech, action, livelihood, effort, meditation, concentration as part of HOW one is. Patience allows . . . the Noble Path.

Impatience is the action of a monkey-mind, a mind that is so undisciplined that it can’t be in-the-moment. It causes the arising of a bodymind that is focused on some nebulous, unknowable future instead of being mindful of the present in each moment. Impatience is marked by anxiety (am I in the right line?), anger (I don’t have time for this), envy (I should be first), ego (I shouldn’t have to wait), and other negative dispositions. Patience is the action of owl-mind — if owls are as wise as they say :), a mind disciplined to recognize the opportunities that each unique moment can bring. It causes the arising of a bodymind that is focused on the moment, able to realize those opportunities and engage them in a positive way.