Be Patient, Experience: Parable of the White Hat

by Wayne Ren-Cheng 

Saying you are a Buddhist is easier than being a practicing Buddhist. There is a lot to learn, a lot to practice, and a lot to be engaged with and it takes gradual training that will lead to a positive personal transformation that will lead to some positive social transformation. In the beginning of Buddhist practice patient is a necessary disposition as you put in the effort toward that positive transformation. Patient is necessary when you find yourself on a plateau of knowledge. That flat-spot on the path when you think you’ve learned all you can and have no where to expand to is temporary because sooner than you can know you’ll either be sliding down or climbing up again. Know though that at a certain point — different for each practitioner — patient as a disposition can be allowed to fall away. It is the point when what many would experience as waiting for something to happen . . . you experience as being in the moment.

“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 ‘patience is a virtue’ and it still resonates as an aphorism of wisdom today. It simply means the ability and intent to wait without anger or expectation for something or someone. Since Latin was a common tongue, and likely long before that patience was viewed as a positive disposition. 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 . . . growth.

When I was in the military patience was an order to follow. Waiting was the only option so one either succumbed to anxiety and anger, or took it in stride. There is much truth in the military adage, ‘Hurry up . . . and wait’. You may hurry to arrive and find out they aren’t ready for you yet. Now what? On a path of serenity and acceptance patience allows . . . insight.

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 rapidly changing brains and bodies. There is no way to hurry the outcome so the ability to wait becomes part of one’s livelihood. For the mindful patience allows . . . compassion.

Parable of the White Hat (my title)

Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche to Chogyam Trungpa (from Born in Tibet, by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche):

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 serenity and the acquiring of an appropriate view of a situation. Time is a precious commodity, each moment has value, so we must not ‘spend time waiting’; instead waiting becomes time to more deeply consider intent and causal consequences before acting. It takes showing yourself some patience for 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.

There comes a moment in a mature Buddhist practice when neither patience nor impatience have value as dispositions. When mindfulness arises as the go-to disposition and you are truly being in each moment then you are no long waiting . . . you are being.