By Wayne Ren-Cheng
It is difficult to ignore or discount the image of the Buddhist who exhibits acceptance and patience in the midst of the most extreme situations, ones that would drive most human beings to distraction and anxiety. The ability to respond to experiences with equanimity that arises from the practices of acceptance and patience is a wholesome personal character trait. The importance of refining one’s ability to accept the realities of impermanence and causality is recognized to be as critical, in Mahayana training, to developing positive character traits as any other aspect of the Six Refinements. The traditional views of tolerance and it’s counterparts, endurance and patience need to be expanded to include acceptance as an element of personal character development in order to better deal with contemporary issues.
From the Khama Sutra (Anguttara Nikaya):
“And which is intolerant practice? There is the case where a certain individual doesn’t tolerate cold, heat, hunger, & thirst; the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, & reptiles; ill-spoken, unwelcome words; & bodily feelings that, when they arise, are painful, racking, sharp, piercing, disagreeable, displeasing, & menacing to life. This is called intolerant practice.
“And which is tolerant practice? There is the case where a certain individual tolerates cold, heat, hunger, & thirst; the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, & reptiles; ill-spoken, unwelcome words; & bodily feelings that, when they arise, are painful, racking, sharp, piercing, disagreeable, displeasing, & menacing to life. This is called tolerant practice.
There are questions that need to be asked: Do we tolerate everything and anything? Does patience and endurance have a limit? How do we decide when and if enough is enough? The practice of tolerance needs to be viewed through the same lens that is applied to generosity and moral/ethical concerns, a lens that acknowledges the unique situations we all encounter in life. A practitioner must develop an awareness of how they and the world around them really are by working to strip away the misperceptions found in each of us. Further one must learn to accept that change can happen with commitment and effort, and that change will happen that is the cause and effect of other human beings and of the causal universe. One is self-initiated . . . the other . . . not.
Yes, we must accept that there are wholesome and unwholesome phenomena. We must learn to differentiate between the wholesome and the unwholesome, and accept that we can grow the wholesome and weed out the unwholesome if we are willing to make the effort. Tolerance in any of its guises is not passive indifference, the idea that we are powerless or choose to set ourselves apart from situations. We must accept the responsibility to think and act in ways that have the potential to be the cause and effect of positive transformation. We must be passionate in our practice of acceptance so it becomes integral to achieving “enlightened moments”, in revealing the interconnectedness and interdependence of all phenomena. There is no compassionate or logical reason to accept or tolerate murder, sexism, rape, homophobia, racism or any type of violence or acts of cruelty. To mindfully deal with situations that might involve intolerable acts we must practice the six refinements and the Four Ennobling Truths for the sake of the important goal of human flourishing and the alleviation of discontent, unsatisfactoriness and anguish.
Practicing acceptance does not allow one to take a neutral position (neutral is not the Middle Way . . . neutral is avoidance), it requires us to recognize the what, when and how to accept. Note here that we must remain nonjudgemental of the WHO because we are intolerant of the action while showing compassion and acceptance to the individual. In cases of acts of cruelty this may be difficult but as Buddhists we must not act out of anger, revenge or retaliation. This view of acceptance requires a deeper level of mindfulness be applied to each situation than is suggested in traditional Buddhist thought.
Practiced along with acceptance, wisdom and morality can provide us the skills to determine when to be accepting and how. Like the refinement of generosity, patience, acceptance must be situational in its application. Wisdom guides us to viewing the issue in its unique context and to an understanding of what about the situation troubles us and where an encompassing and corrective solution may be found. It gives realization that while the situation may be troubling at that time the ideal of impermanence reminds us that it is transient. Our moral/ethical character will help us view the issue from a place of compassion even when that is extremely difficult. It also will guide us toward a solution that maintains the humanity and dignity of all involved.
One must be mindful that compassion for all others, no matter their crime, situation or attitude is non-negotiable in a Buddhist practice. For the majority of human beings the idea that a person who has committed crimes of terrorism should be treated with compassion is ridiculous. They are criminals who should be severely punished and ostracized from a civilized society. While punishment is called for, acceptance that they are also human beings whose lives mirror our own in many ways must lead us to having true compassion for them.
The energy required to maintain intolerance can leave us with little energy to apply to positive dispositions and actions. It can lead us to resent the situation we find ourselves involved in and lead further to a dimming of awareness and the ability to find solutions. Rather than approaching an issue with a large mind of compassion and tolerance we’d find ourselves acting from a small mind mired in the misperceptions and ignorance of our own ego. Instead we must accept how things really are and use that as the starting point for being a positive agent of change. We must be patient in our resolve and be content to be in the moment we find ourselves in so that we may view it through a clear lens. Contentment though does not mean our effort weakens; we remain mindful of what stands in the way of a positive result and hold to our conviction to engage in thoughts and actions that promote wholesome, live affirming results.
The Refinement of Acceptance is a meditative practice that leads to becoming aware of everything that assaults us, makes us uneasy, and brings discontent, unsatisfactoriness and anguish into our lives. Through meditation we uncover the dispositions, habits and preferences that negatively affect us and develop strategies to deal with them effectively. We learn to accept the reality of the causal Universe and how we can take action to make things better. The skills we develop through meditation become the actions we take we faced with difficult and complex situations in our moment-to-moment experience.
Like so much of Buddhist practice acceptance begins as an individual effort that evolves into a community one so that the virtue of acting with acceptance, patience and endurance becomes an encompassing and corrective virtue practiced by all. In a contemporary context where democracy has its role in decision making, the practice of acceptance goes beyond the concept of “leaving others to do as they will,” beyond being indifferent to the cause and effect generated by others. It is coming together to promote human flourishing through institutions meant to help everyone in need.
Next week we’ll look at the ideal of patience as it relates to the Refinement of Acceptance.