Being Patient and Farsighted and Enduring Hardship
Introduction to the Societal Human Values Series
Among his many achievements, the Tibetan Emperor Songtsen Gampo (Srong-brtsan-sgam-po), who reigned 629-650 C.E., promoted a moral code known as the Sixteen Principles of Societal Human Values (Tib.: mi chos gtsang ma bcu drug). His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s translator Thubten Jinpa writes, “Most of these sixteen values have to do with promoting greater societal well-being and living one’s life with dignity, honesty, and respect for others.”
Phakchok Rinpoche has frequently emphasized the importance of living respectfully in society. Therefore he encourages his students to memorize and internalize these sixteen points of conduct to establish a core foundation for our practice of Dharma. If we don’t hold this moral code well, any higher practices that we engage in will be unlikely to bear much fruit.
This is the final point in a series of explanations of these sixteen principles.
16. Being Patient and Farsighted and Enduring Hardship (theg pa che zhing blo khog yangs pa)
In his final principle for virtuous behavior, the king stresses the importance of patience. He associates this with the “guts” or the fortitude to bear difficulties. In a more recent reminder, the rock band Guns N’ Roses summed it up this way: “All we need is just a little patience.”1Guns N’ Roses, “Patience”, G N’ R Lies, Geffen, 1989.
Is Patience Possible?
But in our fast-paced, always-connected worlds, patience may seem unnecessary, old-fashioned, or simply impossible to develop. Academic studies are being written on our “culture of impatience” and our inability to suffer even a slight hardship such as a slow-loading web page or a delayed response to a message. Our attention spans have shortened and our lack of patience has damaged our ability to listen well and to read carefully. So who suffers from being this impatient? Most of the time, we hurt ourselves.
Many of our workplaces provide stressors and anxiety triggers that stimulate our propensity to anger and frustration rather than patience. High-pressure situations demand speed and push our buttons. And we may end up losing our cool, lashing out at others, or treating every situation as stressful and fraught. We become impatient with others, but often, even more, we show impatience toward ourselves. Some modern psychologists are examining the need for and benefits of patience training.2Schnitker, Sarah, “An Examination of Patience and Well-being”, The Journal of Positive Psychology, Vol. 7, 2012/07/01. And other personal coaches and motivational speakers and writers are pointing out the negative consequences of impatience that we are developing in our anxious new world. We can consciously decide to value the wait, to take the time to ponder and to give our jittery brains a break to process.
Doesn’t Patience Make Me Weak?
In the Buddhist tradition, patience is considered a paramount virtue that overcomes the poisonous and destructive emotion of anger or aversion. Developing patience requires practice and intention, and our training is a gradual process. We all know that it is so easy to get angry when we are frustrated—that doesn’t take any training at all, does it? But just because it seems natural doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t benefit from changing our habits.
In 2018, The Dalai Lama tweeted,
Many people think that patience is a sign of weakness. I think this is a mistake. It is anger that is a sign of weakness, whereas patience is a sign of strength.3https://twitter.com/dalailama/status/957923840411103232?lang=en
When we examine the Dalai Lama’s advice, we can consider what patience means in this context. He cites patience as a strength. Adopting patience, we do not become a doormat or lack resolve. Instead, we can adopt an open-hearted and courageous outlook. As one of the “transcendent perfections” (pāramitā) of Buddhism, patience is seen as an adornment, a quality that shines forth naturally as one trains. We don’t allow ourselves to be bowled over by negative situations or in the face of difficult people. And we can bear the difficulties that human life brings with calm and steady minds. If we are patient, we can explore options from a place of non-reactivity and thus avoid unnecessary conflict.
The great Indian Buddhist master, Shantideva, wrote a famous chapter on patience in his treatise the Bodhicharyavatara, or in English, The Way of the Bodhisattva or A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. In this chapter, Shantideva reminds us that we can work at developing patience so that we don’t bring mental suffering upon ourselves. He advises that if we want to become genuinely heroic, we must train in this skill:
There is no misdeed like hatred;
No austerity like patience.
So cultivate assiduously
Patience in various ways.
When pangs of hatred clutch the mind,
It does not feel any peace.
No joy, no comfort, and no sleep,
No constancy can be had.
We might believe that we “deserve” to feel angry in stressful situations. Of course we need to take action to remove ourselves from dangerous situations. And sometimes we need to speak or act loudly or actively defend ourselves or others. Patience does not mean that we curl up like a ball. But we can simultaneously remind ourselves not to fan hatred and not to lash out in anger. It helps to consider that many times our angry words or thoughts only stay with us. And we train in small steps.
We all will get angry—we are not yet fully enlightened beings! But we can practice throughout our days in countless small situations. When someone cuts in front of us in a line, or in traffic, can we not immediately hit our horn, or start an argument? And can we catch ourselves before we begin even an internal rant? After all, if we’re still complaining several blocks or minutes after the incident then who is feeling our outrage? The person who “created” the problem is not hearing us—and they’re probably unaware of our reaction. So does it make any sense to continue the anger? And does it feel comfortable to be angry? Check—really check with your own body? When we get angry, our blood pressure rises and we usually feel tight and constricted. The next time something happens and you see this unfold, try to take a few moments to just watch and observe your reaction. Does it feel good?
Patience with the Imperfect or the Unknown
We can develop our patience in the face of uncertainty and the unknown just as we train in being patient with other beings. Many of us have felt high levels of anxiety in the midst of a global pandemic that seems to be lingering far longer than expected. And most of us would admit to feeling very impatient for things to return to some sense of “normal,” whatever that might mean for us. But if we choose to spend our time focusing on our wish to be elsewhere, or to be doing something else, even if we don’t express it that way, we are being impatient. And this impatience doesn’t bring us any joy, or relaxation, or fix the situation, does it? Instead, if we can open our hearts and be patient with the current state (or any other situation), we may be open to positive experiences that we otherwise would ignore. We might want to contemplate this quote from Shantideva’s chapter on patience.
If something can be fixed, what need
Is there to be displeased?
If something can’t be fixed, what good
Is it to be displeased?
Take a few minutes to let these words sink in. We should be able to understand that we are not capable of “fixing” everything. Sometimes things will be unpleasant, painful, or difficult. We will experience sorrow and boredom in our life. It’s guaranteed. And if we can do something specific to fix a hardship situation, like replacing a broken window, or taking a drink of water when feeling dehydrated, that will ease some suffering. It’s great to take action to help others or ourselves when we can. But if we can’t change the problem, then if we get angry or frustrated or bitter about that inability, we cause ourselves unnecessary mental pain. Instead, we can pause, examine the situation, and think, “Right now, it is like this”. We can make the choice to not overlay a “should be” mentality on ourselves or others. Instead of adding to anxiety, we can practice relaxing and seeing our experience clearly and patiently.
For another teaching on perfecting the practice of patience, we suggest this teaching from Tulku Migmar Tsering.
And Phakchok Rinpoche offered this reminder on being patient with the Buddhist teachings.
Rinpoche also explained the different levels of patience in this Guru Rinpoche day message.