“I live in America as a foreigner and need a great deal of patience,” writes Shohaku Okumura Roshi, a respected Zen scholar, priest, and teacher who lives in Bloomington, Indiana. In the United States, he explains, “the spiritual and cultural backgrounds are very different from Japan.” And actually, he adds, “any two people who live and work together will sometimes have conflicts and need to practice patience.”
Like other spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism accords the mental factor of patience a place of honor in its hierarchy of values. By cultivating and exercising patience, we forestall unnecessary suffering. By developing patience as a quality of heart and mind, we avoid causing harm to others and ourselves. With that end in view, Zen teachings offer a wealth of insights and practices, which those willing to make the effort can incorporate into their everyday lives. Four of the most helpful might be summarized as follows.
Patience is an innate human quality
In Mahayana Buddhist teachings, from which Zen teachings derive, what we ordinarily call patience is known as kshanti. It is the third of six paramitas, or “perfections of wisdom,” to which committed practitioners aspire. Like the other five paramitas (generosity, ethical conduct, effort, concentration, wisdom), kshanti is understood to be innate in every human being. It is sometimes likened to a seed, which may lie dormant for a lifetime but can grow and flourish if faithfully tended. Water that seed, and it will grow; neglect it, and it will not.
This view of patience has two major implications for the conduct of our lives. On the one hand, it posits a capacity for patient thought, patient speech, and patient action common to us all. We have only to nourish that inborn capacity, and in time it will develop, permeating our thought, speech, and actions. On the other hand, this view implies a responsibility to tend our mental gardens, moment by moment and day by day, lest they be overrun by weeds. Everything is changing, including that entity we conventionally call the self. To view oneself as an incorrigibly impatient person, with no choice or ability to be otherwise, is an erroneous perception and a culpable delusion.
Be mindful of impatience, even as it is arising
In Zen practice, we train ourselves to see things clearly, just as they are. If one aspires to develop greater patience, the place to start is not with an abstract ideal but with our direct experience of impatience, whenever and wherever it may manifest in the body/mind. It may be felt, for example, as a muscular contraction, or a roiling in the belly, or a constricted, judgmental state of mind. Bringing mindfulness to those changing phenomena, we can acknowledge and accept the fact that impatience has arisen.
Having taken those initial steps, we can then investigate the causes, immediate and fundamental, of our impatience. Often the immediate cause will turn out to be a desire for something currently happening to stop, or for some future event to commence. But if we examine the fundamental cause, we are more than likely to discover a general, conditioned desire that reality conform to our wants and expectations. By bringing mindfulness to that deeply rooted desire, we drain impatience of its power, even as we nurture our capacity for patient contemplation.
It is human nature to want pleasure to continue and pain to cease. And it is a common practice of our species to include in our awareness only that portion of our experience which pleases us and confirms our fixed ideas. Our steadfast inner curator, supported by longstanding habits of denial and resistance, excludes the rest.
By endeavoring, as Zen teachings advise, to put our likes and dislikes in abeyance and open our awareness to all the conditions of our lives, we also cultivate kshanti, which the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh prefers to translate as “inclusiveness.” Kshanti, thus interpreted, is not mere forbearance, much less self-repression. Nor is it a form of stoic pride. Rather, it is an ever-widening, ever-deepening capacity to admit, absorb, and eventually transform whatever pleasant or painful conditions we might encounter.
Balance patience with effort
The paramitas do not exist in isolation. They depend on one another. As Shohaku Okumura has observed, “If we aim only for patience, we may harm ourselves or others. Patience alone can be a kind of poison.” But if kshanti can be evenly balanced with virya paramita (effort, energy, diligence, perseverance), and if that balance can be maintained throughout our daily round, the practice of patience can become a powerful force in our everyday lives. It can sustain us through the most trying of ordeals, the most disheartening of reversals, and the most menacing of futures. And like an incorruptible amalgam, it can strengthen our resolve.
Shohaku Okumura Roshi, Living by Vow (Wisdom, 2012), 261, 138.
For a glimpse of Shohaku Okumura’s personal and domestic life, watch Yoko Okumura’s documentary Sit.