Shohaku Okumura

Shohaku Okumura

“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.

Include everything

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.

180. Ut hora sic vita

25-10-16-adelchurch3aThe wisdom of the ages, some would contend, is lost on the young. Looking back on my own youthful follies, I’m inclined to agree. But if my thoughts and actions at the age of twenty sometimes lacked the component of wisdom, that lack cannot be blamed on my formal education. On the contrary, I was a student of English literature. I had read my Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton.  And as it happened, on many a morning I was reminded of ancient wisdom in general and the brevity of life in particular. Continue Reading »

179. Natural awareness

sk3Although you may not be aware of it, September is National Mold Awareness Month. It is also National Pain, Campus Safety, Child Obesity, Lice, and Menopause Awareness Month. That is a lot to be aware of, and the designated objects vary widely. Common to all these constructs, however, is the term awareness and the assumption that we are agreed on what it means.

In ordinary usage awareness refers to a mental faculty compounded of thought, experience, knowledge, and attention. It is sometimes spoken of in vertical metaphors, as when others purport to “raise” our awareness. It may also be framed in horizontal figures, as when we are admonished to “broaden” our awareness, or in quantitative tropes, as when we attempt to “increase” our awareness of this or that. But whatever metaphors might be at work, the common view of awareness is that of a tool which the sovereign ego, the owner and operator of an autonomous self, can direct or otherwise control. And though awareness, in this view, may comprise functions other than thinking, it is essentially an extension of thinking, which the governing mind can train wherever it sees fit. In September we should turn our awareness to mold, pain, campus safety, childhood obesity, lice, and menopause. Having gathered information about those important subjects, we can then digest that information and take whatever action we deem appropriate. Continue Reading »

178. The whole truth

Hand on BibleIf you have ever testified in a court of law, you have sworn an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And as you may have discovered, that is a tall order. Even if we are trying our best to be honest, our best intentions may be at odds with imperfect memory, the slipperiness of language, and the inherent complexity of human affairs. “The whole truth,” if it exists at all, may be well beyond our comprehension or powers of expression.

In practicing Zen meditation, we also seek the whole truth, though our means are not primarily verbal. Rather than talk, we endeavor to realize ultimate truth through a variety of practices, one of the most essential being that of conscious breathing. Coming home to our breath, time and again, we embody the truth of our lives in general and three kinds of truth in particular. Continue Reading »

177. Fear and belief


“Nine out of ten people I talk with about retirement,” our family accountant remarked not long ago, “are afraid they will run out of money.” Most of his clients, he went on to explain, have sufficient resources to enjoy a secure if not affluent retirement, but that doesn’t keep them from believing otherwise or fearing future hardship.

The entangled relationship of fear and belief was one of the themes of a retreat I recently conducted at the Olean Meditation Center in Olean, New York. Around thirty people attended this retreat, whose aim was to explore how mindfulness might help us recognize, accept, and release our everyday fears. In this three-hour period we did not purport to address traumas or their aftermaths. That is the job of a qualified therapist. Nor were we attempting, in one Saturday morning, to allay such profound apprehensions as the fear of death. Rather, we had convened to examine whether, in the words of the Zen teacher Zenkei Blanche Hartman, we might “turn toward our fears with warmth and compassion”. Continue Reading »

Comparações_planetárias“Have you been comparing?” ask Rodgers and Hart in their 1932 ballad “You Are Too Beautiful.” I suspect that most of us, if we are being honest and sufficiently self-aware, would have to answer in the affirmative. “Comparison,” observed Mark Twain, whose vein of dark wisdom ran as deep as his humor, “is the death of joy.” Yet on we go, comparing whatever is at hand, be it brands of dental floss or newly listed homes or presidential candidates. A product of our education and social conditioning, the mental habit of comparison is as ingrained as it is necessary for survival. Regrettably, however, if left unexamined that habit can also rob us of happiness and hinder us from appreciating our present lives. Continue Reading »

Ummon Bun'en Drawing by Hakuin Ekaku

Ummon Bun’en
Drawing by Hakuin Ekaku

Among the cryptic sayings associated with the Zen tradition, none is better known than that of Ummon Bun’en (862-949), who famously declared that “every day is a good day.” Yeah, right, the weary, seasoned mind replies. Tell that to the commuter caught in gridlock or the stressed-out parent nursing a sick child. Superficially construed, Ummon’s remark sounds both naive and culpably aloof.

Yet, if examined in the light of Zen teachings, this adage is neither foolish nor untrue. The key component of Case 6 of the Blue Cliff Record, a classic collection of Zen koans, Ummon’s pronouncement is a fiction that points to an underlying reality, a construct that discloses a deeper truth. If we wish to probe that truth, we can consult the host of commentaries Case 6 has accrued, beginning with that of Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768), compiler of Zen koans, who called this particular koan “cold,” meaning austere and challenging to contemplate. But if we wish to explore Ummon’s saying in a warmer light, we can begin by reflecting on how we know, or think we know, the things of this world, and how we determine whether a given day is good or bad. Continue Reading »