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Posts Tagged ‘zero tolerance’

800px-Sweden._Doll_02One afternoon not long ago, my five-year-old granddaughter taught the basics of sitting meditation to her red-haired doll, Pippi Longstocking. Being a rag doll, Pippi is not very good at sitting upright, so after repeated attempts, Allegra allowed her to lie down. “I know you can do this,” she explained to Pippi, “but since this is your first day, I want you to be a little comfortable with what it feels like instead of what it looks like.” With Pippi lying flat on her back, Allegra proceeded with her lesson. “You just have to listen to your breathing,” she advised.

If you are familiar with the stories of Pippi Longstocking, you might agree that Astrid Lindgren’s rambunctious nine-year-old heroine, who is physically strong but conspicuously lacking in tact, could use a bit of meditation in her life. But in addition to teaching Pippi how to meditate, Allegra was also demonstrating by example a quality much prized in the Zen tradition. Known by its Sanskrit name of kshanti paramita (pron. kuh-SHAWN-ti pear-uh-ME-tuh), it is the Third Perfection of Wisdom to which serious Zen practitioners aspire. At once conceptually complex and emotionally challenging, it comprises three principal dimensions, each of them integral to the whole.

The word kshanti is most often translated as “patience.” To practice kshanti is first of all to cultivate a patient attitude toward those forms of suffering that Zen teachings view as natural and inevitable: hardship, aging, illness, and death. No less important, to practice kshanti is to bear with equanimity the harm done to us, intentionally or inadvertently, by others. At the most practical level, the cultivation of kshanti begins with mindfulness of its opposite: the impatience we experience in everyday life, whether we are waiting in line at a checkout counter or driving in heavy traffic. Aware of that state of mind arising, we can remind ourselves to be patient, simply by saying the word patience to ourselves. Beyond such specific measures, however, Zen teachings encourage us to develop a patient attitude toward the uncertain, contingent, and ungraspable aspects of our lives. To practice kshanti, in short, is to cultivate patience with life itself.

The second dimension of kshanti might best be described as ubiquitous tolerance. In his book The Six Perfections, the Buddhist scholar Dale S. Wright focuses on this aspect of the Third Perfection, while also examining its problematic status in contemporary Western culture. For centuries, tolerance of others has been a cornerstone of liberal democracy. But in an era when “zero tolerance” has become a political rallying cry on both the right and left, and when intolerance of social injustice is widely perceived as a social virtue, the ancient Buddhist practice of cultivating tolerance may seem irrelevant, if not morally objectionable. Suffice it to say that in its original sense kshanti is hardly to be equated with a passive acceptance of societal evils. On the contrary, it is an active practice of tolerating—of training ourselves to tolerate—whatever adversity and misfortune we may encounter. More broadly, the practice challenges us to tolerate the often painful fact of impermanence, the sometimes uncomfortable reality of interdependence, and the radically unpredictable nature of our everyday lives.

The third dimension of kshanti has much in common with patience and tolerance but differs in one important way. Thich Nhat Hanh points to this dimension by defining kshanti as “inclusiveness,” by which he means the capacity not only to receive and embrace suffering but also to transform it. Likening this capacity to the earth, which absorbs “fair and foul substances” alike, Thich Nhat Hanh views kshanti as an agent of transformation, personal and social. Rather than suppress the pain we suffer at the hands of others, we can investigate its causes and seek to understand them. Rather than react with righteous indignation to social injustice, we can “look deeply” and examine the “roots” of others’ harmful actions. To do this, however, we have first to “make the heart big”: to develop a magnanimity of heart and mind sufficient to absorb and transform suffering. In the Buddhist tradition, there are concrete practices dedicated to that purpose, the most prominent being the contemplation and cultivation of the Four Immeasurable Minds (loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity).

“Practice makes perfect,” an old saying reminds us. Where the practice of the Third Perfection is concerned, that claim may be less than realistic. Like death and taxes, ingrained habits of impatience, intolerance, and discrimination may always be with us, wreaking their havoc in our personal, familial, and social lives. But merely by becoming acutely aware of those habits, we begin to ameliorate their destructive force. And should we choose to persist in the practice, making it an unshakable intention and a component of our daily lives, we may in time catch sight of what Zen calls the other shore: the shore free of delusion, fear, and suffering.

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Dale S. Wright, The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character (Oxford University Press, 2009), 94-136.

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax, 1998), 185-192.

Photo by Albert Jankowski.

 

 

 

 

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