3rd Paramita—Patience 05-25-2020

We’ve been discussing the Mahayana Buddhist concept of six paramitas or perfections. In recent weeks, we’ve examined the first two paramitas of Generosity and Ethics, and now let’s turn to a third paramita: the Perfection of Patience (Kshanti Paramita).

This paramita represents the enlightened quality of patience, tolerance, forbearance, and acceptance. Even in simple activities, it can be helpful to remember the goal of patience. When Mark and I walk with our dog Amanda, we have to adjust our pace to wait for her to sniff telephone poles, fire hydrants, bushes, and fence posts along the way. Her favorite activity is to leap up tree trunks to chase squirrels. If we’re in a rush and strictly insisting that she “heel,” none of us enjoys the walk. 

On one walk, I met a neighbor who was watching the glacially slow progress of his 13-year-old Golden Retriever. When I complimented the man on his patience, he smiled and said, “At the equivalent of 91 human years, she has earned the right to move as slowly as she wishes.” 

An essential element of the paramita of patience is the strength of mind and heart that enables us to face challenges of life without losing inner tranquility. For several years, our friend Laura, a retired school teacher, accompanied her husband, Randy, through his progressive decline from dementia. Instead of complaining about their situation, she focused on celebrating his glimmers of recognition and flashes of humor. She cultivated a team of friends and family to lend them support. 

As it became clear that they could no longer live in a rural community without easy access to medical facilities, Laura sold their home and moved to a nearby town. When it became too hard for her to be Randy’s main caregiver, she found a pleasant assisted living community and decorated his room there with cozy furniture and uplifting colors. After his health continued to deteriorate, Laura had to find another residential placement and finally arrange for Randy’s hospice care. Throughout this long process, her patience and devotion were remarkable. She was grateful that he died before the global pandemic reached Texas.

The paramita of patience challenges us to cultivate the ability to be loving and compassionate in the face of criticism, misunderstanding, or aggression.

Consider how hard it is to accept adversity, insult, and distress with patience and tolerance, and without resentment, irritation, emotional reactivity, or retaliation. 

Decades ago, my godmother Barry had a dispute with her eldest daughter, Mimi, a rebellious teenager who moved three thousand miles away and refused to communicate with her mother. Although Barry made repeated attempts to reconcile with her, Mimi’s silent treatment continued. Barry was not invited to her wedding nor notified about the birth of Mimi’s daughter, who was forbidden to make contact with her grandmother. Deeply saddened by this rift in the family, Barry asked one of her younger daughters to keep her informed about Mimi and her child and to make sure that they received the letters and birthday gifts that she sent them. 

At the age of 18, Mimi’s daughter decided on her own to reach out to Barry, and they developed a friendship that lasted the rest of my godmother’s life. When Barry was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Mimi relented and showed up to reconcile with her mother. Barry welcomed her tenderly, accepting Mimi’s offer to assist her caregiving team. Barry’s patience and ongoing loving overtures laid the foundation for reconciliation with her prodigal daughter. 

The paramita of patience implies acceptance and tolerance and is not a forced suppression or denial of thoughts and feelings. Instead, it is a quality of being which comes from opening the heart. Ideally we can make an effort to see the goodness and beauty in others, regardless of the situation. The enlightened quality of patience leads to equanimity, so that we are neither elated by praise, prosperity, or agreeable circumstances, nor are we angry, unhappy or depressed when faced with insults, poverty or hard times. 

Shortly before Texans were ordered to shelter in place, Mark and I met Walter Trout backstage at a Blues concert in the Heights, where his reknowned band was performing. He greeted us warmly and thanked Mark for supervising the doctoral dissertation of his Danish wife, Marie. Then Walter told us about meeting her 30 years ago: While he was on tour, playing guitar and singing in Copenhagen, he gazed out at the audience. A tall, blond woman locked eyes with his, and he signaled to her to come forward. The crowd parted to allow her to approach the stage, where she agreed to see him after the show. 

After he and Marie walked and talked all night, Walter declared, “We are meant to be together. You’ll move to California to marry me. We’ll raise a family and grow old together.” A week later, on a leap of faith, she accompanied him to California, where she managed his music career, and they raised three musical sons. 

In 2014, Walter and Marie realized the depth of the bond between them. That year, a doctor diagnosed him with liver failure and added him to a list of patients who were awaiting a transplant. Bedbound for eight months, Walter lost 120 pounds and suffered some brain damage. Throughout his illness, Marie was a patient and steady ally, raising money from fans to move to Nebraska, where chances of a transplant were more likely. At one point, Walter had a near-death experience, floating in spirit with beautiful angelic lights above his emaciated body. When the light beings invited him to fly away with them, he requested more time to be a husband, a father and a musician. Immediately, his spirit returned to his body, and shortly afterwards he received news that a compatible liver donor had been found. 

Following the transplant, Walter had to relearn how to walk and talk. He could not remember how to play the guitar and worried that he would have to abandon his musical livelihood. Marie encouraged him to start all over again, practicing chords, scales and riffs on his guitar, seven or eight hours a day, until his dormant musical skills resurfaced. In 2016, Walter’s album Battle Scars, whose songs document his health saga, won an award for best rock blues collection of the year. He recognizes that if Marie had not reflected and reinforced his own patience, determination and faith, he would not have been able to relaunch his successful music career. 

The untrained mind tends to cling to pleasant experiences and to resist unpleasant ones. Without mindfulness practice, we are slow to learn how to flow with the winds of change. It takes steady practice to maintain inner peace, calm, and equanimity and have enduring patience and tolerance for ourselves and others.

You may have noticed how it’s often most difficult to be patient with our own foibles. Early one morning during the COVID19 restrictions, I urged Mark to hurry to arrive at our local HEB grocery store just as it opened. There, wrapping around the building, was a long line of people, each wearing a facial mask and standing on a taped spot six feet behind the other. I had plenty of time to practice patience as we moved, from one taped spot to the next, towards the entrance. After we exited the store with our groceries, Mark and I noticed that there was no waiting line outside. If I had not been so impatient to arrive at opening hour, we could have shopped at a less crowded time. 

The ability to wait and to have forbearance is integral to Dharma practice. 

A Bodhisattva’s patience transcends irritation or resentment, even in the midst of being hurt physically, emotionally, or mentally. If we have a clear understanding of impermanence and of karma, the chain of causes that lead to any condition, we can develop patience for the benefit of all beings. 

A buddhist elder named A. T. Ariyaratne leads a movement called Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka, where civil war ravaged the country, and where he received death threats from radicals on both sides of the conflict. His movement uses Buddhist principles of Right Action to organize citizens to dig wells, build roads and schools, and work together to heal their nation. 

Ariyaratne has proposed a 500-year peace plan for Sri Lanka.  He reflects upon the causes and conditions of the civil war—500 years of struggles among Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists; including 400 years of colonial oppression, and 300 years of economic disparity—and he concludes that it will take 500 years to change these conditions.  His program centers around rebuilding infrastructure, educating citizens about religious and cultural differences, and addressing economic injustice.  He suggests that every 100 years a council of elders evaluate the progress of the peace plan.  

Ariyaratne’s patient, timeless vision doesn’t depend on winning the next election or even living long enough to reap the fruits of his plan. Day by day, he’s living according to the rightness and the truth of the work itself. By practicing the perfection of patience, he doesn’t give up on or abandon others—but helps them to transcend suffering, in small, steady steps.  

With the strength of patience, we can maintain effort and enthusiasm in our Dharma practice.  Our practice of patience assists us in developing the paramita of joyous effort and enthusiastic perseverance.