Be Still and Heal: Forbearance on the Path of Awakening
On the path of awakening, khanti (Pāli) or kṣānti (Skt.) is one of the few pāramitās (perfections) of character jointly recognized in both the Theravāda and Mahāyāna traditions. (Bhikkhu 2013)* Khanti is translated as forbearance or endurance. It also signifies the quality of patience or forgiveness (PTS 2020) and hence is also known as the perfection of patience, a crucial quality for one to withstand anger. Dhammadipa (2014) explains in the Brahmavihāras (four immeasurables) that the Theravāda tradition placed viriya (persistence) ahead of khanti (forbearance), whereas the Mahāyāna tradition placed them in a reverse order. In any case, with the perfection of persistence one can truly forbear. When the bodhisatta (Pāli) can truly perfect forbearance, his mind is truly calm, unshakable, and at peace without any defilement. The perfection of viriya (persistence) and khanti (forbearance) are achievable because the bodhisatta sees the Dhamma clearly, understands the arising of each and every dhamma.
The Buddha taught that “enduring patience is the highest austerity.” (Dhp., v. 184) In the Vepacitti Sutta, the Buddha emphasizes that forbearance demands enormous strength of character. It is therefore not a sign of weakness. We endure not because of fear but because of a deep understanding of the Dhamma. The Buddha taught that real strength does not come from anger, confrontation, or contention. He believes that it is indeed faulty to return anger for anger. Those who are truly wise manage to stay mindful and keep calm: (Olendzki 2013)
Not giving anger for anger,
One wins a double victory.
He behaves for the good of both:
Himself and the other person.
Knowing well the other's anger,
He is mindful and remains calm.
In this way he is healing both:
Himself and the other person.
The people who think “He’s a fool,”
Just don’t understand the Dhamma.
The sutta above illustrates that the essence of forbearance has a few levels. Firstly, at the perception level, a practitioner has to endure the emotional challenges triggered by people or external situations. When others are angry, how can the practitioner stay calm and not return anger with anger? Secondly, at the consciousness level, a practitioner has to understand the Dhamma and hence perceive all phenomenon with wisdom. Finally, at the ontological level, the practitioner has to develop a good understanding of the nature of being in relation to people and situations. In dealing with confrontations, the characters and personalities are often under attack, causing great insult and damage to the self-esteem and identity of the parties involved.
Yinshun (2020) suggests that forbearance is only a part of the practices of khanti in the Mahāyāna tradition. After all, khanti is the mental resilience, determination, and toughness required to withstand any attack and endure any provocation, no matter how difficult. Particularly for those practicing the path of the bodhisatta, who may have to deal with many unreasonable and stubborn demands from the sentient beings they vowed to help. Yinshun (2020) further explains that there are three types of khanti. The first is endurance against those who hate or wish us harm (耐怨) verbally or physically. The bodhisatta should stay calm and compassionate, appreciate that the wrongdoers are driven by suffering and unwholesome forces. Therefore, the bodhisatta will not have any hatred arise within him and for sure has no intention to cause any harm whatsoever. The second type of khanti is endurance against any form of perception (安受苦). These perceptions could be of various kinds, such as those caused by external phenomena, as well as those caused by sentient or non-sentient beings. These perceptions could also be pains or uneasy feelings that the bodhisatta encounters during his practice. The last form of khanti is associated with the endurance when looking deeply into the Dhamma (諦察法忍). The bodhisatta must enter into a deep understanding of the Dhamma through meticulous observations with a stable, tranquil, and lucid state of mind. It is impossible for the bodhisatta to enter into the Dhamma and benefit from it if his mind is distracted and stirred by various perceptions inside and outside.
In the Diamond Sūtra (Skt.: Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra), there is a very well known teaching by the Buddha on the perfection of forbearance:
Subhūti, that which is the Tathāgata’s patience-perfection—that is indeed a non-perfection. And why? When, Subhūti, the King of Kaliṅga cut my flesh, limb by limb, at that time, I had no self-ideation, or being-ideation, or living-soul-ideation or person-ideation. (Dhammajoti 2013)
The Buddha says not-perfection of forbearance is indeed the true manifestation of the perfection of forbearance. It is because the Buddha transcends above names and forms as well as above the ideation of any “self” entity who forbears and those who are being forborne. In the Commentary on the Diamond Sūtra (CBETA 2020a), the Sixth Patriarch Huineng further explains that true forbearance does not perceive any humiliation or stir any emotion. Whenever one sees the ideation of a body, and accordingly a body is subject to harm, it is not true forbearance.
In particular, forbearance refers to our mind. It is to endure our mind so that unwholesome qualities of hatred and ignorance will not arise. With forbearance there are no unwholesome thoughts, nor unwholesome deeds, and hence no suffering. Venerable Shengyi (2020) clarifies a misconception that forbearance is to endure people and situations outside of us. In fact, true forbearance is all about enduring our own mind, through which hatred arises in us and drags us into the cycle of death and rebirth. Shengyi (2020) further elaborates that the insight from the Diamond Sūtra is that whenever we think we are forbearing something or somebody, there must be an object of forbearance. And because all objects arise dependently, they are also subject to arising and cessation, and hence not real but empty. If there is no real object of forbearance, then where is the mind that forbears? If there is no such mind that can forbear and no such object to be forborne, both are empty and there is no forbearance and no humiliation—that is the true nature of forbearance and accordingly the perfection of kṣānti.
Venerable Shengyi (2020) also expounds that in this Saṃsāra world of wondering and endless cycles of death and rebirth, the practice of forbearance is a significant one that the Buddha has perfected in his journey of awakening. This world is full of unwholesome qualities which a practitioner must forbear. In the Khantivādi-Jātaka, (Francis and Neil 1897) the Buddha taught that in his past life he was a bodhisatta, an ascetic who preached the doctrine of patience. This doctrine of patience proclaimed that one should not be angry, even “when men abuse you and strike you and revile you.” King Kalābu was drunk and thought that the bodhisatta was a false ascetic. He gave the order to torture the bodhisatta with thousands of lashes of a whip, cutting off his hands, chopping off his feet, and cutting off his nose and ears. Having gone through these tortures, the bodhisatta has no anger in him but replied: “You fancy that my patience is only skin deep. It is not skin deep, but is fixed deep within my heart, where it cannot be seen by you, sire.”
In the Simile of the Saw, (Bhikkhu 2013b) the Buddha offers a similar illustration in which he taught that even if bandits “carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw” we should train our minds so that we will not be affected and will say no evil words. We will stay compassionate with good will, and without any hatred or hostility. Another notable example is the Bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha—the bodhisattva of “Earth-Store,” who is well known for his great compassionate vow to rescue countless sentient beings in the realm of hell. His name signifies the perfection of forbearance as calm as the earth, which also nourishes all sentient beings. With such stability, he attained unsurpassable tranquillity and a profound understanding of the Dhamma, like a store of immeasurable and incredible treasures so vast and unexplainable by words.
In the 21st century, the world is still the Saṃsāric world of wondering and endless cycles of death and rebirth. Even worse, it is a VUCA world: full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, propelled by confrontations and extreme views. Anyone of us who wishes to practice for the benefit of ourselves and others may not be able to perfect the character of forbearance and remain calm during these confrontations. Yet, as practitioners, we must learn from the bodhisattas and be patient. We must be able to stay still so that we and others can truly heal. In doing so with patience, we allow the much-needed time to establish deep communication and understanding, and hopefully we can develop deep insights that can alleviate our own suffering and those of others.
* Ten pāramīs (Bhikkhu 2013a): dāna (generosity), sīla (virtue), nekkhamma (renunciation), paññā (discernment), viriya (persistence), khanti (endurance), sacca (truth), adhiṭṭhāna (determination), mettā (good will), and upekkhā (equanimity); six pāramitās (Prebish and Keown 2006): dāna (generosity), sīla (morality), kṣānti (patience), vīrya (perseverance), dhyāna (meditation), prajñā (wisdom).
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