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Is There a Limit to Patience?

The emphasis on patience in Buddhism can often be problematic in a world full of injustice and cruelty. There are many tales in the Buddhist traditions of enduring pain and hardship in the face of adversity. Anger is almost never advocated as a means by which we should face those who cause us harm. A great example of this emphasis on absolute patience can be found in a tale of one of the Buddha’s previous lives. This tale can be found in Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese and therefore clearly represents a theme that was agreeable to many Buddhist traditions.

The tale begins with an ascetic who wanders into the royal gardens of a local king in search of alms and seats himself at the foot of a tree. Nearby, the king has been listening to music with his courtesans and has fallen fast asleep. The courtesans notice that this wandering ascetic has entered the garden and, as the king is asleep, slowly creep away to hear his religious teachings. Soon the ascetic is surrounded by the courtesans and begins instructing them in the dharma. The king though,

having noticed that the music has stopped, wakes up and looks around angrily for his musicians and dancers. Seeing them seated around the ascetic, he becomes enraged with jealousy, marches over to the ascetic and demands to know the doctrine that he teaches.

The ascetic replies: “The doctrine of patience, your Majesty.”

Proclaiming that he will test the reality of the ascetic’s patience, the king ordered for his executioner. On the instruction of the king, the executioner proceeded to chop off the limbs of the ascetic one by one. After a limb had been chopped off, the king asked again:

“Vile ascetic, what doctrine do you teach?”

Each time the ascetic answers that he teaches the doctrine of patience. Finally, the ascetic dies, proclaiming in his last moments that his patience does not exist in his limbs and that the king can ever cause anger to arise within him.

This story is quite shocking and intentionally graphic. It firmly reinforces the strong emphasis placed on patience within the Buddhist tradition. However, how is it possible to reconcile a tale such as this with the reality of life? If we are facing difficulties, is it wise or healthy to simply endure all the suffering the world throws at us? When I first encountered this teaching I found that it was far too unrealistic and thought that it taught a form of passivity that would never be useful in the modern world. However, on closer analysis I found that I was confusing patience with passivity. I had not appreciated the subtle power dynamic at play within the tale. For instance, the ascetic’s determination not to retaliate cannot be considered passive, in the sense of being the object of action rather than causing action, since his determination is a huge symbol of communication. In fact, by not reacting to the king’s provocation, the ascetic leaves a greater impression on the king than the king’s actions do to the ascetic. The key message of the tale is that the ascetic acted patiently, without anger, with the aim of teaching the king a lesson.

Therefore, this form of behaviour should not be interpreted as advocating passivity or a timid and fearful disposition in the face of threatening situations. The key to a Buddhist response to difficulty is to remain calm and to act without anger. The ascetic’s patience was exhibited by his ability to remain compassionate towards the king and was not shown by his mere physical ability to withstand pain. This is emphasised by the fact the ascetic declares that his patience does not reside in his limbs. It is this subtle difference within the Buddhist attitude to patience that can often be hard to comprehend. In this way, the Buddha’s approach to patience becomes highly practical. Of course we can fight injustices and not tolerate certain situations but the Buddhist tradition encourages us to do it patiently, meaning to do it free from anger and with compassion.

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