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Patience is Power
Water falling, drop by drop, will fill even a large pot.
Likewise, the wise (one), accumulating good, little by little
Becomes goodness itself.
The Dhammapada (Maitreya 1995, 34)
The sixth of the ten paramis, or perfections, is khanti—patience, forbearance, or acceptance. (Sucitto 2012, 113) This might be the parami that I have struggled the most with, and found the most freedom in, throughout my whole practice. It is one thing to understand the word but it is another altogether to embody patience.
First, let’s look at what patience is not. Though khanti is sometimes translated as tolerance, I do not use that interpretation. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines tolerance as the “capacity to endure pain or hardship.” This is far too vague a definition for practitioners on the Buddha’s path. Enduring pain and hardship through self-denial leads to bitterness and is not a path to liberation. Far too many people take “tolerance” to mean putting up with something you don’t like. Patience is not a spiritualized version of “grin and bear it,” nor is it a matter of blocking out suffering in the sense of “ignorance is bliss.” It is not simply waiting for things to get better, nor is it hoping that they won’t get any worse, and it is definitely not suppression. Though I have heard teachings on patience presented in these ways, I've never found freedom through these types of practice. I know—I’ve tried them all!
Fortunately, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary also defines tolerance as: “The act of allowing something.” This is the spirit of khanti that I have found to bring genuine freedom, which brings us back to khanti as acceptance. Khanti is a deep acceptance of the hypocrisy, meanness, and uncontrollable nature of the world. More importantly, khanti is a deep acceptance of the hypocrisy, meanness, and uncontrollable nature of ourselves. Khanti is falling into an experience of unity and perfect peace, and then getting mad at your teenaged children just minutes later. Khanti is an intimate, embodied understanding of impermanence, open to life as it presents itself, neither clinging to the pleasant nor rejecting the unpleasant. Khanti is knowing that things will change but not knowing how, or when, and therefore living with wonder.
Khanti, patience, is a power. It is a muscle to be exercised on a daily basis to make it stronger. It cannot grow when left dormant in idyllic conditions. It grows best in the rocky terrain of heartbreak, failure, and defeat. It knows that wanting to know is a dead-end path for patience is found on the unknown road of paradox. It is the soulmate of compassion, born out of extreme honesty, raised on faith. We can never be patient with another when we are forever impatient with ourselves, though we may try.
Recently, khanti has shown up in my life as patience with the feeling of fatigue that cannot be whisked away just because I'd rather be more active. The exhaustion is not to be merely tolerated, but accepted and welcomed. It has great wisdom to teach me when I'm not fighting with it. I have also experienced deep anger bubbling up lately. Patience is not easy to come by when I am enraged, but it is essential. First, patience is needed to create a pause between the instant the fire starts raging inside and when the impulse to yell at someone appears. But even more difficult is the patience needed to face the rage inside, rather than to run from the pain that fuels the anger. The hotter the rage, the harder it is to see inside and know how to cool it, to find a release. Some teachers simply say, “Let it go,” as if that is a magical mantra to heal all suffering. And while “letting go” is the goal, it is not a reliable path. Trying to “let go” of suffering before there is understanding and healing becomes easily confused with false khanti—suppression. Acceptance, for me, is the safer and more direct path that brings me to letting go when the inner work has been done. Acceptance requires relaxing the body, being vulnerable and courageous enough to look at those parts of myself that I like least, and saying, “Okay” to whatever shows itself. It feels like such a contradiction, to go deeper and deeper into the heart of suffering to find release, however there is no way out but in. Patience is what keeps me going in when all I want to do is run out. Thanks to patience, going in has proven time and time again to be the only way through.
As Pema Chödrön wrote, “Patience is an enormously wonderful and supportive, and even magical practice. It’s a way of completely changing the fundamental human habit of trying to resolve things by going either to the right or the left, calling things right or calling things wrong. It’s the way to develop courage; the way to find out what life is really about. . . . Once when I was stuck with something huge, [my teacher] Trungpa Rinpoche gave me some advice. He said, ‘It’s too big; you can’t let go of it yet, so practice with the little ones. Just start noticing all the little ways you hold when it’s actually pretty easy and just get the hang of letting go.’”* This is the most honest and helpful advice that I've found on the subject and I hope that it helps you too.
In seeing the places that I can’t yet let go, I’m invited to practice patience, acceptance, and honesty. What are the things that you hold on to? Do you ever find yourself falling into false khanti? How do you get out of it? How does acceptance show up in your life? Don’t be too quick to find an answer. Be patient, and the answers will present themselves.
Maitreya, Ananda. 1995. The Dhammapada. Berkeley: Parallax Press.
Ajahn Sucitto. 2012. Parami. Hertfordshire: Amaravati Publications.