Around the time I first became interested in the Buddha’s path, I was doing a construction internship in the southwest of the United States, living and working with 15 other people in the middle of nowhere. We got to spend a lot of time with each other. One woman on our crew, whom I’ll call Jessie, drove me nuts. In fact, I remember writing in my journal, “She makes me want to gouge my eyes out!” I can’t remember why I felt so agitated, but I still remember Jessie because of it. At the time, I was reading The Art of Happiness by HH the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler. When I came across the following passage, I was stunned:
“In fact, the enemy is the necessary condition for practicing patience. Without an enemy’s action, there is no possibility for patience or tolerance to arise. Our friends do not ordinarily test us and provide the opportunity to cultivate patience; only our enemies do this. So, from this standpoint we can consider our enemy as a great teacher, and revere them for giving us this precious opportunity to practice patience” (Dalai Lama and Cutler 1998, 148–49).
Immediately I thought of Jessie, and then I thought, “No way!” There was no way that Jessie could be my great teacher! But the rest of the book touched me deeply and the other Buddhist teachings I had encountered made a lot of sense, so I let the idea of enemy as teacher turn over in my mind. After a few weeks I started to see Jessie in a new light, as someone who suffered, and thought maybe, just maybe, I could learn to become more patient and compassionate because of her. We never became best friends, but my own agitation was transformed, and that was already blessing enough.
More than a decade has passed since then, and I see how much I’ve changed. I still get annoyed, but I no longer question His Holiness’s wisdom. I have clearly seen how the most challenging people are teachers on the path, even though it can take a while.
In Start Where you Are, by the American Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, she writes:
“When the great Buddhist teacher Atisha went to Tibet . . . he was told the people of Tibet were very good-natured, earthy, flexible, and open; he decided they wouldn’t be irritating enough to push his buttons. So he brought along with him a mean-tempered, ornery Bengali tea boy. He felt that was the only way he could stay awake. The Tibetans like to tell the story that, when he got to Tibet, he realized that he need not have brought his tea boy: the people there were not as pleasant as he had been told” (Chödrön 1994, 83–84).
I love this story, and I remember it often when facing “difficult people.” Take, for instance, last week, when I got into a little argument at breakfast, a time when we normally practice silence. A Sister started talking and I got annoyed. When I replied with not-so-much-kindness in my voice, she got upset too. Later I tried to smooth things over, but it got worse. All she said was, “It’s rice milk.” After I nodded, she said, “It’s really sweet.” Then I said, “It's cashew milk with sugar.” We're both seeing a Chinese doctor and can’t have any sugar while taking the herbal medicine, so we’re a little sugar-sensitive.
The beauty of the conflict was that it made me look more deeply into my actions and intentions. I wanted to resolve the conflict (a wholesome intention), but I also wanted her to see that she was wrong (an unwholesome intention). No wonder my “smoothing over” didn’t help things! I usually think of myself as an even-tempered person, but that morning I saw I got infuriated because she was a) talking during our silent time and b) not respecting my capacity to remember what rice milk tastes like. After a few hours, we both saw that we had hurt the other and apologized. Simple enough. But what a blessing it was, showing me where I still lack patience. If our buttons don’t get pushed, we can’t even know where they are. How can we free ourselves from our deluded thinking if we don’t even know how we are deluded? Thank Buddha for the Bengali Tea Boys of the world!
Sometimes when I get overwhelmed by another person and I can’t access patience and compassion directly, I just repeat, “Bengali Tea Boy, Bengali Tea Boy, Bengali Tea Boy . . .” until I calm down and see the opportunity that this person is giving me to grow. I find it very effective! Of course, no one is actually a Bengali Tea Boy. It’s always about the situation and my perspective. I also remember that sometimes I am the Tea Boy, which is always humbling, and inspires even more patience and compassion to arise.
Many times when I talk to people living outside of the monastery, they’re surprised to hear that in here, we get annoyed with each other and have difficulties just like the rest of the world. As if ordaining makes us no longer human! Let me promise you that it doesn’t. Rather, we get to see even more acutely how human we are when the obligations and distractions of the “outside world” are taken away. There are benefits to a monastic life for those who want it: less stress in our lives due to not being part of the rush of modern life, less stuff to take care of, and an environment set up to help us practice, mostly in the form of the community, be it the presence of those who inspire us or those who drive us nuts.
Both inside and outside of the monastery, there are always difficult people and situations. We all have the habit of blaming others for our suffering and ignoring what we can do for our own freedom. We’re born with it. But we can also transform it. As we grow in our practice, we learn to see difficulties as teachers rather than as obstacles on the path. Then every opportunity to transform becomes a blessing. And we don’t even need to bring an annoying Tea Boy along with us over the Himalayas!
Dalai Lama, HH the, and Howard C. Cutler. 1998. The Art of Happiness. New York: Riverhead Books.
Chödrön, Pema. 1994. Start Where you Are. Boston and London: Shambhala Publications.