37 practices: verse 27, part 1 of 2

27. To cultivate patience

For bodhisattvas wishing to accrue / a wealth of wholesome virtue and good deeds,

All harm is like a precious treasure trove, / from other people or adversity.

To cultivate a patient attitude, / not feeling irritated or abused:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

verse 27 audio above

Patience is really the basis for all the bodhisattva boot camp practices, starting with verse 12, in which we truly begin to put others first, after setting the ongoing preliminary practices in motion (verses 1-7) and developing the three levels of motivation to wake up (verses 8-10).

Patience is the opposite of emotional reactivity, and it is that freedom, to whatever degree we have cultivated it, that gives us the space and perspective to repay harm with kindness and to see our detractors as our teachers, instead of blindly following the emotional impulses that arise from our ordinary habitual patterns. Geshe Jampa Tegchok, in Transforming the Heart, observes, “All of the practices mentioned earlier that involve transforming bad conditions into the path are included under the practice of patience.”

If we didn’t possess at least a little patience, we wouldn’t even be able to count to 10 before responding to insult or injury — the first step in anger management that most of us learn as children. So the good news is we probably aren’t starting from scratch, even though we may feel we have a long way to go.

So what, exactly, is patience? Gampopa has the answer!

The official definition of patience: According to Ornament of Precious Liberation, Gampopa’s comprehensive guide to the path of awakening that has been followed by generations of practitioners continuously since the twelfth century, the definition of patience is “being unperturbed by anything.” Can we even imagine a mind that peaceful, that literally nothing could possibly disturb our mental tranquility? Apparently, it is part of the potential we possess within our buddha nature, and we only have to cultivate it!

Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche expresses it similarly: “The genuine definition of patience is the mental ability to remain unperturbed by negative conditions.”

The three aspects of patience: What kinds of negative conditions tend to disturb our mental peace and equanimity, toward which we need to develop patience? In the words of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, “There are three kinds of patience. The first is to bear without anger whatever harm people may do you. The second kind is to endure without sadness whatever hardships you may experience for the sake of the dharma. The third is to face without fear the profound meaning of the dharma and the boundless qualities of the Three Jewels.”

The three levels of practicing patience with regard to other beings: With regard to the first kind, being patient toward other sentient beings (from our government; to our employer; to our enemies who torment us; to friends, coworkers and the ants in our kitchen who just irritate us) involves three levels of not reacting. According to Gampopa these are: “remaining unperturbed, not retaliating in kind, and not holding on to the event in one’s mind.” So, ideally we are not even bothered, but if we are, at least we don’t react in words or actions, and in our mind we don’t harbor resentment.

Most likely, we will find ourselves falling short of these ideals, but we should definitely not give up. The full development of patience is a long work in progress because our habits are so strong, built up through trillions of lifetimes, as Lama Norlha Rinpoche used to say. We will likely find ourselves mentally bothered by many things on a daily basis, even as we do our best to practice, but we can also work on the more accessible frontiers of just not lashing out or holding onto anger and resentment. Even if our words or actions get away from us, all is not lost! After we cool off we can reflect and follow the traditional four-step procedure for purifying negative karma: recognize it, resolve not to do it again (even if we might), rely on the three refuges, and remediate our misstep by making amends if possible and doing whatever practices we have for purification, such as Vajrasattva.

How to work with anger in the moment: As for the frontier of not even being perturbed: when we feel ourselves becoming irritated or angry, if we can recognize it right away, we can apply whatever methods work for us.

Dilgo Khyentse offers five ways to redirect our attention in the moment when someone is pushing our buttons (or, if not then, at least when we replay the episode after the fact): 1) remember that whatever happens to us is based on karmic seeds we have sown in the past through our own actions; 2) just as we would when someone is under the influence of intoxicants, realize they’re overpowered by emotional confusion and thus not in their right mind and not in control of their actions; 3) again recalling karma, generate compassion for the suffering this person will face in the future for their harmful actions; 4) remember that by being patient and not getting drawn into reciprocal anger, we purify our own negative karma from the past, and also refrain from creating more negative karma; and thus the person harming us is actually, at a deeper level, giving us an opportunity to practice dharma.

What makes patience transcendent: I’m giving method number 5 its own paragraph because it’s the key to transforming our ordinary patience, through which we accumulate virtue and merit, into transcendent patience, through which we actually wake ourselves up: “Moreover, when you look even more deeply into what is happening, you will see that the person being harmed, the person doing the harm, and the harm itself are all totally devoid of any inherent existence. Who is going to get angry at delusions? In these empty phenomena, what is there to be gained or lost, to want or to reject? Understand it all as being like the vast, empty sky.”

Because cultivating patience is the key to the bodhisattva’s work of “others first,” and because we have a wealth of resources on it, we will spend another week on the paramita of patience. Next week we’ll look further at patience with hardships and adversity, and patience with the profound meaning of the dharma; and we’ll bring in commentaries by His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmpa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje; Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, Pema Chodron, and Ken McLeod.

Three things to put in your toolbox: The definition of patience, its three categories, and the three ways the Buddha said we should practice patience in the first category (when we are annoyed or harmed by another sentient being) are indispensable tools to have in your portable bodhisattva toolbox. If you don’t yet know them off the top of your head, you can find them in this post, and it’s well worth the small effort to memorize them.

Related post: Some Buddhist Ways to Work with Emotional Overwhelm

The index of the study guide and recordings of the classes are here.

Next practice: Verse 27, part 2 of 2: transcendent patience, continued

The complete study guide: click here (see “about the 37 practices study guide” at top of page for orientation if needed)

Complete list of verses to date: “37 practices translation” at top of screen, or click on link