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What Buddhism Can Teach Us About Patience    

What Buddhism Can Teach Us About Patience

Art by FISK

By Justin Tejada

There aren’t a whole lot of people who have experience saying, “That’s wrong!” to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Robert Thurman is one of them. 

One of the foremost scholars of Buddhism, Thurman is an author and academic who was a professor for many years at Columbia University, holding the first endowed chair of Buddhist Studies in the West. Thurman, who was a Buddhist monk himself for a time, has known H.H. Dalai Lama for more than 50 years. After studying both alongside and under the spiritual leader,  Thurman has formed a very close bond with H.H. Dalai Lama and is comfortable engaging in friendly and spirited debates with him.

One of the most important things Thurman has learned from His Holiness is about patience. In Buddhism, patience truly is a virtue. It is considered one of the things that a sentient being must perfect in order to achieve enlightenment. We spoke with Thurman about the lessons people can learn from Buddhism to help them be more patient.

(This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

How does Buddhism view patience?

In Buddhism, patience is responding to injury without anger or hatred. In the sixth chapter [of Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life], there is a great classical presentation of that with three levels of patience: tolerant patience, insightful patience, and forgiving patience. People who have not developed some degree of non-anger or non-hatred, and therefore, tolerance, when they talk about compassion, they're just blowing smoke. 

How does Buddhism define those three levels of tolerant, insightful, and forgiving patience?

The first one is a no pain, no gain sort of thing. Instead of primarily being oriented to whoever inflicted the injury, you use the injury to develop your own patience. Just like doing yoga or lifting weights, you put yourself under stress to build up greater resilience. That is tolerant patience. 

The second level, insight into reality, is where you look at the situation of the injury, and you actually blame yourself by realizing that you put yourself into this situation and that you have some responsibility. You try to take as much ownership of the situation as you can because then, you can do something about yourself. So you ask, "What's the cause of this injury?" In the Buddhist context, you extrapolate that out into previous lives, such as, "In my previous life, I harmed this person in some way, and now they don't know why, but they feel compelled in some way to harm me." So the insight of patience comes from moving through the bigger picture and understanding there is a much better way of reacting. 

Then the highest level [forgiving patience] is when a person has developed such a huge degree of patience and good judgment that when something injures them, they find the silver lining. They actually feel sympathy and compassion for the person who injured them. They will do whatever it is that will really help that person.

What role has patience played in your own life and work?

I have had a very hot temper since childhood, or maybe I was a hot-tempered person in my previous life. So the patience teaching has always been very difficult for me. But ultimately, it’s been effective. I can still lose my temper,  but it is much harder and much less long-lasting. Pretty much only my wife can really trigger it, maybe some of my kids. (Laughs.) I did write a book about the subject called "Anger.” In the process of writing, I studied the Christians, the Jews, and other religions and their own patience teachings. The Buddhist one is particularly helpful. It is more like the science of the mind. People can use it without being Buddhist.I would not claim to be perfect by any means, but I have improved.  The hot and angry thing is a sign of weakness. People who really lose it are the ones who feel weak. [Losing it] helps them pretend they have strength.

What is your relationship like with H.H. Dalai Lama?

My original teacher was an elderly Mongolian lama who lived in New Jersey and had 35 years in Tibet. Initially, His Holiness and I were like schoolmates. He was six years older, and he was in charge of me when my original teacher took me to him because I wanted to be a monk. We had great dialogues. About 10 years into our relationship, after he forgave me for not being a monk anymore, he became a philosophical instructor. Then finally, around 15-20 years in, he started teaching me more esoteric things, and then he really became like my guru.

We have a layer in our relationship where we like to argue with each other. He expects me not to act like his usual people. He is not really used to it nowadays, so he gets a little jumpy when I say, "That's wrong.”  The great thing about him, and I believe any of the good teachers, is that they have flexibility about identity. If you are in a ceremonial situation regarding someone in a certain way, that doesn't mean when you are having tea that you have to act like that. I love the guy. He is really wonderful. He is not stuck up. He is very real.  

Are there any things that you learned from him about patience?

Yeah, I learned to be patient with his secretaries. (Laughs.) And also, the example of him being patient with me. All of those have been good things that I learned.

Are there any stories from the life of the Buddha or other deities that do a good job illustrating the power of patience for people in the modern world?

Well, I think it freaks people out, the embodiment of extreme patience. Such a person is capable of being dismembered without being angry with the person who is doing that to them. The point is that the Buddhist lives beyond the meaning of this life. The actions and decisions they do are part of a bigger picture than just defending the material body. For example, a Buddhist would rather let themselves be killed than give in to hatred or anger. It doesn't mean they’re voluntarily asking to be killed. You would try to avoid it because human life is considered infinitely precious. But if your mind is loving, open, wise, and patient, [being killed] is not a big setback because you will find a better body if your mind is like that.

How can the Buddhist practice of patience be best adapted to some of the challenges of the current time?

That's obvious. Non-violence. Non-violence has to be reestablished because we have been letting people get away with violence too much.

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