152 - Lotus Sutra 3: This Means YOU - The Lost Son Parable
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Kshanti is the Buddhist perfection (paramita) of endurance. Practice can relieve suffering, but it takes work; it isn’t a magic pill that brings instant peace and bliss. An essential part of our practice is learning how to endure – but not in a passive way, but in a determined refusal to be beaten down, defeated, deflated, or stopped in our efforts to relieve suffering for self and other and bring about a better world.

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Headings:
Introducing the Perfection of Kshanti, or Endurance
The Significance of Kshanti
Kshanti as Strength and Staying Power
How Do We Build Our Endurance? Starting with Aspiration
Building Kshanti as We Would Physical Endurance
Zazen as a Way to Slowly Build Kshanti
The Experience of Endurance

 

Introducing the Perfection of Kshanti, or Endurance

In the early centuries after the Buddha’s death, Buddhists compiled lists of perfections – called paramis or paramitas – and the perfections of character that you needed to develop as you worked on becoming an arhat or bodhisattva. So you worked on your enlightenment, liberation, etc.[i]

In our lineage there’s a list of six: Generosity (Dana), Ethical Conduct (Sila), Endurance/Tolerance (Kshanti), Energy/Diligence/Zeal (Virya), Meditation (Dhyana) and Wisdom (Prajna)

Today I’m just focusing on Kshanti, which is variously translated as endurance, tolerance, patience or forbearance. There are a lot of things going on in the world right now that can cause us stress, anxiety, fear, depression, sadness, grief, mental and emotional pain, if not physical pain. I always find it helpful to recall that there’s a Buddhist perfection of Kshanti, endurance or forbearance. To me, this is acknowledging that no matter what we do, no matter how diligent our spiritual practice, at times life will be painful and tinged with suffering.

To explore some of the definitions: I personally don’t like the translation of Kshanti as ”tolerance”: some synonyms of tolerate are “accept, condone, countenance, abbett, permit or stand for.”

I prefer “patience”: Patient meaning 1) bearing provocation, annoyance, misfortune, delay, hardship, pain, etc., with fortitude and calm and without complaint, anger, or the like. 2) quietly and steadily persevering or diligent, especially in detail or exactness.

Some synonyms for patience are: Composure, diligence, endurance, backbone, calmness, constancy

Sometimes Kshanti is translated as “forbearance”: To forbear means to be patient or self-controlled when subject to annoyance or provocation.

Synonyms for forbearance are: Fortitude, self-control, longanimity (a word I’d never heard before, meaning patient endurance of hardship, injuries, or offense), composure, grit, and perseverance [ii]

And then finally, “endurance” is another translation – to endure means: 1) to hold out against; sustain without impairment or yielding; undergo: 2) to bear without resistance or with patience; tolerate: 3) to continue to exist; last.

Some synonyms for endurance are: Ability, capacity, courage, stamina, strength, tenacity, tolerance, vitality, staying power[iii]

The Significance of Kshanti

Even if we differentiate pain and suffering – “pain” being difficult experiences we can’t do much about, it’s just going to happen – and “suffering” being additional stress and difficulty we cause through our resistance to the pain. Even if you differentiate those two things – and you might say that the good Buddhist may experience pain, but they aren’t going to add any suffering to it – unless we’re perfect arhats or Buddhas, we’re also going to suffer at times. We’re also going to find ourselves resisting the pain.

Life can be difficult at times and simply enduring, simply refusing to be defeated, refusing to give up, is a virtue. And sometimes we haven’t yet found a way to release our suffering around a particular source of stress, sadness or pain. Or sometimes we can only release our suffering for a little while at a time, even if we manage to let go of our narratives, our resistance, our expectations, and minimize the suffering we add to our pain, sometimes these sources of pain continue.

There are many things that we need to endure right now: being separated from friends and family because of the COVID-19 pandemic, anxiety about the political and economic future of our countries, our communities and families, worry about the negative effects of climate and ecological breakdown and not knowing what we can do about it, and then, of course, personal things like health issues we’re facing or that our loved ones are facing, troubled human relationships, creating some healthy structure in our lives in the midst of these surreal lockdown situations many of us are living in. 

When we aren’t practicing the perfection of endurance with these things, we become fearful, discouraged, stressed, depressed, despairing. We give up, or surrender, feel overwhelmed or paralyzed, driven to distraction or intoxication to avoid the pain. And in my experience, reactivity and anger, dwelling on blame or just being agitated, unable to think clearly or focus on our tasks.

Kshanti as Strength and Staying Power

The important thing is that the perfection of endurance is not passive, it’s not giving up. Kshanti is only one perfection of six, or in other systems of Buddhism, ten.  Kshanti takes place within the context of practice we endure in order to stay strong and committed, to stay on the path of practice, to stand up for ourselves, for other beings, for what is right.

Kshanti is staying power. For example, in the U.S., our President has been regularly repeating the falsehood that mail-in ballots lead to widespread voter fraud, and says the only reason he lost the election is because it was rigged, and they can’t commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses. This is the biggest threat to our democracy since it began over two hundred and thirty years ago. It can seem like the President and those who support him have too much power to defeat. 

What does the practice of endurance look like in such circumstances? Refusing to be defeated no matter what.  Yes, our circumstances can be very challenging. That’s what the existence of the paramita of Kshanti acknowledges. But what is the alternative? Is giving up really an alternative?

Shantideva, in The Way of the Bodhisattva (Padmakara Translation Group), talks about the perfections and in particular this perfection of Kshanti.  He says:

“…come what may, I’ll never harm

My cheerful happiness of mind.

Depression never brings me what I want;

My virtue will be warped and marred by it.

If there is a remedy when trouble strikes,

What reason is there for despondency?

And if there is no help for it,

What use is there in being sad?”

Of course, all of that is easier said than done.  It makes it seem like our emotional experiences can just be governed by our rational mind, but still, he has a point. I like to think about this kind of endurance being strength, and strength means not being broken. Even when under a lot of strain, even when under a lot of difficulty, we refuse stubbornly to be broken.

How Do We Build Our Endurance? Starting with Aspiration

How do we build our endurance? I think it’s more valuable than we might think simply to acknowledge the importance of endurance, to recognize it as a perfection, as one of the six main perfections, and to open up to the possibility that we might be able to build our endurance. We may not know exactly how to go about it, but when we’re feeling exhausted, discouraged, despairing, anxious, agitated, rather than seeing it as a situation we can’t do anything about because our state of being is being determined by our circumstances, we just recognize, “oh, my endurance is being challenged!” 

Kshanti is what’s called for here: Arousing the aspiration “I refuse to be defeated.” 

Keep in mind that anything that we might endure – if we’re feeling exhausted, discouraged, despairing, irritable, anxious, etc. – sometimes we think this is only about our responses to something, to our circumstances, to something external to us. But sometimes the most difficult things to endure are our own states of mind, our own thoughts and feelings and desires. These, too, are things that we can simply think of as enduring. We are experiencing them, perhaps there is nothing we can directly do about them at the moment, but we are determined to do something. It’s just in the meantime, we have to endure some discomfort. 

Another thing that we can do is to study Kshanti, for instance, regular reading of praises of it. For example, in Shantideva – to quote his words again (here Kshanti is translated as “patience”):

“There are some whose bravery increases

At the sight of their own blood,

While some lose all their strength and faint

When it’s another’s blood they see!

This results from how the mind is set,

In steadfastness or cowardice.

And so I’ll scorn all injury,

And hardships I will disregard!

When sorrows fall upon the wise,

Their minds remain serene and undisturbed.

For in their war against defiled* emotion,

Many are the hardships, as in every battle.

Thinking scorn of every pain,

And vanquishing such foes as hatred:

These are exploits of a conquering hero…

Suffering also has its worth.

Through sorrow, pride is driven out

And pity felt for those who wander in samsara;

Evil is avoided, goodness seems delightful.”

Just considering the possibility that our current situation can be endured without succumbing to depression, despondency, hatred – and perhaps through effort, experiencing the kind of strength that Shantideva is talking about, that we could experience that ourselves, build our confidence.

Building Kshanti as We Would Physical Endurance

How do we build our Kshanti? I would suggest that we do that the same way we would build physical endurance: starting small and keeping it up sometimes is very difficult, the most difficult part is just to start until we get into a habit. Once again, Shantideva has something to say.:

“The cause of happiness comes rarely,

And many are the seeds of suffering!

But if I have no pain, I’ll never long for freedom;

Therefore, 0 my mind, be steadfast!

…There’s nothing that does not grow light

Through habit and familiarity.

Putting up with little cares

I’ll train myself to bear with great adversity.”

Even putting up with an itch during meditation instead of scratching it is practicing endurance.  Enduring someone’s rudeness without having to react. The Zen tradition of Sesshin (residential retreat) is sometimes designed to increase your discomfort. You don’t get enough sleep, you don’t get to pick what you eat, you don’t have any time to yourself, oftentimes you don’t have any privacy. You are deprived of many of the comforts and pleasures that are part of most of our lives. And especially for me, the sleep deprivation is very difficult. Plus, of course, you’re sitting in a meditation posture. Even if you’re sitting in a chair when you sit still, stock still, for eight hours a day, it’s uncomfortable. 

These kinds of discomforts are things that ordinarily would distress us a lot and we would find some way to avoid them. But in the context of the meditation retreat, you just follow along with everybody else, and amazingly, you find out that none of this kills you. It may sound kind of masochistic, but it increases your endurance. If you’ve been through hours of meditation with your knee screaming in pain, and then you get up and you’re OK, it really increases your ability to just experience something uncomfortable for a while without giving up or freaking out. 

Shantideva’s chapter on patience contains many verses about dealing with things like insults from others or loss of reputation, and how to frame them such that we’re inspired to endure them instead of fret about them or get angry.  Every day we have opportunities to practice Kshanti: driving in traffic, dealing with annoying coworkers, having an argument with a spouse or a family member, witnessing injustice and destruction in the world.  And just as if we were out of shape physically, we would start with short walks. We might be huffing and puffing and sore. Then we might go for longer walks. We might start lifting just a few weights, starting with just little tiny weights and then building up. We might run on a treadmill or swim and gradually build our endurance.

If we’re out of shape spiritually, we start with enduring an itch. We start with enduring a small provocation in an argument.  We move on to a small source of worry, then a sense of despair about the state of the world, then maybe a significant misfortune in our lives.

Zazen as a Way to Slowly Build Kshanti

Zazen is a practice of strengthening endurance, just sitting and being with whatever is going on in your life or within your body, mind or heart.  This is why you might find zazen difficult. The state of your mind, heart or body just seems too painful to endure. Maybe you experience anxiety or post-traumatic stress or repetitive or disturbing trains of thought, and you may conclude then that zazen isn’t for you, you can’t do zazen.  It’s really just that you need to build your Kshanti, your ability to endure the discomfort you experience during zazen, because it’s not just about building up to the ability to endure zazen for its own sake. 

Whatever you become more able to endure during zazen, you’re more able to endure the rest of the time. So even if things are tough and it’s difficult to sit zazen, it’s worth doing so anyway for as long – or maybe just a little longer than you can – without wanting to crawl out of your own skin. And honestly, this can only be beneficial for your life – as long as you’re gentle and patient and reasonable with yourself.  Anything you find it hard to endure during zazen is still there at other times, you’re probably just finding ways to avoid facing it.

The Experience of Endurance

What happens moment by moment within our body, mind and heart as we practice endurance?

We encounter something that causes us pain or distress, internal or external. It seems like a source of threat, large or small, physical or emotional or mental, real or ego based. And we have a negative emotional reaction: anger, resentment, anxiety, aversion, sadness, despair, fear – that primal impulse to fight or flee or freeze – arises in us.

The practice then is to pause and turn the light of awareness on our experience, to just become aware of what is happening.  That’s definitely the first and major part of this.  Then we remind ourselves the reactive responses will only handicap us and/or cause more suffering.  A response may be required –  is probably required in some way – but we arouse the aspiration to act from a place of centeredness and strength instead of reactivity. 

Before we have the centeredness and strength, before we feel calm and objective and ready, we probably need to practice endurance. That’s what we’re aiming for, some equanimity and some perspective and some clarity, but that probably isn’t going to come right away. So in the meantime, we just have to hold on for this moment that things are uncomfortable, even distressing or painful or confusing. And just being with that reality, just breathing with it and refraining as much as possible from fight, flight, or freezing.  Instead, just that open, aware mindfulness of what’s happening, and recognizing pain and suffering are part of human life. We have the capacity to endure much more than we might expect. We don’t want to be turned back from what we want to achieve, from what we believe in and value most deeply.

 

Conclusion

Our practice is amazing. It can relieve an incredible amount of suffering, but it takes work. And that’s why there’s also a perfection of Vyria or energy as well. But practice isn’t a magic pill that brings instant peace and bliss.  An essential part of our practice is learning how to endure, but not just in a passive way, in a way where we refuse to be beaten down, refuse to be defeated or deflated, refuse to be stopped in our efforts to relieve suffering for self and other, and bring about a better world.

 


Endnotes

[i] “The Ten Perfections: A Study Guide”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/study/perfections.html

[ii] https://www.dictionary.com/

[iii] https://www.dictionary.com/

 

152 - Lotus Sutra 3: This Means YOU - The Lost Son Parable
154 - Avatamsaka Sutra - Each One of Us Has Unique Bodhisattva Gifts to Offer – Part 1
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