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.
Introducing the Perfection of Kshanti, or Endurance
Today: Kshanti – Endurance, Tolerance, Patience, 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)
I always find it helpful to recall there is a Buddhist perfection of Kshanti, endurance or forbearance – acknowledging that no matter what we do, no matter how diligent in our spiritual practice, at times life will be painful and tinged with suffering
(I personally don’t like translation “tolerate;” Synonyms=accept, condone, countenance (abet), permit, stand for)
Patient: 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.
Synonyms for Patience: Composure, diligence, endurance, backbone, calmness, constancy
Forbear: to be patient or self-controlled when subject to annoyance or provocation.
Synonyms for forbearance: fortitude, self-control, longanimity (patient endurance of hardship, injuries, or offense; syn= composure, grit, perseverance)[ii]
Endure: 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:
Synonyms for endurance: ability, capacity, courage, stamina, strength, tenacity, tolerance, vitality, staying power[iii]
The Significance of Kshanti
Even if we differentiate pain and suffering – pain being that we can’t do much about, it’s going to happen, and suffering being additional stress and difficulty we cause through our resistance to the pain – unless we are perfect arhats or buddhas, we will also suffer at times
Life can be difficult at times, and simply enduring, simply refusing to be defeated, refusing to give up, is a virtue
Sometimes we have not yet found a way to release our suffering around a particular source of stress, sadness, or pain; sometimes we can only release our suffering for a little while.
Even if we manage to let go of our narratives, resistance, and expectations and minimize the suffering we add to our pain, sometimes sources of pain continue
Things we need to endure right now, e.g. – Being separated from friends and family because of the Covid-10 pandemic; anxiety about the political and economic future of our countries, 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 there are 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 the surreal lockdown situations many of us are living in…
When we aren’t practicing the perfection of endurance: Become fearful, discouraged, stressed. Depressed, despairing, giving up, surrender. Overwhelmed, paralyzed, driven to distraction or intoxication to avoid the pain. Reactivity and anger, hatred, dwelling on blame. Agitated, unable to think clearly or focus on our tasks.
Kshanti as Strength and Staying Power
Important: The perfection of endurance is not passive. It is not giving up. Kshanti is only one perfection of six (or ten) – it takes place within the context of practice. We endure in order to stay strong and committed, stay on the path, stand up for ourselves, for other beings, and for what is right.
Staying power – E.g. In U.S., our president has been regularly repeating the falsehood that mail-in ballots lead to widespread voter fraud, says the only reason he lost the election is because it was rigged, and that he can’t commit to peaceful transfer of power if he loses. This is the biggest threat to our democracy since it began over 230 years ago.
It can seem like the president and those who support him have too much power to defeat. Should the president not leave office, this assault on our democracy will presumably continue and worsen.
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? Giving up?
Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva (Padmakara Translation Group):
“…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?”
Strength means not being broken. This isn’t easy.
How Do We Build Our Endurance? Starting with Aspiration
First, it is more valuable than we might think simply to acknowledge the importance of endurance, and to open up to the possibility 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, etc…
Rather than seeing it as a situation we can’t do anything about because our state of being is determined by our circumstances, we recognize, oh, my endurance is being challenged.
Arousing the aspiration: I refuse to be defeated! (Yes, easier said than done, but we can tap into our self-interest in a positive way)
Regular reading of praises of Kshanti (in Shantideva, 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.”
Considering the possibility that our current situation can be endured without succumbing to depression, despondency, hatred… and perhaps, through effort, experiencing that ourselves and building our confidence
Building Kshanti as We Would Physical Endurance
Just like we would physically! Starting small, keeping it up
“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.”
Shantideva’s chapter on patience contains many verses about dealing with insults from others, or loss of reputation, etc. – how to frame them such that we are 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 family member, witnessing injustice and destruction in the world
Out of shape physically? Start with short walks, huffing and puffing and sore. Longer walks, start lifting a few weights, run on a treadmill or swim, gradually build endurance
Out shape spiritually? Start with enduring an itch, a small provocation in an argument, move on to a source of worry, then a sense of despair about the state of the world, then a significant misfortune in your life…
Zazen is a practice of strengthening endurance… sitting and just being with whatever is going on in your life, or within your body-mind
Zazen as a Way to Slowly Build Kshanti
This is why you might find zazen difficult – the state of your mind, heart, or body seems too painful to endure… anxiety, trauma, repetitive or disturbing trains of thought…
So even if things are tough and it’s difficult to sit zazen, it’s worth doing so anyway, for as long – or just a little longer – than you can without wanting to crawl out of your own skin.
Honestly, this can only be beneficial for your life, as long as you are patient, gentle, and reasonable with yourself… because 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 within our body/mind as we practice endurance?
Encounter something that causes us pain or distress, or seems like a source of threat – large or small, physical or emotional or mental, “real” or ego-based
We have a negative emotional reaction – anger, resentment, anxiety, aversion, sadness, despair, fear, etc.
Impulse: fight, flight, freeze (physically, mentally, emotionally…)
Practice: We pause, turn the light of awareness on our experience
Remind ourselves the reactive responses will only handicap us and/or cause more suffering (anger, fear, avoidance, overwhelm)
A response may be required, is probably required, but we arouse the aspiration to act from a place of centeredness and strength instead of reactivity
Therefore, before we have the centeredness and strength, before we feel calm and objective, ready, we probably need to practice endurance
For this moment things are uncomfortable, even distressing or painful.
Yes… just being with that reality, just breathing with it, refraining from fight, flight or freezing…
Recognizing pain and suffering is part of human life, and that we have the capacity to endure it and not be turned back from what we want to achieve, what we believe in and value most deeply
Practice can relieve suffering, but it takes work (which is why there’s a perfection of Virya, or energy, as well) and 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 we refuse to be beaten down, defeated, deflated, stopped in our efforts to relieve suffering for self and other and bring about a better world
[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