The Perfection of Forbearance

National Headquarters  |  June 21, 2019
Photo by: Peter Lin

The quality of forbearance (Sanskrit: kṣānti) is of great importance in Buddhism, and is among the Six Perfections (Sanskrit: pāramitās) that Buddhists cultivate along the spiritual path. The Sanskrit term kṣānti means “unaffected by” or “able to withstand,” encompassing patience or forbearance, along with tolerance, endurance and composure in the face of trying situations, people and experiences. Not giving in to anger and negative emotions is central, as is being mindful and kind in reactive actions.

In Buddhist scriptures, we can find reference to three dimensions of forbearance:

  • Enduring personal hardship:
    One endures personal hardship – due to physical pain or illness, difficult circumstances or emotional distress, for instance – by remaining strong and constructive, rather than giving in to destructive reactions and despair.

  • Patience with others:
    One bears mistreatment by other people – for instance being injured, insulted or cheated by them – without anger, hate or the urge to retaliate, while also being mindful to remain kind and gentle.

  • Confidence in the ultimate truth:
    One bears suffering patiently, accepting the Four Noble Truths (truth of suffering, cause of suffering, cessation of suffering, and path to cessation of suffering) and having confidence in the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha).

In a sense, if we take into account rebirth and our precious human life, and the law of karma – how our past actions bear fruit – the suffering we endure can be a means to clear away the causes of suffering, becoming a blessing along the path towards enlightenment. Shantideva, a Buddhist monk from ancient India, expressed it thus:

Those who cause me suffering, are like Buddhas bestowing their blessings. Since they lead me to liberating paths, why should I get angry with them? “Don’t they obstruct your virtuous practice?” No! There is no virtuous practice greater than patience; therefore, I will never get angry with those who cause me suffering. If, because of my own shortcomings, I do not practice patience with my enemy, it is not he, but I, who prevents me from practicing patience, the cause of accumulating merit.

Shantideva (687-763 C.E.)

Dharma Master Cheng Yen takes the perfection of forbearance deeply to heart as she guides her disciples in their humanitarian charity work as Tzu Chi volunteers, and their uniform itself is a reminder of the importance of cultivating this quality:

In Tzu Chi, I have called the uniform that Tzu Chi volunteers wear “the robe of gentleness and forbearance,” for wearing it we remind ourselves of this spirit and strive to live it. The robe of gentleness and forbearance is not just a physical piece of clothing we wear; it’s to be worn in our hearts all the time. Gentleness and forbearance are qualities that are inherent in us they’re in our Buddha nature. We’ve forgotten our Buddha nature, and the way to return to it is to practice gentleness and forbearance.

Master Cheng Yen repeatedly points out how vital patient endurance is on the Buddhist spiritual path, and especially Tzu Chi’s path of selfless service, which encapsulates the bodhisattva way to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings:

Practicing the bodhisattva way, one of the most important qualities we need to nurture is patient endurance the capacity to bear with unpleasant and trying circumstances. Patient endurance gives us the power to rise above difficult situations and overcome our inner afflictions rather than be overcome by them. Our world is filled with many different kinds of people; when trying to carry out a good cause, we will encounter both those who support us and those who will give us a hard time. If our patient endurance isn’t strong enough, we won’t be able to move forward on our path, be it that of charitable work or spiritual cultivation.

In our cultivation, the Buddha has given us the Six Paramitas [Six Perfections] to practice giving, moral discipline, patient endurance, diligence, meditative concentration, and wisdom and these tools will enable us to safely ride over the tumultuous waves of our afflictions. But if we haven’t developed patient endurance, it will actually be hard to practice the other paramitas. To truly practice giving and moral discipline, we’ll need the capacity to endure challenging conditions. To be diligent and have meditative concentration and wisdom, we’ll also need the stabilizing force that patient endurance provides us.  

In terms of helping others, we can’t be bogged down by the obstacles and difficulties we encounter either, and need to keep going. Otherwise, what will happen to the people who need our aid? If we think of what they’re suffering, we won’t have the heart to let them continue suffering. Keeping our minds on our goal, we won’t be affected by how people treat us, and will become tolerant and understanding, able to face everyone with a warm, humble and respectful heart. 

Developing the capacity to bear with unpleasant, trying situations is essential in our practice of the bodhisattva way. In our everyday life we have ample opportunities to train ourselves in patient endurance. If we’re earnest in our sincerity to practice the bodhisattva spirit, we can take everything as training and face all with a humble, respectful, and expansive heart. Then we can endure anything and everything, and with this strength, we’ll be able to do good for the world.

The sections in italics consist of edited excerpts of material compiled into English by the Jing Si Abode English Editorial Team, based on Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s talks.

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