The title of this talk comes from an image that stuck in my mind after reading a book several years ago. I don’t recall the title of the book now. It was written by a Dutch man and was about his experiences of living in a Zen monastery in Japan. One of the things he mentioned was the tradition of making newcomers wait outside for a few days as a sort of test of their aspiration and commitment to join the monastery. They would have to hold themselves in a particular position, probably more like squatting than kneeling, and just wait. Sometimes the Abbot would send someone out to chase them away. This was a compassionate act to give them respite from their uncomfortable position, although the novices wouldn’t necessarily know that. So if they really wanted to join the monastery badly enough, they would just wait – kneeling in the snow – as I’ve put it perhaps fancifully. They would be patient.
Can you imagine the dark, angry, resentful thoughts that might assail you if you were put in that position? Even if you knew it was a ritual of waiting – you would still find it hard to put up with. So the ability to exercise patient endurance was seen as a necessary prerequisite for monastic life. It’s as if the Zen monks are saying “If you don’t have patience, if you can’t endure, well, don’t bother, because you won’t get very far”. So this patient endurance is Kshanti, or at least an aspect of Kshanti. And as we can see from the example, it requires effort. It requires energy to be patient and to endure. It also requires positive emotion. Without positive emotion the aspiring monk would simply think that the Abbot hated him and he would go away disillusioned, despondent and resentful. Similarly, without positive emotion we may think that the spiritual life is just too much, that other people are making it impossible for us, or that we don’t have what it takes. So we need energy and positive emotion, and both of these are aspects of patience and are developed through the practice of patience.
The alternatives to patience in the spiritual life are frustration, anger and waste of energy.
By trying to force ourselves to grow we hinder our growth. If we try to force others to change we prevent them from changing. Patience is needed to further our own spiritual growth and to help others to grow. This does not mean a lack of effort, in fact it means great effort. Patient effort, enduring effort, persistent, consistent effort is greater, more noble, than the violent effort of frustration and anger. And patient enduring effort is also more successful. This sort of effort, the effort that persists day after day, the effort that persists during good times and bad times, is an effort that understands and uses the law of karma. Actions have consequences. Skillful actions have beneficial consequences. Patient, enduring effort in skillfulness of body, speech and mind brings about spiritual progress. Patient, persistent effort in ethics, meditation and study brings about spiritual growth. Patience is a Perfection (paramita) because it is an aspect of Reality, an aspect of Wisdom. The Wisdom of Enlightenment is expressed in the concept of the law of conditionality. The law of conditionality states that everything arises in dependence on conditions. Spiritual progress too arises in dependence on conditions, and in the absence of those conditions it does not arise. We need to patiently and persistently create and put in place the conditions for spiritual growth to arise. This is in accordance with the law of conditionality.
If we try to attain spiritual insight in the absence of the right conditions we will more likely achieve a headache or frustration. What are the right conditions for spiritual growth then?
There are two aspects to the correct conditions for spiritual growth. There is the inward-looking aspect that aims at self-knowledge and psychological integration through ethical practice, through self-questioning, through reflection and meditation and through internal dialogue. There is the outward-looking aspect that aims to overcome the illusion of a separate self-hood, the illusion of ego identity, through ethical practice, through friendship, co-operation and communication. There needs to be a constant movement between going deeper into the inward-looking aspect and being ever more expansive in the outward-looking aspect. This is the creative tension of the spiritual life which eventually leads to a transcendence of inward and outward. Through the persistent effort to gain a deeper and more honest self-knowledge and at the same time be in more generous and open communication with others, we create the conditions for transcendent Insight to manifest in our experience. So we have to continuously make an effort in these two directions, the inward and outward, if we want to make progress. We have to meditate every day, steadily and persistently and patiently working on our minds to change unskillful mental states into skillful mental states. We have to practice generosity constantly in our actions and words and thoughts, always bringing ourselves back to the spirit of generosity when we gravitate towards selfishness and fear.