PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE! Galatians 5:22-23

Been on a wonderful cruise for the last 3 weeks. Cruising is conducive to thoughtfulness, and as such I’ve been thinking about – and doing some research on – patience. And, of course, its opposite – impatience.

The statement above jumped right out at me as amazingly, for I really don’t believe in co-incidence, we have just spent some time in Ferrol, Spain where a people called the Galatians once settled. The Galatians – or Gauls – as they were oft named, were Celtic peoples who invaded much of what is now France, Spain and parts of Asia. A warrior people, pre-Roman, fierce! In fact, it is written, ‘Nearly all the Gauls are of a lofty stature, fair and ruddy complexion: terrible from the sternness of their eyes, very quarrelsome, and of great pride and insolence. A whole troop of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Gaul if he called his wife to his assistance who is usually very strong and with blue eyes...’ This from a 4th century Roman historian...

Sounds like a thoroughly impatient bunch to me!

Patience is sometimes defined as ‘Waiting without complaint.’ And further, to add to the initial definition above, to be patient is to endure discomfort without complaint. (I once tried to go a whole day without complaining, without success!) But, waiting without complaint calls into play some other virtues, specifically, self-control, humility, and generosity. That is, patience is not a fundamental virtue so much as a complex of other virtues. Ah, the world religions are in harmony once again! As these 3 qualities are others of the 6 Paramitas! Read on.

Buddhism is particularly known for its ‘lists.’ The 4 Noble Truths, the 10 Bhumis, The 6 Paramitas and so on! Indeed, one could spend a loooong time just reading about the ‘lists!’

Being an Aries by nature though, one of the 6 Paramitas – Patience – struck a chord…..a quality that I would like to cultivate in this lifetime! Although Aries’ natural traits list many positive traits (!), on the dark side is listed ‘impulsive and impatient’ no matter which source is looked at!

So first, the list of the 6 Perfections...all according to, Conduct (Morality), Patience, Effort, Meditation and Wisdom.

The Six Perfections, or paramitas, are guides for Mahayana Buddhist practice. They are virtues to be cultivated to strengthen practice and bring one to enlightenment.

The Six Perfections describe the true nature of an enlightened being, which is to say they are our own true nature. If they don't seem to be our true nature, it is because the perfections are obscured by our delusion, anger, greed, and fear. (Ah! So the positive traits are already present! But hidden! Buried treasure!) By cultivating these perfections we bring this true nature into expression.

The perfection of patience is called Ksanti and is much about enduring hardship. In modern terms, we might think of this as facing difficulties in constructive, rather than destructive, ways. These difficulties might include pain and disease, poverty, or loss of a loved one.

We learn to remain strong and not be defeated by despair. 

Cultivating this aspect of patience begins, of course, with acceptance of the First Noble Truth , the truth of dukkha. We accept that life is stressful and difficult as well as temporary. And as we learn to accept, we also see how much time and energy we've been wasting trying to avoid or deny dukkha. And so, we can stop feeling defeated and sorry for ourselves.

A lot of our reaction to suffering is self-protection. We avoid things we don't want to do, that we think will hurt -- visiting dentists comes to mind -- and think ourselves unfortunate when pain comes. This reaction comes from the belief there is a permanent "self" to protect. When we realize there is nothing to protect, our perception of pain changes.

The late Robert Aitken Roshi said, "The whole world is sick; the whole world suffers and its beings are constantly dying. Dukkha, on the other hand, is resistance to suffering. It is the anguish we feel when we don't want to suffer."

As a yogi, this makes perfect sense to me! I call this ‘the pain of the pain.’ When we feel pain in the body, most times instead of accepting the pain as being temporary and passing, we create a ‘wall of resistance’ around the pain, thus contracting and obstructing energy as it attempts to arrive at and to heal the pain.

Aha! We arrive at the Dark Side…..Patience With Others

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, “L'enfer, c'est les autres” -- “Hell is other people.” I think a Buddhist would say "hell is something we create ourselves and blame on other people." Not as catchy, but more helpful. My own father, a Manager of Personnel, used to say ‘It’s a great job if it weren’t for the people!’

Numerous reports on this dimension of patience are about how to handle mistreatment from others. When we are insulted, cheated, or injured by other people, nearly always our ego rises up and wants to get even. We get angry. We get hateful.

But hate is a terrible poison -- one of the Three Poisons, in fact. (Yet another list!) We’ll save this for another day!

Accepting Truth. We've already said that ksanti paramita begins with accepting the truth of dukkha. But that includes accepting the truth of a lot of other things -- that we are selfish; that ultimately we are responsible for our own unhappiness; that we are mortal.

And then there's the big one -- that "I" am just a thought, a mental phantasm conjured by our brains and senses moment-to-moment.

Teachers say that when people are getting close to realization of enlightenment they may experience great fear. This is your ego trying to preserve itself. Getting beyond that fear can be a challenge, they say.

In the traditional story of the Buddha's enlightenment, the demon Mara sent a monstrous army against the meditating Siddhartha. Yet Siddhartha did not move, but instead continued to meditate. I think this represents all the fear, all the doubt, raging at Siddhartha at once. Instead of retreating back into himself, he sat unmoving, open, vulnerable, courageous. It's a very moving story.

But before we get to that point, there's something else we must accept -- uncertainty. For a long time we won't see clearly. We won't have all the answers. We may never have all the answers.

Psychologists tell us that some people are uncomfortable with uncertainty and have little tolerance for ambiguity. They want explanations for everything. They don't want to proceed in a new direction without some guarantee of outcome. If you pay attention to human behavior, you may notice that many people frantically will grab onto a bogus, even nonsensical, explanation for something rather than simply not know. 

This is a real problem in Buddhism, because we begin with the premise that all conceptual models are flawed. Most religions function by giving you new conceptual models to answer your questions -- “heaven” is where you go when you die, for example.

But enlightenment is not a belief system, and the Buddha himself could not give enlightenment to others, because it lies outside the reach of our ordinary conceptual knowledge. He could only explain to us how to find it ourselves.

To walk the Buddhist path you have to be willing to not know. As Zen teachers say, empty your cup.

As always, we welcome your comments and stories. Sharing your experiences can often go a long way to helping others to ‘see.’ Please feel free to email us at