Category Archives: Patience

Conflict

Since communities, whether large or small, are composed of human beings, they are inevitably exposed to tensions caused by human frailties. The innate propensity for self-aggrandizement, craving for personal benefits, self-righteousness, and attachment to personal opinions can lead to factionalism and disputes and even split the community into fragments. (From introduction to chapter “Disputes” in The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

This is a succinct re-statement of the Buddha’s first truth, the truth of dukkha. We keep hoping that we can arrange our lives so that we are not bothered by troublesome (to us) people, but inevitably, we fail. The first sutta quoted in the “Disputes” chapter is DN 21 and concerns the question “why?”.  In it, Sakka, ruler of the devas (gods), asks the Buddha: “Beings wish to live without hate, hostility, or enmity; they wish to live in peace. Yet they live in hate, harming one another, hostile, and as enemies. By what fetters are they bound, sir, that they live in such a way?”

The Buddha responds: “Ruler of the devas, it is the bonds of envy and miserliness that bind beings so that, although they wish to live without hate, hostility, or enmity, and to live in peace, yet they live in hate, harming one another, hostile, and as enemies.”

Sakka digs deeper and asks what gives rise to  envy and miserliness and the series of questions “what gives rise to…” are answered thus:

  • Envy and miserliness arise from liking and disliking
  • Liking and disliking arise from desire
  • Desire arises from thinking
  • Thinking arises from elaborated perceptions and notions.

There are a number of interesting points in this list. Perhaps the most important one is that liking and disliking lead us to divide the world into two parts; the parts we like and the parts we don’t. Based on our likes and dislikes, we spend our energy pulling the former towards us and pushing the latter away. From one perspective, this is the framework for our lives: constant grasping and rejecting. Also, the people and things we like and dislike keep changing, so there is no rest from this grinding of gears.

When the Buddha says that thinking is the root of the problem, he specifies “elaborated perceptions and notions”. There is a word in Pali, papañca, that is normally translated as “conceptual proliferation”. It describes a mental process we are all familiar with in which we ruminate on something until it becomes ever bigger and more ominous. If we could regularly interrupt this process with mindfulness, we would probably not take our thoughts quite so seriously and would consequently have fewer conflicts in our lives.

However, people are people, and we are people, and the unavoidable consequence is that we will have disputes and conflict among ourselves until we are fully awakened. These conflicts are grist for our spiritual mills; they are the teachers and the lessons. When things go wrong, if we look to our own reactivity rather than blaming our discomfort on an outside source, we can recognize and release our unhelpful thought processes and become more free.

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Attending to the sick

In any community that exists for more than a short time, someone will fall ill. Often when serious illness strikes, the family is the primary care-giving community, but sometimes friends become like family. When someone is sick, it tends to pre-empt petty concerns and reminds us that we do, at base, care about each other.

In describing how communities of the Buddha’s followers should work, the Buddha listed five qualities that those attending to the sick should embody, and another five that make a patient easy to care for. By considering them together, we acknowledge that at times in our lives we’ll be called on to give care, and at other times we will be the ones needing care.

Monks, possessing five qualities, an attendant is qualified to take care of a patient. What five? (1) He is able to prepare medicine. (2) He knows what is beneficial and harmful, so that he withholds what is harmful and offers what is beneficial. (3) He takes care of the patient with a mind of loving-kindness, not for the sake of material rewards. (4) He is not disgusted at having to remove feces, urine, vomit, or spittle. (5) He is able from time to time to instruct, encourage, inspire, and gladden the patient with a Dhamma talk. Possessing these five qualities, an attendant is qualified to take care of a patient.

Possessing five other qualities, a patient is easy to take care of. What five? (1) He does what is beneficial. (2) He observes moderation in what is beneficial. (3) He takes his medicine. (4) He accurately discloses his symptoms to his kind-hearted attendant; he reports, as fits the case, that his condition is getting worse, or getting better, or remaining the same. (5) He can patiently endure arisen bodily feelings that are painful, racking, sharp, piercing, harrowing, disagreeable, sapping ones’ vitality. Possessing these five qualities, a patient is easy to take care of. (AN 5:123-124, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

The Buddha gives us practical advice on how to be a good care-giver and also a good care-receiver. Regarding item (5) in the first paragraph, not everyone feels qualified to share the Buddha’s teachings, nor would every patient welcome them. But regardless of our knowledge, we can try to encourage, inspire, and gladden the patient with whatever words or actions might work best for that individual.

Regarding item (4) in the first paragraph, many carers find themselves revolted by the prospect of dealing with bodily fluids and other “yucky” things. But if called on to perform such assistance, it can be a beneficial reminder to the carer that we are all in human bodies and this is how bodies function when they’re not well. Illness or disability is likely to come to all of us at some time in our lives. Why not face the reality now?

In the Buddha’s time, there were many fewer options than there are now for reducing physical pain related to illness. But even with excellent medications and care, we are all of a nature to experience physical discomfort at one time or another. In many situations, it can’t be entirely eliminated and patient endurance will be needed.

As we live through these experiences, either as carer or patient, we can use the opportunities presented to bring ourselves more into alignment with our highest aspirations.

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Conditions for harmony

In AN 7:23 the Buddha outlines seven principles of non-decline in communities. There is a similar list in AN 7:21, addressed to a group of laypeople called the Licchavis (of the Vajjian confederation). Items five through seven address issues specific to lay and monastic communities, but the first two are identical (Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation):

“As long as the monks (Vajjis) assemble often and hold frequent assemblies, only growth is to be expected for them, not decline.

As long as the monks (Vajjis) assemble in harmony, adjourn in harmony, and conduct the affairs of the Sangha (Vajjis) in harmony, only growth is to be expected for them, not decline.”

The fact that meeting frequently is the first item mentioned sets it as the basis on which communities thrive. The less frequently people meet together, the more likely it is for misunderstandings and resentments to grow. Meeting face to face encourages us to practice respect and kindness, which are sometimes sacrificed in on-line communications or when we’re behind the wheel of a vehicle.

In the second principle the stakes are raised: to assemble in harmony, adjourn in harmony, and conduct the affairs of the group in harmony. To do this, there must be a commitment on everyone’s part to practice respect and politeness when meeting. This commitment has to be explicit to overcome our natural tendency to argue with each other and object to ideas not our own.

These are simple guidelines that can make a profound difference in our actions. Recently, I fired off a sarcastic email to a reporter who I thought had failed to maintain his own journalistic standards. Surprisingly, he responded. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t impressed. I realized (too late) that I had written in haste, used a negative tone in expressing my irritation, AND that if I’d been speaking with the reporter in person, I would have taken an entirely different approach. I deeply regretted that I’d created unnecessary bad feeling for the reporter and myself, and have reflected on the process that caused the action. In a fit of righteous indignation, instead of considering whether I would use these words if I were speaking to the reporter in person, I just went ahead and sent the email. I felt sure that it would be ignored, which might have helped unleash my negative energy. After I saw and thought about the response, I was troubled by remorse and have written again to apologize and explain what I hoped for.

If we want to bring peace to the world and to ourselves, we can start with treating people in our communities with respect and kindness. We can also take the same care and extend the same consideration to others not in our physical presence.

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Communities

In his introduction to the chapter called “The Intentional Community” in The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony, Bhikkhu Bodhi points out the fundamental difference between natural communities and intentional communities. Natural communities are our neighborhoods, the group of people that shows up at the pool or the gym, or in the dog park, or at school or work. It’s the regulars at the local bar, the people waiting in line for coffee or for attention at the Motor Vehicle Bureau or welfare office. It is the people who land in any prison or hospital.

An intentional community is one that we have a choice about joining or not: a church or other spiritual community, a sports team, a book group, a bridge club, a choir, the Parent-Teacher Association, the Lions Club, a fraternity or sorority, or any other social or support group. With intentional communities, we make it a habit to show up in person, to participate, to accept and support the others in the group.  Generally, a common goal or interest binds members of an intentional community together.

We humans are herd animals; sometimes we go mad if we are isolated. We are all members of natural communities, however temporarily. Most of us also belong to at least one intentional community, and these can be overlapping circles.

For some of us, our families are our primary community, our tribe. If we are lucky, our relatives are also our friends. Some folks work in places where interpersonal bonds become deep through shared purpose. Occasionally friendships made in school or university last a lifetime. But of course, if one is not so lucky, one’s primary commitment will be elsewhere, and may move from one group to another at intervals. There’s a lot of scope here to choose communities that are supportive of what’s best in us, and also groups that bring forth our lesser qualities. In some locations, violent gangs can seem an appealing form of community.

On-line communities have become a reality in recent years. Particularly for people who are shut in for one reason or another, these modes of communication can be life-saving. It’s unfortunate that most of what we hear in the world media from on-line communities are extremist views and vitriol. Let’s not forget that for many people who can’t get out and about or live in sparsely populated areas, an on-line community can be essential and positive.

We’re going to be considering characteristics of communities in upcoming posts. Meanwhile, we might benefit from reviewing where our commitments lie; what groups are we currently involved in or identified with?

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An anger-eating demon

There is a curious sutta in which an unnamed, deformed demon challenges the followers of Sakka, the ruler of the devas, by brazenly taking Sakka’s seat. As Sakka’s subjects revile the demon, he becomes visibly less ugly and more attractive. How can this be? They report this strange phenomenon to Sakka, that an “anger-eating demon” has claimed his throne. So, Sakka kneels before the demon, presses his palms together in salutation and says, “I, dear sir, am Sakka, ruler of the devas!” Sakka repeats this phrase another two times and each time, the demon becomes visibly more deformed and ugly and then disappears. Sakka re-takes his seat and says:

“I am not one afflicted in mind,
nor easily drawn by anger’s whirl.
I never become angry for long,
nor does anger persist in me.

“When I’m angry I don’t speak harshly
and I don’t praise my virtues.
I keep myself well restrained
out of regard for my own good.”
— the full sutta is here: https://suttacentral.net/en/sn11.22

It’s almost as if the anger-eating demon is an embodiment of a negative quality, and clearly stating the present reality dissipates the “bogey man’s” power. It could be a parallel to when the Buddha is confronted by Mara, the embodiment of delusion, and simply says, “I see you, Mara”, which makes Mara withdraw.

An Australian artist named Sebastian Moody has produced a number of public works. One of them is displayed in an underpass I often drive through:

the-more-i-think-about-it-the-bigger-it-gets-1.png

Don’t we all experience this? If we are worried about something and keep on worrying, doesn’t it grow until it clouds our mental state? If we are planning a happy event and obsessing over the details, don’t we lose perspective? If we go over something (anything) in our minds again and again, doesn’t it become distorted?

Because Sakka is not prone to anger and not vulnerable to the worries of his followers, he is able to see clearly how to bring things back to reality.

The mindfulness technique of naming what is true right now, in a flow, can help us stay in balance.  For example: “tension in the stomach”, “feet on the earth”, “this in-breath”, “this out-breath”, “cool air on the skin”, “slumped posture”, “tense jaw”, etc. By taking this inventory of our direct physical experience as we become aware of it, we can interrupt the flights of fancy that take us out of our present reality. It could be as simple as noting “this body is sitting/standing/walking”, and experiencing that fully.

Another available technique is to shift our attention to the space we are moving through – not the apparently solid objects but the empty space in which everything we can experience exists.

Our minds are difficult to tame. All we can do is accept the challenge and persist in developing mindfulness of the body, feeling, mental states, and phenomena as we perceive them.

 

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Not my anger

On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Rājagaha in the Bamboo Grove, the Squirrel Sanctuary. The brahmin Akkosaka Bhāradvāja, Bhāradvāja the Abusive, heard: “It is said that another brahmin of the Bhāradvāja clan has gone forth from the household life into homelessness under the ascetic Gotama.” Angry and displeased, he approached the Blessed One and abused and reviled him with rude, harsh words.

When he had finished speaking, the Blessed One said to him: “What do you think, brahmin? Do your friends and colleagues, kinsmen and relatives, as well as guests come to visit you?” – “They do, Master Gotama.” – “Do you then offer them some food or a meal or a snack?” – “I do, Master Gotama.” – “But if they do not accept it from you, then to whom does the food belong?” – “If they do not accept it from me, then the food still belongs to us.”

“So too, brahmin, I do not abuse anyone, do not scold anyone, do not rail against anyone. I refuse to accept from you the abuse and scolding and tirade you let loose at me. It still belongs to you, brahmin! It still belongs to you, brahmin!

“Brahmin, one who abuses his own abuser, who scolds the one who scolds him, who rails against the one who rails at him – he is said to partake of the meal, to enter upon an exchange. But I do not partake of your meal; I do not enter upon an exchange. It still belongs to you, brahmin! It still belongs to you, brahmin!” (SN 7:2, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

This is a well-known sutta, probably because it is so often relevant. The question is, can we remember this story when we feel like engaging angrily with an angry person? It can be a mighty challenge.

If we stand back and observe from a distance, an angry person looks deranged. They are in the grip of an emotion that is overpowering their reason and their judgment; they can’t see the consequences of their actions. A wise person will not engage directly with someone in that state.

What quality in us makes it so difficult to allow another person to spew their anger and not have our own anger aroused? We can feel as if we’re being attacked, as if a war has already begun and we must stand and fight. Some of us are so sensitive that even an imagined slight, someone failing to say “Good morning”, can set us off. Others of us can handle anger directed at ourselves but explode if we think someone we care about is being treated unfairly.

What can we do? Best would be to understand that others’ anger belongs to them and that we can choose whether to respond in kind or to take another path of action. For this to be so, we would need to know what our triggers are and try to correct for them when necessary. Can we raise our self-awareness to this level when under duress?

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Filed under Anger, Harmlessness, Mindfulness, Patience, Perfections, Speech

Patience with others’ anger

There’s a story in the Pali canon about a battle between the devas (heavenly beings) and the titans (lower-ranking demi-gods) and how the victor treats the vanquished leader. [The full sutta is here: https://suttacentral.net/en/sn11.4.] Here’s an excerpt in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation:

“One who repays an angry man with anger
thereby makes things worse for himself.
Not repaying an angry man with anger,
one wins a battle hard to win.

“He practices for the welfare of both –
his own and the other’s –
when, knowing that his foe is angry,
he mindfully maintains his peace.

In this case, Sakka, king of the devas, is enduring the rage of the captured Vepacitti, leader of the titans. Sakka’s advisors encourage him to deal with Vepacitti harshly, but Sakka demonstrates how his patience prevents Vepacitti’s fury from harming him. Sakka even says that this is an opportunity to develop mindfulness, to show how awareness helps us to see clearly and to know our own strength.

Patience is a primary remedy for anger, our own and others’. On the surface, it may seem a passive response to a difficult situation; but below the surface, patience has potentially unlimited power. If we can learn to see the range of choices we have when others’ actions provoke us, we can be protected from our own mercurial responses.

We are not victorious kings dealing with angry, vanquished leaders. However, sometimes we are confronted with someone who is in a position of lesser power, in a work or domestic situation, and that person is behaving badly. We may feel like crushing them, putting them in their place, setting them straight – but is that the best way to handle things? Or is this a moment with potential for training? If we can resist our own enjoyment of power and have patience, others may notice our strength, and we ourselves will know that we are free in a way that others who wield their power carelessly are not.

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