Strange Wonder
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Strange Wonder

On Anger

words from a Buddhist monk on forbearance

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

I am currently reading the book Good Heart, Good Mind by my teacher and abbot when I was a monk, Thanissaro Bhikkhu (available free here). It’s a book of talks he gave in Brazil and France about the ten virtues, or “parami” of the Theravadin Buddhist tradition, often called the Ten Perfections (although I’m not fond of that translation). One of them, khanti, which means something like patience/endurance/forbearance has to do with the ability to tolerate physical pain and harsh words, the two things we human beings find it hardest to take. I thought this talk was so brilliant I wanted to share the main part of it here (all of his talks and writings are available for free distribution and reproduction). If you struggle with anger and reactivity when a certain someone speaks harshly to you, please read:

The Pāli word for endurance, the perfection we’ll discuss tonight, is khanti. This word can also be translated as “patience” or “tolerance.” As with all the other perfections, it’s rooted in desire: basically, our desire to stick with our skillful desires in spite of the pain and other hardships that following through with our skillful desires may entail. This, in turn, is based on a desire for independence: You don’t want your goodness to have to depend on the goodness of others or on the goodness of the situation in which you find yourself.

Think of the story of Lady Vedehikā in the readings. She was the one who had a reputation for being kind and gentle, so her female slave, Kālī, decided, “Well, does she have this reputation because she really is kind and gentle, or is it simply because I’m always good in my work?” So, Kālī tested her. One day, she woke up a little bit later than normal, and her mistress got a little upset. The slave said to herself, “Ah, there is anger present in her. Let’s test her some more.” The next day, Kālī woke up even later, and the mistress got even angrier. Kālī said to herself, “Ah, she really is angry. Let’s test her again.” On the third day, she got up even later. The mistress got so upset that she hit Kālī over the head with a rolling pin. So, Kālī, her head bleeding, went to denounce her mistress to the neighbors. From that point on, Lady Vedehikā had a reputation for being harsh and violent.

The point of this story is to remind you that you don’t want your goodness to have to depend on the goodness of others. If it’s dependent on them, you can’t rely on it yourself.

Endurance is a quality that, when you develop it, is a way of helping others and helping yourself at the same time. If you respond to hardships with anger, it creates trouble for yourself and creates trouble for the people around you. However, if you can restrain your anger, then you benefit, and the people around you benefit as well. This is why, in the Canon, endurance is directly linked to the perfection of goodwill.

Now, as I said, we have to apply discernment to our practice of tolerance or endurance. One way to do this is to remember the framework of the three kinds of fabrication, and to use that framework to fabricate mind states that strengthen endurance and make it easier.

When I returned to America after many years in Thailand, some people asked me, “What was the hardest thing you had to put up with while practicing in Thailand?” I couldn’t think of anything in particular. This made me realize that that was probably why I was able to endure a lot of hardships over there: I wasn’t focusing on the hardships; I was focusing on the things that were interesting and good. That can strengthen endurance: You don’t focus on what’s hard. Instead, you focus on what’s supporting and energizing you.

For example, with the three kinds of fabrication, no matter how difficult things are outside, you can always breathe comfortably. There are no breath police, and they haven’t privatized your breath yet, so it’s still yours to do with as you like.

Secondly, with verbal fabrication, a lot of endurance has to do with how you talk to yourself about the situation. For instance, there’s often a belief that if someone mistreats you and you don’t respond with anger, they will see you as weak. So, to counteract that belief, you have to hold in mind the perception that endurance is a strength. Also, by not showing your feelings, you’re putting yourself in a safer position. You keep in mind the fact that if other people know what makes you angry, they can control you.

I was once giving a talk to a group of people in the California desert, and the morning after the talk one of the students said, “You know, I realized after your talk last night that I was very angry at you, so I asked myself why. I thought it over afterwards, and I realized that it was because I didn’t know where your buttons are.” (This is a common expression in America: It’s as if the other person is a machine, you push the button, and the machine does what you want it to.) I smiled and said, “This is one of the reasons why we monks wear robes, so that no one can see where our buttons are.”

So, from the Buddha’s point of view, not reacting is a position of strength. This doesn’t mean that you don’t try to correct injustices and misbehavior. It means that you simply stay calm enough to figure out what would be the best time and place to respond to a difficult situation. This is a good thing to tell yourself when you’re faced with a difficult situation: that you’re in a stronger position if you don’t react. It allows you to find the proper way to respond. That’s a good verbal fabrication to hold in mind.

As for mental fabrications, suppose somebody is attacking you verbally. Mark Twain had a good perception to hold in mind, which is that it’s not wise to fight with a pig. One, you’ll get dirty; and two, it pleases the pig.

Note the importance of using your sense of humor to — as we say in English — “make light” of difficulties. We’ve already seen the element of humor in the story of Lady Vedehikā. But the use of humor in developing endurance is something universal and contains an element of folk wisdom.

There was a British explorer in Canada back in the 1830s who wanted to find a copper deposit that was said to be in the Northwest Territories. He couldn’t find anyone to guide him there except for a group of Dene natives. So, he decided to go with them. It was one of the first cases of a British explorer entrusting his life to the natives. As they were going across the territory, they lived off their hunting and fishing skills. He noticed that on the days when the hunting and fishing were bad, those were the days when the Dene were telling the most jokes, to keep their spirits up in spite of the hunger.

These are some of the ways that you use your knowledge of fabrication to help you endure a situation.

The other use of discernment in strengthening endurance is to see clearly what should and shouldn’t be tolerated. The basic distinction comes down to the difference between the results of past kamma and your present kamma: You should learn to tolerate the results of past kamma, but you don’t tolerate any unskillful kamma you might do right now.

In terms of the results of past kamma, the Buddha focuses on two things that you should tolerate: harsh words and pain.

The Buddha’s basic approach for learning how to endure harsh words is to depersonalize them. In one case, he has you remind yourself that human speech has many aspects. It’s normal that there will be kind words and harsh words, true words and false words, things said to you with good intentions and things said to you with bad intentions. So, if someone lies or says something harsh to you, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. This is the nature of human speech.

Sometimes, when I was living in Thailand, people would insult me. I would remind myself, “I was the one who made the effort to learn the Thai language, so it’s my fault that I understand them.” That’s one way of depersonalizing things, to realize that this is the nature of human speech. As they say in Thailand, “Even the Buddha was criticized, so what should I expect?”

The second way of depersonalizing harsh words is when someone says something nasty to you, you just tell yourself, “An unpleasant sound has made contact at the ear.” And just leave it there, at the ear. The problem is that we tend not to leave it there. We pull it into the mind. Our minds are like vacuum cleaners that pull in only the dirt. So, who are you going to blame? You’re the one who pulled it in.

Ajaan Lee has a nice image. He says if someone says something nasty to you, it’s as if they’ve spat something out on the ground. If you take it to brood about, it’s as if you’ve picked up to eat what they’ve spat out. And if you get a stomachache, who are you going to blame? We can also build on his image to say that if you put their food in your mouth to spit it back at them — in other words, you fling an insult back at a person who insulted you — you look foolish, and you’ve picked up whatever germs were there in the food. In other words, the other person’s bad kamma now becomes yours.

These are ways of using verbal fabrication and mental fabrication to help you to endure harsh words by depersonalizing them.

As for pain, we talked about this the other day, in terms of the second tetrad in breath meditation: You learn how to breathe with a sense of rapture, breathe with a sense of ease. Then you try to notice which perceptions are making the pain worse, and you change the perceptions to calm the mind down.

The Buddha offers another approach when you’re in pain. Once Devadatta tried to kill the Buddha by rolling a rock down a mountain. The rock hit another rock and split into slivers, and one of the slivers pierced the Buddha’s foot. After the sliver was removed, the Buddha lay down with a lot of pain. Māra came to taunt him: “You sleepy head, are you miserable because someone tried to kill you?” And the Buddha said, “No, I’m lying here spreading goodwill and sympathy to all beings.”

I’ve personally found that when I’m sick, spreading thoughts of goodwill as far as I can is a good way to deal with the illness. It keeps the mind from complaining about the illness and expands it to a much larger state, like the river into which the lump of salt has been thrown.

So, those are the two things you have to learn how to tolerate: harsh words and physical pain. Using discernment and developing your powers of concentration can help in both cases. You’ll notice that, in both cases, you’re following the steps in the second tetrad of breath meditation. We’ve already made this point explicitly when explaining how to deal with pain, but it applies to dealing with harsh words as well. You focus on breathing comfortably while you’re being verbally attacked — that’s bodily fabrication — which keeps you from adding unnecessary stress to the situation, and then you find ways of perceiving the situation — that’s mental fabrication — to calm the mind down.

Now, the things that you don’t tolerate are your unskillful mind states. The Buddha says that if greed, aversion, or delusion arise in the mind, you don’t let them stay. You try to get them out of the mind in the same way that you’d try to put out a fire burning the hair on your head.

This distinction between the things you should and shouldn’t tolerate has a parallel with the Buddha’s teachings on contentment. You learn to be content with your physical surroundings, in terms of food, clothing, and shelter. If these requisites are good enough to allow you to practice, then they’re good enough. But you’re not content with your level of skillfulness. As long as you find that the mind is still causing itself suffering, you have to say, “I’ve got to do better.”

Now, one of the types of tolerance that’s not mentioned in the texts is when you find yourself in a situation where it’s difficult to practice and you have too many responsibilities to get out of the situation. In a case like that, my teachers have said not to focus on the difficulties. Instead, focus on the things you can do. The ajaans in Thailand are often told by people, “I don’t have any time to meditate,” and the ajaans always respond, “Do you have time to breathe?” “Yes.” “In that case, you have time to practice.”

Ajaan Maha Boowa had a student, a woman in her 60s, who was dying of bone cancer, and she asked his permission to mediate at his monastery to prepare for her coming death. He told her to bring a doctor along, as he had no medical knowledge. She had a friend who was a retired doctor, an elderly woman in her 80s, who agreed to go with her.

They stayed for three months, and he gave them a Dhamma talk almost every night. After they returned to Bangkok, the old doctor decided to transcribe the talks, which they had recorded on tape. Her health wasn’t good, and her eyesight was poor, but she managed to transcribe all the talks — almost 90 in all.

She said that she took encouragement from one of Ajaan Maha Boowa’s teachings: that as you get older and your body is failing, try to squeeze as much goodness out of it as you can before you have to throw it away.

That’s a thought we should all keep in mind.

So, we can regard our difficulties as opportunities to develop the perfections. When I was looking after my teacher, there were times when it would take all hours of the day and night to look after him, but I kept telling myself, “I’m learning good lessons.” Prior to looking after him, I was not very good at looking after people who were sick. I always thought that I was doing them a big favor. But with Ajaan Fuang, I never got the sense that I was doing him any favor at all. For instance, I would have to be up with him two or three nights in a row, and then when he finally got better, he would say, “You can go off anywhere you want.” No, “Thank you.” Just, “Go.” I realized I had to do this not for the thank you, but for the good qualities I was developing: patience and endurance. That’s the attitude you have to adopt when things are difficult around you. There are a lot of things you can’t change or that will take a while to change, but if you regard them as a challenge to develop the perfections, then they actually become part of the practice.

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