Ksanti -- patience or forbearance -- is one of the paramitas or perfections that Buddhists are taught to cultivate. Ksanti paramita, the perfection of patience, is the third of the Mahayana paramitas and the sixth of the Theravada paramitas. (Ksanti is sometimes spelled kshanti or, in Pali, khanti.)
Ksanti means "unaffected by" or "able to withstand." It could be translated as tolerance, endurance and composure as well as patience or forbearance.
Some of the Mahayana sutras describe three dimensions to ksanti. These are the ability to endure personal hardship; patience with others; and acceptance of truth. Let's look at these one at a time.
In modern terms, we might think of this dimension of ksanti 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 ksanti begins 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. We 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. See also "Sunyata: The Perfection of Wisdom."
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."
In Buddhist mythology there are six realms of existence, and the highest is the realm of gods. The gods live long, pleasurable, happy lives, but they don't realize enlightenment and enter Nirvana. And why not? Because they do not suffer and cannot learn the truth of suffering.
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.
Many commentaries on this dimension of ksanti 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. And many great teachers have said it is the most destructive of the Three Poisons. Releasing anger and hatred, not giving them a place to abide, is essential to Buddhist practice.
Of course, we're all going to get angry sometime, but it's important to learn how to deal with anger. We also learn to cultivate equanimity, so that we are not being jerked around by likes and dislikes.
Simply not being hateful isn't all there is to patience with others. We become mindful of others and respond to their needs with kindness. See also the Brahma-vihara or Immeasurables.
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.
See also "Faith, Doubt, and Buddhism."