I remember many years ago being surprised to read the Tibetan Tradition’s understanding of the need for patience on the spiritual path…
They say we need this quality when dealing with our own emotions and habitual tendencies, and when meeting with difficult people and situations. Then they go on to say that we need patience especially when studying wisdom teachings. The reasons for this have become more clear to me as time goes on.
With other subjects, if we are impatient, there is not as great a loss, but if we don’t give the profound teachings their due, then it’s sure that we won’t get the full result, and we’ll miss out on the purpose of Buddhist study and practice by that much.
Generally, when we’re impatient, theres’s some pride involved, or some expectation that things should be going more quickly or easily than they are. Here’s where it’s useful to understand why we need patience, and the great advantages that come with it.
There have been two areas of my life, outside of learning Buddhism that have shown me the benefits of patience. One was in classical music study, where they say that ‘slow is fast’ – meaning that if we are careful and attentive, we can actually save ourselves a lot of time and effort. It’s simply a more efficient way to learn.
Slow practice is a marvel. If you were to come across someone learning a piece in this way, chances are you would not recognize it, even if it were a familiar tune. It’s not just slow however, it is fully conscious, attentive, and relaxed. There’s a knowing and accepting of the time it takes to learn something well.
I remember how different it feels to live with a piece of music for a year or more, and how the familiarity very gradually made the playing easier. As a teacher, I could also hear in a student’s lessons whether and how well they had practiced. Some would try to cram the learning in, which of course can’t be done to get the best result. Other students would take their time, and their enjoyment of the process came through in the playing, however far along in learning a piece they were.
When I then taught English in Taiwan, I kept with me some of those same lessons. I remember telling a few friends and students that If you go quickly, you’ll get a different result.
The magic of time
For some reason, the way we are made, we need time to learn any subject or skill well and thoroughly. Although we have different capacities, and can learn the rudiments fairly quickly, to assimilate what we learn so that it comes naturally takes time, and here is where patience becomes so important.
We can wait, impatiently, and then that will show in the result, or we can lovingly take our time. Rumi said,
The beauty of the careful sewing on a shirt
is the patience it contains
There’s also a line from the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh that has stayed with me, where he speaks of:
the fruit of understanding slowly ripening…
In every case with patience, when we see its importance, it will be easy to bring to mind, and this special quality will help and support all our learning.
Patience rightly understood is giving something the time and care it deserves. Patience come from love, with understanding. I think of a parent, or good teacher of children here, as an ideal, and bring that with me to learning what I can in Buddhism.
In everything we learn and practice, there is peace when we are patient. When we learn about the Perfections, one of them that is usually translated as Patience is Shanti Paramita. Shanti means peace. It’s delightful, and blissful in a way, supporting and creating a beautiful inner environment for all that we would do.
It’s taught that wisdom teachings have the capacity to free us from all suffering, permanently, and that when we learn and apply these practices ourselves, and gain their result, we then have the best gift we can share and encourage others to practice. Their significance is that great.
Without enough patience, if we have too much pride or expectation that we’ll be able to learn these teachings quickly, we may settle for some partial understanding, and stop learning, at least for a time. I’m sure this has happened to most everybody who’s ever picked up a book or heard a talk on Buddhist wisdom. We can take a partial understanding to be the whole of it. This becomes a problem when we don’t then correct ourselves and continue to learn and experience and realize these precious teachings. We need a lot of humility here, surely, and care.
I know that some amount of what I’ve said here will only be an idea for someone new to these Buddhist Wisdom teachings. They are offered then as warm encouragement to see these things for yourself. With time and patience and care, recognizing the central importance of liberating practices, we will certainly gain their result.