I’d like to talk about what I do when I’m not being patient (which is almost always). If the six paramitas are aspects of Buddha nature or wakefulness, then wouldn’t they–like Buddha nature or wakefulness–be always present, if obscured? And if so, wouldn’t the best way to cultivate and exhibit any of the paramitas within us be to eliminate that with which we obscure it? So what’s obscuring my natural patience? I find this a more helpful way to approach this than asking what the opposite of patience is (though that question might suggest the same answer). After all, the paramitas transcend duality, and so couldn’t be properly said to have opposites. I find it helpful to keep that in mind. To say simply that I’m being impatient is only to say that my patience has been obscured–it really doesn’t help me to see what I’m obscuring my patience with.
If kshanti (or patience, which has also been translated as tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, or endurance) means (in the words of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche) that “you bear your existence; you hold it as it is, where you are,” then what obscures that paramita most often for me is aggression. My aggression is born of the attempt to protect my sense of self. By aggression, I don’t mean physical aggression–I mean the more general imposition of my sense of self, which I’m seeking to protect, on my environment. There can be cases where that becomes physical aggression, but it’s most often expressed in words and thought. Beyond the instantaneous process of the five skhandas, I’m constantly and deliberately (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) shaping my environment and my understanding of it in deference to my sense of self. This can take many forms, from selective perception to justifications and rationalizations to outright dishonesty. I don’t bear my existence, I seek to control it. I don’t hold it as it is, I seek to mold it, not where I am, but where I want to be. My sense of self is a view of existence, and I fit my experience to that view. I understand everything and everyone through the concepts by which I define myself. And I may even seek to make those around me understand everything through those same concepts.
Let me illustrate this with an example. I live on the Upper West Side. One Sunday, I decided to attend the dharma service at the New York Buddhist Church on Riverside Drive, a Shin Buddhist sangha. The focus of their practice isn’t meditation. It’s the repetition of the nembutsu, which is an entreaty to the Amida Buddha. Seeing this, my first inclination was that they were “doing it wrong.”
I decided to get a few books on Shin Buddhism to try to better understand it, and learned that, according to D. T. Suzuki:
…Amida desires that all beings be brought to his land, the land of purity and bliss. And those who earnestly, sincerely, and devotedly believe in Amida will be born in the Pure Land. The Pure Land is created for true and real followers, and it comes into existence when we sincerely intone NAMU-AMIDA-BUTSU…
…Amida stands on one side, and on the other side stands ordinary people like you and me… Other-power and self-power stand in contrast: to be born in the Pure Land one must abandon self-power and embrace Other-power.
When I read that, I felt like a seventeenth-century Puritan, ready to denounce all Shin Buddhists as apostates. This didn’t sound anything like the Buddhism I understood and by which I was coming to define myself. This was salvation by faith, the purest theism. My understanding of the situation was that these people were gathering in my neighborhood to indulge in some sold-out version of Buddhism that had catered to Japan’s comfortable and settled since the twelfth century. I had been at this only a few months, but I could see what these people had been up to for centuries, and I wasn’t going to fall for it. I knew better. But then I read on:
We don’t add anything to Amida’s working. This doctrine of Other-power… is based on the idea that humans are relative beings, and as long as we are so constituted there is nothing in us which enables us to cross the stream of birth and death…
A deep chasm exists between Amida and ourselves. We are so heavily burdened with karmic hindrances that we cannot shake them off by our own power. Amida must come and help us, extending the arms of help from the other side… But from another point of view, unless we exhaust everything we have in our efforts to reach the ultimate end, however ignorant and helpless, we will never be grasped in Amida’s arms…
Since we cannot achieve the end of our endeavors on the path of enlightenment, Amida’s help must be recognized. We must become conscious of it. In fact, recognition comes only after we have strained all our efforts in crossing the stream by ourselves. We recognize the inefficacy of self-power only when we try to make use of it and are made aware of its worthlessness. Other-power is all-important, but this truth is known only by those who have striven by means of self-power to attempt the impossible.
That sounded familiar. And once again, I found myself in the midst of what I’m coming to see as the quintessential Buddhist experience of having something that seemed clear and solid, something that I thought I knew, dissolve into emptiness. Yes, reliance on a savior is theistic, and it won’t lead me to enlightenment–I must strive for my own enlightenment. But at the same time, reliance on my relative and hopelessly obscured and obscuring self (self-power) won’t lead me to enlightenment either–I must abandon the striving of my ego to attain enlightenment. I lost my sense of certainty and found instead a paradox. This paradox (and maybe all of the paradoxes that we find in Buddhism) arises from the fact that I’m using dualistic means to dismantle dualism, and whatever tools or metaphors I use in that process–Amida, vehicles, emptiness, wisdom, perfections, and so on–will fail to the extent that I see them as the truth rather than as pointing to the truth, as the moon rather than the finger pointing at the moon. In this context, it’s only when I can hold my existence as it is, where I am that I can hope to achieve any sort of understanding. It is only when I have let go of my aggression, abandoned my self-power, that kshanti, an aspect of Buddha nature (which might be another way to understand “Other-power”), can arise.