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To bear the unbearable

The bodhisattva practice of patience

This talk was given at The Buddhist Library in Singapore.

Bearing suffering

  • Generating a proper motivation for listening to the teaching
  • Bodhisattva practices of patience and joyous effort
  • The patience of non-retaliation

To Bear the Unbearable 01 (download)

Practicing patience

  • The patience of enduring suffering
  • The patience of practicing the Dharma

To Bear the Unbearable 02 (download)

Questions and answers

  • Why do we like to make ourselves victims in situations we encounter?
  • Question about capital punishment and justice being done
  • Clarification of the terms mind and emotion
  • When you go sight seeing, is a sensual pleasure?
  • Question about rejoicing when our negative karma ripens
  • Being a responsible parent entails guiding and shaping your child, when is this controlling them?
  • When we wake up feeling stressed and don’t want to get out of bed, what do we do?
  • What do monks do to not lose compassion?
  • What do you do when you meet a difficult situation?

To Bear the Unbearable: Q&A (download)

The patience of non-retaliation (excerpts)

Venting anger versus transforming it

Venting our anger on others may relieve some of the internal stress of our anger, but it doesn’t solve the problem of being angry, because the anger is still there. The force of the anger has temporarily disappeared, but since we haven’t worked through the anger, it’s going to come up again and again.

In Buddhist practice, we’re not trying to suppress our anger, because it will just keep coming back. What we’re trying to do is to look at the situation in a different way so that we let go of our anger.

Take ownership of our anger

I think part of working on our anger is just taking ownership of our anger. That’s already a big thing because we don’t like to say, “My anger is mine.” We like to say that others make us angry, “My anger is not mine; you made me angry. It’s your fault that I’m angry. It’s not my responsibility.” We see this attitude clearly when somebody criticizes us, as if anger is a virus; it comes out of their mouth, hits us, and we get the flu of anger.


We want to control other people and make them what we want them to be. And meanwhile, we’re complaining that they don’t accept us the way we are… Sometimes the biggest gift we can give to other people is just to let them be. Of course we try and help others, but helping others is very different from controlling them. We help others because we care about them; we control them because we care about ourselves.

I think it’s very beneficial for us to practice accepting other people as they are and accepting situations as they are. Of course we can still try and improve things, but once a situation has happened, once it is the way it is, it’s reality. It’s better to just accept it rather than fight against the situation or the other person all the time.

Getting angry most often at people who are helping us

What I find in my life is that the people whom I get angry at are often the ones who are trying to help me: people who care about me, who are trying to do things to help me. I get angry with them because I want them to do it faster, or I want them to do it in another way.

Think about it in terms of your own life. Do you ever get angry at somebody who actually has a good intention towards you and is trying to help you, but they’re just not doing it the way you want them to?

It’s so silly, isn’t it? They’re wishing us well, but we’re blocking out that whole possible exchange of affection by our mind making up some kind of silly story. So I think when we can catch ourselves like that, then let go of the story.

The patience of enduring suffering (excerpts)

Blaming others is giving the responsibility for our misery to somebody else and making ourselves into a victim. Nobody makes us into a victim; we make ourselves into a victim.

An incredible story

I heard an incredible story. I tell this story a lot, because it touched me so much.

As you know, after 1959, tens of thousands of Tibetans became refugees in India while a number of them who remained in Tibet were arrested, imprisoned and tortured. There was one monk who was imprisoned for a number of years. After he was released from prison, he escaped from Tibet and came to Dharamsala, where His Holiness the Dalai Lama is. He went to see His Holiness.

His Holiness asked this monk, “What was the most frightening thing for you in all of those years that you spent in Chinese prison?” This is somebody who had been beaten and tortured. And the monk said that what terrified him most was the time when he thought he was losing his compassion for the guards who were torturing him. That’s what he was most afraid of, that he would lose his compassion for the people who were torturing him.

I was so moved by that story. In this monk’s mind, he was not making his torturers into enemies, and he was not making himself into a victim. He, if anybody, would have had a good reason to be a victim and to feel sorry for himself and to complain and to moan and groan. But he didn’t. He cultivated compassion for the people who were harming him instead, because he knew that they were acting under the influence of ignorance, that they were accumulating great negative karma and would one day have to experience the result of it. It’s incredible, isn’t it?

The patience of practicing the Dharma (excerpts)

Putting up with physical and mental difficulties when learning and practicing the Dharma.

Traveling halfway around the world to receive Dharma teachings

You might say, “Why would practicing Dharma require patience?” Well, it does, doesn’t it? First of all, just to receive teachings requires effort and patience.

When I started practicing the Dharma in 1975, there weren’t any Buddhist centers in the area where I lived. Forget about driving half an hour across town—I had to pack up and move to another country that was exactly half way around the world. So when people complain to me about how far it is to go for teachings, I’m not very sympathetic. [Laughter]

It’s amazing sometimes what people moan and groan about. You have the opportunity to receive teachings in the place where you live, in your own language, and you have a healthy environment.

Receiving the Dharma in India

I went to India in 1975. There were no flush toilets, or rather, no toilets at all. All we had were ditches in the ground, which was ‘great’ in the middle of the night when you can’t see where you’re walking [Laughter], but these are the kinds of things that you put up with to receive Dharma teachings. So I went to live there.

There wasn’t good water, there wasn’t electricity where I lived, but I actually think that those days were some of the best. I’m very grateful for having to go through some hardship to get the teachings, because I think when you have to bear some hardship and inconvenience, then you really value the Dharma.

Having difficulties can help us appreciate the Dharma more

When it’s there at your disposal, then, “Oh, I’m too tired tonight.” “There’s a good TV programme on; I’ll go next week.” “It’s too far away.” “Oh, my little toe hurts.” We just invent so many excuses! That’s why I think if we have to put ourselves out there and go through some difficulty, then it’s good, because then we appreciate the Dharma much more.

Receiving the Dharma in Nepal

Where I studied in Nepal, we didn’t have a hall; we had a tent. The tent was constructed right before the meditation course. It had straw mats on the floor. It didn’t matter if it was hot or cold; we were under an aluminum roof. And guess what lives in straw? Fleas. So we’re sitting there in the meditation hall with our mother sentient beings [laughter] and our teacher telling us how all sentient beings have been our mother and how kind they are, and you are looking at these fleas and you’re feeling them crawl all over while you’re trying to meditate. So you guys have it quite easy, quite good. No fleas here. [Laughter]

Questions and answers (excerpts)

When we wake up feeling stressed to the point of not wanting to get up, what do we do?

Simplify our life by reducing our wants

I think we really have to simplify our life and we have to simplify our society. I think as a modern society, we’re going way overboard in what we expect out of people. I think employers expect way too much and put too much pressure on their employees.

Why do the employers feel so much pressure? It’s because of greed, isn’t it? Everybody wants to make more money, so they pressurize themselves and their employees to make more money, and then everybody’s stressed out. You make a ton of money but nobody can enjoy it because they’re all too stressed. That’s another one of the stupid things that we human beings do.

I have a friend in the US who is a doctor. Sometimes when people come to see him, he prescribes: ‘Only 8 hours of work a day’. Seriously. He does this because people’s health suffers when they overwork. The family suffers too. This is not good.

I remember when I was little, they were all talking about mechanization and how much leisure time we were going to have in the future because machines would do everything. Well, people have much less leisure time now than when I was a little kid. Why? Because we’ve developed so much greed of wanting more and better, “We’ve got to build the economy!” It’s not bringing any more happiness, because we think all the happiness is coming from the money, but like I said, we’re too stressed out to enjoy the material benefits that we’re getting from working so hard.

So I think as a society we need to slow down, and as individuals in the society, even if the society isn’t slowing down, you have to be very clear about what you’re willing to do and what you’re not. If your employer is asking you to work more hours, and you know that this will harm your family life and your mental and physical health, then maybe it’s time to look for another job.

And you’ll just go (in horror), “Look for another job!”

Well, why not? Do you want to stay and work in a job that makes you so stressed for the next 30 years? You might die in ten years because you’re too stressed!

“But I can’t get another job; I won’t have as much money!”

Well, so what?

“Then people won’t respect me if I don’t have as much money!”

Well, so what?

“Then I won’t be happy!”

Well, you mean all your happiness depends on what people think about you? That’s the sole cause of your happiness? Something’s really wrong if the only way you get happiness is by preventing other people from thinking bad about you. That’s no kind of life.

Car hell and computer hell

Sometimes it’s just learning to be satisfied with less. “Ok, I don’t have a Mercedes Benz. That’s great! Then I don’t have to pay the repair bills. I’m free from the Mercedes Benz hell.”

Think about it. Whatever you possess, there is a corresponding hell realm to it, isn’t there? Have you ever been in computer hell? We’ve all been in computer hell, haven’t we? But those of us who don’t own cars don’t experience car hell.

So sometimes it is a matter of simplifying your life, knowing that you can be just as happy without having so much stuff. Even if you don’t have as much as what everybody else has, so what? Maybe you’re happier. Maybe all those people who make a lot of money are spending it on sending their children to therapists because they’re never there for their children at home and their children don’t feel loved.

At our death bed, what do we regret doing?

Figure out what’s really important to you in life, and then do that. Look at it this way. What kind of regrets do people usually have when they’re dying? Maybe they did something cruel to somebody they love. Maybe they didn’t appreciate somebody else enough. Maybe they didn’t practice the Dharma.

Will we regret not working more overtime?

Does anybody, when they’re on their death bed, say, “I should have worked more overtime!”? Are you kidding? Nobody regrets that! Nobody is going to lie on their death bed and say, “I should have worked more overtime.” That’s insanity! Absolute insanity! So why are we making ourselves so stressed out and neurotic right now? I think we really have to think about what’s important, and live from our heart.

In parenting, where is the line between guiding, shaping and being responsible for your child, and controlling them?

I think the line lies somewhere in our motivation. When we see the child as part of us, as an extension of us, that’s when I think the controlling mind jumps in. We have too much ego attachment to this child, so we want to make them what we’ve never been. We want to make them perfect. We aren’t perfect, so we say, “Let’s make this kid perfect.” They are young and moldable, so we say, “Let’s make them into what we were never able to become. Let’s give them everything we’ve never had, even if they don’t want it.”

When our ego is too identified with the child, there’s not such a clear distinction between what is me and what is this other living being. A lot of controlling then comes in. But when you see that the child is a unique person that came into this life with karma and everything else from a previous life, that they have their own Buddha nature, then your role becomes more like that of a steward’s; your role is to guide and shape the child.

You’ve got to see what the tendencies and talents of the child are. Let’s say your child is good in music, but you want your child to be good in math, so you say, “Forget music. You’ve got to do math! You idiot, you didn’t do your arithmetic right. You can’t do anything right. I’m going to get you a tutor.” “Oh, what are the neighbors going to say? You did so poor in your test! Primary 1 and you got 50 percent. You’re a failure for your whole life!”

Oh, my goodness! This is just a little kid, and it’s just math! Maybe your kid is a musical genius. They learn some math, and even if they don’t get excellent marks in math, the world goes on.
You find out what your child is good in, what their own gifts are, and you nurture those. You might have a baby Mozart there but if you try to make them into an Einstein, they’re never going to be one! And even if they aren’t Einstein or Mozart, who cares! They have some unique talents which, as a parent, you can nurture and bring out.

I think parenting is probably one of the hardest endeavors for people to be skilful at, the one they’re least trained for.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.