The Sanskrit word “kshanti” is often translated as “forbearance,” or “endurance,” but this does not really convey the true meaning of this paramita. Forbearance implies that you have to suffer a little bit in order to be able to accept something. If we look at the Chinese character for “kshanti,” in the lower part is the character for “heart,” and in the upper part there is a stroke that looks like a knife, something sharp that is a little bit difficult to handle. This is a graphic expression of its true root meaning, “all-embracing inclusiveness.” If our heart is large and open enough we can accept the sharp thing and it will not bother us. Something that seems unpleasant or disturbing only feels that way when our heart is too small. When our heart is large enough we can be very comfortable; we can embrace the sharp, difficult thing without injury. So kshanti is a quality of being that does not bring suffering; in fact, it allows us to escape the kind of suffering we experience when our heart is too small. When our heart is big enough we won’t suffer.
The Buddha Offers Us a very beautiful illustration of this principle. Suppose you have a handful of salt and you pour it into a bowl of water and stir it. Now the water in the bowl is too salty to drink. But if you throw that handful of salt into a river, it will not turn the river salty and people can continue to drink the water. When you are only a bowl of water, you suffer. But when you become a river you don’t suffer anymore.
When our heart is large enough we can be very comfortable; we can embrace the sharp, difficult thing without injury.
If our heart remains small we may suffer very deeply from all the difficulties we encounter in life—heat, cold, floods, bacteria, sickness, old age, death, stubborn people, cruel people. But through the practice of kshanti we can embrace everything and we won’t have to suffer. A small heart cannot accept too much, it cannot take in and embrace everything, every difficulty that arises. But a heart that is expansive and open can easily accept everything and you no longer have to suffer. Perfecting the practice of kshanti consists of continually making your heart bigger and bigger so that it can accept and embrace everything. That is the power and the miracle of love.
Each of us must ask ourselves, how large is my heart? How can I help my heart grow bigger and bigger every day? The practice of inclusiveness is based on the practice of understanding, compassion, and love. When you practice looking deeply to understand suffering, the nectar of compassion will arise naturally in your heart. Maitri, lovingkindness, and karuna, compassion, can continue to grow indefinitely. So thanks to the practice of looking deeply and understanding, your loving-kindness and compassion grow day by day. And with enough understanding and love you can embrace and accept everything and everyone.
Very Often In A Conflict we feel that if those on the other side, those who oppose us or believe differently from us, ceased to exist then we would have peace and happiness. So we may be motivated by the desire to annihilate, to destroy the other side, or to remove certain people from our community or society. But looking deeply we will see that just as we have suffered, they have also suffered. If we truly want to live in peace, safety, and security, we must create an opportunity for those on the other side to live this way as well.
If we know how to allow the other side into our heart, if we have that intention, not only do we suffer less right away but we also increase our own chances of peace and security. When we are motivated by the intention to practice inclusiveness, it becomes very easy to ask, “How can we best help you so that you can enjoy safety? Please tell us.” We express our concern for their safety, their need to live in peace, to rebuild their country, to strengthen their society. When you are able to approach a situation of conflict in this way it can help transform the situation very quickly. The basis for this transformation, the first thing that must happen, is the change within your own heart. You open your heart to include the other side; you want to give them the opportunity to live in peace, as you wish to live.
Societies and nations that are locked in conflict need to learn the practice of inclusiveness if they really want to find a way to live together in peace. Can our side accept the fact that the other side also needs a place to live and the safety and stability that can guarantee a peaceful and prosperous society? When we look deeply into the situation of those on the other side we see that they are just like us—they also want only to have a place where they can live in safety and peace. Understanding our own suffering and our own hopes can lead to understanding the suffering and hopes of the other group. We know that if the other side does not have peace and safety, then it will not be possible for us to have peace and safety. That is the nature of interbeing. With this insight we’ll be able to open our heart and embrace the other side.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a global spiritual leader. A Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, author of over 100 titles, poet and teacher, he travels internationally giving meditation retreats and lectures and teaching on mindfulness, non-violence and world peace.
From Opening the Heart of the Cosmos: Insights Into the Lotus Sutra. Copyright © 2003 by Unified Buddhist Church, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Parallax Press. www.parallax.org