Extract 1 - The Power of Forbearance

For an explanation of words in Pali - the language of the time of the Buddha - please see the Pali Glossary.

Ven. Webu Sayadaw: At one time, Vepacitta, the king of the Asuras, and Sakka, the king of the Deva world of the Thirty-three (Tāvatiṃsa), were at war. The Asuras were defeated and Sakka captured their king, bound him with five ropes around his neck, and confined him in the meeting hall of the Devas, Sudhammā-sabhā. Of course the king of the Asuras could not bear this and was overcome with anger. When he saw Sakka enter his royal palace, Vepacitta vilified, defamed, and reviled him from his prison. When Sakka came out of the royal palace again, Vepacitta couldn’t refrain from bad-mouthing, slandering, and abusing the king of the Devas. But Sakka remained calm and serene.

When Sakka’s charioteer, Mātali, saw this, he said to Sakka, “Sire, this king of the Asuras insults you over and over again. Do you accept this so calmly because you are afraid of him?”

Sakka answered, “Young friend, this king of the Asuras is in my power. I can do with him as I like.”

“Then why do you accept this kind of behaviour from him, sire?” Mātali asked.

“He is in my power,” Sakka answered. “I can punish him any way I choose, but in spite of this, I forbear with his harangues, defamation, and aspersions.”

Why did Sakka act in this way? Because he understood the great benefits that forbearance brings. Though he knew that he could do anything he wanted to his prisoner and that his prisoner would not be able to pay him back, he remained calm and patient. The Buddha said that this is the highest form of patience: to forbear even though you do not have to, even though you could change the situation. Of course it is also good to practise forbearance when you have no other choice, but to forbear voluntarily is the highest and best sort of forbearance.

Sakka has great power, but if he should react to such insults without being the stronger one, what would happen to him?

Disciple: Just like the king of the Asuras, he would be defeated and have to endure imprisonment. He would have to suffer.

Sayadaw: Yes indeed. Whoever tries to be something he is not has to suffer a lot, doesn’t he?

So, even though he could have taken action, he observed this practice of developing forbearance in his mind, and that is very noble. The noble ones of old practised this at all times. Sakka practised this, as I have just told you, and the Bodhisattas practise this too, don’t they?

When our Bodhisatta was reborn as the Nāga king Bhūridatta, he was very rich. He possessed as many treasures as Sakka.

Having put all his riches aside, he decided to observe the Uposatha precepts. But while he was observing the Uposatha, a snake charmer came along and found the Bodhisatta. Now, compared with the Bodhisatta, he had no power at all. Was our Bodhisatta endowed with power?

D: I don’t know this Jātaka story, sir.

S: You know it all right. You are just afraid you’ll get tired if you have to tell it.

Now The Bodhisatta’s power was so great he could turn someone to ashes by just looking at them sideways. So what use would this snake charmer’s spell be against the Bodhisatta? Of no use at all! But the Bodhisatta did not budge because he was afraid of breaking the moral precepts (sīla). He did not even open his eyes. So the snake charmer used his tricks on him and brought him under his power. Then he did many things to him. If the Bodhisatta had not wanted to be bothered, he could have flown up into the sky. Or he could have dived into the ground. Or, as we said, he could have given the snake charmer a side­ways glance. He also could have assumed the appearance of Sakka or a great Brahmā, couldn’t he?

D: He could have, sir.

S: But he didn’t do any of these things. So the snake charmer took him by force and put powerful poisons in his mouth. As he did so, our Bodhisatta practised divine purity of mind and did not react, even to this. Was this because he was weaker than the snake charmer?

D: No. He was strong, but he was forbearing.

S: Why was he forbearing?

D: He was a noble person who had aspired to Buddhahood, and he was fulfilling the perfections (pāramīs), sir.

S: If this should happen to you while you are observing the Uposatha, would you act in the same way?

D: I wouldn’t be able to endure that, sir. If the person doing it was weaker than me, as in this case, I would flatten him.

S: And if you were someone with great powers?

D: I would certainly use them, sir.

S: Would you remain quiet, not even opening your eyes?

D: Oh no, sir. I would open them very wide.

S: If you act like that, will you get what you want?

D: No, sir.

S: Yes, you see what I mean. The Bodhisatta acted that way. But that was not the end. He was beaten the way washermen beat cloth when they do the laundry, but he didn’t react or even move. The Bodhisatta followed the snake charmer’s commands for quite some time, remaining calm. He did what the snake charmer told him and even more. And he did all this in order to attain what he aspired to. This is the fulfilling of the perfections. He fulfilled them to the utmost. And did he get results that are inferior to what others get?

D: No, sir. He got results that are higher and nobler.

S: He practised in order to reach a high level of perfection. Now, if a person is forbearing because he has no choice, that is also good, but if a person doesn’t endure when he has to, what will happen?

D: He will suffer, sir.

S: Yes. I have explained a little bit about forbearance now. If I were to explain it fully, there would be no end. Forbearance gives bene­fits now and for the rest of saṃsāra. If you want to be happy in the present, you must work on your patience. If you want to be happy in the future, you must work on your patience. If you want to do something, to accomplish something in your present life, then develop forbearance and patience.

Didn’t the Nāga king accomplish this?

D: He did, sir.

S: Yes, he did. The Nāga king Bhūridatta established himself in and observed morality (sīla). If he had simply avoided the difficulty, would he have gained anything?

D: No, sir.

S: If he had escaped into the sky when the snake charmer came, would he have met him and been able to gain perfection in patience and forbearance?

D: No, sir.

S: And if he had assumed the appearance of Sakka?

D: He would not have been able to get results then either, sir.

S: But he didn’t use his powers in that way. If he had just blinked at him, thinking, “This man is bothering me,” what would have hap­pened then?

D: The snake charmer would have turned to ashes, sir.

S: But he did none of these things. Even though the snake charmer had absolutely no power over him, he put up with him calmly in order to attain perfection. He didn’t even want to budge. He went there to observe the Uposatha and determined that the snake charmer could do with him whatever he wanted. So he endured everything. Once he had made his determination, he carried it through.

How about you? When you undertake the Uposatha observances, when you decide to observe the Uposatha, you keep it, don’t you?

D: Yes, sir. We observe the Uposatha.

S: When you take the moral precepts, you observe them for the full day, don’t you?

D: We do, sir.

S: After establishing yourselves in the moral precepts, do you keep them, whatever comes your way, no matter what happens?

D: We don’t accept everything, sir.

S: But don’t you get a full day of practice?

D: No, sir. We don’t put in a full day.

S: How much do you get out of one day?

D: After taking the Uposatha precepts, we try to progress for one day, but sometimes we actually regress by more than a day, sir.

S: How much more?

D: Maybe one and a half days, sir.

S: So you take this sīla for one day, and then you regress in one day by one and a half days. Is that effort good enough?

D: No it isn’t, sir.

S: Having established ourselves in energy (viriya) we can accomplish everything with our patience and forbearance. Is it not possible to apply this everywhere? When you return home from here, you will encounter objects of the senses that you like and objects that you don’t like. You constantly encounter these two types of objects. Do you agree that you are confronted with one or the other of these two kinds of objects all the time?

D: There is always either a sense object that we like or one that we don’t like, sir. One of the two is always there.

S: When you encounter either kind, forbear! If you live a life of patience and forbearance, what happens when you encounter these sense objects?

D: If we encounter pleasant objects, we reject them through our efforts. And if we encounter unpleasant objects, we establish our efforts more strongly and throw them out.

S: Really? Now, if you meet with pleasant sense impressions, will unskilful states of mind flow in?

D: It is because this might happen, in order to keep them from flowing in that we must establish effort and endure.

S: And if many of these impressions come towards you?

D: Then we have to forbear more, sir.

S: And if you encounter only a few?

D: Then we only need a little forbearance, sir.

S: Now, when you go home and the children talk and make noise — only a little noise, but enough for you to find it intolerable, what do you do?

D: In that case I will have to make an effort to be patient.

S: If you do that, don’t you gain?

D: I do, sir.

S: What if they become noisier and more intolerable?

D: Then I will have to make a lot of effort and forbear, sir.

S: Is that so? Will you really do that?

D: I said that in order to give the right answer, sir.

S: You haven’t gone home yet, but you have started this practice now. When you practise this you will be strong. It is not tiresome at all. Or do you think you will get tired by living with patience?

D: No, sir, it is not tiresome.

S: Does it cost you anything?

D: It doesn’t cost anything, sir.

S: Do you lose anything?

D: Through patience and forbearance we gain much, sir. We don’t lose anything. But we are lacking in faith, effort, skill, and wisdom, sir.

S: If you are confused by such thoughts you will think, “Should I do this now? Should I do that?” Then you will be confused. Just remember that you have to be forbearing. Thoughts may come like, “Should I apply this or that? Should I look for this or for that? If this is not there, everything will be in vain.” But you should do as we have just said, think only about this one thing.

D: Do you mean that we should just be forbearing, sir?

S: Yes. If you do that, through forbearance everything will go well. Whatever it is, it will be alright.

When I was still a young monk, the Burmese in this country were not very civil, but the Indians were. When I went on my alms round, there was an old Indian man who came running to offer a gift as soon as he saw me. In spite of his old age, this old Indian staggered through the streets selling things, and when he saw me, he came running, even from afar, to give dāna.

Now, how is it that our Burmese people were not civil? The parents gave money to the children and they bought sweets and snacks with it. This old Indian was selling what they could afford to buy. Now, how did they call him over? They shouted, “Hey, Indian dog!” They called him that! Did you hear?

So, the children were calling him from every side, and what did he do? He went to them, smiling. He continued to smile, and whoever called to him like that first, he would go to them first. He came to them and they kept calling him “Indian dog.” He did not think, “Now, can these boys call me like this to buy something worth a penny — me, an old man who is their senior?” No, he just made the effort to go to those boys.

What would you do if young children called you what they called this old man?

D: We would be angry, of course, sir.

S: Would you just be angry and remain silent?

D: I would not remain silent, sir. Maybe I would even hit those children.

S: Would you get their penny, then? And aside from that, what would happen?

D: The Burmese would hit me, sir.

S: Yes, you see, this didn’t happen to him. He didn’t create any unskilful state of mind, either. He didn’t get angry. This is what I encountered when I went on my alms round as a young monk. Even though they called to him names like that, he didn’t get angry.

If he had been angry, would that have been wholesome (kusala) or unwholesome (akusala) as an action?

D: Unwholesome, sir.

S: Now, you all want to be forbearing, according to the Teachings of the Buddha, don’t you?

D: Even though we wish to practise the Teachings to some degree, we aren’t forbearing to that extent, sir.

S: Don’t be distracted by other things. Do just one thing: be for­bearing. Do you understand? No matter how much the people living with you upset you, just practise this fully for yourself. What if other people always did the right thing?

D: Then I would be very pleased. But even if they should be chaotic, I should remain calm and pleasant, knowing that if greed arises it will be unwholesome for me, sir.

S: But what will you do if it gets to be too much?

D: I’ll be forbearing.

S: Yes. Remember just this. Don’t worry about anything else. If you look into this book or that book to see what they say, then your own practice will suffer. Just practise forbearance. If you exert yourself in just this one thing, you can achieve anything.