The True Significance of Practicing Tolerance

BY | Ven Dr Chang Qing

Often, Buddhists are puzzled and confused by the manner of practicing tolerance (忍), for they could not understand the principle and meaning of it. Generally speaking, tolerance means endurance. Many Chinese idioms or proverbs revere the virtue of tolerance. Some of them include: “Practising tolerance leads to gold” (百忍成金), “Inability to endure a minor setback impedes the entire plan of painstaking preparation” (小不忍,则乱大谋), “To bear abuse and heavy burden” (忍辱负重), etc.

However, lay people usually have the concept of “self” towards tolerance and they rely on this concept of “self” as their guideline. For instance, the literal translation of ‘百忍成金’ is “becoming gold after hundreds of endurance”. Gold is the most precious metal in the eyes of the Chinese. Metaphorically, it means if we could tolerate extreme physical harm and mental assault for an extended period, then we should be able to accomplish the greatest achievement and emerge as a ‘sage’ (贤人).

In other words, these people still ground their concept of tolerance on the notion of a “self” that tolerates numerous trials and tribulations to finally attain “sainthood” (“Gold” in this case figuratively refers to becoming a saint).

Tolerance also means repressing one’s desires and anger. Although it is relatively difficult to practice self-tolerance, unfortunately, such nature of tolerance is still considered to be imperfect, as there exists the notion of “self”, and we still have to suffer from lingering afflictions.

If there is an association of “self” during the cultivation of tolerance, then there is still the presence of “the three wheels” (三轮) — the giver, the recipient, and the given being attached to the practice of tolerance. As attachment is present and not in connection with emptiness, this results in even more suffering. If there is a perception of “I” during the cultivation of tolerance, then we could only attain the juncture of being a “sage”. From the perspective of Mahayana, this is still regarded as imperfect and is not the same as the saint stage of Buddha and Bodhisattva.

So what then is the meaning of tolerance in Buddhism? What is the difference in tolerance between the mundane world and the supramundane world? In Sanskrit, it is known as ksanti. According to Ch’eng wei-shin lun in the Treatise Establishing Vijnapti-matra, there are three categories of tolerance, namely tolerating hateful insults, calmly accepting suffering, and carefully observing the Dharma. All these sentiments of accepting suffering calmly without hatred and even recognising the truth of Buddhism could be considered the gist of tolerance. That is to say, believing and realising all things as empty can be regarded as tolerance that pertains to wisdom. In Mahayana Buddhism, tolerance is of great importance too. It is especially relevant in the six paramitas or ten paramitas.

As stated, tolerance means being able to endure and realise all things as the phenomena of emptiness. If one can clearly and fully understand it, then one can be said to have acquired wisdom. Similarly, ‘Tolerance’ means harbouring no animosity and is parallel to compassion. Master Yin-Shun advocated: “Of all powers, compassion is the strongest and most compelling. With compassion, we are able to tolerate all sufferings and overcome all evil seductions.”

My view is that the wisdom here means ‘non-self’ (emptiness) such as the theory of “the three wheels are emptiness (三轮体空) in the perfection of giving – the giver, recipient and given must be in harmony with realisation of emptiness. In other words, in Mahayana Buddhism, practicing tolerance is based on the concept of ‘non-self’ which is isolated from all worldly attachment. Hence, we become truly saint-like (圣人) only when we practice tolerance with absolute emptiness. It is legitimate to say that tolerance must be practiced in accordance with emptiness and compassion, otherwise, it is just another worldly dharma practice.

In addition, we also have to take note that cultivating the ‘Perfection of Tolerance’ (忍辱度) is not the same as pessimism, or the display of cowardice when one is being coerced and intimidated by others. Rather, it is practiced out of the motivation to benefit from these circumstances to caution and educate others to prevent them from creating negative karma for themselves. This is the practice of compassion.

According to Master Yin-Shun, the reason that the Buddha encouraged us to practice tolerance is to urge us to emulate Bodhisattvas who cultivate “non-self” with great compassion. This practice is different from pessimism or emotional tolerance.

Buddhism promotes the cultivation of “good fortune and wisdom” (福慧双修). In reality, cultivating tolerance not only correlates to wisdom and compassion, but we are also able to accrue good fortunes for ourselves at the same time. According to the Sutra of the Collection of the Six Perfections (六度集经), enduring extreme and overwhelming situations is the origin of good fortunes.

All Bodhisattvas are dependent on the resolution of the Bodhicitta (菩提心) to cultivate the difficult path towards wisdom and to endure difficult tolerance towards good fortune to completely abandon all afflictions and become a Buddha. Unfortunately, it is not that easy to transform words into actions. But, if we can always have the right mindfulness of “non-self” (emptiness) to cultivate tolerance when we encounter physical and psychological obstructions, we can gradually fulfill this unfathomable concept in our daily lives.

This article is purely my personal humble view. I believe that we can practice the Perfection of tolerance together toward the goal of enlightenment.

May all sentient beings be well and happy always!