Kusunoki Masashige, photo by Jim Epler https://www.flickr.com/photos/epler/
The Zen master and the general
In the warring period of medieval Japan, one of the most ferocious of the clan generals swept into a peaceful valley with his army. The general was used to the terror his arrival would always cause. The Buddhist monks in the local Zen monastery fled into the mountains – all except one. The general stomped through the monastery buildings, and was very surprised to find that one remaining monk, the Abbot, a well known Zen Master, who was calmly sitting in his room. He strode up to him. his sword drawn: ‘Don’t you know who I am? You dare to remain seated in my presence? I have killed scores of men. Do you realise that, without blinking an eyelid, I could run you through with this sword?’ The Zen master did not move. ‘General,’ he said ‘do you realise that, without blinking an eyelid, I could be run through with that sword.’ After a pause, the general put away his sword and bowed, and ordered his army to leave the valley.
I remembered this story as a striking example of a special kind of tolerance which is found in Buddhism, a personal tolerance which includes the ability not to join in with any games of power. (I will question the Zen Master’s behaviour later.)
Tolerance in Buddhism
It’s tempting to bestow some reassuring but bland declarations of how nice it would be if everyone else were more tolerant. But what of our own personal level of tolerance? I’d like to look at that from a specifically Buddhist angle.
I learnt Buddhist meditation as I was about to start my finals at university (and I certainly needed the effects of meditation then!) So I had some contact with a Buddhist, the meditation teacher, in fact he was the one who told me that story. He impressed me very much, and I decided to investigate Buddhism as a whole, not just the practice of meditation.
Two things, among others, really struck me about Buddhism. One was its emphasis on the individual, and one’s actual experience, here and now. The other was that it does more than tell you that you ought to be kind to people, and tolerant and so on. It recognises that you may not feel kind or tolerant, and so it offers practical methods for developing such qualities, and methods for leaving behind habits that lead to harm and suffering. These two points apply to Buddhist tolerance.Firstly, it is said to be individual tolerance that matters most. So it is not Buddhism that is tolerant, but Buddhists. And it is not other isms that Buddhists tolerate, but real individual people. I think this is quite an important distinction.
However, if you strongly identify with your religion or your ideology, and label other people with their religion or ideology, then it is very tempting to make the label so huge that you can’t see the person behind it. And then it is a label which you tolerate, or don’t tolerate, as the case may be. She is a Moslem, so she must be bloodthirsty and fanatical, say.
The second point was to do with seeing tolerance as a quality to be developed in the individual, using practical methods, not as a pious hope, or something received from outside you by grace. So what is the quality of tolerance like, and how can you develop it?
Well, I’ve been using the word tolerance, which of course is an English word, to translate a traditional Buddhist term which actually has a rather broader meaning. The word in Sanskrit is ksanti, a rather beautiful word, I think. As well as tolerance, it means forbearance, patience, kindness, and maybe the best translation is non-reactivity. Non-reactivity is something the Zen Abbot exemplified, I think. It is the ability to respond with kindness whatever another person does to you. Quite a tall order, but it is something you can gradually strengthen, as we’ll see. It is not something you just have or don’t have, and you just have to put up with it. This is a great mistake, I think, which it is very easy to make. I can believe, ‘well, so I am a bit crabby. But I was born like that, and that’s the way I am.’ .So ksanti is a quality you can develop, the ability to remain cheerful and positive even if people are not treating you as you’d like to be treated.
An old poem ascribed to the Buddha includes the line: ‘Ksanti is the highest form of austerity.’ I think this means that when people get difficult, learning not to react with more of the same is a better form of training than the most impressive feats of self-denial or fasting and so on.
So how do you learn ksanti, how do you develop tolerance as a personal quality?
In Buddhism, the first steps for cultivating any inner quality are ethical ones. You apply awareness to your actions, and to your feelings as well. You restrain any impulses that are intolerant, because if those emotional urges turn into words and actions, they get a firmer hold on you, as well as damaging whoever has to bear the brunt. Instead of acting from intolerance, you emulate anyone you know, or know of, who seems to be truly tolerant, and so your habitual behaviours slowly adjust.
But ethics is only a first step, and it is not enough. You need to tackle the intolerant impulses at their roots in the heart, and cause tolerant impulses to sprout there instead. Any method which achieves a direct emotional change is called meditation. Meditations for developing ksanti use the medium of empathy. In a meditation to cultivate kshanti,you would get into a quiet state of mind which is flavoured with confidence. This is because the meditation will not work if you do not have a strong sense of self-worth. You could say that you can’t really tolerate others unless you can be tolerant to yourself: everyone has flaws and makes mistakes, but it is counter-productive to give yourself a hard time about them. In Buddhism, they are called ‘adventitious defilements’ because deep down you are ok, there is a core of inner purity, the potential for Enlightenment.
So with that feeling of being happy about yourself, you than call to mind the people you are intolerant of (whether or not you think the intolerance is justified), and you start to feel what it must be like to be them, as best as you can. You regard them with the same kind of understanding that you have for yourself, and notice that they are the way they are because of all sorts of circumstances, and some of those circumstances can change. Thus you start to empathise with them.
As you empathise more, you may realise that your intolerance of them is based on very superficial characteristics – it’s their tone of voice or their facial expression which really gets up your nose. Alternatively, you may decide that their behaviour is just not on. In Buddhist terms, their behaviour is unskilful, ie it is damaging to themselves or others. This is where your tolerance is really tested – when it seems that you have good reasons for it. William Blake says:
Learn … to distinguish the Eternal Human … from those States or Worlds in which the Spirit travels. This is the only means to FORGIVENESS OF ENEMIES.[i]
In other words, we can recognise that our common humanity is where our regard for each other comes from. On the surface of that humanity, everyone passes through many mental states, some skilful, some unskilful. If our reason for not being tolerant is others’ mistakes and unskilfulness, then we will tolerate no-one.
You can’t ignore unskilfulness. But I think you need a thoroughly tolerant frame of mind in order to be of any real use in helping someone overcome it. And maybe you can’t — maybe you can’t cope with this person, but you have no choice but to cope with your own reactions to them.
There are much more advanced developments of ksanti or tolerance in Buddhism, connected with the very significance of birth and death, but I just wanted to give you some practical ideas about how to make it stronger. There is one more thing I’d like to add about tolerance as a quality. Kshanti has been defined as not expecting anything.[ii] This may seem a bit extreme, because we always, surely, have some expectations. But then we are often being disappointed. And what makes it so difficult to be tolerant is other people not fulfilling our needs and our expectations of them. Expect nothing, and life is full of very pleasant surprises!
So in this talk, I have deliberately focussed on ksanti, tolerance, as a quality for each individual to strengthen in themselves. We may think we are already very tolerant. That may be true when it comes to events in distant countries, or the religious rites of exotic communities. Tolerance is really tested, though, between you and your relatives, the people you work with, or whoever is with you now. Can we really put up with such weird and unreasonable human beings in such close proximity?
One reason for the difficulty of being tolerant is that other people are different from us, and their differences can seem unreasonable, even threatening. Can I accept that someone else is fully human, and deserving of a good and full life, even though they are not like me? One way out of this problem is to regard differences as unreal, but I think that is a cop out.
I wanted to concentrate on personal tolerance, so I have not discussed religious tolerance, or the toleration of variant views and beliefs. As you know, this is not really an issue for Buddhism as a tradition, despite very poor behaviour by some Buddhist communities. But ksanti or tolerance as a personal quality is just as much an issue for Buddhists as for anyone else. For a Buddhist, any other person is to be treated as an independent human being, responsible for their own destiny, who is potentially a Buddha, whatever their opinions may be.
But what if their opinions are pernicious? For example, what if they hold tenaciously to an ideology in which a huge section of the community is regarded as untouchable, their very shadows being seen as polluting, as is still the case in large parts of India? If so, then I think the harmful views should be exposed, but in a spirit of personal friendliness. So I am pointing out that you do not have to tolerate everything. Tolerance does not mean blurring the truth and pretending that we all believe the same thing or are really all on the same path. I am convinced that there are real differences between people, and also real differences between the Buddhist approach and other approaches, and between different people’s priorities and aims. I feel it’s rather intolerant for someone to insist otherwise.
Why is it that (with exceptions such as Northern Myanmar in our own time) Buddhists have as a whole has been quite happy to coexist with other religions and ideologies, while for most of their history, the other world religions have not been tolerant of each other?
I haven’t time to treat the whole issue thoroughly, and I could well be quite wrong about it. But I consider that it is connected with belief in God. Buddhists do not believe in God. Buddhism is a religion of discovery, of discovering the truth by taking full responsibility for the growth of your own wisdom and compassion. The other main world religions are, for most of their followers, religions of revelation. If you believe your truth is revealed from an infallible divine source, then it is difficult to admit the quite different revelations of other religions, or even the different interpretations of the revelation of your own religion.
It is obvious that individual theists can be genuinely tolerant people, but I think that such people have left behind some of the traditional associations with God. Each theistic religion as a whole, as a tradition or an institution, seems to militate against many forms of tolerance, and will carry on doing so unless there are some big changes. For example, I very cheekily asked a priest why the church did not simply repudiate the Old Testament, but he wasn’t having it!
So, if you are a believer in God, however you conceive of him, a non-theist might really test your tolerance by saying: ‘I am convinced that God does not exist, and that belief in God can in itself explain why there is more active intolerance in the theistic religions than outside them.’
I was thinking some more about the story of the Zen Abbot and the general. It is an impressive story, and he must have been a very impressive man. But I am not sure he was setting a very good example. In fact, I am sure he had no intention of setting an example, he was just being himself. If I had been there, I am certain I would have scampered off into the mountains with the other monks.
When I have told such stories before, some people usually respond by saying: ‘If everyone acted like that, society would fall apart!’ or ‘Someone has got to resist the tyranny and oppression of the strong over the weak’, or they think he was just lucky.
I sympathise with these responses, but I think they miss the point. The Abbot was not writing a list of recommended behaviours to suit all situations. He was just being himself, and each of us is different. For a start, we have probably not developed anything like his imperturbable kshanti, and that is not something you can pretend about.
Another Japanese master was lucky enough to die in his bed. As he lay dying, his devoted disciples gathered round, and asked him for his last words of wisdom. He just croaked: ‘I don’t want to die!’ ‘But master’, they said, ‘we want some final advice that posterity will remember you for’. ‘No really,’ he said ‘I don’t want to die.’ So I am sort of heartened by that. Maybe we can develop tolerance, tolerance for each of our fellow human beings, not imposing our expectations on them. But maybe we can keep one or two aspects of this world untolerated, as that last Zen master did with the expectations of his own pupils; maybe we can even refuse to tolerate the finality of death, and discover for ourselves what it is all really about.
Based on lecture to a United Nations Association interfaith meeting in 1995
[i] William Blake, Jerusalem, 49: 72-5. His capitals.
[ii] Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, 174.