Patience, forbearance and kamma

Dear Bhantes and Course Participants

Thank you for all your posts. It’s wonderful to be part of this on-line community. My apologies if this issue has been raised elsewhere, the search didn’t come up with anything as yet.

I came across AN 5.48 Situations, which talks about the five situations that are unobtainable by… anyone in the world. The sutta ends with a series of stanzas, the last of which is (Bhikkhu Bodhi translation):

"It is not by sorrowing and lamenting
that even the least good here can be gained.
Knowing that one is sorrowful and sad,
one’s enemies are elated.

When the wise person does not shake in adversities,
knowing how to determine what is good,
his enemies are saddened, having seen
that his former facial expression does not change.

Wherever one might gain one’s good,
in whatever way - by chanting, mantras,
maxims, gifts or tradition - there
one should exert oneself in just that way.

But if one should understand: 'This good
cannot be obtained by me or anyone else,'
one should accept the situation without sorrowing,
thinking: 'The kamma is strong; what can I do now?"

The sutta ends there, what a cliff-hanger!

Notwithstanding the reflections offered earlier in the sutta for the instructed noble disciple, some lines of enquiry arise:

  1. The kamma one might perform to ‘gain one’s good’ - chanting etc.: to what extent is this skilful in the light of renunciation (such as to give a gift with no thought of any recognition or reward)? It seems implicit in this statement that one acts in anticipation that the performance of these acts will result in one’s gain, the skilful use of volition would be useless otherwise. What’s the balance here: anticipation vs expectation?

  2. What are the pointers which can tell us when we’ve got to the point with a difficult situation where “the kamma is strong” ?

  3. Given patience is taught to be the highest devotion: what is “right patience” in this same difficult situation? How do we know when to develop patience and forbearance, that is, see out the fruits of past strong kamma as cheerfully as we can, versus, how do we know when we’re being abused, put-upon, poorly treated and the like, and in fact the skilful response is to get up and do something to actively change or resist the difficult situation?

With metta to all, nicola


Dear Nicola,

warm greetings and thanks to you too! I will not be able to answer your question exhaustively, but I will try to look at some of the aspects you raise.

To me, this Sutta does not seem to represent the standard position well. The first stanza is of course true - lamentation never gets you anywhere -, but from the second stanza onwards the teaching becomes quite superficial and ends in a “cliff-hanger” endeed. :smile:

Regarding your questions:

  1. I agree, the verse only describes superficial acts, which supposedly lead to good kamma. Opposed to this, the kanonical position is very clearly in many Suttas that the ethical dimension of the state of ones mind determines ones kamma.
  2. The Buddha in my view would never support fatalism of any sort. (see below)
  3. Patience is of course a virtue, but I do not like the fatalistic tone of the last stanza.

In my understanding one would ideally react to all situations with the mind of an Arahant - hence, without greed, hatred and delusion. A fully enlightened being only has the Brahmavihaaras as her/his states of mind:

unconditional love, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity

(Of course the state of mind can be any combination of these with any variety of intensity. So there is still the possibility of a complex mind-state - an Arahant is clearly not an automaton with only four light bulbs in his head that can go either on or off…).

So, when I reflect on a situation, where I am not sure if I did the right thing, I often simply ask myself: “What would an Arahant have done?” This usually gives me some good ideas, how to improve.
If threatened, an Arahant might hide (the Buddha sometimes evaded attempts to kill him), but he would do that with equanimity and compassion. Or an Arahant might walk away from a difficult situation (the Buddha once walked away from quarrelling monks, after he had tried to talk them into reason for three times, but he did that with equanimity and compassion uttering one of the first verses of the dhammapada when he left). Lastly, an Arahant might have no way to escape. Then he would still remain with a mind of compassion and metta.

In his “Readings of the Madhyama Aagama” course of 2012, lecture 8, Bhante Anaalayo addressed a related topic. He gave as references MN145 and MN21. In the course we discussed MA30, where it is discussed how to react to successive stages of abuse. This culminates in:

You should think thus: 'If a bandit comes and cuts my body limb
from limb with a sharp saw, there will not, because of that, be any
change in my mind-state, and I will not even utter evil words. I will
arouse compassion toward the person who is cutting my body limb
from limb.

For his sake I shall imbue my mind with loving-kindness and dwell
[mentally] pervading one direction [with loving-kindness], likewise
the second, the third, and the fourth direction, and also the four
intermediate directions and also above and below, all around, everywhere.
With a mind imbued with loving-kindness, free from fetters
or resentment, without ill-will or quarrel, I shall dwell pervading the
entire world [with a mind] boundless, exalted, immeasurable and

We should not forget, that this is the highest of ideals. Also, obviously, one would never intentionally manouver oneself into such a position. The Buddha evaded attempts to kill him! Just, if there is no way out at all, then let the others have your body, but you keep your mind.

Also, keeping a clear, gentle and peacful mind, is usually enough that others will stop with their aggression. Ajahn Brahm told the story, where they had ordered furniture for an important festivity. This should have been good quality furniture, because a number of VIPs were coming and it was important to represent the monastery. However, the furniture was all dirty and especially the VIP chairs were in such a disastrous condition, that it was unsafe to sit on them. So on a late Friday afternoon he called the rental company. The boss then went into the pub to get the movers (who were already celebrating the weeks end) to replace the furniture. The guys were furious and one of them leapt out of the lorry when approaching the monastery and started running ahaed. He bellowed: “WHO IS THE ONE IN CHARGE!?!” And Ajahn Brahm replied kindly: “I, I am the one in charge, Sir.” The mover still furious approached him and wanted to hit him, but Ajahn Brahm (according to his own accounts) just stood still - completely still - without any movement of the mind. This froze the mover. In order to punch Ajahn Brahm his mind would have required some spark of ill-will from Ajahn Brahm, but he did not get it. So he stood there staring at him, ready to punch, but he just could not do it… The situation was resolved, when one of the other movers came along, slapped him on the should and said: “Let’s get these things unloaded!” and Ajahn Brahm just said: “I will help!”. Ajahn Brahm also said, you should better not try that unless you are firmly rooted in deep meditations. :slight_smile: - Just in case you were getting ideas! :wink:

I hope this gives you some useful ideas related to your question.

With much mettaa,

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The stanzas usually mean many things on many levels. I kind of got the following message from these:

Nothing can be gained through complaining about life. Find out what works and do that. If nothing works, do nothing.

With metta.

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Dear Raivo, dear Nicola, dear all,

I very much like Raivo bringing this more neutral perspective towards the verses into the discussion! :smile: These may not be the kind of awe commanding verses that one finds elsewhere (at least not to me), but you are right. If one looks at what is said, all statements made are correct. Maybe I interpreted too much into the verses. Also, the Buddha taught all sorts of people, so his teaching to some peasants who see him for the first time, will not have been too deep… (not sure what the circumstances here were…)

Nicola also raised another point of practical importance, which I could not answer satisfactorily. One of her points was: how do you, as a layperson, deal with difficult situations, e.g. when you are being attacked or abused. How far should your patience or forbearence go? Is self defense ok, or should you just accepts getting the beating? This is also of interest from the viewpoint of kamma. What kamma do you make in a situation where you defend yourself? I thought a lot about this since yesterday and I think there is no fixed rule that one could apply, because every situation is unique. So my current best guess would be that self-defense is ok, as long as you are coming from a place of compassion towards yourself and compassion or equanimity towards the other one.

For example, if we look at a woman who is assaulted and say threatened with rape. Let’s say this is in some dark alley. She shouted for help, but noone is coming. It is, in my view, certainly a viable option for the woman to yell at the aggressor and punch and kick him. For women this also usually works (according to a self-defense teacher I know), because the male aggressors typically get a good share of their kick from the preditor-prey relationship and look for an easy prey (victim). Even if the aggressor gets hurt, this saves the woman the trauma and the aggressor is spared from making the kamma of acting out on his malicious intentions. The important part for the kamma, I think here, is again the mind-set one has in the situation. If it is a mindset of wanting to get out of that situation and comes from compassion for yourself, you make more white than black kamma… (Of course, the reaction should have measure, it should only have the intention to stop the threat for your mental and bodily well-being. If your defense reaction had such an impact, that the initial agressor lies on the floor, you still run away and call the police and an ambulance for the aggressor from a safe place. You certainly do not continue to kick the initial aggressor…)

I know that you, Raivo, did not enter this part of the discussion. I just wanted to use this reply to amend my previous post, because, I was getting worried about my initial reply to Nicola. I do not want to encourage someone to try to act like an Ariyan (if they are not) in such an extreme situation that could easily get completely out of hand… In such extreme situations, if your instincts say fight or flight, I would recommend, you go with that initial impulse. (If, however, your mind naturally calms down, widens, and becomes clearer in a difficult situation, then have trust in your mind. If someone wants to try to act like an Ariyan even though they have not proceded so far on the path, I would recommend any normal everyday situations as a training ground, especially on an Uposatha day.)

With much mettaa,

Hi Robert!

I’ve thought about this subject on several occasions and usually arrived at the same conclusion you did - it’s pointless creating rules for yourself for extreme situations, just do what feels right at the time. Odds are you’ll do so anyway.

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to let people saw off my arms and legs while maintaining metta or upekkha towards them (might be a good time for some deep insights though :stuck_out_tongue:) but I might see myself sacrificing my life for my nieces or nephews. And I think if I should ever get myself into a war situation where I was one-on-one with the enemy, I would rather let myself be killed than kill another human. If there’s rebirth, great; if there’s no rebirth, even better (problem solved :smiley: ).

Then again, we never know. On several occasions I’ve felt a very strong feeling of fear for a second or two while walking and hearing a slight rustle in the bushes :smile:

With metta.

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Hi Raivo,

many thanks for your answer! I think you raised a particularly noteworthy point, namely ‘rebirth’.

This just got me thinking: Accepting rebirth as a working hypothesis. How would it be, if I could actually see all those previous lives and in particular all the times/ways I died. All those times where I died of old age, where I died due to illness, where I was shot dead, where I was cut to pieces or beaten to death in some pointless battle, where I drowned, where I starved, where I froze to death, where I was devoured by some animal, or poisened - or where I killed someone else, or some animal, …

I mean, having the full information of that moment of what the senses sensed and was was felt and what was thought at that moment. I guess, when you have “recollection of past lives”, you would see it with some mental distance, but you would have the full data available. I think, having seen this must cause an enormous dispassion towards any eminent threat (and towards the thirst for experiencing and the craving for existence)…
So, these thoughts - inspired by your comment - also enriched my understanding, why this capacity of “recollection of past lives” is emphazised as being so conducive to awakening.

Thanks again for your helpful comments and this discussion! :smile: With much mettaa,

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Some of the people that describe life reviews in Near Death Experiences and also Ajahn Brahm when talking about revisiting some memories in his childhood, describe the experience as actually reliving it, so remembering our past lives could actually be even more shocking than you describe.

In any case, even remembering our last life would be really invaluable data to us and would give us a much better understanding of our personality, the workings of kamma, the process of rebirth and of course what the Buddha meant by dukkha. It might be scary at first but I believe it would also take away a lot of fears, delusions and doubts we currently have.

May you be happy and well!

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Dear Nicola

What an interesting sutta! Great question and how good it is to read everyone’s wonderful responses. :smile:

So my take is as follows:

Who knows what context this sutta was given in… I find the mention of ‘enemies’ intriguing; it makes me think that this sutta was in response to somebody’s specific and problematic situation that involved ‘enemies’.

I think the first two stanzas are pointing towards both the Path, and the realisation of the Path. I mean to be so unshaken, is to have achieved some stage of Awakening - ‘the realisation of the Path’. But the Path is also to be cultivated…thus it’s for those many of us who are still at this stage. So for me, it feels like frequent investigation in to what is stopping me from the ideal (of the Awakened) and what i should be doing about these obstacles…and I keep coming back to the Path, to my Practice.

I really appreciate how Robert has used the Arahant as inspiration. A beautiful way of using Sanghanussati or Recollection of the Sangha…or it could even be Dhammanussati cos you’re reflecting on the growth of the Dhamma in a human being? It’s a wonderful technique to cultivate.

While this is a marvellous and meaningful and useful technique - reminding me of the brief list of other skillful means in the the 3rd stanza - I think, speaking from my pesonal experience, one of the traps us Buddhists fall into, speaking for myself at any rate, is to aim for the ideal by trying to ‘be’ the ideal. Often, this doesn’t work very well because it bypasses the present moment and in bypassing the present moment, we are bypassing the truth of how things are for us, and in bypassing that, we bypass all chance for genuine peace, truth and understanding to grow within our own minds. We essentially stop the Dhamma becoming our Dhamma; it remains the Dhamma of the Buddha, but it never grows within us…because instead of looking for it within, we are reaching hopelessly for it out there, in the ideal.

I find, personally, it’s not easy to be deeply present…I find a strong resistance in my mind and a strong tendency to go ‘out there’ rather than remain ‘in here’. Sometimes, I feel that all that can be done is to be present to that too!! Actually, remembering Ajahn Brahm’s teachings on retreat… YouTube …this is probably not a bad technique to use and it links in with the idea of being ‘patient’ because this kind of patience can bear fruit; I mean, I can’t make myself stop resisting the moment, but I can put the causes in place for it to happen naturally.

Apologies…I’m rambling a bit…but perhaps, if I may say so…a nice little ramble and so I’ve not deleted it :wink:

Regarding the 3rd stanza, i’m reminded of Ajahn Brahm saying, “if you can do something, do it; if you can’t, then do nothing.” I think when appropriate, the kamma of doing nothing, particularly whilst meditating, is the kamma that ends all kamma. I think this is why one often hears the quote, ‘patient endurance is the highest virtue’. However, getting back to the stanza, I think this stanza is focusing on those times when you can do something and is giving a few examples that perhaps might have been useful to those who may’ve been present when this sutta was first spoken. I mean, I was just listening to the Friday night talk and a lady in the audience said she finds bringing metta into chanting, whilst remember anger inducing situations, really helps her to respond better in future. And Ajahn Brahmali responded and part of what he said was that yes, you can use things like chanting in a meaningful way, as opposed to a purely ritualised way.

With regard to the last stanza, I’m reminded of the story Ajahn Brahm relates about the fellow running through the jungle, chased by his kamma (a tiger) who falls into a well and there’s a dangerous snake in it and as he’s falling he grabs a branch, just out of reach of both animals. As he hangs there he notices a white mouse and a black mouse (the days and nights that are relentlessly passing) slowly biting through the branch. Looking up he
sees a beehive dripping honey. The honey drops on to his tongue…he enjoys this taste.

Regarding your very good questions:

“One’s gain”… hmm, I wonder if you are using this phrase in a different way to the sutta?

There’s “gain” as the opposite of renunciation - which is how I think you’re using it.

There’s “gain” as the succesful action taken to alleviate immediate and long term suffering - which is how I think it’s been used in this sutta.

The question about anticipation…etc… It’s a tricky one…perhaps it’s more to do with getting to know ourselves and our own unique Practices? Then perhaps one knows when one has tipped over into a lack of usefulness and over-thinking? I’m not sure…

I’m wondering if perhaps this is something we can’t know and thus in some sense have a lack of control over…in the sense that to know something is to have some control over it…The whole “knowledge is power” thing. I mean sometimes, when I’m weeping and wailing, it might not be kamma that’s strong…rather my hindrances and kilesas are strong!! So perhaps, in attempting some answer, I’d say, just keep gently doing the best you can…

Also I’m noting the comments of others here, who are pointing out that it is with rebirth knowledge, that knowledge of kamma really becomes powerful…and then perhaps, genuiniely useful…because it won’t be something intellectual and ‘out there’…but unique to you, deeply present, and ‘in here’.

Hmmm…‘right patience’… reminds me of Ajahn Brahm talking about ‘waiting in the moment’ versus ‘waiting on the moment’. The former being the one recommended as it’s more deeply present to whatever is going on. Perhaps that’s the key? The more we practice, the more we cultivate being present, the more likely we will be to know for ourselves, that now is the time to wait and now is the time to act.

Also…just to add…though I don’t think you’ve explicitly asked about this, and I think someone else has mentioned how in EBT kamma isn’t fatalism… Anyway…just to add that it shouldn’t matter whether a situation is kammic or not…What matters is how we deal with it now and what we do about it now. You know, personally, I’ve really appreciated having this spelled out. It really gives one a sense of power over one’s life…in a sense, our two good Ajahns are conditioning us to realise that we can, either mentally, verbally or physically, do something about whatever situation we’re in, regardless of whether it was caused by kamma or some other cause…such as bad weather! Lol…if only it were as easy to do as it is to say…

As an important aside, I don’t think anyone should ever allow themselves to suffer abuse by thinking that they deserve it (it’s my kamma cos I did this in the past to someone)…though having said this, I think self-view, ill will and other factors cause us to do just this! Whilst kamma may be involved, I think the kilesas of delusion and hatred are in operation here…they’ve created some kind of deep, destructive, guilt complex…which is only going to be a type of kamma that makes the situation worse and encourages this person to become enmeshed in further situations like this in the future. Perhaps, the reflection that this is only going to perpetuate the cycle and thus draw others in too, is motivation to pull ourselves out of this kind of self-destructive thinking…cos self-destruction doesn’t happen in a vacuum, others get hurt too…

Buddhism’s about getting out of suffering. We take the panadol so we can meditate. We love ourselves so we can meditate. We don’t allow ourselves to be harmed, so we can meditate… And the meditation itself is for peace, for love, for growth in wisdom…anytime taking action grows those things…it’s gotta be a good action…anytime being patient in the moment grows those things, then perhaps then, that’s the way to go too…

Having said all this, may I also say, just the act of asking this question, in this forum, has created a cause, a condition, which will now most probably encourage yourself and those of us who’ve read your post, to question more deeply, in the moment: is there something I can do skillfully in this situation? Personally, I’m hoping this conditioning, which you’ve skillfully put into place Nicola, will come up when next I’m feeling squeezed by kilesas! Actually, perhaps even my writing this will reitierate to me, next time it happens, the importance of not getting sucked into these particular ways in which the kilesas manifest to torture me!!

Which leads me rather nicely…to say…thank you…to yourself for your questions and for pointing out this sutta and also to the others respondents for their unique and useful contributions.

Much Metta and thanks and I hope I’ve not just gone and confused things further!! :slight_smile:


Dear Nicola,

Anjali :pray: Everyone has given great answers to your questions so I’m just gonna make my addition short :smile:

(1) The way I see this is what the Lord Buddha said when it comes to giving “Cittalamkaram cittaparikkharattham danam deti.” - This (gift) is an adornment for the mind, a support for the mind.

As far as chanting and rituals, as long as you know what they really mean and they arouse energy and confidence in you (meaning the wholesomeness in your mind accumulates and increases), then you are heading the right path.

(2) Upekkha (watching closely and ready to take action when required). You can’t really know if what you’re experiencing is always kamma. But what’s more important is how you’re approaching the situation. Sometimes you can do something, sometimes you just can’t do anything at all. It’s acceptance of that.
The great aspect of kamma is that we have the ability to navigate through our experiences. It’s not predestined.

(3) Not everything is kamma-vipaka. There’s a lot of conditions out there. Just as Stef has greatly pointed, the Lord Buddha wasn’t fatalistic. Patience and forbearance go hand in hand in the practice and training, they should never be separated. From my understanding, it is the highest austerity because we all need to develop it while we are in samsara to be able to handle the inherent and inescapable dukkha of existence. They prevent us from getting consumed by the fault-finding mind (negativity).

As far as being abused and ill treated, don’t be a pushover when it comes to that. Don’t merely accept it as your kamma-vipaka. As Ajahn Brahm had said, when you stand up for yourself, you are also standing up for others because you are stopping the cycle and creating a better environment for everyone, and at times, even for the abuser because the person may not be realizing what they’re doing and they just can’t stop themselves.

Sukhi hotu.

Anjali :pray: