In the "Art of Patience", Sylvain Tesson gives what I consider the most accomplished description of patience: "Patience is the supreme virtue, the most elegant and the most forgotten. It helps us to worship the reality in front of our eyes. To expect nothing."

In the west, Patience (忍) is very often associated with a certain eastern ethics or thought. It is indeed present in Buddhist thought, as one of the ten perfections in the Pali Canon: क्षान्ति (Kṣānti) or 忍. It has therefore a long history and it ended in the west filtered as of the pillars of modern mindfulness. In his book "Full Catastrophe Living", Jon Kabat-Zinn defines patience in the following way:

"Patience is a form of wisdom. It demonstrates that we understand and accept the fact that sometimes things must unfold in their own time."

This seems to me to be a good working definition, it certainly reflects some of the main aspects of patience (忍) as we see it in everyday life. It points to what is for me the main learning from patience: to move from a view of time, to a view of process. Patience (忍)includes the notion that we have to accept that things develop in a certain order.

Looking at some of the buddhist teachings and martial texts, we can identify some insights on the different facets of Patience (忍) that are useful for practice.

Patience as perseverance
Practice, martial or any other, is well described as a process of continuous refinement. This notion can be found in many writings, for example from the 太極拳講義– Tai Chi Chuan Teaching Notes by 吳公藻 (Wú Gōngzǎo):

If the fist techniques cannot be used, it is because the Gongfu (of training) has not yet been achieved. It is like refining steel. From raw iron (i.e., iron ore) refined into ripe iron, from ripe iron then refined into pure steel. Without long time of refining, the goal cannot be achieved.

In "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind", Suzuki Shunryū (鈴木 俊隆) brings an important quality of this aspect of patience (忍) - constance:

"I have always said that you must be very patient if you want to understand Buddhism, but I have been seeking for a better word than patience. The usual translation of the Japanese word nin is “patience,” but perhaps “constancy” is a better word. You must force yourself to be patient, but in constancy there is no particular effort involved—there is only the unchanging ability to accept things as they are."

This notion of constance appears in 吃苦 (eat bitter), a traditional expression in martial arts circles that convey the perseverance needed through the difficult phases of the practice.

In her Dharma Talk, "The Steadying Power of Patience", Dawn Scott, highlights that patienc (忍)e is also important to overcome the opposite of the bitterness, complacency:

"But it's also interesting that one of the functions of complete patience as gentle perseverance is to help us live through the desirable. When you think about it, when you practice, you see sometimes there is a tendency to fall out of balance in regard to the desirable. We experience something that the heart-mind deems as desirable or beneficial, and we can be blown sky high into exuberance. We might start to experience a little complacency within our practice. We get a little too relaxed. When we find our heart-mind starting to fall into either of these extremes, we can actually steady ourselves and come back into balance by touching into the nobility of our aspirations and intentions, which fuel this gentle perseverance."

Opportunity: patience as key for timing

In 十三勢行功要解 the Important Explanations for the Accomplishment of the Thirteen Postures by 武禹襄 Wǔ Yǔxiāng clearly indicates the use of patience in application:

"The external form is like a falcon seizing a rabbit, the spirit is like a cat catching a mouse."

In Gauging the Opponent "量敵" from the 太極拳講義– Tai Chi Chuan Teaching Notes by 吳公藻 (Wú Gōngzǎo), we can the process of engagement with an opponent, and how the understanding of this process allows for the right timing and anticipation.

"Before the opponent and I engage the battle, I should use the calmness to wait for his movements, and use the ease to wait for the labor without pre-conceptions. The opponent does not move, I do not move. The opponent slightly moves, I move first. The most precious moment is the instant of mutual exchange between the opponent and I, when I know the opponent’s insubstantial and substantial, I can deal with it."

This can also be seen in the 相法 Observation Method, the Second Song from 八卦掌實戰四十八法歌訣 The Forty-Eight Songs of Application of Baguazhang :

"The right way to defend against an enemy group is to first observe.
Instead of advancing, one should step back.
Step back to inspect the adversary’s power and variations.
Biding one’s time to use four onces to engage."

Patience (忍) in this context is the ability to not rush through the listening and understanding a situation, and find the timing for seizing an opportunity.

Forbearance, the moral quality of patience

From an ethics point of view, Patience has roots in the buddhism, where it is associated with forberance. In his book "The Way to Freedom", Tenzin Gyatso, the XIVth Dalai Lama (བསྟན་འཛིན་རྒྱ་མཚོ) defines patience as a state of mind to handle harm:

"Patience is a state of mind that forbears in the face of harms inflicted by others. There are three types of patience. The first is not being upset by harms inflicted by others; the second is voluntarily taking suffering upon oneself; and the third is being able to endure the sufferings involved in the practice of the Dharma."

In her Dharma Talk "Patience as Forbearance" published by the Tricycle Magazine, Daww-Scott gives another useful working defintion:

"You can think of patience as a protection—a protection against your own reactivity or in the face of another person's reactivity. You can also think of it as self-restraint in the face of injury and insult."

In a previous Dharma Talk "Watering the Seeds of Enlightment", she gives another useful working definition, or better said, the limits of patience: "Patienceis not gritting our teeth and white-knuckling it through some difficulty or some challenge, some unpleasant or painful experience, or some injustice. White-knuckling it, gritting our teeth—I don't even know what to call it. It's just trying to survive. Sometimes it's just waiting with aversion to the current moment while holding out hope for a better future."

She goes on to summarize: "True, complete, mature patience that's brought toits full strength helps us to be in relationship to the way things actually are without causing harm."


When all these aspects of patience are seen together, one common element stands out: within patience there is the deep willingness, ability even to see and accept things as they follow their natural ways.

To come full circle, the chapter on patience in the book "365 Tao" by Deng Ming-Dao seems a suitable conclusion:

"Those who follow Tao say that all things happen in their own time. What is lazy and what is hard work? Those who follow Tao say to follow nature. That requires patience. By knowing when to let the trees grow as they wanted, the orchard owner still had a good crop."

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