On January 7, a Zen teacher named Sojun Mel Weitsman passed away; he was 91 years old, the founder and abbot of Berkeley Zen Center, a huge figure. Over email in the following days, Zen priests were offering condolences and sharing remembrances, and one said he had been affected, years ago, by something he’d heard Sojun Weitsman say in a talk: “Patience doesn’t mean waiting for something.” I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I won’t pretend to know what was originally meant by it, but I’ll share a little of how I understand it.
We’re all waiting for something. In some cases, we can name it—we see a career shift on the horizon, or maybe retirement. We imagine that one day we’ll find that special someone. We’ll get out of this town and see the world. Whatever it is, whether it drives us or it’s more in the background, we have a sense of time passing. We came from the past, and now we’re here, and the rest of our lives is there, over there, in the future. Even if we have no idea what’s next, we never forget that there is a next. The present is on the way to that. We just have to be patient, and it will come.
So what is patience? I looked it up: “patience” comes from a Latin word for “suffering.” We can hear this in a phrase like “She doesn’t suffer fools”—to suffer fools is to have patience for them. (In Japanese, there’s a perfect word, gaman, that captures this sense of the word; it speaks to the ability of someone to endure, stoically, without complaint.) When the bus is late or the waiter takes forever, some of us suffer that well, some of us don’t. I tend to think of myself as someone who is good at patience. I’m good at that kind of suffering. But it doesn’t mean I’m not waiting. It doesn’t mean I’m not aware, always, of the continuum of time, my place in it, and some critical moment in the future at which the bus shows up or my nachos finally arrive.
Sojun Weitsman, when he said, “Patience doesn’t mean waiting for something,” was pointing to a completely different way of relating to our lives. And though it isn’t the way we usually live, we do recognize it. If you’re a meditator, think about how that usually goes. Most of the time, at least in some quiet way, we’re aware that someone, at some point, is going to ring a bell and meditation will end. We may get distracted by this thought or that (again, often focused on the future, or maybe the past), but we feel, in our bones, the thing that is coming. Until we hear that sound, it’s always on the way, always just around the corner. And yet, within that, there are these rare moments when we are neither distracted nor waiting, neither somewhere else nor waiting for what’s next. We’re just there, breathing, and the breath is complete, and the moment is complete; there is nothing to wait for, because we’re already completely where we are.
When I describe this kind of timelessness, it can sound blissed out, like some kind of reverie, but that’s not it. It’s simply not waiting. You’ve known this, whether it was on a meditation cushion, or on a sofa with a friend, or on a beach watching the sunset—not suffering this moment in anticipation of the next but simply being here, now, completely.
The practice here is not as simple as deciding not to wait. It isn’t that easy; we can’t force that kind of presence. We can slow down, of course, and that can give us a hint. In monasteries in Japan, we cleaned every surface every day, whether it needed it or not—over days and weeks, scrubbing the same spotless surfaces takes away some of the urgency of ordinary life. There’s no rushing to the next thing, no reward. Again, it’s a hint. So there are things we can do, areas of activity we can explore.
But more than that, the practice is one of noticing. First, what are you waiting for? In this moment, as you read this, what are you waiting for? What are you waiting for today, and what are you waiting for in your life? And second, when that waiting drops away, even for just a second, what are you doing in that moment? How does doing this point to letting go of that? Notice that. We can spend our whole lives noticing that. We probably should.
Last, we have to open ourselves up to this, to the idea that this moment is enough, that we are enough, that we are not simply at a weigh station between beginning and end. Entertain the possibility that this—this moment—is it. Entertain the possibility that nothing is coming. Entertain the possibility that right now, wherever you are, however you got here, there is no place else to go, nothing to wait for, nothing just about to happen. Consider that. Consider what you would do next if it were true.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.
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