The teacher Atisha (982–1054) was born in India and had an immeasurable impact on Tibetan Buddhism. He’s worth looking up—there are lots of good stories, ranging from believable-but-amazing to, well, just amazing. As with almost any of the figures who shaped these traditions, it’s difficult to separate fiction from fact. In the case of Atisha, the first story I ever heard about him was in the “believable” category. And I think about it a lot.
Once Atisha became a big deal in the Buddhist world, he traveled a lot, and he had an entourage. One member was an assistant—a cook—who, by all accounts, was infuriatingly annoying. He was disrespectful to everyone he encountered, including, to everyone’s great discomfort, Atisha. He said inappropriate things. He talked too much. He didn’t know his place or anyone else’s.
This drove people crazy. Occasionally, someone would pull Atisha aside and ask, “Why do you hold on to this assistant? He’s terrible.” And Atisha would reply, “Oh, he isn’t just my assistant. He’s the one who teaches me patience.”
Buddhism is full of these kinds of stories. I heard once of a more modern version, in which a community drove out their own Atisha, then the teacher called him up and begged him to come back—from the teacher’s perspective, the tension and discomfort he caused was vital to the community. I don’t know how people in the sangha reacted to that. They probably weren’t thrilled.
When I first started exploring Buddhism, someone lent me a cassette of a dharma talk by a teacher in the Tibetan tradition, and she said this: “The person who tells you what you want to hear is your enemy.” This is another version of the same principle. There’s value in certain kinds of confrontation, whether intentional (in the case of the person who tells it like it is) or not (when the confrontation is really with yourself, as you watch yourself reaching a boiling point).
I’ve heard it said in a hundred different ways that everyone we meet is our teacher. That’s a powerful idea, the kind of thing we can carry with us and use to interrogate every little encounter, infinitely. It’s worth the effort. It can also be misunderstood. Recognizing how someone who challenges us or angers us is also presenting an opportunity for growth is great, but we don’t have to take the next step of thinking that situation is perfect just as it is, either. I have no doubt that if Atisha’s assistant had matured and learned to interact with warmth and grace, no one would have been more pleased than Atisha—he wouldn’t have mourned the loss of his patience teacher. I’ve heard of Tibetan monks in the last century speaking in similar ways about the guards who kept them for years in Chinese prisons—they saw in that relationship an opportunity to challenge their own instinctive responses, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t want to be free. We can seize the situation without embracing it.
Who is your Atisha? Who knows exactly where your buttons are and pushes them? I have two wonderful kids who are experts in all the things that bother me the most; they test their knowledge of the subject almost every day. Kids are an easy example, because as infuriating as they can be, we’ve already decided—whether we’re always successful at it or not—that we want to respond with skill, with kindness, with love. We want to model for them how to absorb it all without pushing back. Have any two people taught me more about myself—and in such stark terms—than my kids? I doubt it.
Who pokes you? Is it your father-in-law? That new guy in accounting? The neighbour you feel is always judging you, just the way she looks at you? Is it someone on the news? The suggestion from Atisha is to flip your own script. Next time that person appears, instead of thinking, Oh, him again, you think, There he is, the guy who’s teaching me patience. You don’t have to say thank you or be deferential. You don’t have to go looking for it. Just be ready. Before the first words are spoken, take a breath. Stand up a little straighter. And then, instead of steeling yourself against whatever they’re about to say, let yourself get a little bit soft, a little less defensive, a little less reactive. Stay with that. Maybe this time it will be different. Maybe this time you’ll find some equanimity, some lightness of heart.
Or maybe you won’t. And that’s OK—I promise, you’ll have another chance.
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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