Character Traits: Patience, Compassion & Generosity

The Three Must-Have Character Traits


Patience is popularly understood as the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering. This, obviously, assumes that there are things to which we “naturally” feel aversion, that there are people and places and things and thoughts that intrinsically, even deliberately, cause us to be uncomfortable. Common sense tells us that simply can’t be true, otherwise the sound of a drill, for example, would be annoying to everyone, like it is to my mother, but obviously it is not—ask any carpenter.

By contrast, the traditional 2500-year-old Buddhist understanding of patience is that it is simply the ability to be mindfully present and aware of whatever is happening, without an added affinity or aversion, without any added affective embellishment whatsoever.

But patience does not mean we become passive, does not mean that we flat-line an experience, and does not mean everything that happens is “okay.” Rather, it means we develop a prudent practice allowing us to manage seemingly provocative situations without anxiety or stress, but with clarity and awareness. In some psychotherapeutic circles, this is calling “seeing bottom up,” in others it is called “resilience.”

There are a number of unconvincing modern Buddhist arguments, usually based around collective or social justice, that suggest this is impossible, that suggest in the face of some insults or attacks, the proper Buddhist response is to be angry, strong, even violent. “Not so!” we are suggesting here, from an emptiness perspective. “Not so” says Shantideva in the patience chapter, Chapter Six of The Way of the Bodhisattva (hereafter The Way).

Shantideva’s The Way is one of the seminal texts in Tibetan Buddhism, and the sixth chapter on patience is perhaps the most quoted, revered and studied chapter of the scripture. Shantideva (683 CE-763 CE) was a deeply renowned scholar monk at Nalanda University, the most celebrated Buddhist center of learning in ancient India. His indepth analysis of patience is worthy of a lifetime of study, but here we are only going to touch on one key verse.

Shantideva makes clear that practicing with patience is a form of character building. It is a skill that needs to be developed to stay on track toward a more peaceful, less stressed life—on track even under seemingly threatening conditions.

Shantideva’s Patience in a Paragraph

The alternatives to patience form a spectrum of wasted energy from irritation and frustration to anger, hatred, and fury. Such a waste–all the result of trying to force ourselves and others to change rather than allowing the people and events of our everyday life to “just be.” Patience is being fully engaged, without our stories clouding our vision. Simple persistent and consistent effort is necessary for patience to replace the neediness of our greed, anger, and delusion.

Shantideva explains that there are three types of patience that we should have: (1) patience with perceived suffering, (2) the patience to contemplate the dharma (to contemplate the ultimate nature of phenomena), and (3) we should have the patience when confronted with people, places, and events we deem harmful. It should be noted that patience reflects our karma, karma being the imprints in our mind (the “alaya consciousness”) that inform us as to how to respond to perceived sufferings and injustices.

This is why it is so important to diligently and consistently reinforce ourselves with patient responses of body, speech, and mind when any of the many alleged sources of anger arise in us as unwholesome narratives. We can thereby establish our karma, our motivational dispositions, to act in the direction of mindful presence, to act with patience, rather than with anger, rather than allowing the force of affinities and aversions to take over our minds. (See for more about the concept of karma ).

Being patient is not the equivalent of inaction. If it is possible to remedy the situation, then of course we should– but to do this we do not need to become upset or stressed or angry. Simple awareness is all we need. In fact, the training to avoid emotionally-driven reactivity allows us the mental space to truly analyze whether certain actions are appropriately patient and compassionate. [Patience, compassion, and generosity are the three key character traits of a Buddhist practitioner, which is why they are addressed together here.]

The traditional Eastern (Asian) way to train for patience, in which we learn to allow even troubling and painful events to happen without believing we must become upset, is with a meditation and mindfulness practice, and with a deep cognitive understanding of how to make patience arise in response to anger, its nemesis.

In other words, instead of responding with anger, we should examine the situation. We should not become angry just because things do not go our way, or because things seem difficult. A patience practice is needed most when we fail to accept reality for what it is, when we editorialize that we are being threatened or are under attack, rather than accepting the conditions just as they are, with clear-sightedness. Lessening and managing anger is not the end point. The point is to patiently accept things as they are so that anger doesn’t arise.

The point of a patience practice is not getting angry, rather than getting angry and having to find ways to manage it! When we seriously ponder the value of a patience practice, we see how it is the superhighway to liberation.

As we all know, anger can be an extraordinarily destructive force. A burst of anger, losing one’s temper, even just once, can undo years of generosity and kindness, be it with a family member, a boss, a neighbor, whomever. A long life of kindness and generosity can be impaired by a single angry explosion. It is for this reason that Shantideva takes such a strong stand against us being angry right out of the gate. Indeed, people have been jettisoned from their families, fired from their jobs, isolated from their neighbors, and all because of a single strong, angry outburst—one moment’s anger.

From a karmic perspective, we have all experienced the heavy imprint of anger in our emotional outlook, and the obsessiveness that often accompanies angry thoughts – evidence of the strength of these imprints in our karmic storehouses, and their self-reinforcing nature.

For example, a trainer at Carl’s gym exploded at a member for being on a machine he wanted to use. The explosion, to everyone’s shock, was loud, abusive, and profane. The member responded by quietly packing his gym bag, going to the front desk, and resigning. The manager of the gym fired the trainer for exploding. Carl never saw the trainer or the client at the gym again.

Patience is the antidote to anger—the most destructive of emotions and the cause of deleterious responses to the people, places, things, and events of everyday life with which we are dissatisfied. Again, we should assiduously cultivate patience to reset our karma from greed to generosity, from being dissatisfied with how things are to being patient.

As we said, patience, compassion, and generosity are the three key character traits of one on the path to liberation. So our next section is on compassion:


The feeling of compassion is benevolence.
–Mencius, c. 300BCE

In Buddhism, compassion is the empathetic call to action. Empathy refers to one’s ability to see the suffering of another, but not to identify with it. It is a character trait rather than an emotion like sympathy, which is identifying with another’s pain.

When we are compassionate, we act with empathy wanting to help to relieve the suffering of others if conditions support us doing so. This is a fundamental insight of compassion, the insight that we have a responsibility, when we see suffering in those around us, to reach out to relieve it.

Again, compassion is the empathetic call to action when one sees suffering. But it is not always possible to act in a way that will assist in the relief of someone’s suffering. In that case, simply and respectfully move on.

Wisdom and compassion are the two cornerstones of Buddhist practice. They are often described as the two wings of a bird that work together to enable one to see deeply into our ultimate nature, and the ultimate nature of all phenomena. They are a metaphor for the pathway to liberation.

Now that we have defined it, the question is: Where does compassion come from? It is a mindstate, an aspiration wanting others to be free of suffering. It arises from practice and commitment. Patience leads naturally to compassion. Compassion also arises from commitments to do not harm and to be of benefit to others.

Most importantly, live patience, compassion is a practice; it is a skill that can be developed. It is aspirational and motivational. The more one acts compassionately, the stronger one’s compassion will be, and the more one develops the wisdom to act from beneficence to all beings–to ourselves, to those whom we love, to those whom we like, to those who have angered us or done harm to us, and to all sentient beings.

Up to this point we have emphasized external compassion, meaning compassion for others. This has been the focus because of the assumption that being compassionate to others will lead us to being compassion to ourselves. Self-compassion is an idea that is taking hold in today’s therapeutic community. And while it is a troublesome concept philosophically for Buddhism, it nonetheless is lurking behind the external emphasis of traditional lovingkindness and compassion practices.


Classically, Buddhism is saying, “the more one acts compassionately, the stronger one’s compassion toward Self will be.” But for some, especially those who have been abused or who have been deeply traumatized in some other way, an explicit, internal compassion practice is needed.

Self-compassion arises when one stops being self-critical. Remind oneself that, regardless of the event or its intensity, you did your best in that moment, and so there is no need for self-blame, no need for negative self-judgments, no need for negative narratives. Put another way, it arises from being patient with one’s own actions, not angry.

As a practical suggestion, it may be helpful to develop a loving kindness practice, either a chanting practice or a contemplative practice.

Chanting Practice: recite five times each morning and evening: “May I be safe, well, peaceful, and happy; may those whom I love and those whom I like be safe, well, peaceful, and happy; may all beings be safe, well, peaceful, and happy.” Let this lovingkindness chant become a sustainable part of who you are. To do that, one is diligent and consistent in reciting the chant twice daily–it only takes a couple of minutes.

Contemplative Self-Compassion Meditation: Take a few slightly deepened breaths, eyes open or closed, then begin to contemplate compassion for oneself. How? Perhaps start by defining compassion for yourself. Then consider compassion with the broadest possible understanding of it from your side. Stay focused, gradually considering more and more detailed aspects of self-compassion. Parse the word as an emotion toward oneself. Let your mind go wherever it needs, but don’t let it stray from the idea of self-compassion. When you have explored it as fully as possible from your side, generalize it to your family, then friends, then work colleagues, the maybe all beings.

Other hints are to establish self-compassion as the most important thing you could possibly consider; find the question fascinating. Keep delving into it. Go as far as possible in 5, o at most 10, minutes. Set a timer so you will know when to stop. Next time, pick up where you left off and dig deeper. Keep contemplating self-compassion daily for a month or two until it becomes a part of who you are. Don’t rush it. This is a practice. There is nothing to be obtained except a self-soothing, peaceful life.

Contemplative meditations, over the long haul, changes one’s makeup, one’s default state, to being more peaceful, even when profoundly troubling memories arise. Again, don’t rush it; be patient.


The most basic way to change our life for the better is to be generous. Generosity is a major hurdle we must jump along the path to freedom. Contemplating generosity, its elements and its applications, is essential to a serious practice. It is walking the path to a more peaceful life.

On their website, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg wrote: “Generosity is the foundation of the Buddhist path—the beginning of spiritual awakening. As such, the practice of giving, or dana [the practice of cultivating generosity], arises from an inner quality of letting go, encouraging non-attachment, developing lovingkindness and compassion, and deepening an awareness of our interconnectedness.”

That says it all!

Generosity is often thought of in the context of giving money. But in daily life, generosity is meant in a much larger context. Generosity is what arises when one’s own self-cherishing and self-centered neediness gives way to an other-centeredness. Generosity appears when selfishness and self-centeredness lessen. In Burmese culture, for example, when it’s one’s birthday, one doesn’t celebrate by receiving gifts—one gives gifts. That’s the generosity we need to develop a wholehearted practice. Giving is a powerful karmic imprint that deepens our practice and leads to happier lives.

As we practice with generosity, we notice that we have a natural tendency toward doing no harm, being beneficial, and respecting everyone for who they are. Even when we inadvertently do something harmful to another, it doesn’t come from a desire to be harmful, except perhaps superficially, but rather, it is an attempt on our part to alleviate some form of our own suffering. Generosity, at its core, is a way of alleviating greed and anger and its attendant suffering.

Ideally, one should give because there is a need, with no expectation of personal gain, reward, or benefit in return; and the gift should be given without consideration of the receiver, with complete disregard for the recipient’s character or qualities. Without practice, to just give, is very difficult to do. This kind of giving is termed “giving without characteristics.”

The gift can be material (things or money), it can be spiritual (the gift of spiritual growth), or it can be the gift of no-fear (leaving others without fear from our actions). All these gifts hold an important place in practicing generosity. All should be omnipresent in one’s daily life. In every interaction with others or with the world at least one of these three forms of generosity should be present.

When we cling to (and act upon!) superficial ideas of goodness arising from generosity, expecting that compliance, without deep investigation of the mind, will set us free, we lack true generosity. For that reason, there are practice notes attached to the ideas of generosity explored below.

How Giving Changes Our Lives

The more generous and open-hearted one is, the less one craves and desires. The less one craves and desire, the more peaceful one is and the clearer one sees conditions. The more clearly one sees conditions, the more appropriately one acts. This creates a feedback loop of peacefulness and well-being, for ourself, for those around us, and for all beings.

Generosity turns us away from our self-centered actions, thoughts, and speech, and starts one doing, saying, and thinking in wholesome and beneficial ways. It can be understood to arise from patience, the ultimate other-centered act. The more patient one is, the more naturally generosity arises, as Shantideva explains ( )

What’s our greatest obstacle to generosity? It is the constant and omnipresent desire for more, more, and yet more which leaves one off balance, a little uneasy, even when one finally gets what one wants. What is the antidote for this tendency to think that what we want is all that matters? It is generosity.

To reiterate there are three types of generosity: material giving, spiritual giving, and the giving of no-fear. While on the surface, the practice suggested below appears to be concerned only with material giving and its effects on us; in fact, it also strengthens the spiritual aspect of giving, the dharma within us, and generates feelings of no-fear, in oneself and others. (See Ways to Give No-Fear below.)

The exercise below demonstrates, in the most profound way, how one shifts from self-centered self-talk to generosity-centered living. It not only plants new karmic imprints to make one’s life more peaceful and happier, but it will leave us comfortably in a life of compassion and lovingkindness.

If one wants to make this, one of the most important mindstate we can have, a habitual response to the world, one must constantly think about it and practice it–one must make it a habit. This habit is how one makes and keeps the implicit explicit. To keep the implicit explicit and to ensure that generosity stays in the forefront of our minds helps reset one’s default from greed and anger to patience and generosity, through compassion.

Resetting to Generosity

Imagine that one no longer has any negative mindstates, that one no longer has any afflictions or defilements, that one no longer has any self-centered thoughts or wrong views, that all one’s negative emotions–from irritation to anger to depression–are gone. What would be left?

Without neediness, without needing something from everyone and every situation, without judging everyone and everything, and thus living in a fear-free state, other-centeredness becomes the driving force of our life. It manifests as patience, compassion, and generosity.

The reason one does not live a life of selfless generosity is because of our neediness, leading to stinginess, our negative stories about not getting what we want and deserve, a state of constant fear that we will not get what we want or will get what we do not want. One’s defilements are blocking the generosity pathway.

To recall, there are three approaches to generosity that are useful to contemplate, material giving, spiritual giving, and the giving of no-fear. The aim is to give because there is need and it is appropriate to give, not because others say that it is the right thing to do or because one wants something back, and also to contemplate the data of the event, to explore it with intellectual scrutiny to develop insight into current phenomena and how we can be generous from that understanding.

Practicing with Material Giving

Here’s a practice that ensures that generosity flourishes: commit to donating to a different charity each week for a year. The donation can be as little as a dollar or two, or as much and ten, depending on one’s budget. Decide what is affordable and set an amount to give each week. Then give that amount.

A “charity” can be a person on the street, a canister at the grocery, a container at McDonald’s, a religious institution, or a kid selling candy for the school band; almost anything where there is a need.

It isn’t the amount of the donation that matters, but the giving and the process of developing a giving habit. Giving the same amount to each charity teaches us to be equanimous, to be non-judgmental, to remain calm and clear when confronted with others in need.

There are two conditions for the giving exercise. Don’t repeat giving to the same charities and don’t take anything in return. Don’t wait or look for a thank you. If offered something, quietly say no thank you and withdraw. No button, no stickers, no candy; take nothing in return. Just give.

Having to find a different “charity” weekly keeps one constantly self-parenting, talking to oneself about how to be generous, and the need and value of generosity. It keeps this implicit aspect of one’s practice explicit. It makes one more aware of suffering, a crucial element in keeping us motivated when one is faced with the distraction of one’s old self-centered habits, such as needing to hold onto what we have, living from scarcity rather than abundance, and taking what is not given.

Other ways of giving materially can be (1) donating clothing, furniture, and kitchenwares to a local resale shop; (2) making monthly gifts to your favorite charity by having your bank automatically send a check each month; there’s giving with matching grants which many companies make available to their employees; (4) and there is year-end giving which helps many non-profit to survive for the upcoming year; etc.

Giving Spiritually

Spiritual generosity is having a spirit that sees need and responds appropriately. It arises naturally from patience. It weakens one’s fictions about self that inhibit clear-sightedness and promote prejudice. Spiritual generosity is giving the dharma–sharing one’s understanding with someone in a way that lessens their suffering, if only by example. Also, Buddha stresses in the early scriptures that the spiritual efficacy of a gift is dependent not on the amount given but rather on the attitude with which it is given. A small donation that stretches a person of little means is considered of greater spiritual consequence than a large but personally insignificant donation from a wealthy person.

Volunteering at a food bank or other non-profit is also a form of spiritual giving, as well as material giving, and like material giving, leads to walking on a path to liberation.

As mentioned above, generosity’s spiritual nature is to aid one in letting go, encouraging non-attachment, developing lovingkindness and compassion, and being a pathway to patience, one of Buddhism’s most important character traits. Giving is a spiritual act, in and of itself, regardless of whether the giving is material, spiritual, or fearlessness. Generosity, given wholeheartedly, leads those who practice it and those who are on the receiving end of the practice to a mind of wisdom.

Generosity is the antidote to greed, the strongest of the Three Poisons (greed, anger, and delusion). Greed leads to self-centeredness and suffering; generosity is its antidote and leads to other-centeredness and liberation.

People are acting generously toward one all the time, but it isn’t seen. A simple practice is to actively look for it, to be mindful, and then to humbly receive the generosity. This leads one to avoid the battlefield! Avoid the battlefield, that is another form of generosity.

Ways to Give No-Fear

In ancient times, the giving of no-fear could be associated with not becoming frightened by superstitious externals like ghosts and demons. It later became associated with alleviating worries and concerns about dying, and now it is broader and more intimate. Now it means not setting up the conditions for another person to be threatened or to suffer.

Here are some ways to give no-fear.

• The more balanced and peaceful one is, the more one is giving no-fear
• When one understands that peacefulness never comes from winning one’s way, the giving of no-fear arises naturally
• One’s body – use non-threatening movements, less eye-contact, humble stances, calm deportment
• Speech – speak with gentle language, speak slowly and non-aggressively, speak mindfully: no harsh speech, no gossip, limit small talk, no self-aggrandizing rants
• Make compassion the central point of departure for everyone, equally
• Never go on the battlefield; in a fight, whether physical or verbal, both sides lose – if one must defend oneself, do so without anger or malice and only to the extent necessary
• Conquer one’s own fears, which are all “fictions”
• Develop practices of lovingkindness and compassion through one’s body, speech, and mind
• Offer as much support and comfort as possible to everyone regardless of who they are or how they are judged
• Recognize that we have intellectually, economically, and spiritually, a strong duty and responsibility to care for and protect the weak in society

As one’s defilements decrease in strength and number, generosity arises spontaneously from deep within one. The result is that one gives selflessly because one’s only desire is to act for the benefit of others. One’s compassion actuates as pure altruism when one is generous.

Contemplating Generosity

Karma works like this –going from leaving the weakest imprint to the strongest imprint: thinking about it, intending to do it, planning it, making the necessary preparations to do it, and strongest–doing it. That’s the pattern for any event, and certainly for generosity.

What this means is that contemplating being generous, even if one can’t follow through, is important. It sets an intention for the future. There is some credible evidence that just thinking about giving has similar effects on our health and happiness as actually giving.

What this means is that one should stop, relax, and consider ways one can be generous–maybe consider how one might donate to a non-profit aiding those with cancer, perhaps a monetary gift, or a donation of one’s time. One of the advantages of this weekly giving practice is that it keeps giving and keeps generosity in the forefront of one’s thoughts.

Consider generosity contemplatively by setting an intention to explore it from every angle possible, starting with the broadest and working to the smallest detail. This is a deconstruction process. For example, to contemplate generosity:

What will happen if I am generous? What will happen if I am not? Will giving be harmful? Will it be beneficial? What is harmful? What is beneficial? Where is Self in this?

What are the back-stories behind one’s giving or not giving? What did I learn about giving from my parents, from my teachers, from my religious and secular mentors?

What about the Self, one’s ego, would it be amped up by doing it? What aversion might one have to giving? What affinity to donating?

Gradually work through every possible aspect of the generosity and Self and their relationship until all the details and characteristics have been explored and the issue has dissolved, evaporated, and your default has been reset to generosity as an omnipresent character trait.