Moisture-born, miraculously born, or simply womb-born, all beings enjoy the morning sun. We are grateful for its vital warmth and thankful that the long night is over. It is not a matter of good or evil. This joy is a birthright, not a reward. Gratitude is like this. Our very existence is entirely gratuitous. “Gratitude”, as my friend Norman Fischer once said, “is literally what we are when we are most attuned to what we are, when we plunge deeply into our nature.”
Thomas Merton, the well known Trappist monk who also studied Buddhism, wrote: “To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us - and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.”
Father Merton's words are wise; but you know, as a Buddhist I can understand and appreciate gratitude just as much even absent a creator God. The experience of gratitude works its magic in a Buddhist as wondrously as it does for a Trappist. The Roman philosopher Cicero thought gratitude was the highest virtue and the womb of all virtues, including honour. Gratitude is more like a law of nature than a human or religious artifact. It is a primary fact of our being that the more gratitude we cultivate the more we have to be grateful for.
Gratitude goes some way toward redeeming disgraceful things, too. Many Thanksgiving dinners will feature genetically modified fowl which probably lived life in appalling conditions. When we give thanks for our bounty does this thought intrude? It doesn't seem quite right to give thanks (unless one is thankful that the suffering of the bird has ceased); but gratitude still seems appropriate. Indeed, innumerable labours and suffering are involved in all the food we eat. We really should know how it comes to us.
And perhaps as we gratefully receive the feast we should take the opportunity to consider whether our personal virtue and behaviour deserves it. As Buddhists we desire a natural order of mind, free from greed, hate and delusion. May we eat our Thanksgiving dinner to support our life and to practice the Middle Way. 'Grace' touches our teachers, family, other people and all beings in the multiple universes.
Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, collaborator with Merton and an old friend of both mine and Norman's, says this about gratitude: “it is our full appreciation of something altogether undeserved, utterly gratuitous – life, existence, ultimate belonging – and this is the literal meaning of grate-full-ness. In a moment of gratefulness, you do not discriminate. You fully accept the whole of this given universe, as you are fully one with the whole."
Wayne Codling is a former Zen monastic and a lineage holder in the Soto Zen tradition. He teaches Zen style meditation in various venues around Victoria. Wayne’s talks and some writings can be found on his blog (http://sotozenvictoria.wordpress.com
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This article was first published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Oct 12 2013 and online at http://www.timescolonist.com/faith-forum-86-400-seconds-of-thanksgiving-1.656214