Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving and Gratitude and Zen Buddhists , when the world really sucks.

    I’m writing this on Thanksgiving 2016,  it’s not been a particularly good Thanksgiving for me:  I won’t bother you with the details.     All  of which has inspired me to write this essay.

                 Many years ago I was attending a teaching by very old Tibetan monk.  The subject of the teaching was the "great compassion"  this is the  compassion that Buddha  had and which he taught.  I asked the teacher about compassion without a subject, what I mistakenly called objectless compassion.  This idea of  compassionate for everyone in general and no one particular was giving me a head ache . I had studied very hard and had found selfless compassion the compassion that includes everyone and everything a difficult concept. As it turned out when I finally got the translator to tell the teacher what I was asking him,  he very firmly told me that all compassion should have a subject or object .  That developing the idea of compassion for everyone and everything requires cultivation of a state of mind and it requires work.  Compassion is I think probably the most taught subject at the moment in modern Buddhism. But today I would like to discuss gratitude, I guess I’ll call it the great gratitude or simply selfless gratitude.

            My old  Tibetan  teachers  talked about this  ancient teacher or that ancient teacher as having discovered a Buddhist teaching like it had been lying under a rock somewhere and they were looking around and just happen to pick up the right rock.  I’ve never been particularly fond of that idea.  I think that one  today has to  say that Buddha had “invented” Buddhism to solve what he saw as the major problems with life and probably the major problem with life from day one is that it often sucks.  His first observation seems to be that  we swim in an ocean of Dukkha, which is often translated into English as suffering. Of course with every idea and concept in Buddhism there are 1000 people who have a different definition for it when it’s translated into a new language like English.

        When I was studying with  my Tibetan teachers I learned that Tibetan Buddhism and their teachers really {really} liked to list and number everything.  I have attended teachings that lasted three hours as the teacher listed and numbered all the different kinds of suffering including the suffering of suffering so this is a deep well in which I don’t intend to step at the moment. For the purpose of this essay let us just say that life often sucks.  I think that pretty much covers just about anything in the concept of Dukkha.

        So we Americans have been brought up with this holiday called Thanksgiving if you lived in America during your lifetime as a child  I don’t see how you could have not run into this holiday. Thanksgiving basically translates into gratitude. People can and often do sit down and list all the things for which they are grateful. Then the question comes up who are they grateful too? Of course Christians and Muslims and Jews and many other religions have no problem with this question because they are grateful to their God.

       With people being as well informed as they are today it is very often very hard for modern people even Christians to look around and see this world of suffering and to see the things they have lost and the people they have lost and still feel a sense of gratitude to the all seeing all-knowing godfather in the sky. As you turn on your TV and watch the news and see all the wars the killing both in the war and down the street from you it is sometimes very hard to keep up that state of mind that there is this really a nice guy running the joint.

      But Buddhist for the most part do not have the same concept of a God that the other religions do.  As I stated in a previous essay I don’t believe Buddha ever actually said there was no God. What I believe he said  was that  you shouldn’t become attached to your idea of what God and who God is . I admit that’s just my opinion from reading what he said.

             So let’s get back to the point!  Here we are Buddhist, it’s Thanksgiving, at the moment at least our life sucks,  and we don’t really have some big white-haired bearded guy up in the sky that we layoff all our problems on, the one most people call God.  But good things do happen to us and bad things do happen to us. So how can we celebrate Thanksgiving with a real sense of gratitude.  Will that’s where selfless gratitude in my opinion comes in, just as we don’t really need a single individual or even a group of individuals in a particular group to feel compassion  we really don’t need this singular entity to feel gratitude for.

             One of the problems with Zen in America is I believe a failure of our teachers in Zen to teach the idea of cultivating states of mind.  Almost every other school practices cultivating states of mind like compassion and gratitude , but mostly we just sit.   We don’t usually have long list of enumerated obstructive emotions followed by a matching list of antidotal states of mind . Nevertheless many  Zen groups today do teach Metta, the mantras and chants of which are actually meant to help cultivate a state of mind.

      So developing selfless gratitude is not really that far for a  Zen student to stretch.  The trick that the Tibetans learned long ago is that no matter how bad off you are you going to be able to come up with a list of things that you are grateful for, and in the very least a list of thing you can realistically imagine your grateful haven’t happened to you.

            I’m going to make an assumption here that as Zen Buddhist you are at least basically familiar with the eightfold path which includes right view, right aspiration, right speech ,right action, right livelihood, right effort right mindfulness, and  right concentration. If you have even looked at these ideas , even if your teacher never gives you any straight answers to your questions about them, you should be able to find the eightfold path and figure out fairly quickly that Buddhism involves the cultivation of your mind and your attitudes.  So I think I’m on fairly solid ground in suggesting that while you’re sitting  and no one’s looking over your shoulder and into your mind you might actually try and see if you can develop the state of mind of gratitude without the list of things to be grateful for and the one big enchilada that you’re supposed to be grateful too. 

      This usually takes 20 years of training or so I have been told,  but I’m going to suggest to you that if you just give it a shot you will find out that it really doesn’t take very long to be able to develop within yourself a feeling of expansive compassion and expansive gratitude, this might also be called selfless compassion and selfless gratitude or the great compassion and the great gratitude.  You might even want to call it objectless compassion and gratitude but when I tried that my Tibetan teacher, slapped me in the head and told me that we always had to have an object for our compassion and our gratitude. Well bugger, just  remember they are  just words folks.  You have to have some place to start
            I’ve often heard it said that you cannot control your emotions or that some people cannot control their emotions or that you can’t help how you feel , ad nausea.   But Buddhist training has for centuries been based upon the idea that you can train your mind and that mind  includes your emotional structure.  Buddhist teachers saw that you can cultivate states of mind like compassion and gratitude through practice and perhaps a little direction from a teacher.  I also know that in a Zendo setting any time you slap more than four words together or words that have more than six syllables there will be  somebody who wants to argue with you, someone who doesn’t like the definitions you used, and someone who is so proud of not knowing anything that they just have to inflict that  upon you.

       So if you get that kind of reaction where you’re taking your Zen meditation and teachings don’t let it bother you.  Don’t give up your teacher or your meditation group just try this out at home when you are alone and give yourself a chance to grow.

            And if you get too much static about thinking during Zen practice just look whoever is giving you the static in the eye, raise one eyebrow and say “ I have the great doubt”. That should keep them busy long enough for you to get out of the room.  So as long as your breathing be grateful.

                                   Have a happy Thanksgiving