There’s Gratitude, and then there’s Gratitude

Gratitude in Buddhism

It is easy to feel gratitude for the things we perceive as beneficial. In our materialistic world, the receiving of objects of value usually evokes the natural ‘thank you’. Advice from a teacher, or mentor is also something we find easy to give thanks for. Or we particularly find it easy to give thanks in return for praise. We perceive such acts, correctly or not, as being of direct benefit to ourselves. However, to limit our understanding of gratitude to these circumstances is short sighted, and selfish.

Buddhahood is not a selfish pursuit. If one is to aspire to attain Buddhahood, yet does so with the slightest anticipation of enjoying benefits, conspicuous or inconspicuous, then one is bound to fail.

Relative gratitude

We naturally wish to release ourselves from the sufferings of samsara but our ignorance causes us to find temporary solace in acts of kindness or praise shown toward us. This is because such acts support our notion of an independent and eternal self; that we, if surrounded by enough material comforts and imbued with sufficient learning, will become free of suffering.

This is what I like to call relative gratitude. It is derived from our relative, or subjective viewpoint and is displayed most often when one is in receipt of material benefit, intellectual benefit, or praise.

The fundamental teachings of Buddhism are designed to help us avoid unnecessary suffering by awakening to the true causes of suffering. The state of Buddhahood is dependant upon the altruistic pursuit of these goals for the benefit of all beings.

By examining the gratitude we show when receiving material benefit, we must be mindful that we are not merely attempting to condition our environment to benefit us further. This achieves little more than to reinforce our attachments to impermanence. When someone gives something to us, be it their time, or a gift, are we not thanking them because we enjoy the experience and want them to repeat it? Think carefully on this point.

Absolute gratitude

However, we should also consider the absolute nature of gratitude. I think this absolute or pure gratitude is formed from two more subtle aspects.

The first aspect is understanding that in accepting benefit from others, we have been given the opportunity to be mindful in avoiding clinging to further benefit – in essence, when we receive a benefit, the benefit could easily become the cause for immediate or future suffering. A person who people admire may receive many gifts. They may become accustomed to this, and form an expectation – an attachment. This is the cause for ulterior motivations based on our ignorance.

The second aspect is the gratitude for the feeling of joy one should feel for the person giving the benefit. For someone to altruistically give benefit to us is of great benefit to them – it demonstrates selflessness, and is an act of the Bodhisattva way. To know another being is behaving in this way is truly worthy of gratitude and joy.

These two aspects of absolute gratitude, gratitude for sufferings (because sufferings lead us to Nirvana, or enlightenment), and gratitude for the good in our environment and fellow beings are important to appreciate.

Auntie Beryl

When I was a young lad, maybe 6 or 7 years old, I remember one particular morning assembly. Not that it’s important, but years ago in the UK, school kids were amassed in the gym each morning to listen to a bit of a sermon by the headteacher or deputy, sing hymms, and recite The Lord’s Prayer. Anyway, one day while we were all reading through The Lord’s Prayer a girl in front of me, Deborah Neal, openly prayed for her auntie Beryl to get better.

Of course, in my childish ignorance, I found this highly amusing, and Deborah was taunted and teased afterwards by the boys because of her compassion for her Auntie. I’m ashamed to admit I was swept along with this teasing. I’ll probably never learn what happened to Auntie Beryl, but I know now that what Deborah did was incredibly brave and compassionate.

It wasn’t until a few years later when I became the subject of bullying at high school, and then later when my own parents broke up and I suffered burn out, that I could really begin to develop my own sense of altruistic compassion and gratitude.

Anyone who has ever lost a pet they loved will associate with the pain felt by other grieving ex-pet owners. The same is true when one loses a parent, or other loved one from the family. The bully who has lost his pet dog would be ignorant indeed to taunt the boy who also lost his dog.

Nirvana and suffering are two sides of the same non-dualistic coin. You can’t get one without the other. So, although gratitude for our sufferings may not appear intuitive, it is essential in attaining enlightenment. In Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, he writes:

My present tribulation is not so heavy,
And will be beneficial;
Let me be glad of a suffering
That redeems the world of its suffering

Although it’s impossible to imagine Nichiren Daishonin didn’t understands this concept, he doesn’t vocalise it directly. Indeed, every Gosho that I have read (and I have yet to read many in Volume 2) all appear to speak of gratitude in the sense of thanks, or of filial gratitude in the Confucian sense. However in Persecution by Sword and Staff he does display Gratitude for his sufferings thus;

I have already been struck in the face by Sho-bo with the fifth scroll of the Lotus Sutra… When I attain Buddhahood, how will I be able to forget my obligation to Sho-bo? Much less can I forget the thanks I owe to the scroll of the Lotus Sutra [with which he struck me]. When I think of this, I cannot restrain my tears of gratitude.

Here, though, Nichiren is more joyous because the event reinforces his position as the foremost votary of the Lotus Sutra.

The fifth scroll was used as a staff to strike me, and it is this very scroll that carries the passage that [votaries of the Lotus Sutra] will be attacked with staves. What a mysterious passage of prediction!

So, insofar that the event helped him to gain enlightenment to his true altruistic purpose (to carry out his mission for Kosen Rufu; the widespread propogation for the benefit of all people) I guess this could be classed as pure gratitude.


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