Sangha Reflections on Gratitude

· Open Access, Sangha Reflections · ,


I walked against the stream in this river all of my life because I used to believe I did not deserve anything unless I suffered first. It was disheartening and often excruciating yet I always told myself Don’t be a wuss. Try a little harder and just a little longer. I did not acknowledge the pain and suffering for so many years because that would have meant admitting defeat.

One day, I found myself paralyzed in the stream. I could no longer move. Utterly exhausted, I had no strength or will left to step forward.

Just let go, said the voice.
Trust me, the river said.

I can’t…My legs were trembling from exhaustion and my heart, from fear.

When I was eight years old, my aunt took me to the community swimming pool to teach me how to swim. She literally grabbed me and threw me into the swimming pool over and over again. The next day, probably exhausted from the previous day, my aunt asked my other aunt to take me to the pool. Thankfully, she had an entirely different approach towards showing me the art of floating in the water. She told me to hold the edge of the pool, stretch out my legs and body. Take a deep breath and gently put my face in the water. Relax. And only when I’m ready, let go of the edge of the pool and see what happens.

I’m not ready! my heart pleaded. I shut my eyes tightly, clenched my teeth, and gripped my hands in a fist. I will drown! But within an hour, I was swimming with my younger cousins. I didn’t drown, I swam.

I’ve learned it was not that there was not enough love in this world, but it took a while for me to see. Relax, trust, and let go. The river I was once afraid of cradled and carried me to this zendo, a home some 7,000 miles away from home. Here, I’m learning every pain I have ever experienced was merely to show me how much I was loved. All I can do now is to receive and gratefully give back all the love that ever existed in this world.
—Mika Shirota

Often when I arrive at the monastery, I go up into the zendo and sit down and I look at the wooden paneling on the wall. As I take it in, I just exhale the fight at school that I broke up and was reprimanded for, the woman that cut me off, the guy in the Mustang that cut several people off, and I’m able to let it go and drop into my body. I am overcome with calmness, overcome with gratitude and gratefulness for everything that enabled me to arrive at this place.

A couple that I met at my daughter’s elementary school relayed a story that happened to them. They have a boat that they take out on the ocean and they often see dolphins swimming, but the animals usually keep their distance at least 50 – 100 yards away. This time they noticed a dolphin swimming unusually close to the boat. It swam away and came back so close that they can see that it is entangled in fishing line, wrapped tight around its fins and body.  They begin cutting the fishing line off, and it takes awhile but they are finally able to free the dolphin entirely of the line. The dolphin swims off, only to come back with another dolphin. They circumambulate the boat, swimming around it three times before swimming away. It is clearly a gesture of gratitude, an offering.

I think of this gesture, such a natural expression, and extend a Thank You to our beautiful monks and to their devotion to the way. And to monks worldwide for keeping the monastic tradition (in whatever faith) alive. 9 Bows.
—Pamela Jinshin Dragotta

“You need an ultrasound and a biopsy” is a phrase that still brings me to deep stillness as it was the beginning of short journey into a life of deep gratitude. The surgical wounds have healed but their scars, the absence of breasts, are ever a visible reminder. It is difficult to express feelings that are so visceral…warm, deep-hearted eye-to-eye contact with my surgeon as the anesthetic takes me under; the gentle touch of the nurse as she cares for my bandages; the ambiance of compassion in the chemo suite; beautifully painted ceiling tiles of the radiation unit; observing and being one with one who hears ‘stage 4’; being surrounded by countless others suffering similarly; being told ‘you’re all clear.’ I am one of the lucky few.

Life and death are of supreme importance and every breath a reminder to come to back to that precious breath. I often say now that this was one of the greatest gifts of my life for I am not prone to take things for granted anymore and this life with all its imperfections, joys and sorrows, is only as rich as it can be shared with others. Nine bows to sickness and its medicine.
—Maire Tosho O’Brien

To fulfill basic college requirements I enrolled in the 101 studio art class at Ohio State University in the spring semester of my freshman year. I was eighteen years old and I had never been exposed to art making. One of the requirements of this class, was to make a charcoal drawing of a view from inside one of the buildings. Making my first charcoal drawing as I sat looking up from the bottom of this winding 19th century marble staircase pulled me into another dimension.

To my surprise I became totally absorbed. I discovered something I wasn’t looking for and was hooked. At this point I started to “look.” I eventually found my way to the Art Students League on 57th Street where I would spend many arduous hours trying to make figure drawings that would look something like the classical drawings of the accomplished artists who surrounded me. I was tight and stiff, trying really hard, putting out these dead drawings.

On one particularly difficult day, my teacher who felt my struggle and saw I wasn’t getting what he was trying to teach me, said, “Why don’t you just try drawing the way you want to.” It was like the flood gates opened and out poured these energized flowing drawings. They emerged from some deep place, a place that was unfamiliar. These early drawings bought me a scholarship for one full time class at the Art Students League.

People told me that my drawings looked sculptural, so I decided on the sculpture class, which I knew nothing about. Entering into the dusty sub-basement world, I was met with the question, “Stone or clay?” Being clueless about the difference, the monitor explained, “In one you take away, and in the other you add.” I went for the taking away, and that day I began carving my first stone. I was able to enter realms, inside and out, that I deeply cherish. Doors opened for me and some wonderful teachers and fellow travelers provided the needed light. But the deepest gratitude I feel is that I was available and open enough to receive these gifts into my life.
—Roni Nyuko Schnadow

There are things that seem as though they should not be spoken aloud, and although I feel bursting with it, “gratitude” is one of those things that feels hard to touch.  Spoken aloud or written, it becomes an image of itself via language—which can also be said of photographic imagery. Whatever the vocabulary, it then exists not wholly in the present (or directly). Associative thinking (and/or relating) sits simultaneously in the past—functioning with reference to the word’s learned meanings, or the implications of a photographic memory.

I am grateful for the chances to study my mind and all the interesting scenarios that present—the circumstances asking (often insisting) for my close examination of lingering scraps of conditioning, afflictions, and psychological content of consciousness. These experiences—observably real in themselves, and also completely unsubstantial.

I am grateful for this sangha and this place because everyone speaks a common understanding beyond language, and it is not delusively influenced. I am grateful to teachers, seniors, residents, and friends. Among all of you, “I” don’t have to wonder why or when I disappeared.

Rather… we rest together in practice, intensely, tenderly.
—Scrap Wrenn

I’ve found that gratitude can be a motivating force, an impulse that can change for the better how I view, cope with and live within challenging situations. I’m my mother’s primary care giver and have been for more than four years. Her mental capacities are virtually intact but she needs 24 hour care. My only respite from ministering to her needs are daily AA meetings when I also run errands. Financial resources are slim and at times I feel my life is on hold.

The suggestion from my teacher was: “You need some breathing space.” I felt validated and grateful. The questions came to me: How can I turn around my approach to caregiving? Can caregiving also be self nurturing? By putting aside whether this is going to last months or years, can I focus on being fully present? Can I work to turn anger and frustration into humor and patience not only for my mother but for myself? Can I look at what I really need to replenish myself and look outside the box to do so? How can I create and foment breathing space for myself within my current situation?

These are all aspects I can engage in to nurture my ability to practice this life of caregiving, and for this I am grateful.
—Rocio Myoho Aragon

When you get older and discover that you are not able to do what you once did, do not look like the person you thought you were, are no longer part of the same circle, are not seen the same way, it all seems like losing.

The Buddha teaches that this is the way life is, everything changes. Change is only SEEN as losing. So buck up!

People cope with losing limbs, unbearable bereavement, loss of house, family, country. Losing is just what Buddha said dukkha is, and my husband and I are in it. I have always wondered how people endure such things. It was one of the questions that brought me to Buddhism.

As for us, we are in the early stages of losing. We have not lost very much; we still have a very great deal of what we always have had. But when our thoughts turn to what we had and now have not, we get nervous, anxious, ungrateful. We begin to picture ourselves in scenarios where we will be left behind, standing outside the gate all alone. Such thoughts and imaginings are blinding. Like any they fill our minds and pull the blinds down on this fine opportunity, here and now, right in front of us waving hello.
—Lyn Mattoon

When I became a true spiritual seeker, living in nunneries, communities and centers, it was often with male guidance. They were complicated yet profound teachers, as priests in Catholic churches, nuns in nunneries (ruled by the Bishop), Yogis in ashrams and Roshis in Zen communities. When I met Hojin Sensei, who had the respect of my then-teacher Daido Loori, things began to change for me. Daido often talked admiringly of Hojin’s simple style of using artwork, humor and support as she offered workshops and programs. Her teaching impressed me greatly, and one day I asked her what reading she could recommend. She blinked twice and said The Women of the Way by Sallie Tisdale. I got it in the mail three days later and I have been reading it, re-reading it, and carrying it with me ever since.

To learn of all these women who became leaders and teachers in India, China and Japan opened up the doors to an understanding and appreciation I had not experienced before. These are the women in our liturgy every Sunday morning in our service hall, and their names have become real to me. Some of them endured terrible situations and years of abuse, challenge and ridicule to continue moving forward, to learn and teach the Dharma. I have a new found respect for women teachers of long ago as well as the programs that are offered just for women here across the country. It is so rewarding.

My gratitude lies with all the women of the Way who came before me and are currently making a difference today in our world. Deep bows of appreciation to all of them.
—Joan Yushin

Have you seen her? Who is she? She is everywhere and she is all over. Who is that one who silently receives each and every one of my thoughts while she simultaneously, and silently, initiates each and every one of my thoughts?

Her material is fabric universal and I want her entirely—and so I practice shikantaza throughout the day and throughout the night. Her ubiquitous nature trains me to cherish, to fully experience each and every worldly dharma—because she is there and she is all over it, no matter what it is.

I am grateful to have found her statue, her image, within Buddhism. In truth, she speaks every tongue and conveys every communication. We say anatman—no self. I am so grateful to dedicate my practice, my entire life, to opening myself to her reality within every sentient being and within every desire and within every phenomenal experience—especially my self.

I am grateful for everything—integrity—integral.
—Brian Daisen Holeman

I stood outside the monastery on a cold January Sunday morning holding a cup of coffee, staring east. Some residents were doing zazen upstairs inside, facing the same direction as me. We had reached the end of a Precepts training weekend. The cool wet air circled me and the sun rose—pink! A shade of hibiscus pink that only happens in winter and that I rarely see because, let’s be honest, I’m not a pre-dawn riser.

For two days I had been alternately taking notes, doodling, trying to listen, and readjusting my sitting position as my mind and body ebbed and flowed. Mostly, I’d been preoccupied by how difficult it seemed to wake up (early in the morning and metaphysically), practice compassion (in speech and thought), and speak up (in the retreat session and in the face of global injustice). As I listened, I became wary of my own enthusiasm for the precepts and a reality they reflected. I have experienced the slide back into dogmas of success and failure, the exquisite and instantaneous pain of a loss of faith. As somebody who works in words, I’ve come to trust direct experience more thoroughly.

So it was then, in that moment of relative silence, moderate pain, tired joy, I felt gratitude as a force outside of me which asked that I meet it in the middle, somewhere between body and mind, earth and sky, self and other. The color of gratitude was pink and so were my cold cheeks as a smile slid across my face.
—Katherine Cooper

This felt image keeps coming to me: a sudden awareness that my hands are full of exquisite pebbles—all colors, shapes, textures—beautiful in their particularity, striking as a collection. Where did these come from?! The generosity… An ordinary interaction, a moment of uncontrived contact, words and gestures that say “Look! Look! This is important”—a gift, a gift, a gift. Pockets full of them—so many treasures to give away.
—Tess Edmonds

Without you I would not be alive today. This place—this dharma, this sangha, big and small—has given me life. I was born here. And I continue to be born here. You are my mother and father, brother and sister.

In this way we bear each other, and it is not always easy. Sometimes there is pain. Sometimes I have treated you harshly. Sometimes I have not been able to see how wonderful you are. All from a fear of the true love and intimacy I want so badly. But because of your continuous patience and practice, I have learned to trust. For that I am eternally in your debt. From life I offer life and humbly ask only for your permission, so that I may begin to repay your kindness, with the hope that we may help each other. What a miracle this is!
—Ian Falcon

Many years ago I started going to a twelve-step program. By the time I arrived I was a seasoned skeptic, had a fine-tuned cynical and cutting sense of humor, and was proud of my facility with sarcasm. My life was completely unmanageable. I hurt people. I hurt myself. And I didn’t have a clue who I was or my purpose in the world. Life had done me wrong.

We were encouraged to keep a “gratitude list” to help heal the tendency towards the “poor me” habit. It was a struggle. My list was short and often did not have the resonance of truth. But fortunately everything changes, including attitudes and perspectives.

My experience of gratitude is closely connected with humility, allowing me to get out of my way so that I can notice what is plain to see. Also, it requires wakefulness.

Usually it’s the simple and ordinary things that generate my gratitude. The quiet joy of being able to recognize another’s joy. Taking delight in the change of temperature and the fresh air as I cross the Marine Parkway Bridge, moving closer to the ocean. Appreciating my well-seasoned cast iron skillet to which nothing sticks, and from which I prepare meals for those I love.

Nowadays, my list comes more easily and grows longer. Gratitude is alive and accessible to me when I get out of the way and remain awake.
—Eva Shosei Vazquez

I’m thankful that it’s not raining so I can take the dog for a walk, but I’m not grateful to the weather. What’s the difference? For me, it’s that gratitude has an object. When I feel grateful, it’s specifically in response to the actions, direct or indirect, of others. It’s a social emotion, an engaged emotion.

I’m thankful that I grew up in a financially secure home, got a good education and health care, but I’m grateful to my mother for having done her best to raise three kids while suffering severe lifelong depression and a wandering husband. I’m thankful for my trusty Subaru, but not grateful to it.

In making an inventory of what I’m grateful for today, I was surprised to discover how short my list was, though there’s a great deal that I’m thankful for. I feel gratitude to my friends and family for their love; my return love of them is therefore partly a responsibility—we take care of each other. It’s reciprocal. I’m grateful for the scientists and environmental and human rights crusaders who are out there trying to soothe the griefs of the world, because their efforts benefit us all. The gratitude of which I’m most conscious, though, is for the Monastery, the monastics I’ve known over the years, and the entire sangha. I am only now beginning to appreciate the depth of the Dharma’s presence in my life, how it grew there, and what it means: responsibility. Since I was a teenager I’ve sat and listened and read and questioned and studied my self. My gratitude takes the form of wanting to help, contribute, support, give back.
—Chase Takusei Twichell

Waking up slow and tender rolling rocking rising shedding covers shedding warmth foot on floor bone wrapped in flesh crystalline calcium lattice melting pads of feet into cool wood where is the weight sitting this morning? Heels? Pads? Toes? Inner edge? Outer edge? Solid ground meeting foot twenty-six bones dozens of muscles ligaments tendons tibia fibula soft patellae femurs pelvic bowl sacrum sacred spine skull container dense neural web inter(preta|penetra)tion ribs embracing and protecting breath and blood sternum on guard holding it all together extending through clavicle scapula humerus radius ulna (oh the way you rotate around each other) eight wrist bones carpals air filling body into ground emptying body into air organs playing the emotional symphony.

This body this container this glorious manifestation in the world—this universe of worlds operating together—directed used abused graceful exquisite jewel groggy electrified ailing bruised unbalanced fluidly stable hesitant frightened spiraling down up in out—I love you in all your ways—forgive me right leg and low back that I kicked that car so hard after it knocked me off my bike—forgive me right arm for using you for rage too many times to count—forgive me for not always nourishing you well or attending to your concerns—let us be one with no recrimination or resentment—let us heal together.
—Andy Jikai Kriger

Just a few years ago I was nearly dead. I was already a practitioner and had taken up the robes of a student, but delving deeper into my conditioning sparked a violent withdrawal from truths I did not want to face. I was doing all the right things when the world could see, but as soon as I was alone I collapsed into addiction to alcohol and fed my ego through self-loathing. I craved death and chased it repeatedly. I vividly remember the crushing defeat of opening my eyes after yet another failed suicide attempt. I was still drawing breath but I had no idea how to live. The most honest moment of my life was contained in five words in the aftermath of my last drink: “I can’t do this anymore.”

Somewhere within that darkness people I didn’t even know showed me how they made it through.  They asked for nothing in return. They gave their time, their hope and their love to me, day after day.  I began to trust so I opened up to a few members of the local sangha. I was overwhelmed by their acceptance and generosity.  I was surrounded by bodhisattvas, many of whom did not even know the word. They just were; they just gave. Little by little I grew. I did not notice how I was changing.

Those few years ago I would have told you that gratitude was a nice idea but was ultimately unattainable. Now I can say I know gratitude intimately. It permeates my days and draws me to rest at night. My understanding of gratitude is to be openly present to receive each moment—whatever it brings—and to lovingly release what I receive. It is not mine to hold.

I acknowledge those very same truths that I used to turn away from. I bear physical and emotional scars from violence and abuse. Difficult moments still arise; the difference today is that instead of these being barriers, they are entry points to service. I get to give love the same way it was given to me. I am not merely thankful; I am joyous.
—Christine Mawhiney

I was born in the deep South in 1946, the first year following the end of World War II, among people of quite modest means and big hopes. For me, the extraordinary grace of this time and place was the innocence and lack of worldly resources of the adults who surrounded me. In this slow and unimportant place in south Alabama, I received the greatest benevolence a child could wish for: hours and hours of “unsupervised” time alone or with other children to play out-of-doors and indoors with few “toys” and with plenty of imagination. My twenty-seven-year-old, World War II-veteran father built for my brother and me a sandbox, a crude affair of high board sides, and lots of dirt, under a huge shade tree. My brother and I and neighborhood children played daily for hours in this pile of dirt, without interruption and with no adult checking to see if we had been kidnapped. Our toys included acorns, sticks, pebbles from the driveway, marbles, pieces of string we found in the garage, leaves we scavenged from the household shrubbery.

The gift for which I feel the most natural and uncontrived gratitude, is that I had a very basic, unimproved, modest, uncomplicated childhood that included hours of play alone or with others with very few actual things to play with. I did not know that television existed until I was about eight years old, when I saw one for the first time in a neighbor’s house. Sometimes, we can feel very grateful for what we did not know, did not receive, and did not know how to desire.
—Kyusei Paula Bakule

NextThe Light That Shines Through Infinity