By Mark Donovan
A Dharma Talk given November 30, 2021
I wanted to start tonight's talk with a poem:
The Buddha's Last Instruction, by Mary Oliver
“Make of yourself a light,” said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal – a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
It thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire -
Clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.
Sunday I worshiped in the tradition of my family at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. The preacher, who was a child during the Cold War, remembered practicing “duck and cover” at school, the fear that arose in her with the loud and shrill ringing of sirens, images that played in her mind of victims from the nuclear bombs dropped in Japan. In 2018 she was visiting Maui when, you may remember, there was a false missile alert. The alert stated that there was an incoming ballistic missile threat, advised residents to seek shelter, and concluded: "This is not a drill". The preacher commented that once again she was paralyzed with fear. She wondered what had become of her faith. And she contrasted standing strong in faith and hope to a state of fearful paralysis. There is a really huge gulf between those states of being, isn’t there? I think this is at the heart of our spiritual practice--the good news that draws us to this practice like a moth to the light. It’s the message of a cross-stitch sampler that hangs on my wall and reads, “Fear knocked on the door, Faith answered. No one was there.”
In a recent dharma talk on Dharma Seed, Brian Lesage described the spiritual journey in the following way: Exploring what can help our hearts to be here fully for this journey--this spiritual journey from birth to death, a journey that I hope this practice brings us more depth, kindness, love and wisdom. So we can have a wholeheartedness to our journey.
Today I want to explore the practice of gratitude as an element in “mak(ing) of ourselves a light,” of cultivating wholeheartedness. We are in the season of harvest and thanksgiving and I hope that each of you enjoyed Thanksgiving Day last Thursday. For me it was a pleasurable and meaningful day as members of my family came together from out-of-town, there was plenty of food on the table, and I gave thanks for both the physical and social and emotional nourishment, for being part of a loving family. Expressing gratitude reminds me that I am not separate, but part of an interconnected web of life that involves both receiving and giving.
I have been reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants,” which I imagine some of you may be familiar with. Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, decorated professor of biology, and member of the Potawatomi Nation. Her stories help me to locate myself in the natural world and to remember the sacred relationships that we have to other life forms, how our lives are intertwined with one another and the Earth. In an Onondaga Nation school, close to where she lives in upstate NY, the schoolchildren recite a daily Thanksgiving Address instead of the pledge of allegiance. She says, “these words are as old as the peoples themselves, and are known more accurately in the Onondaga language as The Words That Come Before All Else. This ancient order of protocol sets gratitude as the highest priority.” The Thanksgiving Address is both an invocation of gratitude and a material and scientific inventory of the natural world. It begins as follows:
Today we have gathered and when we look upon the faces around us we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People. Now our minds are one.
We are thankful to our Mother the Earth, for she gives us everything that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she still continues to care for us, just as she has from the beginning of time. To our Mother, we send thanksgiving, love and respect. Now our minds are one.
The Thanksgiving Address is long--it goes on and on greeting and giving thanks to multiple life forms with which we share this planet; it acknowledges reciprocity and the mutual benefit of exchange. One chapter in the book is called The Honorable Harvest and includes cautionary tales of the consequences of taking too much, which she says are ubiquitous in Native cultures. The Honorable Harvest outlines the principles and practices that govern the exchange of life for life--rules of sorts that reign in our tendency to over-consume. Although these guidelines are not written down, they are reinforced in small acts of daily life, and she says might look something like this:
Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them. Never take the first. Never take the last.
Take only what you need.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the world will last forever.
This is such a profoundly different way of relating to the natural world than the one our society promotes: the devaluation of natural resources to inert matter for our consumption and throw-away. This Indigenous view prioritizes relationship --being in relationship with other life forms, recognizing their lives as sacred. Healthy relationship requires care and a value of mutual benefit.
And this is at the heart of our practice, right? Dependent origination, paticca sambupadda, recognition of interbeing and interconnectedness. A plant flourishes when the conditions of seed, soil, sun, water, and temperature support it. A person thrives when the physical, social-emotional, and spiritual environments support him/her. Expressing gratitude opens our hearts to the many gifts that we have been given, and connects us to Life with a capital L, life in all of its diversity, abundance and mystery.
Gil Fronsdal sees gratitude in a similar way, and says that it is “an underutilized expression of mutuality, care and kindness.” Fronsdal contrasts this with greed, which is a state of lack, not being complete, something missing, feeling small. Gratitude is more about being complete, receptive, open, having enough, being grateful for what we have as opposed to greedy for what we don’t have. He says that gratitude is “to pause in front of reality--a moment to really take something in --rather than moving, getting, wanting, running away--but instead to pause long enough to receive, to recognize that what we’re receiving is goodness, something benecial.” This is one of the reasons why meditation is so useful--it allows us to pause in front of reality, to be more open to what is arising, and to take our time to experience it in a new, perhaps appreciative, way.
Fronsdal says “Gratitude is having a new vision of our world--not necessarily living in a new reality, a new place, but taking the world we live in and seeing it in a new way--seeing with more appreciation and gratitude.” So this is about our perspective, our attitude, our thoughts, right? It is about how our mind creates our reality. Jack Kornfield in The Wise Heart talks about how through mindfulness we can begin to identify patterns of thought and associated feelings that do not have our well-being in mind. We can learn to choose a different path. Ajahn Chah described this as recognizing bad mangoes. He said, “When we choose a fruit to eat, do we pick up the good mangoes or the rotten ones? It is the same in the mind. Learn to know which are the rotten thoughts and immediately turn from them to ll your basket with ripe beautiful mind states instead.”
The science of positive psychology has shown how keeping a gratitude journal can have a positive impact on mental health and well-being. Just taking a little time at the beginning or end of the day to note all of the ordinary things for which we are grateful -- it could be hot running water, water coming out of a faucet at all, talking with a friend, a restful night’s sleep, something beautiful we see. When our attention is on what’s lacking, a perspective informed by greed and aversion, our heart closes, the separate sense of ego grows, and we feel isolated, unhappy, hungry, distressed. LaoTzu said, “Be content with what you have, rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there’s nothing missing, the world belongs to you.”
Gratitude is closely connected to mudita – appreciative joy. Jill Shepard explores this in a talk she gave on wise effort, one of the steps of the Eightfold Path. You may remember that wise effort is made up of four parts: the first two with preventing and abandoning unskillful qualities, and the second two with supporting and maintaining the arising of skillful qualities. Shepherd notes how innate negativity bias gives greater attention to our experience that is unpleasant and painful. So through meditation we become more aware of those toxic patterns, what gives rise to them, observing impartially instead of identifying with them. And then we can apply the powerful antidote of appreciative joy and gratitude to find more freedom. Mudita is an invitation to reflect on and appreciate our own good qualities, our own good fortune, and equally the good fortune of others. Acknowledging our strengths can challenge some deep conditioning that we’re supposed to be humble, invisible, not toot our own horn. But in fact this capacity was recognized by the Buddha to a householder seeking instruction for what he could do at home. The Buddha told him that throughout the day he should keep in mind his own generosity and his own good qualities and virtues. And if he did that, his mind would settle and steady, his meditation practice would deepen, and he would make powerful progress in the path to freedom. Just from contemplating his own goodness.
Beginning with contemplating our own goodness, an attitude of appreciation and gratitude can expand to include all aspects of our lives, to honor the many beings with whom we share this web of interdependence, to honor all the seasons of life that stretch from birth to death. May this practice give rise to the light and to living wholeheartedly.
...to this resource for our community. Much gratitude goes out to our entire Sangha – and the numberless causes and conditions – for making this website possible, and for the joy I have experienced in creating it.
Detail of the Great Hall Mural
Courtesy Spirit Rock Meditation Center
Used with permission