An excerpt from a talk given by Roshi Sunya Kjolhede at the Windhorse Zen center, Nov. 19, 2017
Our teacher, Roshi Philip Kapleau, loved this holiday of Thanksgiving, with its nonsectarian focus on the spirit of gratitude — what he often referred to as “the most refined of human emotions.” Every year we held a Ceremony of Gratitude very much like this one at our center today. And all over the world, for thousands of years, human beings have found ways to express this deep need to give thanks — in traditional societies, not just once a year, but every day.
In our culture, though, expressing gratitude is, in a way, counter-culture: it goes against the current of our society’s dominant message — which has wormed itself deep into most of us — that we never have enough, that we’re not getting our fair share, that we always need and want more. And often along with that is the feeling we’re giving too much, being asked to do more than our fair share.
Either way, this sense of lack and competition leads to a great impoverishment of the human spirit, leaving us feeling perpetually frustrated and unhappy, cut off from our own generous heart — and easily leading to a sense of isolation, not belonging, and a numbness to the miraculous nature of all existence.
Genuine gratitude requires an open, receptive heart and mind — the ability to give attention to something beyond our private, self-absorbed thoughts. When we’re lost in fear or pride or resentment, we cannot feel gratitude. Gratitude is the other side of the coin of giving — it means being open to the possibility of someone else’s generosity and to the wonder of simply being. As someone said “We must become connoisseurs of the commonplace.”
Nietzsche agreed: “For happiness, how little suffices for happiness!. . .the least thing precisely, the gentlest thing, the lightest thing, a lizard’s rustling, a breath, a whisk, an eye glance—little maketh up the best happiness. Be still.”
Be still: that’s the key! As we still body and mind in zazen, we give ourselves the chance to quiet down, to begin to open to our essential unity with everything and everyone. Then the need to express gratitude — to say Thank You — blooms within us.
Through our daily zazen and periods of sustained, deep practice, our minds grow more refined, subtler, simpler. The hardened self-delusion warms and melts, like beeswax in the sunshine, and our hearts open. Gratitude naturally arises: just as water appears when we dig deep enough, a fountain of joy and wonder and gratitude naturally springs up within us, finding countless ways to express itself in our daily lives.
“The Dharma Wheel turns from the beginning. There is neither surplus nor lack. The whole universe is moistened with nectar, and the truth is ready to harvest.”
— Zen Master Dogen