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Thanksgiving Greetings & Reflections by Sunya Kjolhede

“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.”
— Eihei Dogen

At this time of year, I always think of our teacher. Philip Kapleau loved Thanksgiving!

He was certainly aware of the dark shadows playing at the edges of this holiday: the whitewashed lies, betrayals and racism, the forced relocations of vast numbers of indigenous people, the genocide.

It’s estimated that at the time of the Puritans’ arrival in this country, over 100 million people lived here. Today, the population of Native Americans is closer to 5 million. Is it any wonder that for so many indigenous Americans, this holiday is a painful reminder of profound loss—a time not of celebration, but of mourning?

And what painful irony: all over this continent and throughout the world, it’s so often native peoples who’ve preserved the spirit of gratitude and refined the art of giving thanks—not just to other humans, but to all beings and the Earth itself. And, at least traditionally, not just once a year, but every day.

Take, for example, the Native American ritual of greeting the dawn with an offering of corn flour and prayers—and the beautiful Thanksgiving address of the Haudenosaunee people (aka Iroquois), the words that typically start off their formal gatherings.

Many years ago, Lawson and I had a chance to attend such an event outside of Rochester, NY.  Sitting outdoors with others on wooden benches, with Chief Jake Swamp standing on a raised platform before us, we were deeply moved by the simple, flowing oral recitation, in both his native tongue and in English, as he intoned traditional words of thanks for Earth, Sun, Moon and Stars, for the life-sustaining Waters, for the Plant and Animal beings, for Life itself—each passage ending with the declaration: “Now our minds are one.”

Just try to imagine a session of Congress beginning like that . .

 Roshi Kapleau loved this holiday because he knew that gratitude, as he used to point out, is the “most refined of all human emotions.” He was well aware that a grateful heart lies at the center of real wisdom and compassion, and at the core of our Zen practice and all our rituals.

Bowing and prostrating, chanting sutras and reciting the names of dharma masters who kept this teaching alive over the millennia, intoning our meal chants (“This meal is a gift of the whole universe, and the labor of countless beings. . .”), and our Vows for All Beings—these are all ways we give voice and gesture to the deep human need to connect with all life, and to express thanks for the great ocean of blessings we receive every day, every breath.

Rumi expressed it so perfectly: “For 60 years I have been forgetful, every minute, but not for a second has this flowing toward me stopped or slowed.  I deserve nothing.”

And yet, there’s something weirdly counter-culture about this sense of gratefulness. In a way, it smacks right up against the current of our society’s subliminal message, wormed deep into most of us, that we never have enough, that we’re not getting our fair share and we always need, and want, more.

Doris Day (yes, Doris Day; who knew?) put it very succinctly: “Gratitude is riches. Complaint is poverty.” This pervasive sense of lack—of never having, or being, enough—is a kind of impoverishment that deprives us of contact with our own generous and grateful heart, and its close companion: joy.

Zen practice gives us a way to pry ourselves loose from the tight hold of our compulsive, self-absorbed thoughts—from the fears and judgments and belief systems that armor our hearts and blind us to the wonders all around us.

Through daily zazen and periods of sustained, deep, silent practice, our minds grow more refined, subtler, simpler. The hardened self-delusion warms and melts, like beeswax in sunshine, and our hearts soften and open.

Then gratitude naturally arises, for it has always been a part of us. As water appears when we dig deep enough, a fountain of joy, wonder and gratitude naturally springs up within us as the mind clears and the heart opens—moving us to find ways to express this overflow in the context of our daily lives and relationships.

Here, however, a cautionary point, to offset any simplistic view of spiritual progress: This opening and softening of the heart may also—and often does—activate long-repressed unconscious forces not as refined or sweet or acceptable to our conscious minds as gratitude and wonder.

In other words, we needn’t be shocked or deterred by the arising of more primitive emotions as the mind quiets down. These are all forms of vital energy that we humans can learn to experience, work with, and harness, to help us dive deeper and live more authentically.

In fact, as our teacher was always careful to point out in his own annual Thanksgiving reflections, we need to cultivate gratitude not just for the more obvious blessings of our lives, but also for the difficulties we encounter. It’s the painful and difficult times and experiences that carve us deeper, allowing more space for empathy, compassion, soulfulness.

To start with, though, we can all simply become more aware of the wondrous gifts always right before our eyes and in the beating of our own heart. We can become, as someone nicely put it, “connoisseurs of the commonplace,” and we can get better at expressing our genuine gratitude and appreciation for the treasures all around us.

“Gratitude,” as Courtney Martin pointed out in an article in the “On Being” blog, “is not just about empty platitudes or forced dinner table exercises. It’s about marveling. It’s about witnessing people and telling them that you do. It’s about natural science and human anatomy. It requires, above all else, slowing down and noticing and letting yourself be astonished.”

Zazen gives us a precise and proven way to do exactly this: to slow down and listen deeply, to truly appreciate whatever this unique moment offers, and to let ourselves be astonished.

“For happiness,” Nietzsche wrote, “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 makes up the best happiness. Be still.”

Wishing everyone a happy Full Moon Thanksgiving holiday!